A simple enough thing: a phone call. My son calls me from army airborne school where he is learning to be a paratrooper. I can’t wait to hear how his first jump went. Someone I gave birth to has just leapt out of a plane and dropped 1,250ft to Earth – could any call be more exciting? But it’s a bad connection, and his voice is muffled and distorted. I can make out only every third word, and even then I’m guessing at what he might be saying. “You have to call me back,” I say, even though a callback is never guaranteed in the military. “This is unbearable.”
It was unbearable, and yet it’s how my father heard the world. Or more accurately, how he didn’t hear the world. For him, every conversation was muted and indistinct, an exercise in frustration. I lasted two minutes listening under those conditions. My father lasted far longer.
Some facts about my father: he grew up in western Kansas during the Great Depression. He skipped the first and second grade, and graduated from high school at 16. He attended college and graduate school on full scholarships. He had a PhD in chemical engineering. He got every job he interviewed for. He worked for Dow Chemical for over 30 years, eventually becoming director of discovery development. After his retirement, he went on to found two other companies. He loved going to work every single day. In the alphabet of personality types, he was a type A+.
My father’s hearing had never been sharp, but in his 60s it began to worsen rapidly. He responded to his deteriorating hearing with irritation, impatiently asking people to talk louder: “Speak up!” I responded to my father’s irritation with my own irritation, asking him to listen: “Oh my God, I’ve said it twice!” He got hearing aids, but they didn’t help much and he said they felt like Lego bricks shoved in his ears. I later learned he’d got the hearing aids from a kiosk at the mall, and I got more irritated. Why couldn’t he be more proactive about his health? He was a scientist! Didn’t he want to hear? He eventually got hearing aids from an actual doctor, but they didn’t seem to work either. I feared he had already passed through the mild-to-moderate stage of hearing loss – the stage where hearing aids make the most difference. Catching up now would be impossible. My mother entered a nursing home, and without her help my father began to pretend he could hear. I would tell him in detail about my sons’ lives, their schools and friends and extracurricular activities, and he would make all the right noises and then say, “And how are the boys?” He went to medical appointments where he couldn’t hear the doctor’s advice – he relied on reading the prescription labels later. In social settings, he became distant and preoccupied, only rousing himself occasionally to tell an anecdote from the past.
By the time he was in his 80s and living in a retirement community, all conversation had become very fraught. Our conversations grew simpler until finally we said nothing other than the most necessary information. I didn’t realise then that all conversation is necessary, no matter how hard it is to make yourself heard.
My father was a tall, thin man with a long, rectangular face like Ted Danson’s. His eyes were a pale, almost ice-blue like CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s. His voice was like Merle Haggard’s – a gruff baritone, rich yet stilted. When he laughed, his smile revealed the same gap between his front teeth that David Letterman has. Why can I describe him only by comparing him to other people when he was actually so distinctive?
His speaking style, for example. “Oh-ho!” he said when he greeted people, as though seeing them were an unexpected pleasure. He said “Ho ho!” if you said something unintentionally funny. He said “Uh-oh!” if he saw you making a mistake (it wasn’t particularly helpful, especially when driving). He said “Huh” and shook his head if you told him something he found uninteresting. He gave a soft grunt when he sat down, a loud one if he was especially tired. He used to say “Ahhhhh” at the beginning of sentences as he gathered his thoughts. In college, I had an answering machine that cut off after 15 seconds if no one started talking, and for two whole years my father couldn’t leave me a message because he was still “ahhhing” at the 15-second mark.
Communication had always been an issue for us.
Things my father approved of: education, hard work, honesty, fiscal responsibility, the Republican party, volunteer work, red wine, card games of any sort, Perry Mason, Bob Hope, cookies, milkshakes, golf, dogs, small children, marching music.
Things my father disapproved of: sleeping past eight o’clock, personal computers, beach vacations, organic food, sheep (he spent a summer herding them and they’re apparently very dumb), premarital sex, people who believe in climate change, people who complain about their health, Jane Fonda, Hillary Clinton.
He eventually came around to the idea of personal computers (he had originally predicted that they were a passing fad), but in general the “approved” list got shorter and the “disapproved” list got longer as he grew older.
If you made a Venn diagram of things my father and I liked to talk about, the little overlapping part in the middle would have only the words “Venn diagram” written in it because my dad liked to talk about math and numbers, and set theory is the only mathematical concept I have ever understood. He didn’t like to talk about poetry or writing or what the dog might actually be thinking.
