I have recently made a new enemy. She is a black, curly-haired cocker spaniel walking a man holding a leash. We pass each other sometimes on the steep, narrow public stairs called the Thistle Steps, which lead from my residential neighborhood in West Seattle down to Lincoln Park. The first time we met, she lunged across the steps toward me. I felt her cold nose bump my hand. The man and I looked at each other — he had an Oh, shit expression — and then I shrugged and kept walking. I wasn’t hurt, only surprised. The second time, the man heeled the cocker spaniel sharply against the opposite railing. He was holding the leash so short that the dog was on her hind legs. “She’s OK,” I said as I walked by. I didn’t want him to choke her. Every time we pass each other now, the dog barks wildly and strains toward me. She either hates me or is afraid of me, which is often the same thing.
I could try talking to the man, but I’m never wearing my hearing aids when we meet, so I wouldn’t be able to hear his reply.
I’m not wearing my hearing aids because walking up and down these stairs for forty-five minutes makes me sweat, and if moisture gets inside the delicate mechanisms, it can kill them. Water is the Achilles’ heel of hearing aids. They can usually be revived by drying them out properly, but each little death feels traumatic to me. I depend on my hearing aids as if they were a pacemaker: if they quit, my heart stops.
Ten years ago I would not have walked out my front door without my hearing aids on, let alone placed myself among other people. Until I was fourteen years old, I wouldn’t even take them off to go to sleep. I was scared that if something terrible happened in the night, I wouldn’t be able to hear it. The only noise that has actually awakened me at night when I wasn’t wearing my hearing aids was the sound of a porcelain sink crashing to the floor of a bathroom in Nicaragua, and even that felt more like a shock wave than a noise. My husband happened to be standing on the sink at the time, but that’s another story.
I didn’t acquire hearing loss through illness, loud noise, or advancing age. I was born with it. Neither of my parents knew they carried a recessive gene for severe, sensorineural hearing impairment. They later went to a medical geneticist and learned that each child they had would have a one-in-four chance of inheriting this condition. The luck of the draw gave them two out of three daughters with hearing loss.
Devra and I were born twenty months apart. Our parents assumed at first that we could hear. And we did have some hearing. We could hear loud sounds close by. What we couldn’t hear well were the sounds of human speech, especially the soft crooning used with babies. I would have heard Devra if she yelled or cried, but not if she spoke in a regular voice. I would have heard my own voice faintly because of its reverberations in my skull.
My father took Devra to have her hearing tested when she was three years old. One of his colleagues, whose daughter had gradually gone deaf, had suggested it.
It is a testament to the power of hope, and perhaps denial, that my parents waited six more months before bringing me to an audiologist. “I was absolutely sure that you could hear,” my father later told me. “You always responded when people walked into the room.” I must have felt the vibrations of their footsteps through the floor.
The audiologists didn’t know yet whether our hearing loss was progressive or not, and our father was terrified we would become deaf. So he began making lists of words and drilling us. He tried to come up with the most essential words — the building blocks that would enable us to communicate verbally if we then lost the rest of our hearing. Our parents lived in the hearing world, and they wanted us to live there with them. One scholar has compared the difficulty of trying to teach a fully deaf child spoken language to trying to teach an American person spoken Japanese while they are locked in a soundproof room.
I came across one of these pages of words when I was in my twenties, and I still have it in a folder in my closet. It’s a yellowing sheet of lined notebook paper with the word “Misc.” typed at the top. Two columns of words follow. My father told me later that he would sometimes make himself sick with the strain of teaching us these precious words:
The Thistle Steps are divided into two parts. If you start at the bottom, you walk up 235 shallow steps that run between the backyards of houses. Then you cross 44th Avenue Southwest and face 132 more steps that angle up sharply. These stairs are long, narrow, and slightly crooked, like my father’s columns of words. Only two people can fit on a single stair, which makes passing others an event.
If you stand at the bottom or top of the stairs, they stretch farther than your eye can see, disappearing into the greenery that surrounds them. Ivy and big-leaf maples grow on the steep hillside. In the fall squirrels gather the maple leaves to furnish their winter nests.
I have lived near the Thistle Steps for eleven years, but it was only this summer, the second summer of COVID, that I began walking up and down the stairs almost every day. I’ve been trying to lose the fifteen pounds I acquired over the past five years, even before COVID made weight gain ubiquitous. On the top shelf in my closet I have a cardboard box full of pants that no longer fit. I have tried being loving and gentle with myself and accepting that I may never wear those pants again. Still, I haven’t given them away, because if I do lose weight, I’ll need them. I hate clothes shopping.
