My Mother’s Hearing Aid
Questions arise. Does it matter, for example, that I cannot forget the visit to my mother the summer my father moved to an adult family home in the neighborhood? Why do I perseverate on the details of our good-bye?
My visit was because of my father’s declining health. First there was Dad’s dementia diagnosis. Then, Mom’s call to tell me she could no longer manage after Dad tried to brew coffee at midnight, telling her, I made the morning coffee.
Mom was asleep, not wearing her hearing aid, smell of smoke awakening her, my dad on the verge of starting a fire, the gas flame lit, pot scorched.
What scared her is that she could not hear him. My father 92, Mom 78, when she began to live alone in the house on St. Francis Street in Redwood City my parents built ten blocks from downtown, the same house where I grew up alongside my younger brother.
Last morning of my visit, my family was ready to return home to Washington, our bags packed at the back door. Because she did not rise early in her usual manner, I entered her bedroom and found her asleep with the hearing aid on the bed stand. I gently tapped her shoulder to let her know we were leaving but what I really remember is the hearing aid on the table that reminded me of feather molting, or the small bones of birds.
What exactly is the feeling I have for these miniature devices that are a constant of my younger mother’s presence, and continues today though shape-shifted into a slightly larger device? Each functioning as a repository of bits and pieces of family history to explain why my mother became deaf, a secret she told only a few, a secret wound tight within the cavity of her listening devices like the throb unique to an earache.
Her story tells of a ruptured eardrum, lack of access to a doctor, and her mother’s attempt to treat childhood illness at home. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (1) theorizes that to understand we must think by feeling; without the ability to map emotions we have no bridge to experience and one is left bereft, without a roadmap for decision-making.
That morning, after I departed, I had no words for the transformation in my relationship to these devices for I sensed the life force/animation of the tiny objects to allow me to listen to my mother’s life. For they held my attention such that I could wonder about the future, hers and mine, and what I would do with these devices if she were to die.
If every technology is an extension of some aspect of ourselves, Mom’s hearing aids are a protest, a protest against forgetting. If there is the danger that technology homogenizes, the danger may come from lapses in feeling that devices, when deeply connected to the person they may belong to, hold unique significance to each one associated with them.
The story of my mother maps a relationship to a device over time that continues to evolve and inform these meditations on the technologies of what I call transformation and loss. Since that summer visit to my mother’s it is increasingly difficult to separate hearing aid technologies from the person who is my mother, offering a backstory to complicate this problem of technology and why it keeps a hold on me.
Last August 2019, during my mother’s annual visit to my home, she demonstrated how she changes the battery in her new hearing aid that she believes does not work like the older version. We were sitting together on the side of her bed and it felt to me, as I attempted to listen more deeply to her, that she was really saying that she felt she had betrayed her relationship to the original hearing aid, that she had been the one who failed by needing newer technology.
I say this not because of what my mother told me, but the way she continues to carry with her the old one, though the audiologist says it is useless to her, and the way she tenderly held it cradled in the palm of her hand before placing it back in the Ziploc bag it travels in. Because I was the one advocating for the hearing test and an upgrade to her technology, I too found myself emotionally impacted by the presence of the older version, perhaps disappointed and a bit guilty, as though I should have known that the relationship between human and device is real and possesses value. It is during these moments of intense emotion that my mother merges as one with her devices, (2) though I know logically, she is separate from them.
Perhaps this is why Damasio (3) suggests the importance to think by feeling, arguing that emotions are a crucial component of decision-making that requires bridging the memory of the past to emotion. This idea helps me explore why my mother is more comfortable with her older device in that neural connections are not yet formed to fully interface and engage the newer device. This requires practice as the brain develops the capacity to listen anew with the device and all of this to acknowledge that to wear for the first time a new listening device is not the same as to put on a new pair of glasses (4).
