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Wall of Sound 

Wall of Sound
Chirayu Vyas/Pexels

My American Tune

By Michael Brian O’Keefe

There is no peace and quiet to my deafness; not now, nor when I jolted awake to find my limbs restrained in an ICU bed on Friday the 13th of December 1985. Three days later, I learned that my two neurosurgeons had severed my left hearing nerve along with their target, my left balance nerve. They had also left behind a surgical sponge, but that was something I wouldn’t learn until 20 years later when it was discovered during emergency surgery to save me from the massive infection it eventually caused inside my skull. The discovery of that sponge also revealed it as the cause of my chronic head pain during the interim years.

That slip of the scalpel didn’t just kill the hearing in my left ear, it also left me with tinnitus, the harsh, debilitating roar of high-volume white noise inside my head that has been with me ever since. Yet the tinnitus wasn’t my most immediate concern upon awakening in the ICU. My focus was on surviving each next second. 

I had gone into surgery hoping for relief from catastrophic vertigo attacks that had plagued me since I’d suffered a serious head injury a few years before while working as a Fairfax County cop—that plus a number of concussions over the years from police work, basketball, a 130-pound German shepherd, and what can most charitably be described as wayward familial discipline.

The doctors had warned me that when I came out of anesthesia they wouldn’t be able to give me any pain medication for 48 hours. I was considered high risk for a potentially lethal spinal fluid leak, and pain meds could mask symptoms that would alert my caregivers that something was wrong. I remember telling myself ahead of the surgery not to worry about the pain. I was confident that I’d be so relieved upon waking up alive that I’d just deal with it. I was young, and I was wrong.

The pain turned out to be beyond anything I could have known or imagined—and crushed my mistaken belief that human beings lose consciousness when pain crosses a certain threshold.

Two agonizing days later, one of the several nurses I had cursed in the vilest manner when I wasn’t begging for a fix like a junkie gone cold turkey, finally approached me with a syringe full of morphine and the pain portion of my nightmare finally, mercifully ended. I remember thinking I’d be learning to walk again soon, and assumed it would take just a few more days for the aggravating roar inside my head to subside. I was wrong on both of those counts as well. Thirty-eight years later, I still have an unsteady gait, and I’m still challenged by the unceasing cacophony of tinnitus. 

Not only that, but as time passed, the roar worsened when my right ear proved to have the same vestibular damage as my left—the type of damage from serious head injuries that causes chronic vertigo and other crippling effects of Meniere’s syndrome, along with drop attacks associated with something called the otolithic crisis of Tumarkin. The doctors after whom these conditions were named never discovered a cure for them, and researchers continue to experiment on human guinea pigs like me in search of successful treatments and elusive cures. So far, though, there’s been very little to show for their efforts.

Two years after the failed surgical procedure, my doctor stopped using it, turning instead to chemical ablation via injections of a powerful and potentially lethal antibiotic, ototoxic streptomycin. I did three rounds of 20-plus injections to ablate which appeared to help but didn’t cure either of my neurological conditions. The downside was that the treatment further deafened me and caused oscillopsia, a malady that renders my vision unstable when I’m in motion. So I had to learn to walk yet again.

It’s a lot to take in: I’m deaf in my left ear, profoundly hearing-impaired in my right ear, and still subject to vertigo and drop attacks, unless I remain faithful to my low-sodium, vegetarian, zero-alcohol, zero-caffeine, comprehensive exercise, low-stress, and good-sleep lifestyle. 

I have used various strategies to communicate. Since my left ear is deaf, so I don’t use a hearing aid in it. My right ear, though, is a shade better, testing in the profound hearing loss range, so for that use a Starkey hearing aid with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence capabilities that rather miraculously help me to hear well enough to communicate one-on-one when the other speaker remembers to project their voice directly toward me. 

Background noise complicates things, but generally I hear some words, speech-read others, and puzzle-solve the rest. I also have a voice-to-text app on my cell phone that helps quite a lot.

When I was still practicing law, I used a court reporter during legal proceedings and public hearings. My assisting reporter typed on a regular court reporter machine that provided real-time translation that appeared on my laptop computer. 

I can hear select people on the phone, usually people like my wife with whose voices I am familiar, and who know to speak loudly and clearly. ASL has helped at times in the past, but it’s hard to maintain if you don’t use it on a regular basis. Mostly, I text and email.

Unfortunately, nothing is static. As I edge closer to complete deafness, I have come to recognize that there’s an inverse relationship between hearing loss and tinnitus. The deafer I am, the more aggravating my tinnitus. It used to roar like a lion. Now it roars like lions, tigers, and bears.

Tinnitus drives a lot of sufferers bonkers. Some kill themselves to escape it. Vincent Van Gogh, scientists believe, cut off his ear attempting to escape his. There are no cures, although many sufferers find comfort by donning sound masking or canceling headphones, neither of which has ever worked for me.

Yet, I am OK. My brain, even after a double-digit number of concussions and four incursions by prying neurosurgeons, has on its own managed to find beauty in—of all things—the beast commonly known as the ear worm. That discovery some years ago, and the default response my brain engineered—at first without my conscious awareness—helped me cope with the maddening aggravation of tinnitus. And, once I realized what was going on, I learned how to gain some control over the noise in my head.

Now, whenever I’m awake, there is a song in my head, always and automatically. I don’t deliberately think to put it there, and sometimes I don’t much care for what’s playing. Fortunately, though, I’ve also come to realize that if I don’t like the song that’s stuck in my head, I can, through a simple act of will, change the channel.