I’ve been doing yoga, cutting down on sugar, and dabbling with intermittent fasting, but nothing seems to reduce my belly. People told me I needed to do cardio, and I figured the stairs might be a good way to get it. They are close, they are free, and they are outdoors. Now that I am no longer commuting to an office, there are days when I literally do not step outside.
I’ve learned to like the routine of getting up in the morning, feeding the cats, eating some yogurt, and then heading out to the stairs. Going up and down the steps helps to clear the fog of sleep from my mind. I have set a goal: before the summer ends, I want to be able to walk up and down the stairs ten times.
The first time is always hard. My legs feel stiff. I try looking at the greenery around me, which can be meditative. I remind myself that every step matters; the first one is as important as the last.
Our parents were relieved to learn that, with hearing aids, Devra and I had a chance of getting by in the hearing world. They did what most parents would have done in the late 1970s: enrolled us in regular schools, gave us access to speech lessons, equipped us with the best hearing aids they could afford, and didn’t expose us to Deaf culture or sign language. In the late seventies Deaf people had not yet marched with signs saying DEAF PRIDE; they had not yet convinced most hearing people that Deaf culture was a real culture, or that American Sign Language was a real language.
At two and a half years old I was fitted with hearing aids for the first time. I have no memory of the sudden transition from a largely silent world to one abruptly filled with noise. The hearing aids of that time were basically microphones: they amplified everything equally. The human ear, by contrast, is like an orchestra conductor, who can hush the bass section in order to bring out a single violin. Our ears evolved to capture and highlight the frequencies of human speech. The hearing aids I wore growing up simply made everything loud, sometimes unbearably so. The school cafeterias of my childhood sounded like war zones.
I went to speech lessons from the age of three until I was thirteen. I could speak well enough for people to understand me, but my parents wanted my speech to be clear and crisp so that I would not be at a disadvantage. I also tended to speak softly and quickly, in the hope that rushing through the words would prevent people from hearing any sloppiness in my pronunciation. This tactic did not work.
I felt stupid during speech lessons. The teacher would give me long lists of words with sounds in them that I couldn’t hear well and therefore struggled to pronounce: Slippery sounds like the sly, sibilant s that lay coiled at the ends of words and then struck. Awkward sounds like the double r in the middle of words, which my tongue would trip over during endless repetitions. Unlike my father’s lists, where he tried to distill the world into its most vital words, these word lists were simple and dull:
I often couldn’t hear whether I had pronounced a sound correctly, so I had to rely on my speech teacher to tell me. She — I had many teachers over the years, all women — would encourage me to learn the sounds by the placement of my tongue in my mouth. I sat for hours in small rooms, facing my teachers across a table, a list of vocabulary words between us. These rooms often had a two-way mirror, so that at any moment unseen people might be watching from behind the glass.
Sometimes my teacher would remark that I looked angry. I was amazed at this. I’d thought my anger was deeply buried, that my face was as blank as stone.
Thistles are a group of flowering plants characterized by leaves with sharp prickles on the edges. Thistles can be a rich reservoir of food for butterflies, bees, goldfinches, and hummingbirds, but to most humans they are an invasive weed that overwhelms cultivated plants.
The sharp prickles, which we find so irritating, protect the plant from being eaten. The thorns are the reason why thistles survive.
I had my own thorniness around hearing loss: I had to protect myself from a world that I was convinced would not welcome me. I had to be sharp to survive.
Whenever I went to summer camp, my mom and dad would warn the counselors that I was hard of hearing. (My parents probably knew I wouldn’t tell anyone myself.) The counselors would sit me down when the other girls weren’t around and say, “Please let us know if there’s anything we can do to be helpful.”
I would say nothing. I had no idea how they could help me, short of coming up with a way to restore my hearing. I had long ago determined that my only course of action was stealth. I believed that if other kids knew I was hard of hearing, they would reject me. These camp counselors — eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds who looked like grown adults to me — were in danger of blowing my cover.
