Song Without Words: Discovering my Deafness Halfway Through Life. By Gerald Shea. Da Capo Press, 307 pp., $25.99.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As I read Gerald Shea's moving book, I remembered sitting on any number of occasions in a soundproof booth with a hearing specialist sending tones to my right ear.
I strained to hear many of these tones, and often entered the booth with a sense of great dread. Will I be worse? Will I be better? How many tones did I miss? Then words of one or two syllables were fed to me. Here they come, and I was to repeat the words as they were said either by the audiologist or a recording. Baseball, toothbrush, she and too, and I would strain to hear and repeat them.
It's rather like an eye chart. Oh, it's just a test. Then came the terrible time when I could hear almost nothing even with my hearing aid turned up full. Fragments of sound came through, and the physician looked grave when he said that I had heard only 10 percent of the words. Then, nothing. Nothing at all.
Ever since I was about 7, until my present age of 78, I have had profound loss in my left ear, and only serviceable hearing in my right. Now, I am a deaf person, but happy to have language, to read, and understand.
Shea, author of "Song Without Words: Discovering my Deafness Halfway Through Life," had similar experiences from the time he had scarlet fever as a young child. However he did not realize that he was deaf. The noises in his head, his inability to understand things people said were all, he thought, things common to all people.
He lived half of his life not knowing that he was severely deaf. He sang in the Whiffenpoofs at Yale. He graduated from Columbia Law with highest honors. He became a lawyer and wordsmith for one of the world's great legal companies, all the time coping in a way that I often coped without realizing what I had done. Coping, guessing, all that is exhausting.
People would talk to him. Some words were clear enough, especially after he got a pair of hearing aids mounted in glasses. I had a set of those. Words in a sentence would become a sort of gibberish that he called lyricals.
In fact, his use of this word unlocked for me the process I would go through when some person would call me to set up a date for lunch. I would guess as to what was said, based on a mental list of restaurants. Shea would hear a string of his lyricals, and then go through a translation process that might involve many hours of work after quitting time. Sometimes, because he became skilled, he could mentally run through a list of guesses that would end with a revelation of what was said.