Approaching the coffee shop my friend asks me, “Where do you want to sit?”
She is supportive of my communication needs since my hearing loss, and understands that I often prefer to sit outside where there is less background noise. It’s a cloudy, grey-skied day, the wind is picking up speed, and the tables on the terrace area are empty.
“Are you okay sitting outside?” I ask her hesitantly.
“Sure,” she replies.
We choose a table next to the outside wall of the coffee shop building, hoping to find some shelter from the wind which is blowing our hair in our faces. She didn’t bring a jacket and I can see she’s cold. She crosses her arms in front of her chest and grabs for opposite elbows.
Within moments of sitting down, I feel it—a small spit of rain that lands on my cheek. I look at her, hoping she hadn’t felt anything, hoping this was an isolated incident, just a single rogue raindrop. But before I have time to gauge her reaction, there’s another drop, bigger, and then another. My friend leaps up out of her chair. She has a flash of an apologetic look.
Before she can say anything, I ask her, “Shall we sit inside?”
It’s raining big fat raindrops now. We have no other choice.
“If that’s okay with you,” she replies.
We quickly leave the terrace area, and the coffee shop owner shows us to a wooden table with benches on either side. We sit opposite each other. It’s a small space inside the coffee shop and I know this is going to be a challenge. The atmosphere is dense with noise: the shattering sound of the coffee grinding machines as their blades rapidly pulverize the fresh beans, and the squealing of the milk steamer which fades to a deeper roar, lower in tone, as the air inside the milk expands with the heat. My body is on high alert and I’m jumpy with the unpredictable nature of the timing of each sound. People are chatting around us and there’s music playing.
“They’ve just turned up the music,” my friend says almost apologetically.
I go into survival mode. I had been looking forward to catching up with her. I was not going to give in and let my hearing loss spoil our morning. I fix my eyes on my friend’s face and follow her words by watching the movement of her lips. I’m not a skilled lip reader, but I am learning. Ideally, I need to hear some sounds or tones of words that I can piece together like a puzzle, along with the shapes her lips make with her gestures and facial expressions to guide me towards meaning. I push my head forward, tilting it to the left to ensure my hearing ear is facing her to have an optimal chance of hearing anything. I anticipate neck pain, so to help maintain this position, I raise my left hand and put it under my left ear to support my head.
She notices immediately, “Is it the noise?” she asks, referring to my hand covering my deaf ear.
“No,” I say.
Though now she mentions it, I realise both ears are already aching from the noise.
She is now all I focus on. I block out everything as much as possible and isolate her in my concentration. The shop owner takes our order, and my friend starts to tell me about her life during the past couple of weeks.
I am a better listener than before my hearing loss. I seek to understand what others are saying, never letting words wash over me without meaning. I capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm my understanding is correct. When I was with full sound, I was often a silent listener, giving eye contact and nodding at appropriate moments, yet perhaps drifting in and out of focus.
Now, I am grateful for the hearing I do have. I appreciate this wonderful sense that plays a huge part in enabling me to interact with and enjoy the world. Perhaps as with many things, not until we lose something do we realise its value. Words, I focus on each one. To hear them is now a privilege and conversations with loved ones are special to me.
I strive to support my friend’s decision-making and give feedback on her opinions. Distractions, I do all I can to pay them no attention. I am now more skilled in observing the non-verbal cues which illustrate words, enhancing their meaning, and am responsive to my friend’s facial expressions, gestures, and posture.
However, being such an ardent listener does come at a cost, especially when ambient noise levels are high. It can be exhausting grasping at every piece of audible information whilst watching for the hint of a smile, for sadness in the delicate drooping of eyelids or hanging of the head, and trying to catch a joke before it’s too late to laugh. Yet, I am so thankful to still be able to have mornings like this with my friend, enjoying her stories, regardless of how much energy it takes.