Just about every morning, regardless of weather, I walk with my dogs, a couple of golden retriever/yellow Lab mixes named Jake and Lucy, through the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. Most of the time, I sing aloud as we hike our four to five miles. I don’t necessarily think to sing, either. It, too, just seems to happen.

I have an extensive music collection, with hundreds of songs, complete with lyrics. My dogs don’t seem to mind my singing, but other animals sometimes do. When I hiked around the Dingle Peninsula in Western Ireland a few years ago, my companions were mostly sheep. I passed hundreds of them while walking from one B&B or hostel to another, and absentmindedly found myself serenading them with a slightly reworked version of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” They hated it. By the time I finished blasting out the first line (“Baa baa baa, Baa baa ber-ann”), every single lamb, ewe, and ram was running away, with the sole exception of one well-horned ram, who charged at me instead. It was my turn to flee. 

Hearing loss froze in time my ear-worm music catalog. I haven’t actually heard any new songs since about 1991. What little natural hearing I have left is skewed across the various hearing frequencies, the result being that even what’s supposed to be the most melodic tune sounds to me like nails on a chalkboard. Yet, with songs I already know, my memory conspires with my brain to help me actually “hear” and remember the way it sounded back when I had full hearing. 

I keep a song in my head at all times, so for the most part I don’t hear or fear the tinnitus roar anymore. When I do hear it, mostly when I consciously check to see if it’s still there, it’s worse than ever. But it’s not powerful enough to trump Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy,” Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” Cher’s “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” Julio Iglesias’ “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver,” and many other super-powered ear worms foisted on humankind years ago. Although, I borderline hate those songs, I appreciate them when I’m under serious tinnitus attack. 

And, as I said before, I can always—well, usually—change the channel and dial up something else. When I want to fall asleep at night, I try to play instrumentals in my head, like the codas from Eric Clapton’s “Layla” and Chicago’s “Color My World.” Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World” is in a class of its own. James Taylor’s “Long Ago and Far Away” works well for me at bedtime, too, and is special because it was the lullaby I sang to all three of my children when they were little and I rocked them to sleep. 

Lately, I’ve taken to singing Paul Simon’s “American Tune” during my hikes. He wrote it in response to what he felt was our nation’s most uncertain hour, the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the political divide and Vietnam War were threatening our democratic institutions. It’s a bittersweet song, all too relevant these days, and I like its message. Simon suggests at the end of the song that we try to get some rest because tomorrow is another working day. It is his subtle way of challenging us to come together to save our democracy.

Don Henley has a few decades-old anthems that speak to me—one, “The Last Resort,” about how we have desecrated my most holy place, the Cathedral of Nature, and the other, “End of the Innocence,” about how we have squandered our freedoms in the name of selfishness. I plead guilty; I have serious moments.

Jackson Browne’s voice is within my limited range, and I might even belt out a few of his songs when I’m feeling blue and nostalgic about my misspent youth. 

I am often apt to sing “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, with its Bachian fugue and nonsensical but fun lyrics, and the Moody Blues’ “Question” and “Isn’t Life Strange,” because when I do I can hear inside my head the London Philharmonic’s mind-blowing backup sound soaring toward the heavens. Several Neil Young songs are on my playlist, including “Cinnamon Girl” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” And God bless Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” and his theme song “Best Friend” from the old TV show The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which is the best dad anthem ever.

When I hike in Ireland, “Danny Boy,” all three verses, gets a lot of play, as does Oliver’s “Jean.” Sentimental music warms my heart. Surprisingly, I do mean renditions of “Blue Bayou” and “Love Has No Pride,” even though Linda Ronstadt’s voice is way out of my range. 

I acknowledge the possibility that my lyrical renditions sound good only to me. Hearing loss is messy. You don’t lose it in a nice horizontal manner across frequencies. An Eastern box turtle ran from me the other day. I’d never seen a turtle move so fast, except once in a video feed on my phone that showed another box turtle riding a miniature skateboard. 

Injury, vertigo, and deafness have bent me. They hurried me from two careers, cop and lawyer. Neither was considered an honorable profession when I practiced them. But I miss them sometimes, mostly the camaraderie of friends left behind. 

If I permitted regret to cancel injury, vertigo, and deafness, as if I could wish them away and live an alternate life, the cost would be too steep for me to bear. I helped a lot of people, and I even saved a few lives. Even more significant for me is knowing that if not for injury, vertigo, and deafness I’d never have been sitting in a law school classroom to meet the love of my life, and I would not be dad to my Big Three and PopPop to my Wee Three. Honestly, when I sing Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” those are the ones who give all the deep meaning to his heart-wrenching lyrics. 

Love finds a way to heal all wounds. You can be deaf and fall down a lot and have a couple of extra holes in your head and still feel blessed. Life taught me that. Life is a song that must be sung out loud, even should sheep flee. That’s my American tune. 

*** 

Michael O’Keefe was raised in Alexandria, Virginia, where he specialized in unintentionally driving his parents bonkers with reptiles and amphibians he carried home from his daily haunts of creeks and ponds. As a college dropout, he did time as a D.C. and Fairfax County cop before injuries led him back to college, on to law school, and into private practice and public service as a lawyer. Happily married for 38 years, he has three grown children and three grands. Most hiking seasons will find him wearing his backpack and on the go somewhere in Ireland or along the Colorado Trail.