A haunting sight during my childhood was the hearing aid on my father’s night table.
This was back in the 1970s, when the devices were large and ungainly. I can count on one hand the number of times that I saw him wear it over the course of a decade or so. He wasn’t a vain person, and yet, he complained about how “ugly” the device was, and he was right. It was a C-shaped, flesh-colored plastic cylinder that wrapped around the back of his outer ear, with a clear tube that hooked into his ear canal.
He said the reason he never used it was, “All I hear is echoes when I wear the damn thing.” This was his way of avoiding any talk of how he looked with a hunk of plastic clinging to the side of his head. I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to wear the hearing aid. He was right—it was not pretty.
It also carried a stigma as a clear sign of aging. My dad attributed his hearing loss to firing guns and ringing bomb blasts during military training. It probably didn’t help matters that he was also a duck hunter (a 12-gauge shotgun is loud) and routinely rode the roaring trains of the New York City subway system. But whatever the cause, admitting he was going deaf would be to admit that he was a geezer.
My father ran an office of young hotshot salesmen who wore dark suits and crisp white shirts and skinny ties. They were the Mad Men of the plastic-container business, selling tens of millions of bottles to be filled with big-name products, like Johnson’s Baby Powder and Heinz Ketchup. They called my father “The Old Man,” a jest that surely stabbed his ego, no matter how lighthearted the delivery.
The Silent Treatment
It’s a sad fact was that my father knew he suffered from diminished hearing but still refused to do anything about it. (Apparently, this is typical, with most people waiting close to a decade to seek help.) Only after persistent urging by my mother did he see a doctor who confirmed the obvious—that he was hard of hearing—and prescribed the custom-fitted and costly hearing aid that soon lay useless beside his bed.
But sadder still was the fact that my father never got serious about improving his situation. I know that the hearing aid wasn’t ideal, but without it, communicating with my dad was difficult. As time went on and his eight kids went off into the world, often far from home, phone calls became particularly vexing. These were intended to bridge the distance and catch up about the day. Instead they became frustrating, screaming spelling bees.
Even simple exchanges became disastrous. I remember getting a call from him on my cell one rainy night while I was at a candlelit restaurant for an all-too-rare date night with my wife. My father hadn’t been feeling well, so of course I didn’t hesitate to answer the call. What ensued was funny at first. I shattered the calm of the evening by shouting into the phone, struggling to be heard. I saw a few smiles on the fellow diners’ faces, but those were soon replaced by mortifyingly angry glares.
I stepped outside, into the pouring rain, to finish the call. No umbrella, needless to say. I eventually figured out that what my dad wanted was some Alka-Seltzer and, since I lived close by, I promised to find buy some and drop it off shortly. With my jacket and shoes sopping wet, I rejoined my wife at our table, our special evening rendered a washout.
I don’t mean to sound self-centered. The issue wasn’t my getting soaked; it’s how fraught communicating with my dad had become. He couldn’t get through to me, or any of his kids, for that matter, and we couldn’t get through to him. In fact, I remember witnessing his grandkids trying to say hi to him on the phone. Their distress and disappointment over the halting conversation shone on their faces. I can only imagine the look on his face and what he must have been feeling.
The Lesson I Learned
As my dad grew older, into his 70s and 80s, he became increasingly detached. He was diagnosed and treated for depression, and he and my mother were increasingly at odds. My father was still a vital human being—an avid golfer, a sharp card player, a guy who insisted on cutting his own lawn with a push mower. But at the same time, he was retreating into his own world, cut off from loved ones by his increasing inability to hear.
This isn’t meant to be a sob story. On the contrary, I consider it a cautionary tale. Treatment for hearing loss is radically better than it was my father first experienced it in the 1960s. There are new tools and technologies.
If I could share anything with those currently in the situation I was in with my father, I would say this: Be insistent—and supportive—about getting help. Say, “Hey Dad, I read about this cool gizmo that helps you hear better—maybe you want to give it a try. Let’s go check it out next Saturday.” Mail an article about apps that enhance sound and offer to install one on his phone. Push hard to keep him informed and help him stay in the game.
My dad lived until just a few days past his 89th birthday. I can’t help but think that the gift of better hearing would have increased his quality of life so much. And kept all of us who loved him that much closer.