A Silent Pandemic

Dylan stands in a blazer and jeans crossing his arms and smiling at the camera. There's fall foliage behind him.

by Dylan Ward

While everyone was busy preparing for the pandemic, I lost my hearing.

I’ve been living in silence now for about two months. I am hard-of-hearing and up until recently, I wore a hearing aid in my left ear; there’s negligible residual hearing in my right ear, in which I did not wear a hearing aid. Around mid-March, I sustained an injury to the head and because of the structure of my inner ear anatomy, the injury took away the residual hearing in my left ear.

I’ve been a stay-at-home dad to my seven-year-old son since he was two. It hasn’t always been easy for me as a parent. I don’t have the luxury other parents have with hearing their child in any situation. I’ve always worked harder to communicate with my energetic, stubborn son.

We were building a playhouse and I was careless, letting a board fall. Over the next days and weeks my husband and I visited the urgent care and ear specialists. Everywhere displayed coronavirus warnings and bottles of hand sanitizers reached for our hands. Some staff members wore masks and I was crestfallen. Without my husband, communication would have been impossible. Mask-covered lips are unthinkable for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Medicine and healing did not restore my hearing. Small adjustments were made at home since I couldn’t move easily with my vestibular imbalance and frequent rest was required. None of us knew enough sign language to communicate but we were patient with lip reading, sometimes reminding my son to slow down.

I began to wonder what it would be like with silence indefinitely, to parent a child I couldn’t hear. There were certainly worse things that could have happened to me. But I wanted to hear my son again. My Otologist encouraged a cochlear implant. Initially, I’d ignored the cochlear implant information sent home with me. They implied something I wasn’t ready for. How could I possibly have surgery in the middle of all of this? It also worried my son too, in ways I had not realized. I wanted to avoid it all, to simply get my hearing back. Over time, though, I accepted the situation and as I researched cochlear implants, I became less resistant.

The day of the surgery was exciting and daunting and strict protocols were in place for the hospital. My husband was not allowed to assist me in pre-op, but this time I was prepared. I’d installed a special captioning app on my phone with pen and paper at the ready. The app failed, of course, with poor reception. Handwriting everything seemed it would be too cumbersome for everyone on a schedule. Thankfully, the nurses and doctors pulled down their masks to speak, allowing me to lip read. The mask I wore probably put them at ease.

Recovery from surgery wasn’t easy. And I’ve never felt more disabled than I have these past few months. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere like I did before. My husband assumed the small tasks and errands I once handled, both to help me and to keep us all safe. He’s also done his best to work in a limited capacity and provide income.

It’s been challenging to parent an active child sequestered at home. The quarantine has forced me to parent in ways I had not anticipated between managing homeschool, daily home life, and taking care of myself in recovery. Homeschooling has been our biggest struggle. Online instructional videos are not captioned; virtual chats with teachers are out of the question. My son, who once loved going to school everyday, tired quickly of distance learning. The computer couldn’t replicate his classmates or teacher. He desperately craved that social interaction he’d lost and it hurt to see him hurting.

Everything that’s happened has put my disability into a different perspective. It made me realize how limited I really am, or have always been, both at home and elsewhere. It had been hard to hear my son before, but now I couldn’t hear him at all. I wouldn’t know if he was crying in another room. I’m tense and worried when he goes outside to play, constantly peeking out the windows just to be sure he’s okay.

My husband misses being able to communicate with me. My son misses normal routines. Sometimes he forgets daddy really can’t hear now and turns away when frustrated. Then I get frustrated and wear myself out with an upset child. Oftentimes I interrupt conversations without realizing it. At times my son has taken advantage of my inability to hear, sneaking around the house and hiding when in trouble or taking an extra treat when not allowed. But he’s seven. Sometimes I let this slip, sometimes I don’t. We’re already stressed from these unusual times, so I give my son a little leeway. I have to let him do something he doesn’t normally get to do. No one is harmed from it and this gives us small moments of happy.

I’m hopeful for the future, that the cochlear implant will enable me to hear in new and improved ways. I’ve adapted to a world that cannot be together like we once did. I stay connected with family and friends via texts and emails. My son has embraced virtual learning more with a few adjustments made and he has fun with it. He’s been writing letters or sending funny pictures to friends and happily gets them in return. He’s also been helping daddy more and taking his time to communicate. We laugh at silly things I didn’t hear correctly and we cry for things we miss.

What is most important is letting him enjoy his childhood in a time like this no matter what is happening to daddy, who loves him always. My son is most comforted when I’m just with him. My presence makes him feel okay. I hold him and keep him calm. We just let ourselves be here, together.