February 14, 2009

Sound Booth

A sound booth is a strange, unearthly place, like a room without air, except that you can breathe – although not comfortably if it’s your first time and you have your three year old son sitting anxiously in your lap. This, as it happens, was not our first time but our third. It is a ridiculous understatement to say so, but it would not be our last.

Our first foray into the sound booth had been seventeen months earlier. It was a different sound booth, a different audiologist, and a different outcome. She assured me that his hearing was fine. How can she tell? I wondered to myself. Even I, his mother, couldn’t tell whether he was really hearing those tones, which sounded vaguely like the signal from the Emergency Broadcasting System, or whether he just looked around until he saw the bear or the rabbit light up in their boxes. But she’s the expert! And she had just told me what I wanted to hear.

Hear? Of course he can hear. He loves music. He sings along! He talks too, only a little, but he’ll catch up. His sister was a late talker too. She didn’t talk, not at all, until she was 26 months old, and then she was talking in sentences. He’s just like his sister.

That was what I told myself, and that is what I believed in my heart, so when the audiologist told me his hearing was fine, it was quite what I expected to hear. But it wasn’t true.

Now we sat for the third time in this padded room where sounds sound flat and dead, unless they don’t. I listened and watched the bear light up, then the rabbit, but only as the sound grew loud and louder. Then my little boy would turn and smile. The tone or the voice would come again and I’d hear it, but there was no bear, no rabbit, because he didn’t look, just stared around, waiting, waiting to hear what I heard.

The second time we’d been in the booth it was the same booth, the same audiologist, the same outcome. He’d had a cold, so we needed to wait, come back in a few weeks, just to be sure.

Sure? I was already sure. I was there in the booth, and I heard what I heard, heard what he did not hear. This audiologist was sure too, the look on her face, as flat as the sound in the booth. Who wants to deliver bad news? How bad?

“What will it mean if we come back and the result is the same?” I asked, because I wanted to know, even as I did not want to know.

“He’ll have to wear hearing aids…”

That is most of what I heard. The rest was noise, like the pure tones, meaningless. What? As if I could not hear. Hearing aids. What had I expected to hear? People who can’t hear wear hearing aids. But my little boy can hear.

That day, before the world changed, and we became a family-with-a-child-with-a-hearing-loss, my vocabulary didn’t include the words “hard of hearing,” let alone “moderate, binaural, sloping, sensorineural, hearing loss,” only the words hearing and deaf. Now I use words like otolaryngologist and Conceptually Accurate Signed English and amplification technology in casual conversation. It’s hard to believe that a few very, very long months ago the words “hearing aids” had made me feel afraid.

So our third visit to the sound booth brought us no surprises, just verification. More pure tones, not so pure when your baby can’t hear them, more vain attempts at calling his name. Daniel. Daniel, can you hear me? No.

And yes. Daniel can hear his name. He can hear it when I say it as I hold him and rock him and put my voice near his ear. He can hear it from across the room when he is wearing his blue earmolds, their curving tubes connected to loaner hearing aids, flesh-colored – when we get him his own, they’ll be sparkled and spangled, bright, demanding to be seen and admired. Because now hearing aids do not make me feel afraid. They make me feel hopeful and grateful and only a little tiny bit sad.

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