The Sounds of Christmas
A Short Story
‘We need to keep you busy,’ signed my husband David. ‘Take your mind off tomorrow. We’ll go and buy the Christmas tree.’
Even on the way to the garden centre, it was impossible not to worry. We’d been on countdown for weeks, and the tension grew as, slowly, weeks became days, days became hours, and soon would become minutes, then just seconds.
Three weeks ago, you see, I’d had an operation for the fitting of the internal part of my Cochlear Implant. I have been Profoundly Deaf all my life and have worn conventional hearing aids. The Cochlear Implant, if it worked, might help me hear many things in a new way, my children’s’ voices, my husband, birds, traffic, the radio, the phone; the list went on. However, it wasn’t until tomorrow when they fitted and ‘switched on’ the external processor that I would have any idea if it worked, if I could cope with it, if it helped at all.
We arrived at the garden centre and started to go through a bewildering selection of trees. My daughter was drawn to a tiny, needle-less twig which, apparently, she ‘felt sorry for’ because ‘no-one would want it.’ I was busy explaining why this wasn’t for us when my son pulled my arm.
‘Look, Mum: a robin,’ he signed. It sat on the branch, it’s beak open, throat quivering, as it sang.
I’d always believed hearing was so much more than sounds going into your ear. Take this robin: deep inside I could feel it’s song, tight and crisp, a brightly coloured rainbow rising and falling. It always gave me a sense of hope, that things would be well. However, as I watched it today, I started to panic. What if I discovered with my implant that I’d got it all wrong, that the robin sounded nothing like I’d imagined? My mind raced onto the voices of the children, David, the whole album of sounds I’d created in my head. What if they all sounded totally different? It would be like stepping out of a Tardis on to a strange planet. I’d be lost.
Trying to bury the thought, I went back to choosing the tree. Back home, we dug the decorations out of the loft and decorated the tree. The process is never the cosy event I imagine. I had to untangle rows and bickering as well as the lights. Still, later, when the warm glow flooded the room, all was forgotten until we repeated it next year.
After putting up the tree, as the children watched ‘Frozen’, David and I wrote the Christmas cards. As always, I wrote the cards; David addressed the envelopes and put on the stamps. I’d never been organised enough to do any kind of family letter, so it took a while as I scribbled updates in each card.
The picture on one card was of a rather old-fashioned, out-of-scale robin. Mum, like me, loved robins; it had to be for her. I picked up my pen. ‘Happy Christmas, Mum. Not long now until we see you.’ I paused. ‘We saw a robin today. I thought of our walk on the downs on Christmas Day. I’m nervous, Mum. I’m glad you will be with me. Lots of love, Jodi xx.’ Like me, Mum was Profoundly Deaf and we were very close. Often, we could look and know what the other was thinking, feeling. I hoped she would understand what I was trying to say.
We left early the next morning for the hospital. The children had a day off school; everyone wanted to come. To be honest, I’d rather have gone on my own. Reception was decorated with a Christmas tree and old-fashioned paper bells. I guessed they’d been coming out of a box annually for a very long time.
The audiologist came to collect us. We all followed her into a small, windowless room. The first thing she did was to place a device that looked very like my hearing aid behind my ear. The unusual part was the small brown coil which she attached to the side of my head, held by a magnet. I turned around to give the children a reassuring smile. They’d seen pictures of all this, but it must be very different seeing it all on their mother. They were sitting, like David, perched on the edge of the plastic chairs. Nobody dared breathe.
‘It’s going to take a while,’ I signed, and they all sat back.
Eventually the processor was switched on. Despite the audiologist warning me that she would start quiet, I panicked when I heard nothing. I was convinced it had failed. However, as the volume increased, I heard a succession of strange beeps and high noises. It may be odd, but at least it was something.
‘Are you OK?’ the audiologist asked.
I stared at her. I’d heard her voice. I’d really not expected to. She sounded how I imagined a robot must: very high-pitched, but the point was that I could hear her. I swung round in my chair and looked at the children and David.
‘Are you alright?’ asked David, his face creased with concern. I nodded, then burst into tears. David and the children came over to me. The children spoke. ‘Mum, are you alright?’ ‘Mum, can you hear me?’
It was overwhelming, and wonderful. The voices may be higher than I imagined, but it was them: my children, my husband. I didn’t need to see them to recognise their voices.
‘How do we sound?’ asked David.
‘Perfect,’ I said, and started to cry again: tears of relief, as well as joy.
However, as we left the hospital, I felt the niggles of apprehension: fears I knew would not be settled until I went home to Mum and up on the downs.
