What the Bert and Ernie Letter Songs Taught Me About Faking and My Hearing Loss
By Nancy M. Williams
Fakers. We all know they’re out there when it comes to hearing loss. Of course, it takes a faker to know one.
A man stops my daughter and me on the street. Traffic zooms behind him, the roar rushing into my hearing aids. “Hleiof lskjafj flto Bloomfield?” he asks. I surmise, with the bus shelter nearby, that he must have asked, when will the bus come for Bloomfield?
“I’m sorry, I don’t know the bus schedules,” I say. The man gives me a perplexed look, shakes his head, and walks away.
“He didn’t ask you about the buses!” my daughter says. “He wanted to know which way is Bloomfield. Why didn’t you just say, I didn’t hear you? How come you keep on faking it?”
I could only shrug my shoulders in reply.
An audiologist first diagnosed my mild, high-frequency loss shortly after I turned six. I got my first hearing aid at 12, and then for the next several decades tried not to notice while my hearing slowly slid down the audiologist’s chart to its current position: a moderate loss, sloping to severe in the high frequencies. I have years of experience living with hearing loss and wearing hearing aids, and I now speak on claiming your passion despite hearing loss. Yet I would rather fake my way through a discussion of Bloomfield and buses than make it plain to a stranger I’ll never see again that I have difficulty hearing.
I remember when Bert on Sesame Street sang that zippy song about the letter W: —“it’s not any trouble, you know it’s a double-u, when you hear wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh!” Bert was the head of the National Association of W Lovers, but the letter W makes me think of the word what, as in WHAT did you just say? Instead of saying what during conversations, I fake.
After I dried my tears and flew home from the convention, I reflected. As my daughter asked, why? Why do I keep on faking it? And I came up with three key reasons.
Reason #1, Laziness. Of course, my husband, teenaged son, and middle-school daughter are aware of my hearing loss. But I’ve never actually called a meeting during which my family and I would establish certain guidelines for communication in our home. For example, don’t talk to Mom from another room because she won’t be able to hear you. Laziness—and by that I mean not addressing my need to hear—explains part of my propensity to fake.
Reason #2, Loss. By loss, I mean not only the loss of hearing, but also emotional loss. In my early 40s, I went back to the piano, and sometimes I still feel stunned by the bliss I experience when I play. The piano is my passion. Thanks to several music settings on my hearing aids, I hear well enough to perform, but sometimes I yearn to hear the piano’s every note, and all of the dulcet, accompanying overtones, with simply my own ears. To consider how the piano might sound without a hearing loss is breathtaking to me and also painful. Sometimes I don’t want to remember that I have a hearing loss, because connected to it is the loss of the piano. Faking seems like a preferable alternative.
Reason #3, Love. I have arrived at the true nexus, my fear that if I cannot hear, my loved ones will reject me. My teenaged son speaks loudly when he knows I don’t have on my hearing aids first thing in the morning, and he usually repeats himself when I say the W-word (wuh-wuh-wuh WHAT?), but sometimes he becomes exasperated. That’s natural, yet in my darkest moments I worry, if my hearing loss gets worse, will he still want to confide in me? After 23 years of marriage, my husband still gives me a smitten look when we make dinner together, but will he still be attracted to me if I become dependent on him for activities that require hearing? The answer to these questions is a resounding YES, but still I worry.
I realized when I arrived home from the convention that I fake so often that the strategy has become routine, even subconscious. But in faking, I deny my hearing loss and by extension myself. I saw that when all of us with hearing losses are in denial, the consequences are more fundamental than misunderstandings about buses and Bloomfield. When we cannot come to terms with our whole selves, than we cannot fully live our lives.
A far better approach is to summon courage. I want to have the courage to tell people I can’t hear them, to ask them to speak up, to request accommodations such as loops and FM systems. My hope is that all of us with hearing loss will have the courage to combat laziness, face losses and claim the love that belongs to each and every one of us, no matter the state of our ears.
Laziness, loss, love. Bert and Ernie also had a song called “La La La Letter L.” Ernie sings, “The letter L lights up your face.” So out with the W-song! In with the L-song, the song of love, love of ourselves, including our hearing losses.
Nancy M. Williams is a hearing health advocate who has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal and a Hearing Loss Magazine cover story. A motivational speaker, she speaks at conferences on “Claiming Your Passion. . .Despite Hearing Loss.” She is the founding editor and publisher of the online magazine, Grand Piano Passion™, which covers living with hearing loss and making music despite a hearing loss. Ms. Williams serves on the board of the Hearing Health Foundation, a U.S.-based research organization. Despite her own hearing loss, she is a performing pianist who debuted at Carnegie Hall in 2012.
Photo: © Cindy Dyer