I remember a secret wound tight, knot inside the cavity of the listening device, shame, doubt, and regret that my grandmother’s home treatment may have delayed medical attention causing her child’s deafness. Poet Ilya Kaminsky (5) tells a slightly different story to explain his deafness. The story reveals a child who contracted mumps in the city of Odessa, Ukraine, and when taken to the Soviet doctor, the four-year-old was sent away, his mother told, just a cold. At the nexus of a child’s illness, misjudgments may occur with life-long repercussions. My first sentence in this section is fraught with a backstory that can’t be known unless there to observe my mother’s older brother, Claudio, receive music lessons to learn to play the accordion while his sister Francesca who yearns to play the violin, will not. And later the brother will skip out on Italian lessons while my mother will learn to speak, write, and translate three languages. In the era of my daughters performing at piano recitals, I learned of my mother’s desire to play the violin.
After my father’s death my mother visited me and my family every summer, a way to leave behind the cloistered life on St. Francis Street, and more recently, to escape the routines of the adult family home where she now lives.
This summer as we were sitting together on the side of her bed, I felt the palpable intensity of the long-distance daughter, whose mother’s health needs are shifting. I understand what is meant to be of the sandwich generation, a middle-aged adult who cares for individuals on both ends of the lifespan continuum. I know what it means to navigate the care needs of multiple ages because my husband and I share our home with our daughter and son-in-law and their two sons, ages four and six.
But what I feel is missing in this analysis is what it means to observe the careful regard my mother conveyed as she returned her hearing aid to the Ziploc that allowed me to imagine my mother enacting a personal aesthetic specific to her which might include the purchase of an attractive, sturdy container for her old device. This may appear trivial but is not. My mother, throughout her life, has been complimented on her grooming, selection of fashionable clothes, décor, and maintenance of her home. Perhaps only her daughter, or someone else close to her over time who is connected to the emotional aspects of behavior, someone who understands the why behind the present actions, would recognize this as a loss, and notice the degrees of nuance as a person ages.
Sometimes, I imagine my recurring bird bones dream provides access to the unconscious where I find alternative imaginings for the intricately filigreed listening devices, each one ensconced as code to decipher, my recurring dream imagery a way to urge me to open to new questions I excavate as a way of being in relationship with my mother, each listening device providing the focus for that which is dynamic yet impossible to fully comprehend. I consider how these devices that masquerade in my dreams as bird bones, belong only to my mother and embody the wound of loss and vulnerability. And I ask myself, does the listening device serve as a metaphor for the difficult?
I turn to Damasio (6) to think by feeling. I imagine more questions. Is this why on cold wintry days in the Bay Area she covered my ears with white rabbit fur earmuffs? And what to make of the story of my baby brother’s unanswered crying, Grandmother Jenny asking, don’t you hear the baby?
I remember my mother coping, relying on others, going it alone, aloof to cues. We stepped in, closed gaps. As a teen I wondered if she heard the tone of my refusal to answer her questions. I was fourteen. Unwilling to answer about the night at Half Moon Bay with friends. Did she notice betrayal in my body language? Did I ever understand my mother’s hearing loss?
My creative process as a poet allows emotion to guide subject matter. I realized this at midlife when I encountered challenges with relationships closest to me and found those experiences the unlikely subject matter of my poems.
There were estrangements between my father and I. In brief, many things triggered him, a Navy veteran of World War II who experienced trauma but no diagnosis when he returned. He lived with PTSD, and/or the psychological phenomenon known as moral injury recently defined by Veteran’s Affairs as a war-related existential crisis (7).
I know this because he often spoke of Farragut, Idaho, sent there for R&R, rest and recuperation, after his stint on a battleship in the South Pacific. I was a young girl when he described Farragut as a place of refuge where he and his buddies transitioned before reentering civilian lives. For my father this meant returning to Central California and marriage to his first wife and their daughter, and helping his Italian immigrant parents. It comprises the story I heard, though my mother most likely was not aware of what I was told at the Formica table as she rose to grab a cloth to wipe away the crumbs, and send my brother down the hall for his bath. I received praise from my father for listening without interruption. And this is important because each family has a way of communicating and for my family, praise went to the listener, not necessarily, the speaker. I remember many times the command my father spoke only to me—write this down, listen to what your grandfather told you, write this down before it gets lost, before we forget. My creative process as a writer is anchored by the cornerstone of respect for the one who listens and writes.
