Presbycusis –that’s what I have. I’ve found that it’s always better to use a big word that few understand when you’re forced to disclose something you’d rather not. If asked for a definition, you can always make something up… no, prevaricate.
Anyway, it’s something that sort of crept up on me. Age-related hearing loss, after all, requires at least two things: age –which the poor heart would fain deny, and a willingness to admit that it might be a possibility –however unlikely. It’s also something that is not immediately apparent, and compensatory mechanisms emerge unbeknownst to the ears. I found myself increasingly fascinated by lips, for example. I convinced myself that lips were the unwitting wholesalers of information. That words –sounds– were in fact visibly embodied and solely dependent on them; and that those more proximate events mouth-side were merely what a chef did to prepare the meal.
There were problems at first, of course. Lips come in different sizes and shapes, and sometimes, in noisy restaurants, they acquire distracting stuff that hangs from them like wet flags and blurs the words. Also, people get weirded out if you keep staring at their lips. I read somewhere that further than an arm’s length away, the person you’re facing thinks you’re actually looking them in the eyes, though, so maybe that’s the issue. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I remember an episode from the early days of my presbycuity –before I was willing to admit to myself that I was less than fully intact. I was having coffee with a friend in a busy Starbucks. We were sitting in a dark and shady spot near a pillar in the middle of the room and I found that I could not hear a lot of what she was saying. Her mouth was opening and closing, but every once in a while it would stop moving and she would stare at me with an annoyed expression. That was my cue to smile and nod. It wasn’t that I was deaf –I could hear lots, but just not where I was pointed.
Finally, her mouth stopped moving and she just sat there and crossed her arms.
I decided it was time to show that I had been listening and would likely have been fascinated by what she’d had to say if I could have figured out what it was. My first reaction was to nod more vigorously and purse my lips –a sure sign that I was fully engaged and that my previous silence had merely been an indication that I had been processing the information.
She did not uncross her arms, however, and I could see an impatient shaking of her head as her eyes raked my face like a gardener looking for weeds. I could feel I was in trouble. “That’s interesting, Janice…” I ventured somewhat hesitantly, although thought it would be prudent to leave the sentence open with a clearly identifiable ellipsis.
Her face relaxed and she slowly unfurled her arms, hopefully mollified. Her mouth began to move again, and although I could make out a few sounds –some swear words don’t actually require much ID- the gist of her complaints were lost on me. Anyway, her eyes told me the vituperation was not aimed in my direction this time, so I began to match her expression as best I could. The only thing better than sharing an opinion, I find, is sharing an emotion. I’m good at empathy, although it often helps to know what it is you’ve empathized with.
I say that, because recess must have come to a close and the group of teenagers began to head for the door, dragging their shouts and laughter along with them. It took the room a moment to recover and Janice’s face suddenly ceased to be a silent movie. “… and can you believe she thought I wouldn’t notice?” The words incarnated themselves and flicked at my ears like moths at a light.
“No,” I said knowledgeably, shaking my head slowly in what I hoped indicated disbelief.
“And then,” Janice added, with a theatrical eye roll, “she actually thought I would…” At that moment three more teenagers wandered in, talking and laughing like they were at a party. Maybe they do recess in shifts nowadays.
Janice’s words disappeared into the mise-en-scène leaving only the Cheshire cat of her lips remaining. I tried desperately to read her now quivering mouth, but they soon hardened, leaving only a row of teeth with a shard of poppy seed clinging silently in a crevice. And although it looked for all the world like Janice had just told me that her friend was convinced she –Janice- would soon spit on the tablecloth, I decided to reject that hypothesis. I was lost again. Her facial message didn’t match the sputal part, but on the other hand, she did point to the surface of our table and then rub it with her finger, so I remained confused.
Sometimes, the perfect response to something like that is to rub your chin, or scratch your head. I chose the latter for some reason and suddenly she glowered at me. The room briefly quietened to a titter as the kids compared cell phone pictures, and Janice-words again re-entered my umwelt. “I can’t believe you actually agree with her!” she said, her words dripping with moisture and, when I looked again, her teeth unburdened of bagel detritus. Clearly, like lips, scratching can be misread.
Then suddenly, noise, like an awakened Phoenix, stretched itself and sat up again as a fresh cadre of youth burst through the door -and I was left with only the peregrinations of a mouth. An angry, hurt sort of mouth, and a mouth that clearly indicated its wish to visit the washroom –perhaps finally aware of the dangers of unexpected tooth clingers- but at any rate, a mouth that soon disappeared into the throng and never came back.
I waited for a decent interval of time, but to tell the truth, although I was a little disappointed, I was also exhausted and my eyes were sore like they get after watching a hockey game. I suspect there could be health consequences from too much socialization, so I decided I should go back to listening to podcasts in a quiet room for a while… and maybe practice lip reading in the mirror if my ears got tired.