By Ava Finnerty
My mother Sonia, born and raised in Wales, was the first person I knew with a hearing loss. She concealed it for many years. In my adolescence and young adulthood, I came to learn of her hearing loss, my grandmother’s, and, eventually, my own.
During World War II, my mother served in the Women’s Air Corps in Britain, where it was her duty to (wo)man the barrage balloons on the White Cliffs of Dover. It was there she met and married my father, John Jessen, a U.S. Army Sergeant preparing for D-Day. During the war she gave birth to my oldest brother, and then they both emigrated to the U.S. in 1946 to reunite with my father.
My parents moved to a veterans housing project in Bayonne, New Jersey, to raise our family. My mother was a very private person who largely refrained from sharing her medical issues with my two brothers, my sister, and me. I have a vague memory of her having some kind of ear surgery in the early 1950s, when I was 5 or 6 years old, but I did not receive an explanation.
Every time we went swimming, my mother plugged her left ear with a large wad of cotton and covered her head with a bathing cap. She told us she had a “hole” in her ear that needed to be protected from water. Incidentally, my mother helped tend bar at my father’s parents’ bar, The Viking, before becoming pregnant with me, but I later learned for certain her hearing loss was not caused by noise.
A Family Inheritance
A strict parent, my mother believed “children should be seen and not heard,” so I thought she often remained silent in response to my questions on purpose, and not because she literally could not hear me. It was only when I was a teenager that my mother told me the truth about her hearing. She had a severe hearing loss, but she did not treat it. Her small group of friends likely provided some support for her untreated condition.
My mother inherited her hearing loss from her mother, Bessie, who was profoundly deaf. Grannie still lived in the small Welsh village of Pontypool, where I visited her occasionally, first when I was 20, before my own hearing loss had been identified.
Grannie was a voracious writer—I suppose by necessity, because she did not wear hearing aids. She was keenly in touch with her surroundings, able to sense vibrations and read lips adeptly. Relying heavily on her vision, she was more cognizant of others’ facial expressions and body language than most with typical hearing.
At my wedding Grannie impressed me with her grace as a dancer, using the feelings of the bass and drums to move rhythmically. She was a strong and confident woman who’d grown resilient living as a mother and grandmother with a hearing loss during World War II.
A Gradual Process
My own difficulty hearing came on so gradually it was hard to notice. But I do remember vividly the day I realized the difference between my left and right ears. I was then a parent of three young children, living in Bayonne in a two-family house with my mother. I was cooking while cradling the phone between my right shoulder and right ear.
At one point in the conversation I switched the phone to my left ear and realized I could not hear what was being said. Despite this realization, I compensated for some time, relying on my “good” ear for conversation. It is truly amazing what a person can get accustomed to not having!
Around this time I could tell that my hearing loss was affecting my work. I was well into my career as a high school English teacher. At first, I attributed my inability to understand my students to their mumbling or mouth-covering. But, as the problem worsened, I knew it was me, not them. Only later did I learn my colleagues thought I was aloof because I would not acknowledge their greetings!
I developed a meaningful relationship with my mother, incidentally, during the onset of my own hearing loss. She and I cared for my father, helping him with home kidney dialysis every other day, and formed a very close bond. After his death, we spent many hours talking together, and I told her about the difficulty I had hearing my students.
Even though I knew of my mother and my grandmother’s hearing loss, I had concluded I had a buildup of earwax in my left ear. My husband Joseph, who was the chief echocardiography technologist for New York Hospital, was able to refer me to an audiologist at New York Weill Cornell Hospital.
There I learned I had almost no earwax buildup—but I did have a significant hearing loss. I was diagnosed with a 78 percent loss in my left ear and a loss of close to 30 percent in my right.
My left ear’s hearing loss was due to otosclerosis, an abnormal growth of bone in the middle ear. Otosclerosis is commonly thought to be inherited but its causes remain unclear. Scientists cite measles infections, stress fractures to tissue surrounding the inner ear, and immune disorders as possible causes. My doctor noted my otosclerosis was accelerated by my pregnancies, and research has since suggested this is possible.
I had a successful stapedectomy on my left ear, a surgical procedure that replaces the stapes bone with a prosthetic device so the bones in the middle ear can again vibrate in response to
sound and hearing is restored. The procedure was minimally uncomfortable but did cause severe vertigo, which I was able to control with medication.
In the late 1980s, my mother finally chose to pursue hearing aids but wore them rarely because they emitted a very high-pitched sound. Later in her life, she stopped wearing them completely. Since we shared the two-family home, my family and I always knew what Grandma was playing on her television or radio upstairs at maximum volume. And we lost count of the number of times she shouted “whadjasay?!” to my father.
Mom became increasingly withdrawn. She never wanted to go out on dinner dates or socialize with friends. Only in recent years, after her passing, have I come to understand this preference for isolation.
Over the decades that followed, the hearing in my right ear slowly diminished and I found it increasingly difficult to manage at social events. I wanted to undergo a second stapedectomy, but the audiologist told me this wasn’t recommended.
I was fitted for hearing aids instead. The audiogram showed a moderate hearing loss in my left ear and a severe loss in my right with difficulty hearing low frequencies in both. No wonder I could not hear the deep-voiced young men speaking in class!
The audiologist asked if I wanted access to sounds at 180 or 360 degrees. I said 360 because I wanted to hear what my students were saying behind my back. I always told my students that although I wore hearing aids, they needed to speak clearly and be aware that I sometimes surprised myself by what I was able to hear. I specifically told my students to never say “never mind” if I asked them to repeat themselves or speak up, but to repeat and rephrase what they said.
Vigilant About Hearing Well
This was in 2011, when I was 62 years old, and I’ve vigilantly worn my hearing aids since. The devices have, for certain, added to my quality of life. They are not perfect, but I consider them an absolute necessity if I want to hear my grandchildren and other family members. I am a music lover, play-goer, and movie fan. And had I not begun wearing them, I surely would have retired from my teaching career earlier than I wanted to.
I supplement my hearing aids with simple requests and tools. I have no problem telling someone, “I don’t hear as well as I would like to. Could you say that again?” I retired in 2014, after 42 years of teaching high school English, and then was elected to be a Bayonne Board of Education trustee in 2015. During our meetings I prefer to sit at or near the head of the table to read the lips of the person speaking.
I use closed captions at home watching television. When I babysit, I often go to my grandchildren’s bedroom doors to check on them because I am not sure if they are crying. I love baby monitors that not only light up but also have video for me to easily check.
Both my daughter and daughter-in-law are aware of the genetic predisposition for otosclerosis. In fact, my daughter thinks that her 16-year-old daughter may have some hearing loss. My advice to her was to pay attention—but also that there is a great distinction between “hearing” and “listening,” especially when it comes to adolescents!
Ava Finnerty lives with her husband Joseph in New Jersey. A retired English teacher, she serves on the Bayonne Board of Education as a trustee. Their adult children are Kristen, also an English teacher; Jill,
a music teacher; and Sean, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in Iraq. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Hearing Health magazine. For references, see hhf.org/summer2019-references.