As a little kid I developed an affinity for hiding. I remember stepping into the center of the circular clothing racks at department stores, the pleasure of being concealed within a waterfall of dresses or sweaters. I searched for, but never found, the perfect weeping willow — one where the branches would reach the ground and shelter me completely. When I was thirteen, we moved to a house where my bedroom closet was located beneath a flight of stairs. It had an empty triangle of space at the back, behind the clothing. I liked knowing that I could go there, and no one could find me.
I never fantasized about getting married and having kids. Getting married meant that somebody had to fall in love with you, and I didn’t think this would happen for me. Who would choose someone who was broken, when they could be with a person who was normal? I knew my parents loved me, but they were stuck with me. As for having kids — well, clearly you didn’t know what you were going to get. All kinds of things could be wrong with them. Then you would have to spend a lot of money buying them hearing aids and paying for speech lessons.
Summer camp wasn’t easy. Going stealth made it worse. I couldn’t decipher the camp songs, which all the other kids sang enthusiastically. I couldn’t hear instructions shouted during games on the field. I couldn’t understand what people were saying during meals in the dreaded cafeteria. I couldn’t participate in the whispered conversations in the cabin after lights-out.
One year I watched the girls in my cabin get swept up in a budding romance between one of our bunk mates and a boy in the neighboring cabin. We were ten or eleven years old, so this involved a series of intricate messages exchanged between the two cabins on behalf of our Romeo and Juliet.
One of the girls noticed that I was not participating in the unfolding drama. “Don’t worry,” she said kindly. “Someday it will be your turn.”
It was as though she had said to me, Someday you will be a unicorn.
The Thistle Steps are a popular place. I will often pass ten to fifteen people during my climbs. There’s the unsmiling woman who walks up and down the stairs while holding a huge kettlebell, then drops to the sidewalk at each end to do push-ups and lunges. There’s the woman in her fifties who runs up and down with her arms and legs at sharp angles. She always wears running shorts, and on cold days her legs are brick red. There’s the man with the black cocker spaniel, who looks both apologetic and weary as he yanks her away from me. If I had my hearing aids on, I might ask him if she behaves like this with other people. I once went to a dinner party hosted by a couple I did not know, and their aging golden retriever walked over and urinated on my leg. “He’s never done that before!” one of them exclaimed. I did not find this comforting.
One morning in early November I see a work crew roping off the lower section of stairs. A bright-orange excavator is parked in front of the house at the top of those steps. I’m deaf, as usual, but I feel compelled to speak. “How long will the stairs be closed?” I ask one of the men. I’m hoping it will be for an hour or two, and I can come back later.
His mouth forms the words “Two weeks.”
I see the woman with the kettlebell coming up the stairs. She walks around the orange-and-white-striped barricade without acknowledging us.
The men on the work crew seem to realize they have a problem on their hands. We stair walkers are an unruly bunch. We believe we’re entitled to access these steps. A younger worker takes another barricade and sets it up at the bottom of the upper set of stairs, across the street from where the work crew has their equipment. Adrenaline compels me to speak again. “Wait,” I say, “are you guys doing work on those stairs as well?”
This time it’s easy to see what he says: “No.”
“Then he shouldn’t be blocking off those steps!” I say.
The man walks over and speaks to his younger colleague. They remove the barrier from the upper stairs, then work together to secure the lower steps. As I walk up and down the 132 steps that remain open, I see the men winding yellow caution tape across the entrance to the lower stairs.
Within twenty minutes it’s a moot point. They’ve started digging deep into the front yard of the house and piling tons of earth across the entrance to the lower stairway. Nobody can pass now.
When you are hiding in a closet, literal or figurative, you may feel safe. No one can shun you or shame you there. But you are also terribly alone. Many of us who can pass as “normal” face the question, sometimes on a daily basis, of when to expose ourselves.
I was fifteen when I first voluntarily told people I was hard of hearing. I was attending a weeklong Jewish education conference with a group of about ten other teenagers. At a morning workshop on teen suicide one of them talked about trying to kill herself the year before, and how her family had wrapped themselves around her to support her afterward. That night I sat in a circle with the other teens and said, “I have a hearing loss.” No one ran screaming from the room. No one’s face collapsed in disgust. I felt as if I had walked across glowing coals without getting burned.
In the spring of my senior year of high school I went to Israel for two months on a program for Jewish American teenagers. We lived in dormitories on a campus near Tel Aviv and studied two thousand years of Jewish history. Several times a week we boarded school buses to visit the places where all of this history had happened: the ruins of Masada, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the mystical city of Safad.
