Even though I’ve worn glasses most of my life, I’ve always taken the full functioning of all five senses for granted, all the while knowing that at a time, so far into the future as to be of no concern, one or more of those senses might somewhat decline or even cease to function. It has been the “invincibility of youth” syndrome on full display. But for the last few months, during my last year of being a 50-something, I have been struggling with a persistent inner ear, nose, and throat condition; my senses of hearing and smell, and I suspect taste also, have noticeably declined. The doctors are still running tests and trying various treatments. But so far, there have been absolutely no improvements. My left ear seems fine, although that is not a certainty, but the right ear continues to be below 50% hearing capacity.
When my wife, Julie, informed me of a dead mouse somewhere in the house, of which I could not detect even the slightest odor (actually, one positive outcome of this condition), I knew something serious was happening. Smell and taste I could probably get by without, although life would be much less interesting; but sight, touch, and hearing, I think, must be highly critical to a sense of personal awareness: Part of the answer to the question, Who am I?
One aspect of who I am is my self-identification as a birder. For over thirty years, I’ve worked at learning bird sounds. From the largest eagle to the tiniest hummingbird, I’ve made an effort to identify each species by sound as well as sight. I have much more to learn, but what a sense of peace it is to walk slowly through a natural area in spring and early summer and know what birds are around simply by hearing their songs. As the path might meander through a complex of habitat types—grassland, shrubland, and forest—in a way I can hear the habitat before seeing it. For example, once on a hike under a closed canopy of mature trees, a wood thrush made its gentle, flutelike song; yet in the far distance I heard a field sparrow, and I knew some large, open habitats were just ahead. And on the same hike, a yellow-throated warbler sounded off, so I immediately began looking for a large sycamore tree…and there it was, with the warbler at the very top. And then ahead was the song of an eastern towhee, emanating from where I expected: a thicket of brush near the forest edge. And thusly onward went the hike and many others over the years.
* * *
But this appreciation of sound in the outdoors I have had to learn. Growing up in the Chicago area, I was surrounded by city noise: the constant whirr of automobile traffic in the background, always an airplane overhead somewhere, always during warmer months a neighbor somewhere on the block mowing the lawn. I learned to cut myself off from the surrounding environment. I buried my sight in a book, sometimes even while walking on a sidewalk to the bus stop. And I wore ear plugs when downtown to protect my hearing from the harshness of the elevated trains and noisy street traffic just a few feet away. I became expert at ignoring. The alternative was to constantly be on edge, distracted, ready to jump.
That changed when I began noticing birds. One day in the early 1980s, I was hiking through the Palos Hills Forest Preserves in Cook County; it was just something to do on a late summer day while my employer dealt with a union strike. But that was the hike when I first saw a northern flicker up close, plus a few other species that I had never seen before in the city: belted kingfisher, red-headed woodpecker, scarlet tanager, and black-capped chickadee. On my next hike, I had a pair of binoculars and I was hooked on birding.
I soon discovered the DuPage Birding Club, which led guided field trips. On one of those field trips, someone showed me how it was possible to identify birds by sound alone, although learning to do so would take years of constant effort. I certainly wanted to do this, but first I needed to re-attune myself with the outside world and practice selective hearing: to hear what I wanted to hear, while ignoring the rest.
And now years later I find the simple act of hearing is beginning to become a challenge. But I try to remain positive, enjoying amusing situations even though there may be a bit of underlying sadness. I guess my hearing has been gradually and unknowingly declining for a while, although I have so far vigorously denied that that might be happening. In fact, I always felt that if I could still hear the high pitched calls of cedar waxwings from an overhead flock or the begging calls of a fledgling tufted titmouse, my hearing was undiminished. But a decade ago, Julie and I were traveling through Ludington, Michigan, located along the eastern coastline of Lake Michigan. As we passed through town, Julie saw a historical marker. She asked, “Did you know that Father Marquette died here?” (Marquette was a French explorer during the 1600s, who traveled over what was to become Chicago in 1673.) I turned to her and replied, “Whose cat died here?” We laughed and laughed, and she claimed my mishearing of what she said was evidence of hearing loss. I now see that she may have been onto something. Up to that day, there may have been a gradual decline over the years, but this last January, the impact was sudden, overnight, and it has stayed with me.
Recently, I underwent a CT (computed tomography) scan that will produce three-dimensional images of the inside of my head. With this information, I hope to have answers and a clear pathway forward to restoring my hearing, at least to what it was only a few months ago.
But what if the news is dire? What if nothing can be done without expensive, invasive surgery? Or what if truly nothing can be done, and I must face the eventual loss of my hearing? What would life be like to never again hear my wife’s voice? As a musician, the loss of playing and listening to music would truly be losing a part of my identity as a person. What would birding be like without sound? I can even now envisage walking through a forest not hearing the wind through the trees or the crunch of twigs and dry leaves underfoot; no bird sounds from the forest canopy; just the sound of infinity. In a few weeks, I hope to know, one way or the other.