I wondered sometimes if a different daughter might be more to his liking, if a different father might be more to mine.
When my publisher and I were choosing the book jacket for my first novel, Standard Deviation, I emailed some possible covers to my father and asked his opinion. He wrote back to say that they looked like math textbooks and therefore would be extremely exciting to readers and the general public. In the end, we ran all the covers past my father to find one he didn’t like, and that was the one we chose.
When the novel came out, the Washington Post reviewed it so positively that I forwarded the review to my father, something I had never done before. He wrote back, “I’m not sure that I’d choose to read your book based on this review. Seems to me mostly back-handed compliments.”
Texts I sent my brothers when they were visiting my father: “I know you’re upset, but please try not to engage in political arguments with Dad. You won’t change his mind and it will only make you unhappy.”
“If he persists in talking about politics, say firmly, ‘I love you, but let’s agree to disagree.’”
“I suggest you redirect the conversation toward a more productive, less controversial topic, such as beets. (But don’t actually discuss beets because he doesn’t like them and also feels that people who worry about beets being genetically modified are unscientific and wrong.)”
Text I sent my brothers when I was visiting my father: “OMG, I want to fucking kill Dad.”
The desire to kill my father stemmed from a discussion he and I had about the national school walkout to protest against gun violence after the Parkland school shooting. My father was against the walkout, not because he opposed gun control, but because he thought it showed disrespect for education. I said it was actually about education, about making it safe to get an education. He said that any students who walked out should be suspended. I said it was a nonviolent protest to raise awareness. He said everyone was already aware – weren’t he and I talking about it right now? I said it was to make the government aware, to bring about change. He said that any students who walked out should be expelled, not suspended. I said THAT WAS AN UNFORGIVABLE STATEMENT COMING FROM SOMEONE WITH FIVE GRANDCHILDREN CURRENTLY IN HIGH SCHOOL. I said IT’S A STUDENT-LED MOVEMENT LED BY YOUNG PEOPLE WITH COMPASSION FOR OTHERS. I said MY SONS WERE GOING TO WALK OUT AND I WOULD BE PROUD OF THEM.
I shouted, and not just because my father couldn’t hear. Then I went out on to the porch and texted my brothers.
On the day of the walkout, my sons decided it was too cold to go outside and stayed at their desks, talking.
Memories of my father: in the 1970s, he put high-density polyethylene runners on our family’s 12ft toboggan, turning it into a lightning-fast hurtling missile that shot off the end of the track. After that, the toboggan place said people couldn’t bring their own sleds.
Often on ski trips, he lugged a huge picnic basket – filled with plates, silverware, a fondue pot, cheese, french bread, white wine and wine glasses – to the warming hut at the top of the mountain so everyone could dine in style. After lunch, he skied down the slope with the picnic basket resting on the front of his skis.
He built a two-storey treehouse in the back yard with a balcony, rope ladder, and firefighter’s pole. When my friend and I spent the night out there, he strung three extension cords together and hooked a utility light to the treehouse wall so I could read in bed.
He bought a glass of lemonade from every child’s lemonade stand he ever passed. “It makes them so happy if they make even a little money,” he told me. (About my own lemonade stands, he told me I’d make more money if I asked for donations rather than charging a fixed rate. He was right.)
Books I made my father read: The Handmaid’s Tale, Gone With The Wind, Firestarter, The Stepford Wives, Heartburn, My Cousin Rachel. He did not care for any of them. Strange, he said. Not for me. Not a fan.
He preferred novels by Louis L’Amour and Zane. He said those were solid, substantial books, with good old-fashioned storytelling. He never told me that my books needed gun fights and hidden caves – it was more implied.
One day in 2016 I was eating lunch and watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (it’s how I reward myself when I’m writing), and the actor Kathryn Edwards talked about her hearing loss and how her new hearing aids were so advanced they could pick up sound in her deaf ear and whoosh the sound over to her good ear. I paused with a forkful of salad mid-air. And let me just say here to everyone who thinks reality TV is a waste of time: the joke is on you. I pushed my salad aside and began calling audiologists in my father’s city.
I had taken my father to many appointments, and all the listening and talking and translating for both him and the doctor made it feel as though I were trekking through long barren stretches of desert carrying my father on my back. But when I took my father to the first audiology appointment, it was as though I were scampering through a fairyland, tossing rose petals: everyone there spoke slowly and loudly enough for my father to hear them. He became a whole person again.
