Saturday, January 01, 2005


My Heart will be Blessed
with the Sound of Music

Music --- for some, it's just that annoying sound piped into restaurants that interferes with conversation, or it's that incredibly loud racket that causes people and even cars to visibly gyrate at traffic lights. It may bring to mind the word diversity since music comes in many different styles and tastes: jazz, classical, sacred, country, R & B, folk, rock, etc. It is the language of the soul, a means of expression that has no equal.

For me, the word music conjures up a great deal of emotion. As I was losing my hearing, I was also losing music with all its beauty and pleasure. Because understanding people's words, not the lyrics of a song, was crucial to maintaining a social and professional life, I tried to ignore the impact that the loss of melody was having on my quality of life. The cassette player was relegated to the back of the closet; the radio was turned off. The newspaper announcements or posted flyers about upcoming concerts were dismissed after only a quick glance and a deep sigh.

But every Sunday when I'd ask my husband Gerry to "mouth" what the organist was playing during the prelude and the offertory, the grief would move closer to the surface. I grew up in a home where music was played almost every waking hour, and hymns were an especially meaningful part of my life. Gerry has a beautiful baritone voice, and he does a lot of solo work in church and elsewhere. My hearing, aided by the latest state-of-the-art hearing aids, had deteriorated so drastically that his voice had become almost painful to me, especially in a confined space like our car.

I have one particularly personal and poignant memory during those dark days when my hearing aids no longer helped me to stay connected and I knew nothing of cochlear implants. Gerry had purchased the newly restored version of Disney's Fantasia and was so excited about the superb sound quality. I remarked casually, "Honey, I can't hear that at all." There was silence and when I glanced his way, he was crying. At that moment, I understood the pain that was his because of my loss and more importantly, the depth of his love for me.

I knew before my surgery that a cochlear implant was, by design, intended for improving speech perception and that hearing/enjoying music was not a "given". I knew that some people were able, over time and with much practice, to enjoy music again, and that there were even some successful musicians with CI's. I also knew that many CIers didn't listen to music at all, because they couldn't follow the melody or couldn't "hear" it as music. So I went into the "adventure" with the perspective that getting music back in any degree would be a bonus, a blessing beyond expectation.

For me, the first sounds after activation of my CI were very electronic. Gerry and I experimented with the piano keyboard during the first week, and discovered that there were certain points on the scale where notes went up instead of down (or vice versa), even though my eyes told me which way the pitch should be going. But, unlike with hearing aids, no pitch or loudness was painful, and no notes were silent. There were many tears of joy! The high frequencies were the most tantalizing, perhaps because they had been gone for so many years. Wind chimes, music boxes, birds . . . I was like a kid in a candy store, only it was a music box store at the nearby mall!

With subsequent trips to the CI clinic for computer programming changes and as my brain adapted over time, there were fewer notes on the scale where pitch was "off". It was probably about 3 or 4 months down the road when CI sound began to lose its mechanical, electronic quality. At the same time that the "PA system"disappeared, Gerry began to sing on key again! Not a coincidence, I'm sure. I began to hear the melody lines again whenever the tune was a song I knew.

After about a year of gradual improvement in the overall sound of music, I realized that most sopranos still did not quite get "up there" as they should. The piano keyboard continued to have a few wayward notes that refused to change pitch. I found certain instruments very beautiful and melodic (e.g., a pan flute, xylophone, handbells) almost immediately after activation, and others, like violins, to be scratchy, whiny, or just plain awful!

At about my three-year anniversary, we attended a symphony concert, and I was overcome with emotion as I realized that I was actually hearing the instruments as they should be - - - distinct and resonant and melodic and beautiful . . . well, there were just no words to describe the experience! What my "ordinary" brain had accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. What a Creator!

The final stanza from my favorite musical, The Sound of Music, will always and forever bring tears to my eyes:

"I go to the hills when my heart is lonely. I know I will hear what I've heard before. My heart will be blessed with the sound of music. And I'll sing once more."