Sunday, March 07, 2021

 Explanations May Vary

                                                                       from Stories That Could Be True

Tinnitus. That's what it's called. One moment she could hear perfectly well. Then the mishap. Something stupid, really. She had been digging up bachelor's buttons in the garden. Ubiquitous blue flowers that spread everywhere, hard to contain. She was in her muddy garden clothes and big boots. Breaking up the root ball was hard work so she stood on the edge of the shovel, wooden handle in her hands. Jumping up and down when the handle leapt from her hand and whacked her on the side of her head. A shattering of the bones of the middle ear, a rupturing of the tympanic membrane. Sound was suddenly gone, like water in the ear. If she hopped on one leg while tipping her head, she could feel water drain out of her ear canal after her swim in the lake. But this was different. Permanent.

What returned was a high pitched whine, a thousand mosquitoes. A loss of stereo. No more discernment of direction.The audiologist told her the brain makes adjustments between her hearing ear and her deaf one. But if someone called her name, she could not tell where the sound was coming from. Right? Left? Behind her?

Ambient noise made conversation impossible. She said what a lot. What did you say? It's too noisy in here. I can't hear you.

When one of the senses is lost or destroyed, the others compensate. Deaf/blind people have an enhanced sense of touch. Their fingertips translate and record. When she delivered a baby for a deaf/blind woman, the mother and her deaf/blind friends absorbed the experience with their hands, their very skin. They felt the newborn's tender body. They smelled blood and amniotic fluid and latex gloves. They held and hugged each other. They talked with their hands.

Gradually she adjusted. She could still hear, after all. Sometimes the ringing was so loud, she couldn't ignore it. It was irritating. It filled up all the space in her head. After a while, she noticed whole days would go by without her attention captured by her loss. That's how she thought of it, her loss. Her mother had lost her hearing as a young child to the mumps and meningitis. She and her siblings grew up speaking slowly and distinctly so her mother could read their lips. This renewed compassion for her mother, a difficult woman. How had she raised five children? She couldn't use the phone. She couldn't hear music or car horns. How did she drive safely? How did she know when her babies cried?

Crows were easy to hear. They were loud, their croaks creaking hinges. She lived on a ridge line by a greenbelt and hundreds of crows flew overhead twice a day. They went north in the morning and south in the evening. She thought about it as going to the office during the day and coming home to the family at night. She imagined trees along the banks of the Green River thick with crows as the sun set.

Hearing loss is invisible. When she had surgery for torn ligaments in her knee, she became acutely aware of others using crutches and canes and wheelchairs. There was a bead, a thread of recognition between her and someone else who hobbled. Her injury was temporary. For others it was their lived reality; the persistence of stairs, the pitch of hills, the narrowness of doorways. Even getting out of bed, using a toilet, taking a shower became a prolonged process.

Then the plague happened. Everyone in isolation, hoping to stay healthy. Masks, distancing, obsessively watching the news. How many dead in Europe, in India, in New York? Nursing homes emptied out, refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies. Wave after wave of deaths, people dying without family or friends to witness or comfort. The planet shrank.

The ringing grew louder again, more insistent. As she sat in her living room day after day, waiting for something, anything to swerve or change, her ear roared. The crows cut through the buzz that was more like a shriek. Distant traffic from the freeway could have been the ocean. Sirens were a reminder that death stalked her town, her street; scything the old, the vulnerable, the disadvantaged. Days turned into weeks into months. The calendar became a new year. And still enforced loneliness.

If she put on headphones, she could quiet the restless ear for a time. She took walks. She noticed the rise and fall of the garden through the year. She became attuned to the timing of flowers and plants. Daffodils sprouted before tulips. The dogwood bloomed later and preferred cooler weather. Honeysuckle was prone to aphids. Peas and spinach could be planted early. Carrots and beets needed to spend a long time underground before they were big enough to harvest. Seasonal change became more vivid. She noticed humming birds often. She watched the elderberry flourish bouquets of tiny flowers that gradually became purple berries which she made into syrup. Good for the immune system, they say. She thought to herself, maybe good for the immune system in the before times.

