I am sitting on a staid chair facing my audiologist’s desk and computer screen. I have two wires attached to my scalp. I hear a loud beep but I don’t know where it’s coming from. I feel and hear a crinkle just a moment before my audiologist’s lips start moving before me.
“Reem, can you hear me?,” he asks.
I found myself floundering through my cackles to answer his genuine question, unable to hold back. In fact, the more I laughed, the louder it became and the funnier it got. Both my audiologist’s voice and mine sound exactly like Donald Duck’s: squeaky.
I hear a few more mechanical beeps and chimes. I nod and mutter to confirm that I heard it. The beeps become consecutive and more sonorous. I ask for a break.
It is quiet again.
I am still sitting on the staid chair inside a tiny sound mapping chamber. Two heavy double-glazed awning doors and stacked layers of sound insulators enfold the air. Every move explodes high-pitched crackles, rustles and crisps inside my brain. On the staid chair, the hearing world feels so small and so exciting at the same time. And even though all speech sounds weirdly funny and irritatingly bizarre, the resonant sound of my own breathing has me all enamoured.
What I remember most is walking through the hospital’s doors some two hours ago. It is a busy blaring hour and the city is blasting all its shrills, purrs, sputters and whomps. For me however, it was jarringly quiet . I still could tell that the wind was blowing loud by the way the air brushed my face and twirled the hem of my coat. Unbothered about the rain droplets and swirling breeze, I kept my walking pace while the city hastened through the afternoon.
I have been navigating London as a silent city for about two weeks now. The rush hours saw countless crowds whisk to catch their trains and double-deckers. Street performers and buskers did not interrupt my walks. The mornings saw the passerby chase a perfidious that leaves faster than it appears. Loud bars and nightclubs felt like stepping into a vacuum; too dark for me to lipread, too futile to exist.
On February 27th, around 7:30 pm, I walked through the same hospital’s doors into the rowdy realm where the wind crackled, footsteps clattered and every breath I took spluttered inside my being . The implant, transmitting signals to my cortex via my auditory nerves, gave every sound a brittle pitch that tingled and sizzled my inner sense. The city is no longer silent, yet it doesn’t sound the way I remember it from that misty summer of 2018.
In the hotel’s empty hallway, I was enraptured by the inaudible speech I heard coming from afar. I have always acknowledged hallways as still spaces; no fading footsteps nor small talks. To hear something there that my eyes could not see was extraordinary. And I found myself walking towards the source of sound.
I believe my hearing story actually began the moment I heard the sound of drinking as I guzzled a full bottle. The sound of water galloping down my throat had me in awe; and although my thirst had already been quenched, I kept slurping to retain the beautiful susurration of water as it glided. I felt reborn.
But my hearing story could not stop the night from coming. I stayed up in bed listening meekly to the sound of my breathing fused with the dripping tap in the bathroom sink. I stayed up thinking about my late grandmother and the fact that I will never hear her (real) voice. I thought of how different voices are going to be, even my own. I tried not to think about music because I know it will never sound the same again. It might have a better quality of harmonies, but I still couldn’t help not feeling robbed out of my memories and identity of/with sounds. A lullaby invokes a significant feeling because of how it sounded at that one special moment. I am scared of losing that. Every moment I switch on the sound processor, I feel my brain rustling as it erases the accumulated sounds of my life to make room for others; there is no going back from this one.
But I’d like to that I am dealing with this chapter as an absolute loss and all gain.
My hearing story could not stop the night from coming and soon I realised that nothing prepared me for this. The night was long, but the high-whine of my inner sense kept me company as I stayed up with every fibre of my being trying to comprehend the magnitude of this change. I heard the rain rumble outside for the first time, so I opened the window to devour the light pitter-patter on the sill before I was interrupted by a whooshing of a truck. No one prepared me for this either, I thought to myself before it hit and I realised all what I have been missing out on. The muffled giggles of children, the thrumming of guitars strings, the shuddering of planes, the psithurism of autumn leaves and the sloshing of waves; these are sounds that I have always been enthralled to see rather than hear.
Although hearing with cochlear implants is not at all like normal hearing, that night, I still appreciated the stark difference between sound and silence. I find it hard to accurately describe sounds the way I hear them, but I also see the essence of deciphering meanings in what seems inherently broken.
Having lived through mental solitary for a while before my implant was activated, I somewhat expected the switch-on moment to be all different.
“Yes, I can hear you,” I answered my audiologist — right after confronting myself that it was time to let go of all the voices and sounds I have known.
I spent so much time preparing myself for this moment, yet I still found myself clinging to my mom’s voice saying my name, my bestfriend’s laugh, the first ‘I love you’, and that sentimental moment at Cafe Younes in Beirut when I heard a song that made me think of you. I spent so much time preparing myself for this, but I guess no one is ever ready to lose.
I tell myself that I might have felt a little heartbroken as I entered the hearing world, but at least I did it laughing.