I’m not sure what brave soul inhabited my body last Saturday, but suddenly I found myself driving to my 25th high school reunion, a fresh battery in my hearing aid and a pad and pen in my purse. I haven’t attended a reunion since my hearing loss began about 20 years ago. Social events are stressful enough, but something about seeing people who knew me when I had normal hearing has always seemed extra scary. I could never get used to the thought of being seen as the girl who once had all that potential and now had a major disability. I’ve dreaded the discomfort that would inevitably ensue when people would realize they couldn’t communicate with me the way they used to. Or maybe it’s been my own discomfort that’s scared me most, and the thought of being so blatantly reminded of what my life was then, and what it is now.
My first act of nerviness happened weeks earlier, when I emailed Jenny, the reunion coordinator (our former homecoming queen), and confided to her about my hearing loss. I wanted to know if there would be loud music playing at the event, and if there would be any quieter outdoor areas more conducive to conversation. Her warm response was more than I expected. She suggested I show up, scope out the environment and if I decided not to stay, she’d refund my ticket. She said if necessary, she would turn the music down (or off), and emphasized that this was meant to be an all-inclusive event.
It wasn’t until an hour before the reunion began that I finally committed myself to going. When I arrived, Jenny greeted me with a mini dry-erase board to use for the night. I was so touched by her thoughtful gesture. Since she had made the effort to bring it, I felt compelled to actually use it, even though the packed room was making me want to run. There’s always that panic that sets in at social events, that desperate hope that somehow a miracle will occur, that my hearing aid (and non-functioning cochlear implant) will somehow allow me to interact and converse like everyone else. But who was I kidding? Even without music on, the background noise level was so high from all the loud chattering. I couldn’t hear a thing.
The dry-erase board was a great idea, much easier to use than a notepad. And once I had it in hand, I had no choice but to use it. Even if I wanted to, it wasn’t something I could just tuck away in my purse. People would ask why I had it, which forced me to disclose my condition right away.
Some people were hesitant about writing on the board, and just didn’t want to be bothered with it. They seemed to think they could make me hear if they yelled in my ear loudly enough. (By the way, to anyone out there who thinks that yelling in a hard-of-hearing person’s ear is helping them, you’re wrong. Most likely, it’s still going to sound like mumbo jumbo, just really loud mumbo jumbo. In fact, you’ve probably just caused a little more damage to our already-damaged hearing cells. The best thing to do is to look at us head-on so we can see your mouth as you speak.)
Besides those few who disregarded the board, most people seemed genuinely okay with using it. I would try conversing normally first, with lip reading and whatever my hearing aid could pick up, but would usually end up having to politely gesture to the board. Gradually, I became more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, if that makes any sense. It was people’s willingness to communicate with me that helped fuel my confidence throughout the night. Heck, there were guys I never talked to in high school who were now writing on a dry-erase board to me! And while I often felt embarrassed and awkward, I also felt a sense of empowerment that I’m not used to feeling. There was something very freeing about exposing my deafness. After years and years of hiding my condition, I was finally showing people, this is who I am now.
It’s funny how life never goes as expected. In high school, I imagined myself at my 25-year reunion with a fabulous career, maybe a PhD, and enough worldly success to make people envy me. I never dreamt that the accomplishment I’d feel most proud of would be simply showing up and communicating as best I could. For me, it was a huge step, a monumental feat. When I think about what constitutes “success” for me now, I feel twinges of melancholy and disappointment. But more than that, I feel a deep inspiration forming, an inner pride that makes me want to keep going. Twenty-five years ago, I’m sure I wouldn’t have signed up for the journey I’ve been on. But maybe real success lies in embracing whatever journey’s been handed to you as best you can, and realizing that a dry-erase board can mean just as much as a PhD, sometimes more.
A week later. There was one guy who spent a lot of time “conversing” with me by writing on the board, and I connected with him on Facebook after the reunion to thank him. I thought I’d share his meaningful response with you……“I have to admit, I don’t like loud places so much and the reunion was loud! The only real and meaningful conversation I had was with you and your dry-erase board. I thought that was so ironic! It took your situation to enable a conversation worth having! I thank you for being patient and letting me into your world for a moment.”