© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Essay: Wordless

Being in isolation can be extremely lonely. For those who are hearing impaired, that isolation is felt all the time.

Being in isolation can be extremely lonely. For those who are hearing impaired, that isolation is felt all the time. Simple communication or an ordinary interaction with another person can be a challenge. Lake Effect contributor Jan Wilberg shares an essay about her experience in a doctor’s office.

My people don’t talk in the waiting room. They are already tired from asking directions at the front desk and figuring out the receptionist’s instructions. Once they are sitting down and waiting to be called, they want to be left alone. After all these years of becoming increasingly deaf, I know what other hearing-impaired people are thinking: Don’t talk to me.

Don’t talk to me. I’m saving my concentration and effort for the doctor. He’s the one I need to hear today. You look nice. But don’t talk to me.

I look from one door to the other, worried that if I look down at my phone to kill time, someone will call my name and I won’t hear. So, I’m vigilant. Waiting and vigilant. I don’t want to be caught unaware, be the person whose name is called over and over, appear to be really far gone, need an escort to do this simple thing. Go see a surgeon about a cochlear implant. I can do this on my own.

A young couple with a baby in a stroller sits down a few seats over. The mom fills out paperwork while dad looks straight ahead. They both look at the baby, a boy maybe a year or so old, when he drops his little fire truck on the floor. His mother bends over to pick it up and he drops his other toy, obliging her obvious interest in retrieving his belongings. They keep looking at him, saying nothing but radiating their disapproval of his dropping things and the boy sits still. Silently chastised.

I wonder why they are there. I wonder if the baby is deaf.

My name is called and I see the doctor. He explains the surgery. He tells me how he’ll make an incision behind my ear and create a pocket to hold the internal receiver. Then he will bore a hole through the mastoid bone and thread a wire with electrodes on the end into the area of my cochlea. Then he will stitch everything up and I will wait two weeks for the implant to be turned on. When it’s turned on, it will take weeks or months to get used to.

He says to me, “Your word recognition will improve a lot.” And when he says this, I get tears in my eyes. Here is the only place people know how bad it is. There are numbers on the paper, measurements, “Your word recognition without looking at someone is almost non-existent. This will change that.”

I feel like someone is airlifting me from a sinking ship.

A doctor is holding the door open for the couple with the baby and keeps holding it open for me. We all go back to the waiting room and then down the hall to where the elevators are. I look sideways at mom and she is crying. Dad says nothing and the baby looks at me. I wave at him. I wonder if he knows to wave. His parents are silent and miserable but he isn’t. He is being a baby.

I head to the bathroom. When I come out of the stall, mom is changing baby’s diaper. It is silent in the bathroom. The baby placid and happy. But I know mom is still crying. I think about talking to her but I know she might say things that are important that I won’t hear. She is a new person. New people take so much time for me to learn to hear. A second in a bathroom wouldn’t be enough.

So, I leave the bathroom and I see dad waiting. He is solemn, his hands on the baby’s stroller like he is a taxi driver waiting for a tardy fare. Sadness covers him like a sheet. Is he sad for his boy or his wife? I don’t know. I have no way of knowing.

At that moment, I want to be their mother. I want to wait with him until she comes out of the bathroom. I want to hold their hands and I want to tell them, “Pull together or you will pull apart,” a lesson I’ve learned from a long marriage that has had some hardships. “The silence will kill you,” I want to say to them.

“Don’t let the silence kill you.”