Listen Up

Telling the story of hearing loss is tough. It’s a disability thing. An old person’s thing. “Normal” people can find it hard to understand the impact of hearing loss on identity, self-worth, and, probably most important, relationships.

Several years ago I wrote an essay about an encounter – or lack of an encounter – with a young family at the audiologist’s office. A few weeks ago, I recorded the essay for the morning show of our local public radio station, WUWM, and it was aired yesterday.

Both the text of the essay and the link to the audio version are at this link: Wordless.

I’d love to hear what you think.

Mr. Tan Shoes and Me at KFC

The other night at KFC, an older guy came in while I was waiting for my order. His hair was completely white and he wore those tan orthopedic shoes that are popular with folks fed up with pretending. He ordered a big bucket of chicken and two sides. Just like me.

I hadn’t been in a KFC in ten years but the idea of fried chicken after a long day of helping a friend clear out her dead mother’s house seemed irresistible, so much so that I drove a mile past the KFC on the corner near her house and then made a U-turn, no mean trick in my husband new F-150 which has a turning radius of about a half mile. I went inside the KFC because ordering at the drive-thru makes me crazy. It’s indecipherable. Summed up as ‘what kind of sauce?’ What Kind of Sauce? WHAT KIND OF SAUCE? Screaming for food, I hate it. One of the queer life impediments of major hearing loss.

So I parked the silver bomber (aka the Chromemobile)  and went inside.

“You know it makes a lot more sense to just get a small soda and fill it up than to get a big one.” He demonstrated by filling his small cup.

“So true,” I nodded, although this lesson has taken me many years to learn. The wisdom of age comes in these tiny droplets. Buy the small soda and refill it. You heard it here. From me on the mount.

His talking about soda made me want to have one. Suddenly, at that moment, there was nothing I wanted more than a small soda.

So I ordered one. The KFC guy handed me a cup, just a tad larger than what one might pee in at the doctor’s. “That is certainly small,” I said. Then he handed me a larger cup. So now I had two cups. There was dialogue that went along with all these cups but I only caught part of it. I’m a week into my new cochlear implant and, man, there is a ton of stuff I don’t get. Which is somewhat a what’s new situation but not.

After I got my soda and tossed the smaller cup in the trash, I continued waiting at the counter with Mr. Tan Shoes. He smiled at me. It seemed like he was trying to come up with another conversational gambit since the soda size topic kind of fizzled out.

You know where this is going. You can see it coming down the highway like a semi-truck hauling one of those mobile homes, big flags on either side and a little car in front warning the world of an “OVERSIZE LOAD.”

“So,” Mr. Tan Shoes said, leaning on the counter like he was waiting for another round of jello shots at the Christmas party and nodding in the direction of the ‘kitchen.’ I waited.

He shrugged and I could feel him wondering if we would have this one thing in common. Maybe it would be the start of something.

“Extra crispy or original recipe?”

Our eyes locked.

“Oh, original recipe,” I answered, frowning and shaking my head like I found just the thought of extra crispy to be beyond the pale. Unacceptable. Unorthodox. Trifling with the KFC brand. “Definitely original recipe,” I added, just to make sure I was in the right column. FOR original recipe. AGAINST extra crispy.

Then my order came up. At exactly the same moment, Mr. Tan Shoes and I said exactly the same thing, making me wonder later if I’d passed on a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Have a good evening,”we chorused.

And we did, I think, each with our own perfect chicken.



Originally published 12/10/2015

Homesick for Then

Across the street, a kid is standing in his driveway and throwing a tennis ball against the chimney of his house. I think the purpose of this game is to see how high on the chimney he can get the ball. His is a three-story house so the chimney is very tall. So far, he hasn’t hit the top. The ball goes high but not highest, still he is undeterred.

When one of my sons was a young teenager, he would stand in the middle of the street in front of our house and throw a football, a pass to an imaginary receiver, and then he’d run as fast as he could to catch the ball he’d just thrown. And when he did this, he was living entirely in his game, feeling the ball in his hand, watching it sail against the blue sky, and then catching it with both hands, turning his shoulders, like receivers do, to protect the ball from the defense. I would watch from the living room window and envy his life in that moment.

We were all like this as kids but then, overnight, we weren’t. We didn’t throw the ball against the chimney anymore or try to catch our own passes. We didn’t think about it, we just stopped. And when we did, we left something so valuable behind that we didn’t even know its name.

It’s like the first time you walk down the street with your mother and don’t hold her hand. Neither of you know that the last time you held her hand would be the last time but it was and, from then on, holding your mother’s hand seemed different and intentional, no longer instinctive, and so you stop doing it until your mother is very old when you must hold her hand or she will fall.

It’s very hard to hearken back to how we were when we didn’t think about the utility of what we were doing, when not everything required a purpose or a yield. Everything now needs an outcome, an end point, a reason for being. But increasingly, to me, the purpose-filled life is taxing and spiritless. I am becoming tired of accomplishment.

