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Listen With Father

by Charlie Swinbourne

8th November 2009

A week ago last Monday, I took my daughter Martha for her eight month hearing test. We were expecting no surprises as, every morning, we have to tiptoe in slow motion past her room trying to avoid waking her with our creaky floorboards. During her afternoon nap, we have to turn the volume on the TV to mute. And in the night we no longer flush the toilet, for fear of being up for two hours rocking her back to sleep.

Yes, Martha is 'hearing' – and she’s not afraid to show it.
Mechanical monkey plays cymbals
At the hospital, I saw a familiar wide-eyed look of professional fascination in the audiologist’s eyes as I explained just how many of Martha’s relatives are deaf. “There’s her mum, dad, one set of grandparents, two uncles, an aunt, some cousins and distant relatives in Canada."

After making extensive notes with a serious expression, she led us down a corridor to a big heavy thick door. The soundproof room inside had carpet on the walls, as well as on the floor, and Martha and I sat in front of a small window through which we could see the doctor. On either side of us were speakers and two large black boxes.
Martha sat patiently on my lap, and the sounds began: a high pitch which gradually got quieter and quieter. When she turned her head towards the speaker making the noise, Martha was rewarded with a burst of music, and fluffy toys in the form of a monkey or a pig were illuminated for a few seconds in the black boxes.

She loved it. As audiology appointments go, this one actually seemed like fun.

Hard of hearing myself, I’ve been visiting audiologists as long as I can remember, and I was never treated to musically skilled fluffy animals, or the colourful, illuminated wand used to distract her when she got fidgety.
Baby Martha's ear
Growing up, my brothers and I would visit the audiology centre in Oxford twice a year. When you’re a kid, your ears grow so quickly that if you don’t get new hearing aid ear moulds regularly enough they stop fitting properly and cause feedback - a whistling noise that pierces the air, tempting bullies to mimic it behind your back in the school corridors.

Having moulds fitted was always fun. A lump of white plasticine would get mixed in the nurse’s hand with a tiny drop of red dough and then they’d pipe the pink mixture into your ear until you felt like you were underwater. A few minutes later, the cast was taken out, now solid, all set to be crafted into your hearing apparatus. We used to ask for offcuts of the plasticine to play with.
Next it was the hearing test. I’d sit in the room holding a button, listening hard, then pressing to show I’d heard the sound. There were high tones and low tones that sometimes went straight through you and sent a shiver down your spine. It would get quieter and quieter until you could barely pick it up. At the point I no longer heard the beeps, the level of my deafness was duly noted on a chart.

I once carried on pressing the button even when I couldn’t hear the sounds any longer. I did it in time with the tempo - and a male audiologist I’d never met before came into the room and snapped at me for ‘cheating. I didn’t try that one again.

Another time I realised I could see the lady’s hands as she held the dial, so I simply pressed my own button shortly after she pressed hers. I think she realised something was amiss when I started signalling that I'd heard sounds at a level that even hearing people don’t usually hear!
Nowadays I don’t visit the audiologist unless it's to solve a problem – a broken hearing aid, loose ear mould or simply a need for new batteries. So visiting the hospital with Martha and going through the test took me back in time.

They did find some slight evidence of hearing loss, though consider it temporary. Martha was teething that week and was under the weather; the doctor attributed the below par results to a heavy cold and made a note.
Toilet flush handle
This led to some comedy a few days later when our health visitor sent us an email saying how sorry she was, "that Martha had been found to be deaf". Surprised, we almost got excited about being able to creak the floorboards again, turn the telly right up, and get flushing that loo with gay abandon. But alas, she'd read the audiology report a little too hastily and got confused - perhaps because she expected it.
I already knew the truth, though, so wasn't flustered. As I sat with my daughter during the test, the sounds soon became too quiet for me to hear. Yet I saw Martha's head turning left and right, again and again, acknowledging sounds that, to my ears, didn't exist.

I realised there's one area of life in which she is already ahead of her Dad - but I'll get over it... in time.

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