by Ellen Denton
Liana’s bare feet were flat against the wood floor and she was leaning over so that the upper part of her body, her arms, hands, and the side of her face were pressed down flat on top of the piano. She could feel every vibration through her fingertips and torso and faint throbs against her feet. Her eyes were closed in rapt concentration, and her lips sometimes twitched or formed a little circle.
John finished playing, leaned back from the piano, and grinned at her. She opened her eyes and stood up, smiling back at him. Before slipping her feet into her moccasins, she placed the palm of her hand flat against her mouth, then lowered it down toward him in the sign-language gesture for “Thank you.”
She thought it was ironic that prior to going deaf fifteen years earlier from a parasitic ear infection, music was never more to her than a backdrop to something else she was doing.
She’d play the radio while washing dishes, cooking, or working her way through a stack of e-mails, or she’d pop a disk into her CD player while driving to or from work to break up the monotony of creeping along the freeway.
Since she’d lost her hearing though, music was everywhere. It materialized out of touch and sight, murmured to her in the scent of a rose, whispered in the microphone of a moth’s wing, carried in the breeze of tides when she walked along the beach, or rose visually in a vast, classical music of waves that rose and crashed against the shore. She had come to associate the beauty perceivable with her remaining senses to rhythms, notes, harmonies, and beats.
Every few days, she would lean on the piano while her neighbor John played a new piece. The vibrations created whole visual worlds for her, became the bridge between the lands of actual lost sound and the ones she created in the wilds of her imagination.
When she was alone, she would sometimes sing with her hand up against her neck and feel the strummed-string-like vibrations within her throat.
Between the music that entered through her skin and that which she projected out into the world with her mind, she felt complete and at the centered heart of a bridge of silence and sound.
Her friend Maxine looked at her questioningly and made the back and forth twist sign for “Problem?”
They were sitting in a coffee-shop booth, and Maxine had noticed her staring intently out the window at a muscular man unloading boxes from the back of a truck. He was sweating profusely as he worked, and his muscles strained beneath his thin shirt. There were oil stains on his clothes.
Liana held one hand face up as though something rested upon it, and gracefully waved the other back and forth over it in the sign for music.
Maxine scrunched up her face in puzzlement and signed “What?” to her.
Liana just smiled, dismissively shook her head, and turned back to the window. But then her smile faded, because at that moment, she looked a week into the future and remembered that she would have the cochlear implant by then.
It was the night before the surgery. She sat with her elbows on the kitchen table, head in her hands, and looked down at the patient information booklet without seeing the pages in front of her. She’d read it many times and already knew all that was in it. She had also already scoured the internet, looking for some trace of hope over what she was about to lose.
She could deal with the travesty the sound of speech would become and the loss of the graceful and fluid motions of arms and hands she had long used to weave words and build castles of concepts into space and to understand them with her own deaf kind.
In an article she’d read, someone who’d received the implant described the sound of human speech as people sounding like digital versions of themselves; harsh, mechanical, artificial, at first impossible to understand, but through time and training, relearned as completely comprehensible words and as understandable as they were prior to deafness. But that was simply the hearing of almost inhuman sounding voices and understanding the significance of what was said.
Music was another story. Having earlier lived for years as a hearing person, she would know it was music when she heard it after the implant. The repetition of beats, the motion and energy of flowing sound, some of what music was would still be carried by impulse to her brain, but much of what made it beautiful would be lost. The differences in the sounds of multiple instruments being played in unison, the subtle nuances of complex melodies and notes, even the sounds of human voices singing would melt into a musical “slush”.
The one person she’d met years ago that had a cochlear implant had, prior to deafness, loved music. She described the sound, when first adjusting to the implant, as hearing a musical toilet flushing. She knew it was music, she still loved it with all her heart, but those subtle things she expected and listened for were gone. She eventually found other types of music that worked better with the implant, but it wasn’t the same, and never would be again.
Liana had read as much as she could find on the subject. There was some research being done that could eventually open the door to greater recovery of musical sound, but that was still in the future.
Again, she thought with bitter irony how little music meant to her prior to deafness, and now she felt like it walked the very path of life at her side. Every bit of it she’d ever heard she could recreate and interweave into the beauty of other things with her mind and memories alone, and through that, hear it with a poignant vividness greater in deafness than with hearing. What would happen to that perfect bridge between sound and silence after the operation?
She had toyed with the idea of not getting the implant at all, at least not now, but she knew, with grim practicality, that she had to. With it, she could get a teaching job again. After she lost her hearing, even with practice, she still couldn’t read lips well enough to continue along that career path.
It would also enable her to drive again. There was no law preventing a deaf person from obtaining a driver’s license, but once, when driving on the freeway, she didn’t check her mirrors in the way she normally would, and let her attention drift away from what she was doing in one crucial moment that she needed to be fully aware of what was going on around her. As a result, she almost had a collision with a police car which, with sirens screaming, was in high-speed pursuit of a fleeing felon.
She was badly shaken, but soon put it behind her, until she saw overhead helicopter footage of her near collision on the evening news that night. She never got behind the wheel of an automobile again. The hassle of using public transportation for everything, when a ride from a friend wasn’t available, had impacted her life in more ways than she could count.
The implant would also enable her to recapture the full quality of many relationships she’d lost with deafness, and an abundance of other things that would enhance her basic survival—the many taken-for-granted things available through hearing.
She still sighed with a sadness that she could not shake, but closed the patient information booklet and shoved it aside. She was going through with getting the implant tomorrow morning.
It was a week after the procedure, and she intentionally did not attempt to listen to any music yet, and had insisted that none be played when the functionality of the implant was being tested.
She now stood in front of a CD player with her finger poised over the “play” button.
She took a deep breath and pushed the button down slowly.
Had someone passed by her closed apartment door a few moments after that, they would have been jarred by the sound of a scream, followed by animal-like crying. They probably would not have guessed though that the crash they heard after that was the sound of a CD player being ripped off a counter and violently thrown against a wall.
John ran his fingers with adroit and graceful speed across the piano keys, his foot moving up and down on one of the pedals. Liana was leaning over the top of it, her sleeveless shirt exposing the flesh of her arms to direct contact with it. The side of her face was pressed down and her eyes were closed.
When John finished the piece, he sat back and looked at her.
“That was pretty nice, Liana, huh? It was one of the…”
She couldn’t make out from his lips the rest of what he said, then she remembered she didn’t need to anymore, and laughed at her own forgetfulness.
She pulled the earplugs out of her ears. They were a high-end pair normally used on gun firing ranges or by hunters. They were easier and quicker to place in her ears than to temporarily turn off the implant. “Yes, John. That was truly beautiful. It always is when you play. I could feel it in almost every part of my body and I really feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds now”.
She left the room to get a cold drink. As she stood by the kitchen sink to fill her glass, she paused to listen to the running water, then to admire a shimmering silver note that ascended like a butterfly from a red rose, poised in a bud vase on the windowsill.
Ellen Denton is a freelance writer living in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, three cats, and an extended family of deer and other wildlife that appear now and then outside her house. Her writing has been published in over a hundred magazines and anthologies.