The tech was a young woman with sleek, dark bobbed hair and hearing aids of her own. She took my father’s history in a loud clear voice and helped him into the booth for the pure-tone and bone-conduction testing. Then she stood behind my father and read a list of words.
“Repeat after me,” the tech said. “Knock.”
“Book,” said my father confidently.
“Repeat after me. Size.”
“Repeat after me. World.”
“Hurl.” My father sounded less certain.
“Repeat after me. Taste.”
A pause and then that uncertain tone again. “Haze.”
“Repeat after me. Thirst.”
“Horse?” The hope in his voice was now edged by desperation.
“Repeat after me. Puff.”
He sighed. “Not Sure.”
“Repeat after me. Bulk.”
It felt wrong to witness this; a violation of the deepest privacy, an indignity. My father, for whom tests of any kind had always been so easy, had failed. My father, known for his grit and determination, had given up. I looked down at my phone to hide my face.
The tech brought me back from the void. “You have severe hearing loss,” she said. “But we can make it a little better, maybe even quite a bit better.”
“Ahhh, technology,” my father said in an approving tone.
She said my father had high-frequency sensorineural hearing loss, which is usually caused by a combination of ageing and exposure to loud noise. Noise-induced hearing loss damages the high-frequency range more than the low-frequency range, meaning that volume is less of an issue than clarity.
“We’ve all been shouting at him for 25 years,” I said. “I don’t think we can stop.”
“Perhaps you can work on shouting more clearly,” she said diplomatically.
She said that the hearing in my father’s left ear was almost totally gone, and the hearing aid in that ear was just magnifying noise in general and making it harder for him to hear with the right ear. She said the hearing in his right ear was better, and we could work with that.
My father told her that he thought his hearing loss was caused by driving a tractor without ear protection when he was growing up on a farm in Kansas. The tech said that could definitely be a contributor and asked what part of Kansas he was from. Then she talked to my father about Kansas University basketball for a while – something I have never done even though I went to KU and I sort of like college basketball. I was always saving my voice to say more important things, you see. I just can’t remember what they were.
I threw an imaginary handful of rose petals at the tech and we left.
Recently, a woman told me her husband has severe hearing loss, and when he doesn’t wear his hearing aids and she has to shout at him, she gets wildly impatient. The woman said she thinks the act of shouting makes her impatient, that shouting makes her physically angry. My first thought was, “Wow, and you don’t even know my dad! Imagine if you had to shout at him about climate change!”
Her idea intrigued me enough that I looked it up and found shouting causes the brain’s limbic system to release adrenaline and cortisol, which increases heart rate, perspiration, and respiration, and puts a strain on your heart. So, yes, shouting does make you angry. But even more interestingly, I learned what the people being shouted at experience: depression, fear, stress, low self-esteem and anxiety. I thought of all the times I’d shouted at my father and my heart shrivelled up like a sunflower sea star – the huge starfish now shrinking and dying from the effects of global warming.
We went back six weeks later for the fitting. In the audiologist’s office, there was a framed poem on the wall: Silence Is Lonely by Roy Bain. I’m normally sort of snobbish about poetry, having a degree in it and all, but I found this poem very affecting, especially the last two lines:
He who said “Silence is Golden” spoke for himself only;
For the hearing impaired, “Silence is Lonely.”
I looked over to see my father reading it, too. “Isn’t it good?” I asked. “And it’s a sonnet, too. Not a Shakespearean one because of the rhyme scheme, but definitely a sonnet with 14 lines and iambic pentameter.”
My father frowned. “What?”
“IT’S A SONNET.”
“Huh,” said my father, and shook his head.
The audiologist came in with the new hearing aid. He put it to his stethoscope and voiced the most remarkable series of sounds into it. If I had not seen him do it, I would have been certain only a computer could make those sounds. Then he fitted the hearing aid into my father’s ear.
“Now, the big test,” the audiologist said, smiling. “You two face me. And you,” he pointed to me, “ask him something.”
“Um, OK. ‘Dad, what time is it?’”
My father said nothing. The audiologist shook his head and said to me. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your voice is probably the hardest frequency for your father to hear.”
I didn’t tell him that this had always been true, in many ways.
