“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” -‘The Help,’ Kathryn Stockett
I am proud to call Minda and Stephanie my friends. Both are highly educated, caring women who love their families. Like me, my friends are also lipreading moms.
When we gathered last week for a captioned showing of the movie The Help, our conversation lingered well past midnight.
“What is your hearing loss story?” Minda asked Stephanie.
Both hadn’t sat in the same room together before, let alone confided to each other their life stories. It reminded me of a scene from The Help, in which lead character Skeeter sat in the kitchen of Aibileen, a woman she barely knew, and asked about her life as a maid in early 1960s Mississippi.
“Oh, it’s a real Fourth of July picnic,” hissed Aibileen’s tart-mouthed friend Minnie in response to Skeeter.
Ten years ago, I would’ve answered the same. Hearing loss was a real picnic, complete with confusion, denial, and anger. The sound of imaginary fireworks exploding in my ears—my condition known as tinnitus—reminded me of the Fourth of July.
I couldn’t help butting into Minda and Stephanie’s conversation. “I ground my teeth so bad from stress back then that I nearly tore them up. Yet I didn’t go to the dentist. I was afraid of having to lipread someone wearing a mask.”
Six cavities, a recessed gum, and a near root canal later, I found the courage to say: “Please remove your mask so I can read your lips.”
A year ago, Stephanie developed a profound hearing loss in one ear after a near-fatal bout with spinal meningitis. She is new to the world of hearing loss, yet understands the feelings I experienced early into my diagnosis.
“Sometimes how people act make me feel stupid,” Stephanie said. When someone continually spoke exaggerated, over-enunciated words to her, Stephanie told the person to stop—that this type of communication wasn’t helpful but, in fact, degrading.
Minda, born with profound hearing loss of unknown cause, said that audiologists were shocked to hear how well she speaks despite being deaf without hearing aids.
“My mom was a speech pathologist,” Minda said. The advocacy and support she received from her parents enabled her early on to develop her voice. Some loved ones were so fooled by Minda’s clear speech that they momentarily forgot she was hard of hearing.
“I had someone throw a potholder at me from across the room to get my attention once,” she said. “I told him never, ever do that again.”
That person later became her husband.
If The Help’s Skeeter had been sitting in that room with us, I wonder what type of questions she would’ve asked me, Minda, and Stephanie.
“Do you like being hard of hearing?”
“What do you wish the world knew about you, despite the fact that you have a hearing loss?”
“How has hearing loss made you the person you are?”
“What does courage mean to you?”
I don’t know how Stephanie and Minda would answer since we’re not sitting together now, but I can respond to the latter one about courage.
Courage is choosing to accept something that chose me. Hearing loss is not all that I am, but it shapes my life in profound ways. I have courage to wear hearing aids even when I don’t like the way they look and feel in my ears. I have courage to tell a dental hygienist to remove her mask before speaking to me.
Minda has courage to embrace her life as an engineer, wife, mother of one, and avid soccer player. Hearing loss doesn’t keep her in a closet.
Stephanie found courage when, laying in a hospital bed with the sound of engines roaring in her ears, she accepted that something was wrong with her hearing. She is an accountant, wife, mom to two little girls, and an emerging advocate for the hearing loss community.
How might Aibileen and Minnie have answered Skeeter’s question about courage? In my mind, I can hear their Mississippi voices echoing the same rely:
“It’s what keeps us goin’ to them Fourth of July picnics. It’s the fireworks.”