One day about a month ago, I turned to my wife and said, “I’ve gone deaf in my left ear.” If she said something to me, standing on my left at our bathroom vanity, her words might make their way feebly around to me right ear, but in my left ear—nothing. I could hear the radio, perched on the right corner of the vanity, just fine, but if I turned around so that it was on my left—nothing. I was deaf in my left ear. Probably just wax buildup, my wife said. Not likely, I said; wax buildup wouldn’t cause me to lose hearing so totally and so suddenly, would it? I went to a walk-in clinic to have my left ear checked out.
Well, once again, my wife was right. It was just wax buildup. A little power flushing with warm water, and my hearing was back to normal.
It’d been a minor crisis easily averted, but it got me thinking about hearing. I recall Helen Keller once saying that if she could have only one of her lost senses back, she’d take hearing. I’ll bet 99% of us would choose sight, but my brief bout of partial deafness is enough to convinced me that total deafness would be no small thing. It seems to me, though, that hearing—sounds—gets short shrift from most of us. Writers and thinkers in general will devote lifetimes of study, books by the thousand, to what we see and what we taste (think of cookbooks), but sounds? Except for the subcategory of music (which has been more than adequately addressed by others and so for the most part I’ll ignore it here), sounds have come in for hardly more commentary than even smells or touch. Yet how much of the moment-to-moment experience of living is the experiencing of sound?
We first become sensorily aware in utero. I can only guess to what degree our senses are engaged by our prenatal selves—taste (not at all?), smell (not much?), touch (maybe some?), sight (probably not a lot?)—but surely hearing predominates. Unless someone sticks a stethoscope in our ear, we never hear our own heartbeat, but our mother’s we lived with every moment of our existence for months on end. Is it implausible to think that that ur-rhythm still resides somewhere deep within us, marking us in ways beyond our knowing?
But it wouldn’t be just the heart with its primal drumming in the womb. What a cacophony there would be. The rumbling and gushing and rushing and churning and spewing of esophagus and gut and bladder and intestines—maybe our first sensation upon emerging from the womb would have been how quiet it was! And then we’d begin to cry.
We wouldn’t see much at all in those early days—light and dark and vague shapes, that’s about it. But we could hear. I’ve read that there are three things that infants instinctively fear: falling, water, and loud noises. (Once you finally get that baby to sleep, new parents, walk on tiptoe because if you make a loud noise, that baby will let you know about it.)
I don’t remember any of those early sounds, of course. Surely my mother sang to me, my father talked to me, my older sisters made a racket, dogs barked, birds chirped. But I don’t remember. I’ve been told that I was taken to a high school basketball game in a bushel basket when I was two weeks old (my father was coach) and slept right through it, but I don’t remember. I do know, though, that even today, almost three-quarters of a century later, when I hear that distinctive squeak of sneakers on hardwood, I get a warm, pleasant feeling, not something one would predict from the harsh, piercing sound itself.
Sneakers squeaking on a gym floor are soft as a kitten sighing compared to the sound of a power saw biting into hardwood. The sound shoots up your spine, rattles your teeth, and exits through the top of your head. It has to be one of the most unpleasant sounds known to man. What do I feel when I hear a power saw tearing into wood? Like Heine felt on that first hit of opium: warm, tranquil, pain-free, at peace with the world. I can think of no sound more certain to make me instantly feel good than a 1 ½ horsepower circular saw tearing into a 2x8 section of yellow pine. Why? I’m not sure.
But I have an almost-memory, a half-memory—a dream? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It hasn’t that crystalline clarity of the dream but is no less evocative for that. It’s summer, I think, a lovely day, blue sky. A Saturday? A carefree day, the work set aside for another time, the family out on a lark. I’m up high—on an embankment?—looking down at a structure—a garage with the door open? a shed with tools and equipment inside? some sort of workshop? The air is festive. It may in fact be a small-town fair because back then, when I was very little, we lived in Appleton City, Missouri, population 1,050. Yes, I’m very very young. I’m floating along even higher than the embankment, up up in the air—because my father is carrying me? He was huge, a giant. His hands were so big he’d hold his index fingers out, and I’d take one in each hand and swing on them, and he’d sing
YIP yipyipyip YIP yipyipyip
And at the fair in the work shed the man rammed the circular saw into the plank and the sound came up to me where I floated in Daddy’s arms, and I was so at peace, and am at peace again to hear it today, three-score-and-ten years later.
There are no innately ugly sounds.
* * *
As I admitted, though, it’s possible I never actually heard that sound but only dreamt it. Whatever is the case with the power saw, it definitely is true that there are sounds I can only imagine, or only heard about, that I find very compelling.
It is sometimes argued by literary scholars that, used technically, the “sublime” always carries connotations of enormity. If so, then the eruption of Krakatoa must have been a sublime sound indeed. From childhood when I first read about it, Krakatoa exerted a strange fascination over me. (Yes, I was a weird little guy.) Not so much the destructiveness of it, nor the dust cloud that dimmed skies around the globe, but the sound itself, heard hundreds of miles away. It seemed to announce something dreadful, ghastly, distant yet imminent, some rupture in the fabric of creation. I’d think of it with a shudder and with a thrill.
