Breaking the Sound Barrier

By David Davis

I was four and a half years old. I was sitting at a low child's table in a small office. Beside me was my teacher, Helen Hulick Beebe. We called her "Beebe." On the table in front of me were toy animals, a spinning top, dollhouse furniture, and other assorted odds and ends. Beebe raised her hand to her mouth, covering it to make certain that I couldn't see her lips as she spoke. I listened intently.

"Put the cow on the bed," she said, looking me straight in the eye.

That was an easy one. Happily, I put the cow on the bed. It looked funny, since the bed was considerably bigger than the cow, which was red.

"Very good! Now put the boy next to the red square."

Trying to figure out what I had just heard, I hesitantly put the ball next to the chair.

"No, no, no. Listen!" Beebe said. Somehow I knew the lesson was just as demanding for her as it was for me. Beebe was constantly trying to challenge me, but our lessons were often so intense that I became easily intimidated by it all-- Beebe, the office, the lessons.

"Listen again!" she said, adjusting my chair so that I was facing away from her and could not see her lips as she spoke. Then she covered her mouth with her hand again, out of habit.

"Put the boy next to the red square."

"Oh," I said, and happily put the ball next to the red square.

"Almost! You got most of that. Now listen again..."

I was born profoundly deaf. My mother had contracted rubella, also known as German measles, which was epidemic in the mid-1960s, during the first trimester of her pregnancy. She had been told that I would be a "high-risk" infant and could be born with any of a number of challenges: hearing loss, vision loss, heart defects, and mental developmental issues. I was born in Easton, Pennsylvania in November 1964 covered with measles spots.

Most parents find peace in a sleeping infant.  My parents found despair as they banged pots and pans over my head while I slept blissfully. A trip to our family doctor led to a referral to St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia, where I was diagnosed with a severe-to-profound hearing loss. My parents returned home and wept in bed.  Another visit to the family doctor led to a referral to a speech pathologist the doctor knew from his Presbyterian church.

“But she’s not a doctor,” my mother protested skeptically.

“No, she’s not, but she will know more what to do than the doctors at St. Christopher’s. Trust me. Go see her.”

And with that, my mother brought me to the low-slung building she had walked past many times as a young girl coming home from elementary school and finally met the mysterious woman behind the speech pathology shingle hanging from the eaves.

When I was a young child, my mother and I would go for walks outdoors. Bordering our backyard at our hilltop home was a small woods. We would often walk our way in those woods with my sister, who is seven years older than I, and collect leaves,  acorns, and chestnuts and bring them home and talk about why there are all kinds of different leaves and why the leaves fall every October. I was filled with a sense of wonder and awe. The world seemed so big. Would I ever begin to learn all there was to learn?

I would, while taking a bath, slide down in the tub until my ears were underwater. I would then talk and splash the bathwater with my hands, and listen to the sounds. I was fascinated. For some reason, even though I was not wearing my hearing aids, as I usually did, I could hear my voice when I had my ears underwater. The sounds enthralled me.  I can hear me!

I was never really afraid of the dark, although my parents put a night light in my room. When I was very young, perhaps about three or four, I would lie in my bed in something of a spell of awe over the utter silence that enveloped me at night when my mother or my father took off my hearing aids for the night. Sometimes I think the silence was scarier than the darkness. To the right of my bed was a closet, the door of which, to my consternation, would never close because of a faulty hinge. There were times when that closet would frighten the wits out of me at night. It wasn't so much the darkness that shadowed the closet that scared me, but rather, it was the sheer silence and the not knowing what stood behind that creaky closet door waiting for me. There was so much I didn't know then, and even in my own child's mind, I knew that somehow some of my childhood fears were related to my inability to hear. When I swam in the Atlantic at Seaside Park, New Jersey, there was always lurking in the back of my mind the thought that I could unknowingly wade toward danger, unable to hear the warning cries of my parents or nearby swimmers. Consequently, I almost always faced the beach whenever I played in the water. My father always stood at the surf’s edge, pointing at the occasional large breaking waves behind me so I would know when to brace myself and duck.