Relentless. The howling in her ear was relentless. It was there when she slept. It was there when she woke. She welcomed the crows and their raucous conversations. She turned her attention skyward in the morning and at night. She bought a bag of seed for songbirds which the crows helped themselves to liberally. She had heard that crows recognize faces and she wondered if they still could with masks. She did notice a few crows waiting for her when she went out to throw a handful of seed in the driveway.

At night, she would stand on her back porch facing the greenbelt to hurry the crows home, especially if the weather was turning and the wind was cold. One night she stood there a long time as the light faded and the street lamps from the town below flashed on and off through the wavering trees. As it grew darker and the sky turned to indigo, large clouds billowed, forming and reforming, obscuring then revealing the Big Dipper. She experienced a feeling of being untethered. Was she moving or was the sky? The clouds were moving fast towards the North as if they had an important meeting and they were late. She imagined horse or pig or fox but as she continued to watch, clouds began to elongate into human shapes, trailing long night shirts or winding sheets. As her sense of familiarity enlarged, she began to hear voices, indistinct and cacophonous. Murmurings and laments. She clutched the railing as she continued to look up.

The dead. Hundred of the dead, thousands of the dead. Lifted from their lives swiftly and brutally. The virus that stalked the land prying elders, children, young men and women from their solidity and purpose into this endless trail of sorrow. Flying overhead. She could hear them. She could see their cloud bodies being drawn inexorably to some magnet, some point in the atmosphere beyond her sight or understanding. Perhaps they were being pulled by the North Star. And they were speaking, singing, wailing. For who had spoken for them? Without memorial or funeral or the touch of a friendly hand, they were gone.

It is said that the dead roam the earth when they are unlamented. It is said that clouds weigh thousands of pounds. They are made of water. Water is heavy. When they come close to wreath mountains, hikers will walk through misty air. And clouds descend as rain until the water is lifted up and they reform as clouds again. One of the movements in TaiChi is called 'cloud hands' which is a sidestepping motion while waving the hands in slow circles. . It mimics the movement of clouds as they appear and disappear.

As she stood there in the dark, she listened intently, willing the storm in her ear to form into discernible words. The great unwinding. Was it the suddenness of their deaths? Was it the collective fear of the living? Was she being summoned?

Faster and faster, clouds hurried along. She stood, unable to move, feeling the cold air on her face.

Rain. At first small scattered drops, one drop on her hand, another in her hair. Then it began to rain in earnest, wetting and then soaking her sweater and jeans. The cloud shapes dissolved into an amorphous mass as the rain obscured her vision. But the voices continued their insistent chatter. She closed her eyes as the rain dripped off her glasses and ran into her mouth. She felt herself absorbing the disembodied lives of the dead. They were touching her, flowing along her skin. She could feel their weight, their sorrow, their confusion and lost direction. How had they found themselves in such company, so many of them? She turned her palms over to catch the raindrops, willing herself to stay, to stand in the wet dark.

Eventually she went inside, stripped off her wet clothes and went to bed. She couldn't sleep. She lay in the dim light of her bedroom with her eyes open. Listening. Waiting.

In the morning, she arose to a streaked pink and gold sunrise. Puddles stood on the deck and in the garden. She had forgotten to turn the wheelbarrow over. An inch of rain had collected there. She slipped on her gardening shoes and went outside. Before she tipped over the wheelbarrow, for a moment she saw clouds and her face reflected in the rusty water.


Elizabeth said...

Oh, Beth. This is beyond. I will read it over and over.

am said...

What can I say, beyond breathing out a heartfelt thank you for this story.

Ms. Moon said...

A lament, a warning, a worship, a learning.
A love song to life, an acknowledgement of all sides of the planet, the corporeal, the weather and storms and sorrows of both.

Betsy MacWhinney said...



Sabine said...

This so truthfully captures the panic and absolute loss that I experienced when my tinnitus orchestra took up too much space in my life. Amazing but hard to read even after so many years.