Read by Melissa MacDonald ’15
I was born with a strawberry hemangioma splashed over the bottom half of my right ear and two inches down my neck. The sort of red that has purple trapped inside it. A swollen, shocking hue. For the first year, I had no hair to disguise it. The sight of me made strangers uncomfortable.
My birthmark was so red and angry and I cried so murderously when my parents bathed it that it became, as I grew, the explanation for a lot of things. Why I was teased in school, why I cried easily. Why I couldn’t hear conversational tones out of my right ear.
By the time I was ten the skin faded to a mottle of mostly normal looking tissue. It looks enough like a burn scar that no one asks what happened. Mostly I forget it’s there. When a new friend asks me “what’s up with your ear?” I need a second to remember what she’s talking about. My father and I were in a motorcycle accident when I was five, I say. It tore my ear half off. When she looks sorry for asking, I tell her I was born this way. Which isn’t exactly the truth. If it was, I’d still have a stoplight for an ear.
Until my family began to comment on how deaf I was—when my back was to them I didn’t respond to direct questions, didn’t know they were being asked—I didn’t know my hearing was going. I’d gotten so used to having a half- deaf ear that it didn’t occur to me the aural slips I’d been experiencing might be the fault of the other ear, the good one going bad. I booked an appointment in the otolaryngology department at the city’s biggest hospital. The nurse who took my vitals said “you’re the youngest person I’ve talked to all day” in a way that was supposed to make me feel better but didn’t.
Dehiscence is a word botanists use to describe a flower bud that’s about to burst into bloom.
Otolaryngologists use dehiscence to describe two spots in my skull, one over each superior canal of my hearing organs, that have thinned to two tiny gaps. The gaps leak sound waves into my body and allow body noises to echo too loudly in my ears. To diagnose me, the doctor asked if I could hear myself blink. Yes, I said. Can you hear your heels when you walk? Yes. He rapped a tuning fork on my ankle. Can you hear that? No. That’s a good thing, he said.
My pulse, my flexing knees, my neck bones as I turn my head on the pillow, my teeth as they crunch into chips, all these sounds are louder than the conversation of the person sitting next to me. Now I understood why I could sing on key but never hold a tune: when I make a melody with my body, it mutes the music that’s outside my skull.
The doctor said my superior canal dehiscence could be cured with minor surgery that involved a night in the ICU. That doesn’t sound like minor surgery, I said. Nothing to worry about, he said. When would you like to schedule your pre-op? I wouldn’t, I said.
The next doctor I visited was the teacher of the first doctor. He was cautious, patient, uneager to cut me open. I liked him immediately. He said my condition represented “multiple pathologies”—a stiff stapes bone, a collapsed eardrum, dehiscence, possibly something else. My symptoms muddle the identity of each individual malady. What mattered, what wasn’t a mystery: I had significant hearing loss in both ears. We decided to try hearing aids first. If they worked, I would wear them the rest of my life.
I preferred this decision. It is reversible. You see, half sensibility has benefits. Not knowing what I’m missing can be a different kind of knowing.[read more]
“The Loudproof Room” appeared in NER 35.2.
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