Almost Normal, but Not Quite

by Benjamin Featherstone

“He that has eyes to see, let him see. He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” Matthew 11:15

Tires screeching, fireworks exploding, people screaming, dogs barking, rocks careening down, waterfalls crashing, guns firing, fire alarm wailing, televisions droning, glass shattering, and then, with a simple flick on my head to remove my cochlear implant, a silence follows.

Silence so sweet.
Perennial silence.

Silence unbroken like melted diamonds.
Lips moving all around, yet silence invades like a still cemetery.
My closest friend.
My worst enemy.

The silence I love because I understand.
Because I don’t understand, I hate the silence.
The silence I’ve learned to embrace like a dear friend.
Like an embarrassingly disabled sibling, I chose to reject the silence.

This is my penetralia.
That’s how I feel when I visit my dear, silent friend.

Then like that moment when your bungee cord becomes taut after experiencing an exhilarating fall, the silence was violently yanked away by my cochlear implant. When the machine was drilled into my skull and a device placed on the outside, the sounds followed after years of training.

Sounds engulfed in emotions.
Cacophonous sounds in the air.
I see sounds floating around like a rainbow I never can quite reach.
Sounds were like someone whom I’ve always wanted to be friends with.

The sounds I love because I understand.
Because I don’t understand, I hate the sounds.
The sounds I’ve come to embrace like precious youngest sibling.
Like a very annoying friend, the sounds I chose to reject.

This is my penetralia.
That’s how I felt when I was first introduced to my sound-loving friend.

But silence always follows when the sound-giving cochlear implant turns off, repeating that vicious cycle of unsatisfied longing for perfection—the constant struggle for peace between the silent and the sound-loving lives.

I remember Mom smiling at me bravely, her eyes full of hope and unspoken prayer like any good mother. My mind was almost disconnected from my body, and I felt like I was looking at my body from the distance. My body was lying on the gurney. My face was white like an albino deer in headlights. I was terrified of the surgery that was about to happen. I remember my eyes beginning to glaze, and I looked beyond my mom. My dad paced near my mom, like a condor hovering over the Grand Canyon, with concern on his face. My mom smiled and signed to my distant mind, “You’re doing the right thing. Just be brave.” I remember thinking, “Am I really doing the right thing?” Following my doubting thoughts, a female nurse with a blue v-necked shirt and blue pants walked in. She had that smile on her face that seemed to be a mask. The mask was the mask of encouragement, courage, and happiness. But I noticed that quiet doubt creeping like a moon eclipsing the bloody sun. She silently asked me to be strong. In retrospect, I realized that the mask of strength became a crucial limb on my body to help me function well in life.

I wish I knew about that mask before they put my implant in.

The nurse gently injected the IV into my arm, and let the sedative flow into my bloodstream. I have no idea how I managed to let her put that needle in my arm, because I passionately hate needles. She grabbed the railing of my gurney and rolled me away from my family. I watched my former silent life sitting in the corner, left behind by my choosing.

Quietly sitting.

Betrayed.
I’m the traitor.
My silent friend, don’t judge me.
I chose to leave you.
I chose a life with sounds.
I left my world of silence for hopes of a better world.

My silent life was filled with precious deaf friends who opposed the concept of cochlear implants, because being deaf isn’t a disability. The cochlear implant was designed to be the cure. Being Deaf is just like being in a different culture, my culture. If I got a cochlear implant, I was risking rejection from the Deaf community because I would be basically telling everyone that I was disabled, but now am “fixed.” My silent life was full of childhood memories that threatened to dissolve if I put on that machine. But I was never a part of the Deaf community. I was the spectator. The observer. The watcher. I was born with a hearing mind. So I wanted to have a new future. A future where I could understand the majority, the hearing people. A future where I can belong. And that future was waiting in that white room with knives, needles, and the machine.

The door soon blocked the view of my dad, my mom, and my silent life. I passed by, and the lights on the ceiling flickered like truth barely shining through the web of lies. The sedative kicked in. The lights faded. My mind became numb. I underwent surgery. I woke up. White gauze wrapped around my head. My hair half gone. Throbbing pain in my skull. I drifted back to sleep. Drifting endlessly. Drifting into a drug-drenched dream.

Did it work?

After the surgery, I had to wear a hat to my Junior High School for two months because my head was half-shaved. I looked like a fool. An epic fool. It was a terrible time to wear a hat everyday for so long, because I was in that awkward stage of finding my identity. It was during eighth grade. One girl even had a nightmare about lice that I possibly have had in my hat, and one teacher ranted at me for wearing my hat at school—she ignored my hat card that the principle gave me. I had to take off my hat to show her my half-shaved head with stitches all over my skull. But I managed to pull through that rough time.