I was an indifferent history minor as an undergrad but decades later became an avid reader of history. I’m almost ashamed to say that what attracted me most was reading about warfare. I devoured books on the Peloponnesian War, Greco-Persian wars, Punic wars, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, etc. One war I avoided, considering it dull and somehow unimaginative, was World War I. Then I read a little factoid: the bombardments prior to the great Flanders offensives could be heard by Englishmen across the Channel. Think of it! Hoeing in their gardens, walking to the pub, lifting their tea and crumpets, English men and women could hear the ominous rumbling announcing the hideous slaughter their sons and husbands were at that very moment inflicting and enduring. I became an instant “fan” of The Great War, at once unprecedented in its bloodletting yet in a strange way intimate. And all evoked by a sound I never heard.
There are two other sounds I never heard but heard about that move me far more profoundly than thoughts of Krakatoa or those Flanders bombardments because they are much closer to home.
The first I can hardly bear to think about. I had a spinster aunt, Bernice, whom I loved dearly. She loved to play with us children, being so very childlike herself. Even back then as a youngster, I felt sorry for her, not much of a life, living in that drafty little house heated by a pot-bellied stove, eking out a meager existence taking in washing, no gentlemen callers. Never a gentleman caller. They might have come when she was a young woman except that she was badly scarred over much of her body, not that I ever saw those scars, always hidden by her long dresses with long sleeves and high neckline. It happened when she was a teenager taking a pie out of a wood-burning stove. A spark caught the hem of her dress, and flames covered her in a flash. My mother chased her into the corner of the kitchen and tried to beat the flames out with her hands, succeeding only in burning herself.
The doctor came periodically over the following days and weeks to change her bandages. When my mother saw his car coming up that narrow dirt road, she would begin to run. She’d run out of the farmyard, run across the pasture, run up into the wooded hill trying to outrun it: the sound of Bernice’s screams when the doctor tore the old bandages off. Horrible, horrible! Why did my mother tell me that, just a boy? I guess the memory of that scream was too awful for her to bear alone. So now there were two of us to be haunted by it.
The other sound dates to not much later, but this one I have trouble imagining. Indeed, I quite literally cannot imagine it at all. It involves my mother once again and also my father. I didn’t learn about it until just a few years ago when reading through some of my late mother’s letters. In one that she wrote as a young married woman, she mentions in passing she and my father entertaining at some social function. She sang and he played the guitar. I’d pause here to give you a chance to pick yourself up from the floor, but of course you didn’t know my parents and so can’t be so gobsmacked as I by such a revelation. My mother and father entertaining? And doing so musically?
I heard my mother sing in church virtually every Sunday of my youth. Think of a door with rusty hinges opening and closing not quite in rhythm with the hymns. My father? I don’t recall his ever singing. (Snoring in church, yes; singing, no.) My father playing a guitar? Ridiculous. I never saw a musical instrument of any kind in his hands. It just doesn’t seem possible. Certainly not in public. He was a school-district superintendent, hence used to speaking to large groups of people, but socially he was a shy man, enjoying conversation but more as a listener than a speaker. A performer? Out of the question.
How I would like to have heard them. Not that it would have been pretty. Good thing they kept their day jobs.
But I’m making too much of this. I’m more bemused than amused by the thought of those two together, happy, making others happy. I don’t recall ever seeing a gentle, loving gesture pass between them. Yet apparently once they were young and in love. Once, they made music.
* * *
There are sounds that engage my imagination and emotions that I not only never heard but never in fact existed except in the minds of their creators. We all want to hear the Sirens’ song, want to be tied to the mast with Odysseus and strain toward that which will destroy us. I’m even more moved by the song of Roland, in his guilt trumpeting so loudly that his brain burst. And the swish of Father Arnall’s soutane when he’s about to “pandybat” Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is very nearly as vivid in my memory as it obviously was in James Joyce’s, who suffered the punishment. And then, although I’ll grant it may seem rather silly to others, there is the siren that calls the Eloi to march sheeplike to the slaughter by the Morlocks in the movie version of The Time Machine. It might not seem quite so silly, though, if we acknowledge that the Morlock’s siren is meant to recall the air raid sirens of World War II, and that 800,000 years later we men are still at our bloody business, and it may be science fiction, but it’s all too likely, and we can only shudder.
* * *
Thinking of air raid sirens, suddenly a memory: sirens wailing in the air warning of, not an air raid, but a tornado approaching.
I grew up in Sedalia, a small city in west-central Missouri, in “tornado alley.” Several have hit Sedalia over the years, visiting my home town with a good deal of devastation and some loss of life. In other words, in Sedalia tornadoes are nothing to fool around with.