The audiologist adjusted the hearing aid. “Let’s try again,” he said. “Ask him something. But keep facing me.”
“Should we have pizza or Chinese food tonight?” I asked my father.
“I didn’t get that,” my father said.
“Try again,” the audiologist urged me. “Just a little slower.”
“Should we have wine or beer?” I asked.
“Beer,” my father said. “Beer goes with pizza.”
He and I turned at last to look at each other, and we both laughed.
My father emailed often to tell me how much the new hearing aid helped him. He could hear better on the phone. He could participate more in conversation during meals at his retirement community. He began going to his current events discussion group again. He watched Fox News with the volume at 22 instead of 36. The new hearing aid was programmable, and I wondered if the audiologist could programme it to screen out Fox News, but mostly I was just happy.
I went to visit my father a few months later and we went out to lunch. He loved to go to restaurants, but I had grown to dread going with him because the ambient noise made it even harder for him to hear and he somehow sat with his good ear facing away from me every single time. We always ended up eating in silence.
But that day, we went to lunch late and the restaurant was almost deserted. We sat at a table and talked about a book I had recently given my father, Cruel Doubt by Joe McGinniss, a true-crime account of a sensational murder. My father had stayed up until two in the morning reading it and now he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“Can you imagine what it was like for the victim?” he asked. “To wake up and have someone standing next to your bed with a knife?”
We talked more about the book and then about people we knew – their messy relationships and unwise decisions, and a friend of ours who thought Washington state and Washington DC were the same thing and how did he ever get through high school, let alone college? We didn’t talk about math or numbers. We gossiped. We gossiped until the sun began to set and the light through the venetian blinds painted the room with yellow stripes and the wine in our glasses glowed like liquid gold.
Six months later, my father mistook his hearing aid for a cashew and ate it. I called him in tears of frustration. “You’re not even supposed to be eating cashews! You’re on a low sodium diet!”
“What?” said my father.
We went back to the audiologist, but it no longer seemed like a fairyland. The audiologist said the hearing aid was still under warranty and could be replaced. I hoped he would write “mistaken for a cashew” on the replacement form, but he wrote “household accident”.
In the time it took for the replacement to arrive, doctors discovered a melanoma in my father’s good ear. It was successfully removed, but that meant the hearing aid had to be refitted yet again, and by the time the new one arrived both my father’s hearing and cognitive function had declined and he never heard well again.
In November 2020, the hospice contacted my brothers and me to let us know that my father was “actively dying” and we should get there as soon as possible. I flew straight to Michigan to be at my father’s bedside. I took over from one of my brothers. My father was conscious and saw me. “Oh-ho, Kathy’s here,” he said. I squeezed his hand.
He closed his eyes and opened them 15 minutes later. “It’s like saw bands biting into my legs,” he said. These were the last words he spoke. He was referring to his arthritis. He began to groan terribly. My father once skied all afternoon on a broken ankle without a word of complaint. How extreme the pain must have been for him to give voice to it.
I pressed the button for the hospice aide and asked her to increase his morphine. She did so and my father grew quieter and seemed to sink deeper into the bed, but he still groaned on every exhalation, a sound that was recognisably his voice, still just like Merle Haggard.
The hospice director came to check on him and told us that he would probably die within hours. After she left, my brother told my father he loved him. My brother’s wife and children called one at a time to say they loved my father, too, while my brother held the phone to my father’s ear. My other brother, en route from California, also called and spoke to him.
All this speaking and telephoning seemed very odd to me. Was I the only one who remembered that my father could hear almost nothing? Who saw my father’s hearing aid resting on the nightstand? Who didn’t believe that death granted you perfect hearing in your last hours, like a condemned prisoner’s last meal? Would you rather have perfect hearing or a steak and french fries?
But late that afternoon when my brother went out for coffee to fuel us through our deathwatch and I was alone with my father, I couldn’t resist. I leaned in close. “Dad,” I whispered. “Dad.”
Hearing is supposed to be the last sense to go when someone dies, but I know my father didn’t hear me when I whispered to him as he lay dying. It was impossible. Aside from having severe hearing loss, he was also heavily sedated. But still I spoke.
I spoke in order to put something out into the universe. On that bleak November day in Michigan, where the sky outside was as white as the walls of my father’s hospice room and the tree branches were as black and stark as an IV stand, I spoke so there would be a record.
I said: “Dad, I am so lucky to have had you as a father.”