I did not fit in well with most of the students in the program. They came from affluent neighborhoods in Miami and D.C. and seemed more interested in visiting Israeli clubs and bars, where the legal drinking age was eighteen, than they were in their heritage. I worked hard at convincing myself that I did not care if they liked me, and that their disregard for me was really a sign that I was too intelligent and mature for them.
We had the weekends to ourselves, and I often took the bus into Jerusalem, where I spent Shabbat with an old family friend. One Sunday afternoon I went to Tel Aviv to get my hair cut.
I had no love for my hair. Like me, it was not chic or stylish, just a curly, shoulder-length, dark-brown mop. During my freshman year of high school, my mother had thought it looked best if she used a hair pick to fluff it up, and a few of my classmates would call out, “Are you Afro-American?” when they passed me in the halls. My hair could reach astonishing heights if it was brushed or picked when dry.
My hair’s main function was to hide my hearing aids: the earmold that perched in the shell of my outer ear and reached down into the ear canal; the hard plastic case of the hearing aid itself, slung over the back of the ear like a saddle on a horse; and the thin length of hollow plastic tubing that joined them together. Nowadays people’s ears bristle with all sorts of earbuds. Wearing devices in one’s ears no longer screams, Hearing loss! Hearing aids themselves have gotten sleeker and more fashionable. Children’s models are available in bright colors and patterns. But when I was seventeen, hearing aids were beige and chunky, and they made me feel like a freak. So I cannot fully explain why I sat down in that hair salon in Tel Aviv and said, “Cut it short.”
I had to remove my hearing aids so the stylist could shampoo my hair. Then she sat me in the swivel chair and began cutting clumps of curls from my head. They fell on the floor in a half circle. The stylist chatted with the other women in the shop as she worked. I could not hear them, but I could see them talking in the mirror. The weight of my wet hair grew lighter as more clumps fell. The stylist considered my reflection, then went to get an electric razor. I could feel it whirring along the back of my scalp.
At last she was done. She looked expectantly at me in the mirror. My hair was about an inch long on top, and half an inch on the sides and back. It was so short it couldn’t even curl. My ears were completely exposed. I put my hearing aids on.
“You look great,” my stylist said. A few of the other women in the salon nodded approvingly.
I tried to smile. “Thank you,” I said.
I paid and walked into the street, feeling as if I were in a dream where I show up at school not wearing any clothes. No one around me seemed to realize that I was naked. It was a hot day in May, and I could feel the sun burning my ears.
It is 6:15 AM, five days before the longest night of the year. Outside, the sky is a smudgy blue-black. It is not wholly night, but also not yet day. I woke up at five and haven’t been able to fall back asleep, so I decide to walk the stairs.
After a moment of deliberation I put on my hearing aids. It doesn’t feel safe to be unable to see or hear any people I meet on the steps.
I feed the cats, who blink up at me in the sudden flood of light in the kitchen. I grab my headlamp before I walk out the door.
It’s strange to hear sounds as I walk to the Thistle Steps. My shoes make a scuffing noise against the pavement. I can hear the whoosh of cars passing on Thistle Street a few blocks away. There are already lights on in some of the houses, and I see a young boy eating breakfast at his dining-room table.
The sidewalk at the top of the stairs is lit by a streetlamp, but the cement steps plunge sharply into darkness. I switch on my headlamp. Halfway down the first flight I find a plastic water bottle on a step, and I move it to the side so that no one will trip over it. I’m on the second flight when I see a figure coming up the stairs toward me.
“This is dedication!” a female voice calls out.
“This is me not being able to sleep!” I call back, thankful to be wearing my hearing aids. As we pass each other, I smell a whiff of cigarette smoke. I can’t see her face, and most likely all she can see of me is the glare of my headlamp.
I’m halfway back up the stairs when we pass again. “I used to walk here a lot,” she says, “but then the steps down there got blocked off.”
“Yes, I know,” I say. It’s been five weeks since the work crew closed the steps. At least it’s not a vanity project for the homeowners: their sewer lines are being repaired.
As I walk up and down the steps, I count the number of trips on one hand using American Sign Language. I recently started learning ASL online. In the last twenty years sign language has moved out of the hidden corners of Deaf schools, where students were forbidden to use it for most of the twentieth century, and into the foreign-language programs of mainstream high schools and colleges. As a hard-of-hearing kid in the 1980s I would have been ashamed to learn sign language. As an adult I’m embarrassed that I don’t know it. I’ve often wished that my years of struggling to hear would grant me an honorary visa to Deaf language and culture, but it doesn’t work that way.