What did my father and I do, then, when a tornado warning began to sound? We’d unhook the screen over the window in my second-story bedroom, climb out onto the narrow ledge, and from there make our way up to the crown of the roof. It was a great vantage point for tornado watching. Was it a wise thing to do? Of course not! Was I frightened? Nope. Clouds roiling above, wind buffeting us (or more ominous, all eerily still)—it was thrilling. Did we ever see a tornado? No, but we heard the Sirens’ song.
* * *
Yes, the more I consider it, the more I’m coming around to Helm Keller’s view: that if she could recover only one lost sense, it would be hearing.
What sounds enrich my life! Music, of course, but often the sounds of the world around us are as captivating as music. For me, the god of music is Bach, but no Bach concerto has ever startled me so much with its beauty as did the tree frogs one summer night as my wife and I sat under palms high above the beach in Bermuda. Indeed, for me it’s the seaside for sounds. In a rented condo on the Gulf Coast, lying in bed as the curtains begin to glow with the coming of dawn, listening to the gentle roar of the sea approaching then receding, approaching then receding, the seagulls calling, Come out and greet this fresh new day!—who would not consider himself blessed to be alive?
I wonder if Helen Keller didn’t have the dim memory of similar sounds from before the meningitis stole her hearing. I’m sure that we each have our own private treasure chest of sounds. I have my buzz saws and tornado sirens. And this sound: playing golf or baseball in my younger days, I’d hear it once in a very great while when I swung the bat or club just perfectly, hit that sweet spot just so, not a loud sound at all, not a crack or a pow but an almost silent snick, and I’d know that I’d crushed that ball. And this: when I was a boy, we lived two blocks from the railroad, and I’d lie in bed at night listening to the haunting call of trains passing and be filled with the awareness of a different life awaiting me, someday, out there. Today, lying in bed, I like to hear my wife snore. She doesn’t like to hear me snore, believe me, but I do like to hear her. Why? My mother, if she were alive, could tell you. My father had high blood pressure, suffered three heart attacks, despite which he wouldn’t take care of himself, ate too much, sneaked cigarettes. Lying beside him at night, she couldn’t fall asleep until she heard him snore. Then she could relax. She knew he was alive.
* * *
Before I pull a muscle waxing poetic over the glories of sounds, I should acknowledge that not all are beautiful or welcome.
There are sounds I’d rather not hear. I don’t like to hear children crying. I’m irritated almost beyond endurance to be in a store and hear a child crying crying crying in that way that you know the child isn’t really hurt or even much distressed but is just not getting his way and wants the world to know about it—whinging, my in-laws call it—an aggravation compounded when the parent simply ignores the child, and I’m not sure whom I want to take to the woodshed first. Far worse than whinging, though, is when the child is truly hurt, truly in distress, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I can’t bear the thought of suffering children; they do not suffer in silence.
I was in the hospital some years ago for cancer surgery. They day after surgery I was taking a shuffling walk with my wife at my side, trying to recover some strength. We passed into the children’s ward. A man—a father, no doubt—was looking out a window at the end of the hallway. Suddenly there was a child’s scream, although like no child’s scream I’d ever heard. The look on the man’s face as he turned from the window and rushed toward the screaming voice! Horrible!
In art, death is presented to us visually, but in life death comes accompanied by sound. On a cold January morning in my nineteenth year, my father was struck by a heart attack as he spread straw on the strawberry patch in our back yard. He made it to the landing inside the back door of our house before he fell dead. Dropped, I should say. He dropped straight down, hit the wooden steps with the full force of his 220 pounds. I was sitting in the living room. I heard the sound of 220 pounds of meat and bones thudding against hardwood. It’s the fourth note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
dead dead dead DEAD
I can hear it now.
In my notes I have other death sounds with which to entertain you, two especially poignant ones concerning my mother, but enough. Enough.
* * *
I’m an old man. Among my many infirmities, I suffer from tinnitus. I’ve had it for over twenty years. Tinitus is usually described as a ringing in the ears, but mine is more of a sizzle, like a hamburger frying or the zzzzzz of a frayed electric wire. It’s constant, every instant of every day and night forever. Not a damn thing I can do about it.
If you would have told me before the tinnitus developed that I’d have a constant sizzling in my ears, I probably would have said, Take me out and shoot me, please. Here’s the funny thing, though. It doesn’t bother me at all. Not a bit. Not even at night when I’m trying to sleep. I can’t explain that reaction—or rather lack of reaction—except to surmise that, subconsciously, I tell myself that if you’re hearing, you’re alive.
But that won’t last forever, of course. I beat cancer once, but there will be something else one of these days, and then, Sayonara, amigo.
Everything breaks down at the end, everything goes. What will be my last thing? I’d settle for hearing. My wife will be there with me. She’ll hold me and speak softly in my ear. I may not be able to decipher the words, only hear her gentle murmur, but I’ll understand: We’ll be together again soon, sweetheart.
The I’ll go inward to find that very last thing, and for the first time in my life I’ll hear the beating of my own heart.
THUMP thump THUMP thump THUMP . . . . . . . . . .
And then the silence.