By Terry Galloway
Three months ago I heard my mother's voice for the first time since I was nine. When I first heard her voice I said, "Mom! You have a Texas accent!" All those years of reading her lips and I had never really known that. We both laughed ourselves sick.
When she was six months pregnant with me, she'd been given an antibiotic that saved both our lives, but left me with a chemical imbalance that insidiously ate away at my hearing.
As I wrote in my memoir, "By the time I was nine the voices of everyone I loved had all but disappeared."
That was my life for 51 years. Then, last May, I was given a cochlear implant. I'd resisted it like crazy. I was used to my hearing aids and couldn't believe the operation (which is, after all, a brain surgery) could offer anything better than I already had. I'd worked hard to understand as much as I could and to be myself in the world. But one day, after attending a meeting with my Vocational Rehab counselor and me, my lover and sweetheart Donna Marie said to me, “Why should you have to work so hard?"
So there was that. And the fact that my counselor had almost exactly the same type of hearing loss I did (profound) and she had two implants. Her audiologist, who is my audiologist, told me that to watch her after she had had the implant was like seeing someone put points on their IQ.
So I had the operation. They implanted receivers in my brain, tucked a magnet under my scalp. It took me a month to heal. And then they brought out the gem-- the cochlear computer itself. When I first began thinking of the cochlear I had imagined the machine to be the size of half my head-- a huge, robotic, unabsorbed twin.
The real deal looked sweet in its little box. It slipped easily behind my ear. And the coil that ran from the computer to the magnet inside my head was no bigger than the thumb of an alderman.
When they first turned it on, I was in a soundproof room alone with Katherine Gray the audiologist, an intern, Donna, and Diane Wilkins, who was taping it for a documentary about the process we're doing called Rewired.
They turned it on and that soundproof room turned on in my head like a space shuttle-- filled with sounds that everyone else in the room had long learned to ignore. It tore my head off.
That's why Katherine had insisted on holding my hand. The rush of sound is like the rush of blood and makes you sick with the excess.
I was terrified that I wouldn't be able to adapt. And then Katherine let go of my hand and took out a small child's bell and rang it.
And that tiny little bell sounded in my brain so sweetly, so clearly, my whole soul turned to it.
That was the beginning of my new love affair with sound. The world is exactly what I thought it would be -- a miraculous, buzzing confusion. And my brain is already beginning to categorize the different meanings of different sounds. So, yes, there are birds -- which I kind of believed in because I had seen the fluttering through the skies but never really believed that they made the cacophony that everyone claimed. But then I heard them clanking and clattering. And they were all one until again my brain became to sort through them and tell me, well, this is one kind of bird and it makes a sweet trill; and this other yaks like a gossip. And this one over there -- and, god, I actually could locate it by its singing-- and the song sounded (or so I imagined) first like yearning and then changed. Of course in my state of mind I defined that change of tone as happiness.
Photo of Terry Galloway enjoying piano taken for the documentary Rewired.
About the author
Terry Galloway, a 2013 Alpert Award nominee, is a writer and performer who writes and performs. Her theater work has been produced in venues ranging from the American Place Theater in NY to the Zap Club in Brighton England; her short videos have been featured in film festivals all over the world; and her poems, essays and flights of fanciful non fiction have been widely anthologized; and three of the three theaters she co-founded over the course of her career are still going strong. Read her memoir, Mean Little deaf Queer to find out more. You can also visit her website for more info and follow her on Twitter.