A Silent Song

Audrey Akins
April 12, 2023

A man sits in the audience, watching his daughter sing. He is watching her lips move in unintelligible shapes, trying and failing to make out some sort of meaning from the small bright “o” of her lips. He looks around and sees people smiling and crying, and then they begin to stand. Swept up in the sight, he stands too, and puts his hands together multiple times.

This is what is done after a performance. It makes a sound called applause. The man’s daughter sings in the top choir at her school, and it is very good. He knows this because she traveled to New York last year to sing in a national competition and won. These are the things he knows.

As the choir files off the stage, his wife turns to him with tears in her eyes. She was clearly moved by their daughter's performance. She grabs his hand and gives him a look, a look of pity mixed with sadness and also wonder. It is the look she first gave him when they met all those years ago, when she saw a boy walking across her college campus with a bandage covering half his head and wondered what happened to him.

The bandage was covering his ear, a complex organ with one small element he was born without. On the base of the cochlear duct is the basilar membrane, and on that membrane is the organ of Corti, and on that organ, little tiny hairs grow that give nerve signals in response to sound vibrations. At least, they are supposed to.

This man’s mother got sick with meningitis in her ninth month of pregnancy, and those tiny little hairs did not grow on the organ of Corti. In college he was able to get a cochlear implant surgery, embedding a device that captures the sound signals instead, sending them to his brain. His brain is then able to interpret these signals as sounds, but it is not a normal sound. He describes it as hearing “frequencies”, like robot noises, merely a way of picking up on social cues and reacting to general noise. When he has his cochlear implant on, he can tell someone is speaking to him, but unless he is reading their lips, he has no idea what they’re saying.

It is no substitute for hearing. He is still disabled, still deaf, still living in a world absent of natural sound.

And because of that, the man sits in the audience, watching his daughter sing, but will never know the sound of her voice.

He still goes to the performances, of course. He is always sitting in the audience, because he loves his daughter and to see her light up on that stage. He never thought he would have a daughter, never thought he would have a family, never thought he would have a life of significance or value. It was his greatest fear growing up.

He could never speak quite right and would get bullied in middle school for the way his voice sounded. He rode a bus to school with all the disabled kids, the ones who needed wheelchairs or had some cognitive impairment and it made his 8-year-old self indignant, ashamed. He wasn’t like those kids; he was normal, he just couldn’t hear! What was the big deal?

But of course it was a big deal. His mother still carries the guilt to this day, wondering how her son’s life would be different if she never got sick in August of 1974.

So she taught her own son how to speak. She would put his hand in front of her lips, have him feel the difference in air pressure between the letters “p” and “b.” They looked the same to him. But they felt different, and this is how she taught him to speak, through touch.

This is how the boy grew up, through touch and smell and taste and sight. There has been little research on whether the other senses really “increase” when one of them is gone. Yet the brain is a fascinating organism, and science shows that the part of the brain that would have been used for hearing is repurposed, “literally allowing for more intelligent perception.”  

Not that the man views himself as intelligent. He believes he is not after his college experience, which was one of the hardest times of his life. He read his books and tried to take the tests and failed, not realizing the tests were more on the lectures. It was nearly impossible for him to lip-read a lecture and take notes.

So he learned a new language in a summer, learned how to speak with his hands, so that he could pass college. He doesn’t remember ASL anymore.

What he does remember in college is going abroad and traveling Europe, where he met a girl whose hair was as short as his and could care less whether he could hear or not. She was as animated as life itself, and he fell in love with the way her face showed her feelings more than her words. He took her on dates in Rome and Italy and Greece and France. They swam in the Dead Sea together and went to little Irish pubs together. He couldn’t understand the dialect but neither could she, and they were deaf to the world together, but in love with the way it looked.

“Did they sound good?” the man asks the woman sitting next to him. They are no longer deaf to the world together, he finds himself often alone in that nowadays. But he was not alone, and she has remained  by his side nonetheless, married for almost 25 years.

She nodded. “It gave me chills, the sound of their voices… I can’t believe they’re in high school.” She sighed. “Let’s go out in the lobby so she can find us when she gets off stage.” The man nods and they file out of the auditorium, like they have done so many times before. This is just another scene being played, another time when the man goes in the auditorium and sits in the seats and watches the dance or the play or the musical or the choir, just watches, and then stands up, puts his hands together, and files out with the rest of them.

No matter how many times the scene is played, the man always wonders, why me. Why is his world mute, why won’t he ever be able to hear his daughter sing or laugh or speak, why he will never know what this thing called music is.

But he’s okay with that. He’s okay because his greatest fear was never realized. He started a graphic design company that succeeded beyond his dreams, but that is not really important. What is most important to him, he says, is that “God gave me a beautiful wife and two daughters.” He doesn’t need to hear because his deafness has made him who he is today, and he wouldn’t trade that for anything, not even to hear his daughter sing. He doesn’t need to know the sound of her voice because she can write papers like this. For him, that is how he knows her voice.

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