After my head was fully healed, I went back to the hospital. The audiologist ran some tests, and then gave me the cochlear implant. That strange object was supposed to change my life. I held that sandy-colored scythe-shaped object connected to the hanging disc in my hands. I carefully put it on my head, waiting for the miracle to happen. Waiting for the lottery that I’d been trying to get for so long. The audiologist pushed the button. Like a devouring bomb in a green house destroying all the delicate plants inside, the silence was broken with the cochlear implant once it was turned on.

Excruciating pain.
White noise everywhere.
Sounds like fingernails scratching an electrocuted black board lined with crackling aluminum foil.
Like a truck full of air horns rolling down a long hill.
Like a fat lady screeching through the broken glass lining her throat.
Loud, indiscernible, and unintelligible noise.

Overload.
My head was like a computer with all gigabytes and terabytes filled and unable to save more information.
Like a cartoon box stuffed with too much stuff and is about to explode.
Like a blind man seeing for the first time, the flare of the blinding light burning his eyes.
I couldn’t understand anything.
I felt paralyzed.
Was this what my life would be like?

I miss it.
My silent friend.
I miss how it could smell the rapids of the river.
I miss how it could see the mountains singing.
I miss how it could feel the heart of my dear ones.
I miss how it could taste the sunrise.

Primal instincts nearly took over, almost forcing me to rip the pain-inducing machine off my head. I held strong. I left the implant on my head. I had invested too much in this new future. I had to be strong. I had trusted this small machine to grant me a better quality of life. I had given up my dear silent friend for a new world; right now, the prospect of a new world wasn’t looking so great.

What had I done?

I held on bravely like that little Dutch boy who kept his finger in a leak in the dike all night long. I had to fight for a long time. For a year, I struggled to overcome the agony of constant headaches to hear the sounds all around me. My mom hired a speech therapist to help me learn how to hear,. Hour after hour, my speech therapist toiled with me. She did everything she could to help me listen.

Feathers were used to practice my plosives.
Pah, pah, bah, bah, tah, tah, dah, dah
My fingers on her throat to feel the guttural sounds.
Aaaaaa, eeeeee, iiiiiiiii, ooooooo, uuuuuu
Mouth opened to show where the tongue should be for each sound.
Nnnnnnnnnnnn, dad, dad, dad, llllllllllllll, ttttttttttt

Soon, pitches formed.
New sounds registered in my brain.
Frequencies took shape.
My ears filled with the music all around me.
Low-pitched and high-pitched sounds rang in my head.
I heard abrupt sounds and long-lasting sounds.
The intensity of each sound became clear to me.
Noise became discernable.

I felt like a fish being introduced to the Great Barrier Reef for the first time after living in a small reef for its whole life.

Like that feeling when the movie theatre finally allows closed captions in their movie after years of trying to read the character’s lips.

Like going to a concert and hearing life-changing music for the first time.

The more sounds I heard, the more I loved my new life filled with sounds. I loved hearing the refrigerator run, hearing the birds chirping, and hearing people’s chatter in the background. As I listened, I couldn’t imagine life without sound. That sound became a dear friend of mine. It changed from a stranger, whom I’ve always superficially known, to a dear friend, whom I cherish. And that change was wrought taking the time to get to know that friend. I loved it.  But I often paid an old, silent friend a visit with just a short, fluid motion of my finger flicking my implant off my head. I almost felt perfectly normal.

Was the cost of trying to be perfect like everyone else too high? And why did I think being able to hear was the only way to be perfect?

One thing was missing. I soon came to realize that my implant failed to provide that perfection that I was hoping for. I was hoping for a perfect life where I could connect with anyone with sounds and signs. But it wasn’t meant to be. I was doomed to a fate of a never-ending search for a perfect world of understanding. I couldn’t follow everything that was spoken to me by anyone. I could only understand an empty shell of a conversation. I was doomed to hear the words consistently:

“It’s not important.”
“Never mind.”
“I’ll tell you later.”

So more than often, I had to wear that mask that my nurse wore many years ago on the day of my surgery. I had to look happy, bright, and brave, so everyone could have a good time. I sacrificed my noisy and my silent friends to help provide other people with short and fleeting pleasures. Hopefully, those short conversations people have with each other will become a lasting memory for them. No matter how many visits I paid to my silent friend and my friend full of sounds, an unsatisfied longing for a sense of belonging lingered.