The couple in the waiting room was making me laugh. You could tell they’d been married a long time. Youthful grandparents. He dominated the conversation, holding court and entertaining the rest of us as we waited to be called by the doctor. He was dark-skinned and swarthy, with a gold chain and copper-colored hair. His deep baritone voice told joke after joke, with a hint of a Brooklyn accent. His wife was plump and pretty, with reddish hair. She chimed in here and there, mostly to mock him. At one point, she said, “Drink your coffee! And give me my glasses, you’re making me crazy.” He leaned forward, picked up his disposable cup of coffee and held it out to her. “You want coffee?” “No! I said drink your coffee!” She looked at me over her shoulder and rolled her eyes.
We were at the House Ear Clinic in Orange County, my mother, father and I. I couldn’t believe we were actually there. Our family had tried for years to convince my father to get hearing aids, each of us taking turns broaching what was apparently a delicate issue – my sister, brother-in-law (a doctor), my mother, me, even my 11-year-old son. My father would brush us off each time, and often ignored altogether any email communications on the topic. His hearing was “fine.”
He is a man who has always loved his independence. Retired from the Department of Defense for seven years, he is busy, getting up daily at 4:30am to hike in the canyon behind his and my mother’s house for two hours before breakfast. He belongs to two choirs and is an avid Scottish dancer, with a kilt and all. He logs hundreds of miles per years in his black Jeep Cherokee driving to and from choir and dance rehearsals, performances, and festivals. Between that and travel with my mother, he isn’t home much.
I marveled that, with all of that activity, someone – a colleague or friend – hadn’t commented to him on his lack of hearing. Or maybe they had and he just couldn’t hear them. We, at least I, was on some level resigned that he would never get hearing aids. But I kept raising it when I could, with as much tact as I could muster. We all did. Last Christmas, he said, “I just can’t distinguish certain consonant sounds. That’s the problem.” I said, “If you can’t distinguish certain consonant sounds, that means you’re hearing impaired.” He grinned and said, “Okay, I guess so. But I can hear most things.” I could tell he didn’t think it was a big issue. Later, that same trip, my son Leith said to him when the family was gathered at a dinner, “Agong (Taiwanese word for grandpa), you need hearing aids.” My father leaned forward, cupped his ear and said, “What did you say?” Leith and the rest of us erupted into laughter.
As then, he will occasionally ask for clarification – “What? I didn’t quite get that” – but I can tell from the blank look on his face that he can’t hear the clarification. More often than not, instead of requesting a repeat, he answers what he thinks he hears. Like on my daughter Lila’s fifth birthday. He called to wish her a happy birthday and asked jovially, “How was your birthday?” She replied, “I broke my arm today.” “Great, that’s great!” he replied. Lila looked at me, eyebrows raised quizzically. It certainly wasn’t a reply she expected. He can’t hear you, I mouthed, pointing to my ear and stifling my giggles.
That was four and a half years ago. We have an arsenal of hundreds of similar exchanges since then. This winter, when I knew I would see my parents during my kids’ spring break, I sent my father an email: “Hey, Pops, remember my former law partner Brian from Irvine? He went to the House Clinic to get his hearing aids and highly recommended them. How about I go with you for a consultation the week I’m out there?” I truly expected no reply, as had been the case many times before. So I felt like I’d hit the jackpot when he wrote back the next day, “I have choir practice in the evenings that week but am pretty open during the days. Monday or Wednesday should work.” I immediately thought, something has changed. Why now? Maybe the choir director berated him for not being in tune with the others. Or maybe he realized people were increasingly annoyed by his responses (that likely didn’t match what they said.) Or maybe he just got tired of asking people to repeat themselves. Whatever the reason, I didn’t ask, so thrilled I was that he had finally agreed to an evaluation.
So, there we were, the day before his 78th birthday. The audiologist, Cheryl, called my mother and me from the waiting room to join her and my father in her office after about 30 minutes of testing. “Mr. Wu, you have severe hearing loss in both ears.” She leaned forward in her chair, facing him squarely and speaking slowly with exaggerated enunciation. I thought my father’s face registered fleeting surprise, as though he had expected to hear something else – then his shoulders slumped a bit and his chin dipped down. She had on her lap a clipboard with a sheet showing two curves with similar trajectories, one depicting loss in the right ear, the other the left. According to Cheryl, the curves showed at what volumes my father was able to hear which frequencies. When the volumes were adjusted so that he could hear “normally,” he still only got 40% of the words correct in his left ear, 72% on the right.
He tried his “distinguishing consonants” defense. “I mostly just have trouble with resolution,” he said. She nodded. “Okay, if you want to call it that, resolution, clarity… it’s a similar thing. But the problem is that the auditory nerve loses function if it’s not stimulated over time. That is the nerve that converts sound into meaning in the brain. So yours hasn’t been stimulated in a long time. I’m guessing you needed hearing aids at least 10 years ago.”
Words that validated what we – his wife, daughters, sons-in-law, grandkids – had all been saying for so long. But I wasn’t triumphant. I felt sad for him. I noticed how kind and patient Cheryl was. She exuded an inviting and empathetic air, speaking slowly and gently but loudly enough for him to hear, maintaining solid eye contact, nodding frequently, and asking if he had questions. Granted, she was an audiologist and this was her business. Nonetheless, I felt ashamed about all the times I’d been impatient or irritated with him for our failure to connect. I always knew rationally that growing old was hard, but right then I felt what I imagined he felt … resigned to the inevitable and a bit dejected at losing a tiny bit more of one’s independence.
I asked her, “Why is there so much resistance to getting hearing aids? It’s a sensory function, like vision. We get glasses when we need them. Why not hearing aids?”
She shook her head and said, “It’s the biggest question. I have no idea why sight and sound are treated so differently. Other than, hearing loss is associated with aging.” She shrugged and threw her hands up.
I glanced at my father. He looked like he was trying to process all of the information. His head was cocked to the side the way it often is when he is thinking. He tried again. “What percentage of the tested frequencies falls within normal speech?” “Almost all of them,” she replied, circling the entire curve on the chart.
At that point, he leaned back in his chair and gave a little nod. He had given up the fight.
Cheryl mentioned that some folks with hearing loss as severe as my father’s left ear – a 60% loss – wouldn’t bother getting a hearing aid for that ear. I quickly interjected, “Let’s do both ears. He sings in a choir, it’s important for him to have ‘surround sound,’ however little it is.” She nodded in agreement, “That would be my recommendation, two hearing aids.”
She walked us through the different models of hearing aids and together we all selected one. “When can you come back for the fitting? They normally take two weeks to come in,” Cheryl said.
My father said, “I’m going to Taiwan on the 13th of April.”
She conferred with her assistant and said brightly, “We’ll put a rush on them and have them here next week. You’ll wear them for a week, and I’ll see you again on the 12th. Just in time for your trip to Taiwan.”
We thanked her and left the office. The three of us walked out to the car in silence.