I perfected the art of sliding across the floors at home, like a skater, rather than walking and bought a small, soft toothbrush as the idea of using an electric one was too horrific. It was nearly two weeks before I ate toast and the sound of my own voice reverberating round my head was, at best, uncomfortable so that was kept to a minimum. I got used to waking up with dried blood round the side of my head and down my neck and the occasional dripping liquid feeling in my ear made me shiver involuntarily. Raising my eyebrows hurt as the stitches all round the back of my ear tightened and generally, for the first week it felt like I’d been smacked round the side of my head with a baseball bat.
I’ve been here before, three times in fact, but I don’t remember feeling this delicate nor there being as much blood which felt as though something was really wrong in there. It was twenty-odd years ago though, so time may have dulled my memory but I recall each time the astonishing amount of packing being removed from my ear canal after four weeks, the sorry sigh and confirmation that no, it hadn’t worked. In all cases, I don’t think it was even there any more.
“You have a badly perforated eardrum” said the quietly-spoken ear, nose and throat consultant more than six months ago, likely unsure if I was aware of this fact as many people aren’t but I was only too well aware. That wasn’t even the reason I’d gone to see him and the reason I had has improved. An ear infection in my 20’s during a holiday, probably picked up from a dirty swimming pool judging by how many other people had wads of cotton wool stuck in their ears as they tanned and swam, followed by a ‘plane trip back to Blighty with an ear so inflamed I couldn’t brush my ear lobe without crying out, saw fit to split a tiny piece of tissue, the ramifications of which spanned the next three decades. I have a few photos of that holiday and it’s not the images of a younger me, nor a friend I’m no longer in touch with, that I look at but the vague images of people in the background that have caught my attention whenever I’ve looked at them, wondering if they too were at the doctor’s surgery shortly after touching down, did they have two courses of antibiotics and were told it had healed when, in fact, it hadn’t. A burst of lunchtime swimming some years later at the pool where I worked resulted in water in my ear that wouldn’t go away and after a few days, the realisation that my left ear was constantly ringing. A short while later, the world turned upside down on occasion, lasting no more than a few seconds and I went to my new, different doctor. Medication ceased the occasional vertigo and although the muffled sound abated, the hissing in my ear, like an untuned radio, continued. The hearing loss was minimal but frustrating; I frequently couldn’t work out where sounds were coming from, machinery or other noise made it difficult to hear people unless I was looking at them but it was the constant hissing in my ear which I despaired of and the realisation that I couldn’t hear silence any more would cause a sharp intake of unbelieving breath at the enormity of this, not only when it was made apparent but just by the thought that this was so. It was for that reason and not the hearing loss that I went ahead with surgery three times, just on the basis that it may, just may make the tinnitus go away – a small piece of tissue taken from somewhere round my ear and fashioned into a new eardrum. The tinnitus did not go away and each time the graft failed and over the years I’ve suspected my hearing was getting worse. Being spoken to from another room or as I was leaving it often entailed retracing my steps so I could see the person speaking and I hated being accompanied in chilled food departments as the sound of the refrigerators rendered my hearing useless. There were many, many times I either wanted to smack the back of someone’s head in supermarkets and shout “Please look at me when you’re talking to me” or weep as I yet again caught the slight roll of their eyes as they yet again had to turn around and repeat what they’d just said.
“Three times twenty years ago” I said six months ago, “Seriously, would you?”
I initially said no, I would not, despite his gentle highlight of my remark that it was twenty years ago and that was then and this was now. His words “and this is me” hung unspoken but ironically not unheard. It was not the fact that it may fail again that bothered me but that it may make my hearing loss worse and the hissing in my left ear more loud. A month or so later, I was back in his office and made him hold out his hands to see how steady they were on the grounds that it’s all very small in there, quizzed him on how much coffee he drank (not much, I like tea, like you British) and blatantly admitted I’d like to hold him up against the wall and snarl all sorts of threats if he messed up.
“If it were my ear, I would feel the same” he responded. “All I can say is, I will do my best”.
I put it off for a while given I wouldn’t be able to do anything “of effort” for at least six weeks or anything to change the pressure in my ear so no yoga, gardening, flying or going through the channel tunnel. Winter would therefore be a good time.
Seemingly it was a tricky job, the remark “It was like clearing after a battle” was made, followed by the confirmation that my ossicles, the three teeny, tiny bones were “still there and intact so I didn’t have to replace them” before he left my hospital room the evening after surgery. Two weeks later and two weeks before previous occasions, the packing was all removed and I was sent home with ear drops and further instructions that I was to do nothing “of effort” and continue to avoid people as much as possible as that last thing I needed was a cold as nose-blowing was forbidden. “Cotton wool in ear when outside as it is cold” he said and I came home and skated round the house some more. The ringing in my ear continued, at times more loud, unless I sat in silence for hours reading but outside sound at times was alarming, to say the least. I backed away from the coffee machine as it ground the beans and covered my ear when I flushed the toilet and was genuinely taken aback how loud toast is when you butter it. A couple of trips to the city were exhausting due to the onslaught of sounds which loomed up like crazed zombies in my head, my brain initially seeming to not be able to compute them. I was shocked when I realised that I could hear the people at the table to my left during lunch in a busy restaurant. The sometimes soporific sound of our dishwasher I now realise carries all manner of assorted sloshes and whooshes, previously unheard. Over the years, I’ve occasionally switched sides when using the phone, just to see how bad the difference in my hearing really is and in the last couple of weeks, I’ve deliberately not held anything of sound up to each ear, for fear of being disappointed but, caught unawares at an indoor market a week or so after the packing was removed from my ear, I couldn’t resist turning my head this way and that as the man behind the stall held up a Tibetan singing bowl and made it do its thing.
“It’s the same in both ears.” I said to Joe Brown.
“Don’t be anxious” coaxed the surgeon last week as he approached my left ear with instruments and I involuntarily moved further away.
“Good,” he said as he leaned back a moment later, “It is all looking as I would expect”.
“You mean it’s there?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows a little.
“You seem surprised,” was his response and I once again heard his unspoken “and this is me”.
Twenty minutes later, having sat in a sound booth with ear phones clamped on both ears, he perused the graph handed to him and smiled.
“You have perfect hearing”.
The world can still take me by surprise how loud it is, there is a depth of sound that, for the last thirty years, I’d been unaware of, music I’ve only listened to previously with impaired hearing is stronger, heartier, better. My brain has, I think, learned to comprehend the more I hear and sort, recognise and filter. The tinnitus? Still there but no worse and strangely, it doesn’t bother me as much and, in a way, I’ve now tried to see, or rather, hear it as my own singing bowl.