Yet there were many times when the silence was soothing, even at night. After a long, exhausting day of listening to my parents during our home speech and hearing lessons and listening to my friends during play, I would welcome the silence at the end of the day. It was a retreat into myself. I would rest in bed and think, with no household noises to disturb me. I was curious about many things, and would ponder the meanings of the things I learned during lessons with Beebe and my parents.

Beebe's brows were knit in concentration. I was struggling through yet another therapy session. I was anxious to master the lesson, but it seemed impossible. Her expectations were simply too high. Sometimes the lessons were easy, but more often than not they were hour-long, painstaking attempts to learn to listen, discriminate, and imitate speech sounds by capitalizing on what little remnant of hearing I had left, amplified with hearing aids. They were usually the longest hours of the week. Once, when my mother announced it was time to go for another lesson at Beebe's, I protested, lamenting, "Beebe give me headache, Beebe give me headache," shaking my head.

If I did well during the lessons, I was rewarded with a vanilla wafer cookie or two (or three if Beebe wasn’t looking), but if I was not working up to my potential, I was reprimanded with a stern look and a "You can do better. Pay more attention next Thursday." At four years of age, however, I was too young to hear the love and concern in Beebe's reprimands. All I heard was the consternation.

Once Beebe went away to Austria to attend a conference with her mentor, Dr. Emil Froeschels, a Viennese otolaryngologist. At our first session upon her return, she had a present for me: a small, golden teddy bear wearing a red scarf. Often Beebe was very serious and determined, but that day she had a smile and a gift from Vienna, and that was when I knew she considered me her friend.

Right now I was in Beebe's office and I was not doing very well with my "S’s" and Beebe was determined that I master the lesson. I sat stock still in my little chair, every pore in my body concentrating.

"Now listen, David. Listen for the 's' in 'baseball,'" Beebe said, tapping her ear with her index finger to indicate, "Listen!"

Without being told, I turned my head to the side so that I wouldn't cheat and lip-read Beebe. Even though she usually covered her mouth with her hand, she sometimes got careless and spread her fingers, thus enabling me (and other children, I imagine) to read her lips through her fingers. It was tempting to try to get away with that, but somehow I knew that in the end I wouldn't be learning to listen if I could lip-read her mouth through her fingers. So I would tell her to close her fingers together so I wouldn't be able to read her lips.

"Baseball," Beebe said, "say 'baseball.'"

I turned around to look at her. "Bay-ball."

"No, no, no... It's baseball, not baay-ball. Let's try that again."

She sat watching me intently. I almost withered under her stare.

"Bay-ball," I repeated, feeling hopeless. It seemed so easy to say it correctly, but sometimes it seemed as though I'd never master it. It just didn't seem fair that I should work so hard sometimes and still get nowhere. Didn't Beebe and my parents know I was trying my best to learn? I knew, however, that I had to keep trying because my parents worked so hard with me at home and I knew that it was the least I could do to sit with Beebe for an hour twice a week and do it her way.

"No, no, David, it's still not right. Why don't you just say the 's' sound right now? Repeat after me: 'sssss.'"...

It was raining outside. I was sitting on a chair in the living room and my mother was on her knees trying to pull my rubber galoshes on over my shoes. It was rough going. We were leaving for another hour of speech and hearing lessons at Beebe's, which, to tell the truth, was the last place in the world I wanted be at that moment. And I'd do anything to get out of it, but I'd tried all the tricks and excuses, and my mother knew better by now than to be fooled by a fake stomachache or dreadful headache.

I looked out the window. It was absolutely dreary. I didn't even want to go outside the door. I wanted to stay inside and watch cartoons and The Three Stooges and The Little Rascals on television, but I knew that today I couldn't. I resigned myself, knowing full well it was off to Beebe I go.

Then, as my mother finished putting my tight galoshes on me, something occurred to me. What if I weren't deaf? What would it be like? I wouldn't have to go for therapy lessons two afternoons a week. I would be able to watch television two extra afternoons a week. I wouldn't have to spend at least an hour or two a night going over my vocabulary and basic math with my father. I looked at my mother. She looked a little tired and I knew she wasn't having a good day either. I felt bad for her. I knew that I required a little extra work and time because I was deaf. Deafness itself never bothered me. It was all the work and all the lessons and all the time that my parents had to put into me that made me wish at times that things were different. Because if they were different, then maybe my mom and I could go for another walk in the woods and we would both have fun together instead of spending another exhausting hour at Beebe's. It would be so much more fun and so less tiring if I weren't deaf, that's all.

