III: The Black Box.
This is the fourth installment of my autobiographical series on my experiences with hearing loss. You can view earlier posts: Prologue; Chapter 1: Seeing Sounds; Chapter 2: Fearless Leader. Posts appear every other Friday.
The moment you realize you can communicate and others can understand you, is when your world changes. Whatever tragedy, loss, or disappointment you felt is gone, replaced with a joy that removes you from your isolation. I don’t remember what I felt or thought when I got my hearing aids around age six or seven. I don’t remember my world changing so dramatically, because to me, my world wasn’t limited—the fault of silence was not mine, but others. They were the ones who shut me out, who refused to listen, who could not understand my words or my reality. The only thing that changed—that really changed—was my schooling and my environment. Yes, I heard more with my ears than I did before with my eyes, but new friendships and creative teachers did more for me than hearing aids.
My first hearing aids were these bulky behind-the-ear types that weighted against my skin and irritated it. Though flesh coloured, they made my ear stick out, even though I didn’t become self-conscious of them until I was in my teens. They were just these things that I wore and barely took care of properly. Like my eyeglasses, which I broke so many times my mom scolded me over and over for being so careless. One day she just put tape on the broken frame and sent me off to school. My punishment was I had to wait longer than usual for new ones. They were just things that helped me see and hear but I didn’t care for them, didn’t clean off the wax or wipe away a fingerprint smudge. They were just things, you see, that sat on my face, on my body, but were not extensions of me. I wanted to run and play basketball, and swim, and kick the soccer ball, and jump and shout and giggle. They got in the way, these hearing aids and glasses. If they broke, I would still run and play.
There’s so much about being deaf that they don’t tell you. You feel responsible for your own shortcomings. You call yourself a fool if you misunderstand a person’s question and answer something, anything, even if it has nothing to do with the question; you blush at the expression of puzzlement. You call yourself stupid over and over, fighting back tears when others laugh when you mispronounce a word, even if it’s a word you’ve never heard before and had no way of learning how to utter it correctly. You feel the immense sense of dread of putting someone in danger, because you failed to hear a car honk or a fire alarm, or warning shouts. It’s your fault, it’s always your fault, and it’s your job to make sure you fix it, correct it, improve it. So you look for ways to help yourself.
I used to close my eyes to the world, even blindfold myself, to hear things without seeing. I wrote down words broken in their syllables, so I’ll never make the mistake of mispronouncing again; sometimes I fall asleep saying these words, a mantra for self-improvement—even years later. I refused to wear the FM system because I wanted to hear more sounds than my teacher’s voice.
Then there are the things, actual objects, that did help, the technologies that I came to rely on, the ones that were made to deal with difficult, if not impossible things. Like television. It was a screen that showed me pretty pictures, stories whose plot I didn’t understand, words that were garbled and voices that went unheard. One day, my mom comes home from a visit to Rogers, paying a twenty-five dollar deposit to bring me the closed captioning box. This black box, which sat on top of the television, was the greatest joy in my life. I relished in the fact I could finally grasp what everyone else in my family could—watch cartoons with my sisters and giggle at the tv, instead of glancing at their faces for clues when to laugh. I felt sad that Looney Toons or Tom and Jerry did not have words at the bottom for me. My sisters adored Mr. Dressup, but unlike so many children, I was not part of his circle; no words for me so I didn’t care for him. I got annoyed when any Blockbuster VHS did not show the captioning, even though the captioning symbol was clearly marked on the cover. And Sunday afternoons were spent watching Bollywood movies with my mom, with even the songs subtitled in English, relieving part of my memories before deafness that I thought long gone.
The black box did more than let me watch my favourite cartoons again. I paid more attention to how words sounded. I looked at many more facial expressions and body languages that I ever could at school, at home, or at the park. I watched the news with my mom, Jeopardy with my grandfather, basketball games on the weekends, movies with my sisters, documentaries at night. I wanted to absorb so much of the world as I possibly could. Commercial breaks were for continuing to read my favourite books or do my homework. While my mom braided my hair and I ate my Lucky Charms at seven in the morning on school days, Inspector Gadget and CareBears entertained me, becoming a part of a ritual. I would then go on the bus, and read through my books for the day. I cried when the black box broke and my mom had to take it for repairs, agony filling me as I waited for its return. It sat on front of the television, but it was such an integral part of me. I didn’t just hear music, but for the first time, I understood the lyrics. I memorized them, so that when I shared the song with my friends, I could tell them what the lyrics said, write them down for them, so they too, could memorize them.
My siblings too, grew up with the black box. All four of them told me that they at once, relied on the captioning. They didn’t need it, but it was such an integral part of our household, they never questioned it. They learnt somewhat to lipread, to absorb the words on screen, as opposed to reading it. The black box that sat on top of the television is confined to some dusty shelf of my mom’s storage room. It’s now a relic of a past long gone, replaced with digital televisions and embedded DVDs.
But once upon a time, it was the thing that, just a little bit, let me be free.