When I sat in the small windowless room deep inside a large Manhattan hospital, I didn’t know what to expect. It was what people now call activation day: the day that I would hear for the first time in my six years of existence. Or, at least, I was supposed to. I sat there, a long coil connecting me to a computer, wondering what sound would be like.
It had all began a few months before when a family friend gave my mother an article announcing the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of pediatric cochlear implants. This newfangled device bypassed the cochlea to stimulate the cochlear nerves directly to produce a sensation of sound in someone with profound deafness. Technically speaking, this wasn’t hearing. It was something completely new. This hologram of sound only provided a grainy and pixelated version of sound. This low-resolution version of sound was still more than I ever had, since I was one of the rare few who were born totally deaf. Sounds that I couldn’t feel were an abstraction, as quarks are to most of us. So, after undergoing tests to determine my eligibility, I became one of the first few hundred children to get a cochlear implant after the FDA approval in 1991.
This was in the days before those YouTube videos any “miracle cure” stories. Expectations were low. I was long in the tooth, neurologically speaking, and I had never heard before. Many viewed the brain as a static organism after the first years of childhood, incapable of adjusting to a completely alien stimuli—such as sound for me. “She’ll probably only learn to hear sone environmental sounds,” doctors warned my mother.
The first instructions the audiologist gave me—relayed in Sign by my mother because the audiologist didn’t sign—was to raise my hand when I heard something. This flummoxed me. How would I know what sound sounded like? It was as if I was searching for Waldo without knowing what he looked like.
I looked around the tiny windowless room, which was now crowded with people staring at me expectantly. There was even a woman I had never met at the doorway next to my mother. It dawned on me for the first time that this was a big moment, not just for me but for others as well. This was, after all, the day I would hear for the first time. Loath to disappoint, I concentrated on finding this mysterious, elusive Waldo. When I sensed anything—an itch, a breeze, a tickle—I raised my hand, searching everyone’s faces for any indication I had been right or wrong. Whether or not I was hearing anything, I had no idea.
What I now know is that I wasn’t hearing anything.
I had been so deaf for so long that my brain had no conception of sound. Confronted with this foreign input, my mind simply ignored it as an ostrich buries its head in sand. Sound had nowhere to go in my brain as I had no neural pathways for it. My activation day wouldn’t have gotten much buzz on YouTube.
My mother and I left the hospital dejected. In the ways of mothers, my mother knew I had been putting on a show. I couldn’t help but think that sound hadn’t lived up to the hype. We decided to go to FAO Schwarz to salvage the day.
As we waited to cross the street, a man on a motorcycle peeled out down then block and my head jerked up.
I had felt … something. It was a completely foreign sensation, almost as someone were tickling my brain. As tickling usually is, it was somewhere between pleasure and pain. My mother describes my expression as a mixture of shock and fear. I didn’t even know whether the sensation was coming from the inside or the outside. I was sure of nothing where it concerned this new and alien awareness.
“A motorcycle started from over there,” my mother signed, pointing down the block.
I must’ve heard the motorcycle. I had no other way of sensing its roar. I had my back turned, so I hadn’t seen it. It was too far off and on concrete, so I hadn’t felt it. I had heard it. What I heard—sensed, more precisely—was this disembodied surge of feeling inside my brain. I had lived so thoroughly in the visual and tactile world that I interpreted sound in tactile terms. I felt sound more than heard it.
I wasn’t quite sure if I liked it.
The excursion to the iconic Manhattan toy store turned out to be a mistake. The sounds of children playing and toys banging together soon overwhelmed me with the twinges deep inside my mind that I understood nothing of. After I had grown too twitchy to play any more, my mother took me to our hotel room where I fell fast asleep at 5 p.n.
Over the next several months, my brain grew more acclimated to the new sensations that I now understood as sound. What I found bewildered me. The world was saturated with sound from papers crumpling to brakes screeching. When people described sounds, they only spoke of the beautiful ones. The lilt of a flute. The soothing rush of water. They never spoke of the uglier and rougher ones that surround us.
My newfound ability to perceive sound raised more questions than answers. Why were some sounds louder than others? Did that mean something special? Why did people react to some sounds but not others? How did people make the sounds coming out of their mouth sound different? I would spend many years riddling out the answers to these questions. I’m not quite done yet.