Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Our Hometown Tree

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree beginning its journey from my hometown of Flanders, NJ

Last night started like most other weeknights: I was hungry in bed trying to convince myself NOT to have ice cream (FAIL), Jeff was in the living room reading about nineteenth century Russia, and I tried my best to maintain optimal focus between concurrent games of Draw Something and Bravo reality shows.  Then something magical happened.   Lighting up my facebook news feed like a Christmas tree, was just that: a Christmas tree, but this was no ordinary tree—THIS was a 10 ton Norway Spruce from my hometown of Flanders, New Jersey, selected as this year’s iconic Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

My parents still live in Flanders, while many of my classmates from high school live in or nearby the suburban town located in northwestern New Jersey.  The town and its surrounding areas were not spared from Hurricane Sandy’s destructive path, and while my parents were extremely fortunate to lose electricity for only 48 hours, I learned through facebook that many of my old friends went up to almost two weeks without power.  Many also waited for hours to fill their gas tanks, suffered through long trips at the grocery store and were unable to return to their schools, workplaces, and businesses.  In fact, many friends had their power restored just the day before the wondrous news of the Rockefeller tree.  I imagine that going from heartache and exhaustion to civic pride was a real morale booster for the Flanders residents.

It was for me too.  Four hours north of Flanders in my upstate NY town, I had been feeling kind of glum.  And to make it worse, I felt guilty for feeling this way because I knew my troubles were minuscule compared to those trying to move past the hurricane.  When the weatherman warned of Sandy’s potential damage,  I absolutely went out and bought an extensive supply of bottled water and groceries, but Sandy’s presence in my town was nothing more than a somewhat windy rain shower.  There was no damage-- aside from what I was viewing as an ongoing catastrophe on the right side of my head.  Now in November, I had reached a plateau with my cochlear implant progress, and even more embarrassing is that in recent weeks when I struggle to hear, I have suddenly burst into tears, a totally unfortunate and unprofessional occurrence.

But how can you be sad when an 80-foot tree from your hometown will soon be the most famous Christmas tree in the world?  You can’t. Upon sharing the excitement in my own facebook status, I started daydreaming how amazing it would be for all my friends of Flanders past to come together in Manhattan to view the tree- OUR tree.  Then I took the daydream to the next level, imagining that I would sing “O Holy Night” at the tree lighting.   And then I started laughing at the thought of us all ice skating together beneath the spruce, similar to how we had skated in middle school at a place that I hold near and dear to my heart: The Hackettstown Roller Rink.

During my middle school years, I spent many Friday nights at this establishment.  For a boy-crazy pre-teen like myself, it was heaven.  Sporting a kickass bodysuit or perhaps a hooded baja shirt,  I would glide around that rink to tunes by Ace of Base and Crash Test Dummies, strategically positioning myself to grab a nearby boy for the much anticipated couple skate.  Young couples would demonstrate their love to each other when the rink dimmed the lights, skating hand in hand to “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, or “I Swear” by All-4-One.  And sometimes, we would use this opportunity to exit the rink and kiss by the video games, fulfilling all of my dreams of middle school romance.

I then started thinking about my hearing in relation to the rink.  It was certainly a noisy place with all the kids, and the loud music, and such environments are usually not my favorite locales because of the background noise.  Maybe it was because I was skating (or kissing) more than talking, or maybe my hearing was just so much better than it is now, but I can’t remember even thinking about my hearing at the roller rink—a much different situation from today, as I rarely go an hour without silently acknowledging and damning my disability.