A few days ago I signed to my husband, Do you think hard-of-hearing people should marry Deaf people or hearing people? I said the words out loud, too. He pretended to sign back as he answered, “I think that hard-of-hearing people shouldn’t marry.”
I gave him a sour face, and he pulled me onto his lap. I know he is only teasing because he loves me.
As I keep walking, my headlamp grows dim. Its beam barely illuminates the next few steps. Luckily dawn has begun to slowly saturate the sky. My headlamp fades as daylight comes. I can see the outlines of individual steps emerging from the darkness ahead. I sign the number ten on my right hand — ten times up and down this narrow passageway. Then I begin walking home.
Devra and I are naked. It is time for our bath. We are old enough to undress ourselves, and our clothes are heaped on the floor beside the tub. Our mother runs the water while our father stands in the hallway holding the towels.
Devra is older than I am, and taller. The top of my head just reaches her chin. I follow her around whenever she lets me. Now she sticks one foot into the water and pulls it out: too hot. Her toes are bright red. “Wait,” says our mother.
“Take off your hearing aids,” says our father. He holds out his hand for them. Devra reaches to her ears, then pauses.
“How long will we have to wear hearing aids?” she asks.
Our father holds the towels to his chest and glances at my mother. I can hear the rush of water into the tub. “Well . . . ,” he says. Usually he has no trouble explaining things to us, like why water expands when it freezes, or how fireflies glow in the dark. “You and Elana . . . will probably always need to wear hearing aids,” he tells Devra. We look at him, not sure whether he is trying to fool us. He doesn’t wear hearing aids, and neither does our mother. We haven’t seen any adults who wear hearing aids — except our mother’s father, who lost his hearing because of a big explosion during a war. My father has tried explaining to us that we lost our hearing because of something called genetics — that both he and our mother carried the same gene without knowing it. There’s another big word that he uses — recessive — which sounds like recess but means that sometimes small genes win over big genes. This makes me think that someday I might be able to beat Devra at something.
Devra tells our father he’s wrong, that we won’t always need hearing aids, and I believe her — or I want to believe her. I hate my hearing aids. They squeal when people hug me, and they’re ugly. I’m ugly when I wear them. None of the other kids I know wear them except for my sister.
Devra’s hands go to her ears to take her hearing aids out. One of them shrieks until she turns it off. “Take yours out,” she tells me. She talks louder now that she can’t hear herself.
I yank on the tubes that connect the earmolds to the machines I wear behind my ears. I’m not supposed to take my hearing aids off this way; the tubes could tear, and we’d have to go back to the doctor to get new ones. The molds pop out of my ears, and sound shuts off instantly. The water pouring into the tub goes silent. My father taps me on the shoulder, and I turn toward him. He holds out his hand and motions for me to put my hearing aids in it. I do. They look like snails curled up in his palm.
“Elana!” From far, far away I hear my name. Devra is shouting at me, the words faint, as though she were calling from down a long, dark tunnel. “Can you hear me?” she asks.
Through the muffled silence I hear the dim sound of my own voice: “Yes!”
My sister grabs me by the hand and pushes past my father into the hallway. My bare feet hit the cool wood floor. The air is chilly here, away from the warm steam of the bath, and I shiver.
Devra walks backward until she stands out of my reach. I would have to take several steps to touch her. Her eyes hold mine. I see her lips moving, her mouth opening wide enough that I know she is yelling. Across the gulf between us come the words: “Can you hear me?”
“Yes!” I say. I throw the word as hard as I can toward her. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes!” she answers. She smiles. I turn and see our father watching us from the doorway. Devra and I walk back into the bathroom, where my mother has turned off the water.
“See?” Devra says to our parents. Her words whisper their way into my slow-witted ears. “We can hear! We don’t need hearing aids!”
I climb over the side of the tub and place both feet into the water. It’s still too hot, and my skin reddens. I don’t hear what my father and mother say because I don’t look at them. I am afraid to look. Maybe they don’t say anything. I wait for the burning sensation on my feet to fade, as it always does. I don’t know whether it’s because the water gets cooler or because I get used to the heat. What matters is that the pain goes away.