My mother was aloof to these exchanges at the dinner table between me and my father while I listened for something deeper; that he had experienced things no one should see leaving him unable to bridge the rift between us at that little red table. I knew my mother had difficulties with her hearing but that is all I knew. No one talked about hearing loss, but there was teasing, my father shouting to us, she only hears what she wants to hear. It seemed a veil shielded her, muffling sounds and providing distance from my father’s war stories while her daughter absorbed emotional content out of duty to the story, and a form of witnessing, I realize now.
After the trip to see my mother I found myself drawn to the object/image of her listening devices as though a taboo to find them exposed, naked, my mother after all, asleep, not knowing I had transgressed the private domain of her bedroom and so in this way the hearing aid denoted private space, device at the center of the most intimate musing, tool to imagine my mother in her earlier life acting with agency. But the listening device also evoked vulnerability as I observed her as a recent widow, increasingly frail, needing assisted living in a few years.
Sometimes I felt I could listen meditatively to my mother’s unique history play out, a girl-like elder, bird boned, a blue-eye keenness, rosary beads to keep life back to normal as possible, she insisted on even when her favorite niece gave birth to a son with the syndrome that meant he too would experience hearing loss and wear hearing aids. As a young woman I never talked with my mother about hearing loss but I do remember her supporting my cousin, related to the needs of her young child, and I imagine her with Nathanial as a toddler, under her care when my cousin needed a break, and later, by his side when he graduated from Stanford as a medical doctor.
My mother shuts off her hearing aid in public, prefers one-on-one conversations and not the coffee shop or restaurant that I desire, to go with my mother to a public place to share that space with others.
Once, I cajoled her to take a walk with me at a downtown park followed by tea at a local café and we sat outside at a table with an umbrella and we drew the attention of a young woman who took our photo, could tell we were mother and daughter. The picture explains what it means for me to participate as part of the aesthetic of the landscape, to become part of the momentary leisure scene comprised of the behaviors of taking time to sit across from one another at a round table in the sun. I cannot explain this loss, except to say it is a loss not to be part of the world, claiming a window seat, scent of almond biscotti mingling with aromas of coffee and teas, small pleasures.
Required of this story is to note that my mother sings before drifting off to sleep, childhood tunes she danced to with her father before the music stopped in 1941 when Claudio enlisted in the marines. No listening device would bring back the music until her brother returned four years later.
But as I write this, I realize my mother learned to mute reality, a strategy that resulted in the absence of exquisite conversations linking our lives across wars and generations. Similar to my father, my mother, placed high regard on the listener, that observer who reading Rilke might contemplate, Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe, most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered…(8).
It is clear to me that Mom’s listening devices evoke what was not spoken, part of the embedded emotional terrain I navigated alone. Seeking to provide solace to my father I listened to his urgency to share his WWII testimony, allowing my father to name the unnamed.
This essay is an emotional autobiography to offer the relationship of my mother to her listening devices at the center of silence and sound.
In the introduction to The Inner History of Devices, Sherry Turkle offers three ways to listen; the memoirist, the clinician, and the ethnographer, each one sharing the commonality of listening deeply (9). My attempts to listen to my mother within the complexities of her strategies to cope with deafness, and my own failures to understand, shaped me as one drawn to deeper meanings as there is always more to listen for, returning as the midlife woman writer to reconsider what it means to write in my era, conflicted by complexities. This essay offers a perspective on the dialogue about how technologies are experienced depending on the dispositions that come to bear, the poet offering her slant on those silences in my experience that are not the absence of thought and care.
- Antonio Damasio, https://www.ted.com/speakers/antonio_damasio
- Sherry Turkle, editor, Inner History (introductory essay), p. 14,
The Inner History of Devices, 2008, The MIT Press.
3. Antonio Damasio, ibid.
- Katherine Lockey, Mary Beth Jennings & Lynn Shaw, Exploring hearing aid use in older women through narratives, pp. 542-3, International Journal of Audiology, 2010.
- Ilya Kaminsky, from Notes section, Deaf Republic, Graywolf Press, 2019.
- Antonio Damasio, ibid.
- Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Washington Post, March 9, 2015. Stripes.com/opinion/why-distinguishing-a-moral-injury-from-PTSD-is-important-1.333520
- Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, p. 4, Vintage Books, Random House, New York, 1986.
- Turkle, ibid.