So I wondered what it would be like to have normal hearing. Wouldn't it be wonderful to shout suddenly to my parents, "I can hear! I can hear! I don't need my hearing aids anymore!"? Although the word "miracle" wasn't in my vocabulary, it was what I wanted.

My mother looked at me. Suddenly, I forced a look of utter surprise on my face and put my hands to my ears.

"Mom! I can hear! I'm not deaf anymore! I can hear!"

"Really?!" my mom asked, incredulous, but with a note of (could it be?) hope in her voice. Maybe for one crazy moment, she fell for it.

I realized then that I couldn't fool her like that and then disappoint her, and disappointing her was the last thing I wanted to do on a miserable day like today. I calmed down and shrugged. "No," I replied quietly.

She thought nothing of my attempt to fool and please her, for she was already getting my raincoat.

Together my mother and I walked out into the rain and headed toward Beebe's.

"Sssss," I hissed in a good imitation of Beebe's hiss.

"Good! See? You can say the 's'. Now why can't you say it in the middle of a word?" Beebe said in a tone of exasperation.

"I don't know..."

"Never mind. Let's try 'baseball' again"

She put her finger to her ear again to indicate that I was to listen. I turned around obediently so I wouldn't resort to lip-reading.

"Baseball," Beebe uttered and waited patiently for my response.

"Bay-ball." I said and looked anxiously at Beebe to see if I finally got it right.

"Nooo... what is it? Say it one more time..."

"Bay-ball." Why do we keep agonizing ourselves? Let's do something else.

"I don't know why you can't say it in the middle of a word," Beebe said. I could tell that even she was getting a bit tired, but she never gave up so I knew that there was no stopping now.

"Let's see," she continued, "why don't we--"

"Let me try it again one more time," I interrupted.

"All right," she replied, waiting.

"Baseball," I enunciated, and when I said it, I knew it was perfect.

"There! You did it! Again."

Oh, no, I said it once. Isn't that enough?

"Baseball," I said with a smile.

She relaxed a bit. "There. See, I told you you could do it."

As I was leaving her office with my vanilla wafer cookie in hand, Beebe called out to me. I turned around.

"Now, that wasn't so difficult, was it? Good work today. I’ll see you Thursday," she said, smiling with a twinkle in her eyes.

In June 1987, Beebe was our proud and happy guest at my graduation from Harvard University. Rubella may have dealt me a profound hearing loss, severe myopia (count fingers!), and a slight heart murmur, but it hadn’t beaten me.  I still marvel to this day at the sheer stroke of geographic and cosmic good fortune my family enjoyed to live just six blocks from such a pioneer. In 1965, the landscape of deafness was bleak, but Beebe shone a beacon for my parents, my family, for me, and countless other families. Her work and the work of her fellow pioneers Doreen Pollack and Daniel Ling continue to this day across the world.

The last time I saw Beebe was during Christmas 1988. A woman who was never sick a day in her life in all the years I knew her, she was now in rapidly declining health. She asked me what I had gotten for Christmas, and I mentioned a trip to Europe, and then added, “I know. I’m spoiled.”

“But you appreciate it,” Beebe said, smiling softly.

Beebe died in March 1989. She was 80 years old.

I received a cochlear implant in my right ear in 2005 and in my left ear in 2009, and during both rounds received Auditory-Verbal therapy from Sylvia Rotfleisch in Los Angeles, who received her training under Dan Ling. While Sylvia was every bit as demanding as Beebe had been, it was the spirit of Beebe who was very much by my side as I progressed with my cochlear implant rehabilitation with a speed that would have tickled even Beebe.  Learning to hear with cochlear implants was headache-free! All those hours at the low table with Beebe came rushing back to me as I worked with Sylvia, who, sadly, did not reward me with vanilla wafer cookies, but that was okay because the journey is the reward: the cochlear implants brought me home to Beebe, her memory, her legacy, her encouragement, and her love.

The teddy bear remains one of my most cherished possessions.  Its red scarf is long gone, but the memory is still very much with me.

Beebe was right: I do appreciate it-- every day from the bottom of my heart.