I remember hitting a tennis ball against our garage door with my wooden Wilson racket for hours because I loved the sound of the ball hitting the door. That and the sun on my back and the feel of the racket’s grip in my hand. I miss that moment and would like to find it again sometime before I leave this earth.

The Precious Routine of Life

We ate at seven because the store closed at six and it took my father time to empty the cash drawers, roll up the awning, double check all the doors including the big steel door in the back where we got the big shipment every Tuesday, boxes and boxes to unload, rip open with box cutters and empty into neat stacks in the backroom. By 6:20 or so, he’d switch off the lights from the main box in the back and he’d walk down the aisles, all the merchandise covered with coarse sail cloth so as to avoid dust accumulating overnight. Thirty minutes later he would walk in the side door from the garage. It would be time for supper.

When something went wrong, well, really only one thing ever went wrong. When my mother got sick and had to go to the hospital, the hands on the clock stood still. It seemed wrong so I kept it a secret or would have had anyone asked how I was doing but my worry for my mother, whether she would get well soon and come home, was overpowered by my yearning for supper. The five place settings. Glasses at our places, coffee cups at theirs. Paper napkins folded in triangles and dessert set out in small saucers, a half inch of butterscotch pudding, a single canned peach.

Each time in my life has its own precious routine. When I was a single mother, my daughter and I ate supper at the kitchen table except on those nights when disorder and not caring left dishes in the sink from the day before. I fed her mac and cheese out of a box on a plate on her lap. She watched television while I lied on the couch, smoking cigarettes, my glass of cheapest white wine balanced on the bumpy carpeting. I was too tired for more, too fraught with leaving and being left. I knew the precious routine would give me comfort but comfort was not what I wanted. I wanted the yearning more.

Then, things brightened and we sat at a new table in a new nook in a new house, then we crowded in a high chair, then a booster seat, then we moved to the dining room and we set the table every night and each place had a napkin folded in a rectangle. We drank coffee at dinner, too. It was dinner now and not supper, supper having gone to the farmers to keep precious. Each of the three more children had their place added to the original girl’s, their dad and me at opposite ends of the table, being as if in a picture of dinnertime on a magazine cover or an ad for positive family development. When something went wrong, someone sick or gone, angry or silent, it was dinner I yearned for more than their recovery.

Now it is just the two of us. Sometimes we set the table in our nook, sometimes we eat off plates on our laps while watching television. When my children come home, we eat at the dining room table. It feels big and unnatural, unnecessary but I know they are wanting their seats, wanting to see us in our places. We may have shed the routine but it is still precious to them. And so we act out what was once how we anchored our lives. We are adrift now but we don’t want them to know that we are happy floating. So we sit at the big table and all is as they remember. It is the precious routine of life.


Closet Cleaning

I’m never going to wear khaki pants again.

The last time I wore them was about four years ago. I was in a meeting and happened to look down at my lap where the red of my top fell over the tan of my khaki pants. “When I leave here, I can go right to my shift at Target,” I wrote on my meeting neighbor’s agenda, thinking it was the funniest thing ever. ‘Oh ha,’ was the response as in ‘maybe you could leave a little early so as not to be late.’

So I think of that little episode whenever I see my khaki pants. I’ve kept them because I am loathe to get rid of clothes and because I think that somehow, with the right shirt, I could look extremely cute in khaki pants.

But today when I pulled them out of my jammed closet along with a dozen pair of size 10 pants which I bought and wore in a two-week period several years ago when I dropped a lot of weight because I quit drinking, I decided I am done with magical thinking about these awful khaki pants.

So I sent the khaki pants to Goodwill. I also sent a purple print shirt that I have tried to like but which is repelling in some truly fundamental way. And a complicated cape-sweater that I wore once to get a headshot taken and it looked terrific but since then it always looks like a large dish towel wrapped around my shoulders. And so I had to face the cruel truth: this sweater was lovely once but it became hideous somehow. We will never know why.

I threw out little suede boots that my daughter in California sent me years ago to match a pair she wore. There is more of a story to it than that but too hard to tell. Anyway, I have loved those super soft buckskin boots and their little cord shoelaces. They have big thick soles so I often tripped when I wore them, which I don’t much anymore, because I am 30 seconds away from a nursing home anyway what with my advancing age and crummy balance. So I put them in the wastebasket; it felt sickening to do that considering who sent them but I remembered that she long ago ditched her matching pair. I need to have a firmer core.

I also threw away a dozen belts. Coiled them up and put them in the wastebasket. I’m surprised they didn’t crack and turn to dust in my hands, it’s been that long since I’ve worn a belt. Lord. The whole idea is dreadful. Why would I do more to cinch myself up? Isn’t buttoning my jeans sufficient?

