The Day I Found Out I Was 'Considerably Deaf'

A childhood hearing impairment, discovered at age 33


Mobil's medical exam felt rather casual, sometimes careless ("at not much more than your age, your father dropped dead, but don't worry about it"). The examination was a formality, and I was easily passing all the tests. In the last one, routine for Mobil, the nurse opened the door to a glass booth, inviting me to go in and sit down, my back to the door. There were headphones on the table.

"Heifer dentist?" she asked.


   a cow

     for a dentist?

       milk is good

         for the teeth

           but heifer


               ever done this?

"I think so -- it seems to me -- a long time ago. In the first grade at my school. But there was no booth, just headphones. But not since -- anyway, I'm sure I was fine."

"It's not done enough -- a candle really."

candle really

 candal scandals

  in the wind

   it's a scandal

"Well, I know my ears are very sensitive to sound. I hate riding in the subway, and horns and sirens are impossible."

"Good. We'll just check it out." The nurse put the headphones over my ears and told me to push a button whenever I heard a sound. The original device had been invented by Alexander Graham Bell in order to plot audiograms measuring residual hearing in the profoundly deaf. Mobil included the test in its physicals at the request of a former chairman, Al Nickerson, who, it was said, had to resign because of his partial deafness. The purpose was not to exclude from Mobil those who failed but to try to identify potential problems that might affect performance -- a nice distinction. In any event, after I listened to five or six tones at different frequencies and pressed the button each time I heard a sound, the nurse said, "Thank you, Mr. Shea," into the headphones.

She came to the booth and opened the door. The sign on her breast said "Miss A. Oracle." She was soft spoken and had a gentle smile, though she seemed to be lowering her voice. "OK, Mr. First Grade, we're on day?" she asked.

"I'm sorry?"

"We're are day?"

are day are they were are they where are they "They?"

"Your earring days."

"My earring days?"


"I left them at home," I said, laughing.

"Don't you have any?" She was smiling, trying to figure me out.

"Do I have any hearing aids!? Ha! Are you serious?"

"You pressed the mudden vie tie."




   vie tie

    five times


      pressed the button

       five times


"But there were twenty tones."


"Moly eyes when you started missing them." moly eyes! O, Mole, the beauty of it! moly mo -- mostly --

"Mostly --"

"Mostly highs. Higher frequency sounds. Mid-frequency, too. Ow on avenue add is autumn."

ow on

 ow ow

  how on

   how long

    have you


      have you had this problem

"What problem?"

"You are -- Mr. Shea, you do not hear well."

"I hear you."

"Well, you see me, and you're not profoundly deaf."

"Of course not. I'm not 'deaf ' at all! I'm fine."

"But you are -- you are partially deaf -- seriously. What happened to you?"

"Come on."

Miss Oracle came close to me and was now speaking more loudly and slowly.

"I am --"

"Considerably deaf."

"That can't be."

"You should see someone."

"Well, some day. When I'm eighty-five maybe!"

"Mr. Shea."

"Yes, Miss Oracle."

"How old are you?"

"Um, you can see on the -- I'm thirty-three."

"That's right. But your ears, your ears, are, are -- perhaps eighty-five! This test is of course between us. But I urge you not to ignore it. If you do, it will be do your fast reread."

"My fast -- my --"

"To your VAST REGRET. Please. For yourself, for me because I'm not writing it down. I'll just check that you took the test. Please see someone."

"You're really serious."

I could see that she wanted me to see that she was trying to get through, her lovely eyes staring out over her white dress, fixed on mine, like the double beams hard a-lee of some unearthly New England lighthouse. Miss Oracle pursed her lips for a moment.

"Do you hear any noises in your head, Mr. Shea?"

"Noises, no. Like what? Noises like what?"

"Like a whistling or a buzzing or ringing."


"Are you sure?"


"Please -- there are things you can do --" Miss Oracle's toes were tap tap tapping on the ground, she was not smiling, and her eyes were full of questions.

I must have realized, at least subconsciously, that she was telling the truth, but I was of no mind to admit it. After all, were her heifer dentists and moly eyes but natural progressive steps to understanding, or did they have something to do with her message "you are considerably deaf "? But deafness is not hearing, and I hear! Just because I hesitated when she spoke? Yet the buzzer rang -- twenty times!

It is no easy task, for anyone, to upset what he considers to be the longstanding, natural patterns of his life. For a young hearing mother, the acceptance of the fact that her infant is deaf takes some time, for it's fraught with feelings of guilt, failure, and the anticipation of a long isolated life for her newborn child. For those growing deaf because they are getting older, it is the acceptance of the advance of age that is troublesome, and the realization that they can no longer follow their peers, or fellow professionals, or those they love, without hearing aids, which, when they try them, don't seem to work anyway. For me, it would have been accepting the need to reappraise the past, an often hellish past too, but one in which I played a role that I thought was physically, if not intellectually, complete. So I tried to ignore Miss Oracle, in spite of the wisdom of her words. I was hiding, though -- and you can't hide for long.