We travelled to Mum’s on Christmas Eve. It was a long journey and the traffic was heavy. As soon as we reached the ferry terminal, though, I felt that familiar buzz of excitement. It had been special growing up on the Isle of Wight: this was my island; I was going home. As it was Christmas, the ferry was packed with cars and people. This was my first ferry journey wearing my implant. I felt the familiar vibrations of the ferry, the heat from bodies pushed together. But I hadn’t realised just how noisy it all was. Children were screaming; frazzled parents shouted from the coffee queue, competing with safety announcements that only the elderly couple sitting opposite us seemed to be listening to. I made a mental note to tell the kids that these were the people to follow if an alarm went off.
Mum still lived in the house I had grown up in: a large old house on the downs. As we pulled into the driveway, I saw the missing tiles over the porch, the dead plants in the pots, but for all that I understood why mum was still here, why she never downsized. Behind the house were the downs, a place we both loved. I knew Mum was still up the downs most days with her cocker spaniel, Lola. How could she ever leave these hills?
The other parked cars told me that my brother and sisters, with their children, had arrived. I took a deep, breath, prepared for chaos. Mum came out, Lola at her heels, and greeted the children and David with the usual hugs. I noticed that she was wearing her hearing aids; she didn’t always, as everybody signed and she said the noise gave her a headache. She held out her arms. Her warm embrace told me more than words ever could. Lola, not to be left out, pushed herself between us. Smiling, I leant down and stroked her silky black ears and soft white head.
‘Come on,’ Mum signed. We followed her in. The noise level made understanding speech, even with my implant, impossible. To begin with, some of the family remembered to sign and look at me when they spoke so that I could lip read. However, as Christmas Eve wore on and more wine was drunk, these things were forgotten. I felt myself start to retreat, just as I had as a child. Then I looked over at Mum. She winked and I felt myself relax. Mum was there: she understood; I was not alone.
Christmas Day was the usual high, chaotic but happy start, followed by a slightly flat, tired late morning, but we all raised our game again for lunch. After this, everyone settled to watch a film or sleep. It was at that moment that Mum came over and touched my arm. She gestured to the window. My heart raced: it was time.
Outside, the fresh downs air blew away the stuffiness and noise of the house. Mum was fitter than me, so I struggled a bit to keep up with her and Lola. At the top of the hill we both stood very still. In the distance we could see where the grey-blue sea met the sky. Up here was the freest, most embracing place in the world. Mum looked around. ’A kestrel?’ she signed. Then I saw it, hovering. I heard for the first time the excited ‘klee’ of its call, but Mum had known it was there before me. She once told me that sound was like a ghost: sometimes you could feel its presence; up here it was true for her.
It happened again with a pheasant. For the first time, I heard its riotous crackling sound. A screeching above came from some crows. I shivered: they sounded as sinister as I’d imagined. ‘Creepy, aren’t they?’ signed Mum. She was right.
Slowly, I realised that while many things up here had sounds I’d never heard before, it wasn’t like going to a strange land. It felt wonderfully familiar, it was like I was coming home. Mum touched my arm. In the blackberry bush was a robin, his chest puffed out, beak open. I held my breath and listened. To my relief, the song was even more beautiful than I’d imagined. Inside, I felt warm and at peace. I looked at Mum. She was smiling like me.
‘It’s just as beautiful as I thought. I was worried I might have got it wrong.’ I signed.
Mum shook her head. ‘No, that’s impossible. What’s inside you shapes what you hear. You’re the same Jodi before and after your implant. You have always been able to experience beauty. Today you hear new layers of sound. I’m so pleased for you but, tell me, inside, what do you feel when you hear the robin?’
I paused. ‘The same as before: a sense of hope. I feel safe, loved.’
‘Exactly. That’s how it makes me feel as well. You and I are close not simply because we’re Deaf. We’re alike inside. So things make us feel the same and that, Jodi, will never change.’
For a moment it was as if the world held its breath. The wind dropped, nature paused. Like sound, each silence is different. This one wrapped itself around us like a warm blanket.
Seeing us so still, Lola left the smells she was chasing and came running over, guessing it was nearly time to leave. Mum and I linked arms and started down the path. Maybe more than any other year we felt at peace with each other and the world. I looked back and saw the robin, still singing. I silently thanked him for the gift he gave me and everyone who would listen this Christmas: the gift of hope, of feeling safe and loved.
I hope you have enjoyed “The Sounds of Christmas”. There is a longer story “Holly’s Perfect Christmas?” in my collection of short stories “Making Changes” which you will find by clicking on the cover below.