In the back of the closet, behind a stiff white dress shirt and a Harley Davidson emblemed flannel shirt someone gave me years ago, hangs my mother’s handmade purple velvet wedding dress with the seams she stitched herself by hand. She made it in 1937. She had just turned 20. I gave it a touch but didn’t take it out. Doing that would make me wonder what I should do with it, not that I would ever get rid of it or send it to Goodwill. But at some point, someone will go in my closet and go through my things. There won’t be any khaki pants hanging there or belts. But that dress will be there, on a hanger, in the back, a decision for someone else to make.

I think about things like that a lot more than I used to.

Here We Are

We live in a neighborhood of very big, old houses on a street where the trees used to be so lush that city workers could walk from one end of the street to the other on top of the branches. I know that because a city arborist told me. It must have been a sight to see although I’m betting no one living has seen it, just heard the stories passed down from one arborist to the other in the City Hall breakroom.

The people who live in my neighborhood aren’t rich. The rich people live a few streets over in houses that front on Lake Michigan. On our street we have professors and lawyers, an emergency room doctor, and a home care agency director and, oh, a carpenter who lives on the corner. He has made a career of fixing our houses, every month his sign is in front of another house, causing me to wonder whether he will move to another neighborhood with ancient houses when he has fixed up all of our houses.

The houses were made for large families at the beginning of the last century. Each house has a third floor, its construction tall and stout, the city’s 50 foot lot size restraining any spread. You could envision a few neighbors being able to shake hands, the space between structures so small. Our house, built in 1911, has a small driveway between us and our southern neighbor, a driveway built for a Model T. Our truck stays parked on the street.

People ask us when we are downsizing. Our four kids are long gone. Now, it’s two people and two dogs living in a space meant for seven or eight or more and who knows how many dogs. An army could probably live here, bivouac at least, there is plenty of space.

But we are unmoved, in every sense. This is our street, our windows, our view, our tall three-story house that has rooms we don’t go in but maybe two or three times a year. But the rest of the house is lived in, typed in, cooked in, talked in, loved in. Every inch has our fingerprints, our intentions and history. So we are here for a while, hopefully, a good long while. It’s where we live.

Meditation on My Basement’s Life

The cobwebs in the basement are thick and clammy. They hang like wet strings from water pipes and electrical wires running along the papered ceiling where, along the edges, you can see the 100-year-old 2 x 4s that are the bones of our house.

The plaster on the walls, reapplied every ten years or so, is peeling again. It curls in thick strands, suspended until the weight becomes too much and the plaster drops and shatters on the floor. Under the plaster is the brick foundation, each brick mortared to the next so carefully you think you might see fingerprints.

The floor used to be dirt, just dirt. Our three-story house with the brick foundation rested on dirt, brown and packed so hard it could be swept with a broom, but still dirt. We changed that though, covered the dirt with concrete, because it was unnerving.  It seemed risky to have a house built on dirt, primitive, although the house with its dirt basement had already lasted a long time before we moved in. The house wasn’t going anywhere.

The basement holds many of our things including a black trunk of baby clothes I haven’t opened since my now 46-year old daughter became a toddler. Don’t ask me why. Part of me thinks her tiny undershirts and corduroy overalls may have mouldered after all these years and if I open the trunk and see just the remnants of her infant wardrobe in moldy shreds, it will break my heart. The trunk sits on an old wooden desk in the room where we keep all the old paint cans and vast stacks of record albums that we brought to our marriage but then never played anymore, the music on them tuned, I guess, to our private lives before we met.

There is a tiny bathroom in the basement. It is very narrow with just a toilet at one end, it has been decades since it flushed and would have been nearly as long since anyone ventured into the bathroom at all if my son hadn’t gone in searching for rats. You see, I had found a dead rat in the yard and called an exterminator. He came the next day, armed with a clipboard and a flashlight, and walked around the house and through the basement pointing out the countless ways that rats could get into our house, the tiny bathroom being one. They will swim up toilets, you know, a disquieting fact if there ever was one.

We threw out newspapers and magazines, old furniture, and anything that would be food or shelter to a rat. That is a long list of things, though, so the mound of debris in front of our house was enormous. It felt like we were unpacking a hundred years of secrets and mistakes for everyone to see. Vast quantities of dirty laundry, you might say. But we rid ourselves of rats, in the narrow bathroom and everywhere else in the basement.

Now we have a new washer and dryer and a new freezer. There are shelves for the big pots and cookers that we rarely use. Tools are stored in a set of red drawers, each with its own lock, and the birdseed is in sealed bins. In the back of the basement, though, is our old dining room table. It lies on its side with five chairs. When we bought it early in our marriage, the table had been a luxury, beautiful and glowing, but after many children and countless meals, there were scratches and water marks, scorches, and other abuses.

So, one day we replaced it with a newer table, much like the old, but perfect, and when the men came to set it up, they looked at the old table, about to be taken to the basement, and said, “This should have lasted a lifetime.” And the words stung, even though I was paying them and not looking for their opinion, so I’ve kept the old table and chairs in the basement all these years, the cobwebs draped on them like streamers from somebody’s birthday a long time ago.