For the first few months at Mobil I managed fairly well, meeting people in the Middle East Department separately, slowly deciphering their messages, and -- ploddingly -- learning the oil business. But as I became drawn into meetings with two or three or more people, I became quickly lost as usual and reverted to trips to the bathroom for pills and some giganta Mylanta. People were starting to tell Sorota I wasn't getting it. At one staff meeting the group had spent twenty minutes on pipeline tariffs when I asked how much the Saudis would charge for our use of the line. Sorota wasn't present, but his second told him about it, though at the time he shaded my question and answered his own version of it.

Aldo's response was to have someone provide me with the draft minutes of the department meetings: "You know, to vet the thing, a legal review or some shit like that. The business is new to him -- words like 'tariff.'" But he was beginning to wonder whether he had made a mistake. When I first looked at the minutes, with the admonitions of Miss Oracle at least in the back of my mind, I realized that they were more interesting than the nonsense I had been listening to. Reading the crisp words of a talented engineer turned oilman discussing technical, business, or political questions, I discovered that muddled ideas with an occasional "pipeline," "crude oil," or "refinery," were in fact thoughtful observations. I gave them back untouched.

I flew from New York to Boston to take a long weekend with my mother in Salem and told her about Miss Oracle.

"When this it art, Gerry."

"This it art?"

"When did this start?"

"I don't know. I think, I think I've always been the same. Frankly, I think my hearing's fine. It's just that sometimes I can't concentrate."

"You've always been a good student. But why don't you call John's sister-in-law, Geraldine, who works with that Greek ear surgeon. Go see her and -- what's his name -- Tassos, Tassos Alexander."

I gave myself a short tour of Salem the next day. I drove along Derby Street past Hawthorne's customs house and the house of the seven gables, as the dactyls Longfellow wrote for him danced in my head. I drove past Alexander Graham Bell's old place too, now a YMCA, and drove up the hill to the hospital.

Geraldine invited me into a booth, similar to the one at Mobil. I sat down, and she put the headphones on. She closed the door and went to her seat. "Can you hear me, Gerry?" she asked in the earphones.


"Fine. We'll star the worse."


"We'll start with words. You repeat them after me. Here we go -- Dart."

" ... Heart."


" ... That."




" ... Tom."




"A bow -- no -- about."


"For ... no, tore."





She kept on with the words and then said, "Keep facing away, and we'll cow to the drones, OK?" cow we'll now do the tones

"Yes." I took the button on the table. We went through the exercise, though this time I pressed the button more frequently, almost ten times. There were large intervals between the sounds. When we were finished and I stepped out of the booth, I wanted to ask Geraldine how I did, but she did not seem in the mood for questions.

"Dr. Alexander will see you now, Gerry."

I followed her to the doctor's office, and she left me there as she went into another room to give Alexander the results. She left that office by a different door. Alexander came after about ten minutes.

"Hello. How is your other?" other, mother

"Very well, thanks." He led me to a reclining chair and checked my nose and throat with lights and probes, and then looked into both ears.

"OK." His voice was flat and indifferent. I sat in a chair beside his desk. "I am afraid we have mad ooze." mad ooze pad bad oo -- bad news "You are pretty deaf. Not in the lowest frequencies, but ih sa bitter and I."

ih sa bitter and I


"In the--"

"In the middle and high frequencies." He began speaking slowly and closer to me. "You don't hear them. In the verbal test Geraldine gave you, you scored tebber tent. You guessed eighteen out of twenty words incorrectly." two of twenty is 10 percent "You just happened to gettea covers right." I guessed the others right "Ow log have you add iss awesome?" Christ ow log how long yes how long have you had this problem --

"I'm not sure I believe this."

"Your audiogram shows that your hearing tops rat city at vie unter terce, at the level of the human voice, and keeps dropping. Higher sounds have to be increased by thousands of times for you to hear them." tops rat city! tops dops drops rat city iddy drops rapidly terce terce

"What is terce?"

"Hertz. Hertz. See?" vie five hundred Hertz "Here I am, my lips, three feet from your ears, speaking race at you --"

"Race at me --"

"Right, I didn't say that. And you can't hear some of the simplest things I say. If you close your eyes, or look away, as you did in the booth, it will be mush were. Is this recent?"

"I don't know."

"Have you noticed a change?"

"I don't think so -- I think, to some extent, but it's hard to tell, maybe I've always guessed at words. But I think I was fine -- I was tested -- in the first grade."

"That's a long time ago. Still, this could be recent. You practice law?"

"Yes. I work for Mobil."

"So you ten oceans ate."


"So you negotiate -- you do business negotiations."


"How long have you been doing this?"

"About eight years -- five in New York and three in Paris."

"And without amplification you -- and the French?"


"Yes what?"

"I do speak French."

"In Paris you spoke French -- with the French -- and you've been back --"

"Almost a year."

"Gerry, you know, you'll need to see someone in New York. I'm concerned that you may have a bottom in your rain." bottom is problem in your rain, brain

"You mean like a tumor?"

"Not necessarily. But it's possible. You see, a hearing loss -- with both ears gone, or rather damaged -- like this doesn't just suddenly appear."

"I feel fine."

"Good. But you should see a neurologist as soon as you get back -- like -- on Monday."

I thanked Alexander, but I felt, or tried to feel, as if he were giving the advice to someone else.

This is an excerpt from Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life.