It has become a major issue in the last few months, but, truth be told, I've struggled to hear in my left ear for some years.
My first memory of hearing loss was one of panic. I was hooked to a live feed for The Today Show. While I usually did these shows in the studio in New York, I was a last minute addition on this particular day -- called to be the voice of reason between a minister and a television producer in a heated discussion of the influence of television on teen violence, particularly school shootings. I sat alone, except for the camera operator, at 4:30 a.m. Pacific time in the NBC studios in Burbank. I was staring into the camera, with no visible monitor, linked to Matt Lauer only with an earpiece in my left ear.
The interview was going fine -- though it was a little hard to hear him -- when I suddenly realized that I couldn't hear his last question at all. Frantically, I improvised and made a point that was, thankfully, on target with the conversation. My demeanor remained calm. But inside, I was shaken by the fact that, for a moment, I couldn't hear or understand -- on live television.
Then, during the next few years, answering the phone gradually became a challenge if I put the receiver to my left ear. Not to worry. I just talked on the phone using my right ear.
Later, there were jokes about not hearing well when someone spoke to me on my left side or about misunderstanding a comment or not hearing a greeting.
Recently, the hearing loss has been much more pronounced. Without always realizing I'm doing it, I've been guessing at what others were saying and responding accordingly. I've had some strange looks from friends and neighbors and increasingly urgent pleas from my husband to get my hearing tested.
Then one day we read a newspaper article about untreated hearing loss possibly leading to cognitive deficits. Suddenly frightened, I wondered if I might be losing my mind as well as my hearing.
I rushed to my doctor. After a few minutes of conversation, she smiled. "Well, I'd say you're in great shape cognitively," she said at last. "But you do appear to have some hearing loss. Did you notice that I've had to repeat myself several times here?"
I hadn't noticed.
She referred me to an audiologist. Several hours and many tests later, the verdict was in: I had a severe hearing loss in the left ear and a moderate hearing loss in my right ear. "You've been compensating with your right ear for a long time," the audiologist told me cheerfully. "But now that you're losing your hearing in your good ear, the overall loss is so much more noticeable."
A subsequent MRI of my brain and a CT scan of my temporal bones revealed no tumors but a relatively rare inner ear condition called superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome that is involves an abnormally thin or even absence of a temporal bone. It can lead not only to hearing loss but also to balance problems.
After an ear specialist recommended hearing aids for both ears, the audiologist began fitting me with a pair deemed appropriate for my type of hearing loss.
Bob asked her the price. I couldn't hear her reply. So I guessed. "Did she say two hearing aids would cost $1,000?" I asked Bob quietly. He shook his head and leaned in to my right ear.
"$8,000 for both," he said.
For a moment, I was more stunned by the price -- not covered by Medicare -- than I was by my need for the hearing aids.
I've had them for two weeks now. They're barely detectable and they do help. The proof of their necessity came at a birthday party last week.
I was eager to try them out at my neighbor Wally's 75th birthday party in a crowded, noisy restaurant. Background noise has played havoc with my being able to follow conversations in the past year.
I remembered the excruciating embarrassment of not understanding or following conversations at a political rally I attended with my friends Tom and Ruth a few months ago.
I remembered withdrawing during large social events at the community center and starting to avoid them altogether because I couldn't understand a word being said.
This time would be different.
As I walked into the restaurant, I heard a series of beeps. Oh, no! My hearing aid batteries were low! But the aids were still working. I sat down at the table, confident that I would be able to follow the conversation.
I watched Wally enjoying time with his two wonderful adult children -- beautiful daughter Kathleen, a business executive, and son Paul who, besides being charming and successful, has been profoundly deaf since birth. I watched with warm wonder as Wally spoke aloud and also signed for his son -- and as Paul, Kathleen and her husband Mike, signed back and forth with ease and delight.
Then Wally asked me a question just as I heard the musical sign-off of my hearing aid batteries. Still confident, I answered enthusiastically and at length. When I had finished, smiling with satisfaction, Wally's wife Phyllis, who was sitting beside me, leaned over and said loudly into my right ear: "That's all very interesting, Kathy. But that's not what he asked you."
My cheeks burned. I laughed awkwardly and made a joke about needing to learn sign language, too.
But it was a major wake-up call: I've had to accept the fact that I really do have a major hearing loss and those hearing aids are as vital to me now as my glasses.
It's another landmark in the losses of aging.
I remember my horror some years ago when my college friend Jane told me she was now wearing bifocals -- at the age of 42! And how much older I felt, at 47, when I got reading glasses for the first time. Now I wear glasses all the time.
Part of me is grateful that hearing aids exist and that, despite my initial shock at the price, we could afford to pay for them.
And part of me is mourning the diminishment of yet another valued sense and feeling just a bit more elderly as I put them over and into my ears each morning.
O.K. I said it. I'm elderly. But I still feel so vividly alive. My vision and hearing may need some assistance, but reading for hours or gazing with wonder at the endless vistas of Arizona skies or at a loved one's face or listening with pleasure to favorite music or funny podcasts, the soft purr of a kitten, the stillness of a desert night or the voice of someone dear are all still treasured moments in my daily life.