Hearing My Own Footsteps

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By. Melissa Kiefer

Meniere’s disease is a condition I’ve had since I was thirteen and still cannot accurately describe. Instead, I recall a painting by Edvard Munch. The first time I saw the swirling colors forming a blood-red sky and a distorted face in open-mouthed shock, I finally had a frame of reference for the chaos and intensity of Meniere’s: the buzz of tinnitus, the brain fog and vertigo, the pounding pulse behind my ears, and the isolation that comes from sudden and fluctuating hearing loss.

Although “The Scream” is a serious piece of art to me, I’m amused that the figure has inspired pop culture’s “fear” emoji, and I’m surprised I can’t find a parody of Munch’s painting that portrays life with a newborn. I picture a wild-haired woman in a haze of exhaustion and fear, a walking zombie trying to cross the bridge to her new identity. Who am I now? What day is it? When does it get easier?

After praying all through pregnancy for a healthy baby boy with perfect hearing, my own hearing had dropped so low during labor and delivery that I had to ask my husband, “Is he crying? He’s crying, isn’t he?”

New moms are machines, fiercely connected to their babes and hyper-focused. They wake up at three in the morning to rock their babies back to sleep and then stay up themselves to wash bottles, grade essays, and fold laundry. On a short lunch break at school, they can do ten things at once (such as eating, pumping, and grading) while thinking of twenty more. Check-in at daycare. Could he have another ear infection? Order more diapers. Figure out why the student in the back row looked like she had been crying (and fix it). Am I challenging my students too much? Am I challenging them enough? Did I turn on the crock-pot this morning? New moms are vulnerable. They are professional. They live in stubborn denial of the consequences of neglecting their own needs.

The brain fatigue of lipreading and answering students’ questions left me exhausted and stuck in a vicious cycle: caffeine, adrenaline, anxiety, crash. I would have kept going and denied any problem until, at five months postpartum, my husband asked me a question that stung and shook me: Don’t you want to be able to hear him the first time he says, “Mama?”

When I put hearing aids in for the first time, my world came alive. When I put in hearing aids for the first time, I was handed a safety rope that allowed me to pull myself out of a deep and dark pit of isolation.

These devices are me and not me. They are hard and foreign and not waterproof. I am frustrated when I have to take them out at night to charge them but also relieved to shut my ears and brain down. I am annoyed by the re-awareness of the ringing that takes their place. Even with the baby monitor cranked all the way up, knowing I could roll over in bed and bury my “good ear” in the pillow prevents me from fully relaxing and peacefully sleeping. What kind of mother am I, not hearing him when he cries? I am embarrassed to feel reliant on an aide, a pair of gadgets for the rest of my life.

And I am thankful every morning for the past ninety-seven days because the split second the tiny tubes slip into my ear canals, my world revives. I get to notice the excited little murmur before my blue-eyed boy cracks a four-toothed grin. I get to decipher the emphatic syllables of da-da-ba-ma-ma. I get to hear “ma-ma.” I get to be Mama, his Mama. Now I can hear my son turn pages as I read bedtime stories. I can hear the richness of my husband’s voice as he sings the bedtime song. From another room, I can hear ecstatic laughter as they wrestle and knock down block towers and stack them back up again. I can hear chubby, curious hands and little knees across the hardwood in a happy, invisible race.

I can hear my own footsteps now, and the importance of this sound and what it means to my female identity and my confidence as a mother strikes me. Perhaps I couldn’t navigate the bridge in the Scream painting because I couldn’t clearly hear my own deliberate steps. Someday soon I will hear my son’s steps, and we will teach him how to walk upright in this world. We will teach him the power of his words and t he importance of listening to others. There should be no shame in utilizing a tool that helps you hear your own voice and its importance. There should be no shame in utilizing any tool that allows you to stay grounded and connected to the present, aware of the joy in your life.

Melissa Kiefer is a dual credit English instructor whose work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Front Porch Journal, LA Family Magazine, Evansville Living, and New Madrid. She lives in Southern Illinois with her husband and son.