Thanks to facebook, another wave of nostalgia washed over me. My high school boyfriend, Andrew, had liked my status about the tree from Flanders, and my thoughts shifted from middle school years at the roller rink to high school years when he and I had dated.  Andrew was in the class ahead of mine, played on the varsity soccer team and drove a sweet Grand Am.  He had earned the nickname Rico Suave, I think because he would unabashedly sing the god-awful song on demand (fortunately he did not look like Gerardo), and also, because he grew up in an Italian/Spanish household and acknowledged women with over-dramatic charm and flattery.  And I loved him.  For being 15 and 16 years old, we thought we were so mature, not knowing at the time that adult relationships rarely include constant love notes, dramatic marathon sessions on the telephone (YOU hang up first.  No, YOU hang up first!), and the hormonal drive to touch one another as often as possible.

By the time I was in high school, I had developed a greater awareness of my hearing impairment.  It didn’t interfere all that much with my teenage activities (I spent hours on the telephone, for example), but there were minor instances when I assumed my hearing was obvious to everyone, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed, and totally uncool.   As Andrew and I grew closer, I one day mustered the courage to tell him about my hearing, which of course led to a crying fit despite Andrew’s reaction of absolute indifference.  Looking back, this might have marked the first time I honestly revealed my truth to someone.   Sixteen years have passed since then, and I now recognize that any time I “come out” to someone, it never results in the person not liking me.  Still even today, even with this blog, I still fight the shame that comes with revealing my true self to people.

Some more about Andrew: I’m surprising myself by even including him in the blog.  Our breakup was just as dramatic as the relationship that preceded it, and up until meeting my husband, I mourned that Andrew and I would likely never speak again. Though I have not seen Andrew in more than a decade, he and I have started to reconnect in the last year via facebook, and it's an unforeseen joy to read posts that he is advancing in his career and look at pictures of him and his adorable wife and feel genuine happiness for the boy that shaped so much of my teenage experience.   When I started the blog, he sent me an encouraging message wishing me the best.  He also gave me his blessing to include stories of him in the blog (he was never very shy, after all) and assured me my hearing had always been a non-factor for him, a sentiment that the insecure teenager in me truly appreciates.

Cut down today and shipped to Manhattan, the heavy tree from Flanders will soon be admired by millions of people.  It will serve as a symbol of joy, and of tradition, and for many looking up at its white lights this holiday season, it will serve as a symbol of hope. Whether or not I get to view the hometown tree in Rockefeller Center, I am grateful it has already reminded me of my roots and how far I’ve come. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lessons From Jamaica: A Six Month Update

Kathryn on her wedding day and me in Montego Bay, Jamaica
Hi there.  Remember me?  I realize a long time has passed since I last posted.

A week ago, I drafted an apology for the lack of updates.  I started by explaining how “insanely busy” I’ve been throughout September and October.  It was similar to a recent talk I had with a personal trainer at the gym.   First you should know this guy was not ­­my trainer- I’m not that cool or rich.  Rather, I was waiting for someone at the gym, and the trainer was nearby, so I chatted with him.  I initiated the conversation by telling him how I really want to make it to the gym more, but I am just so busy with this, and that, and this…   He listened to the tales of my complicated life, then shrugged and said, “If you want to be here, you’d be here.  There are many people busier than you and they get here.  You have a lot of excuses.”

I guess I could have been pissed off, but I tend to appreciate straightforward people.  And he was right.  I was making excuses.

The same goes for writing… I love it, and I love this blog.  If I really wanted to, I’m sure I could have posted an update.  Lord knows I spend enough time on Facebook commenting on photos.  So what has been holding me back?

When I started the blog, I wanted to inform my family, friends, and colleagues of my decision to get a cochlear implant.  I figured it was easiest to update everyone all at once as social media carried my news from person to person.  It worked, but once I published, I also realized the weight of my shame as a hearing impaired person, its heavy presence on my shoulders day after day, and the constant voice whispering, even in the presence of success, “You’re not good enough.”  Sharing my feelings via the blog was an incredibly freeing experience, an occurrence I credit for changing my life.  I wasn't just ready to hear, but also to heal.

Following surgery, my activation and initial weeks in rehabilitation proved to be challenging, and as frustrated as I was with the new cochlear implant, I at least recognized as a writer that my experiences made for a good story.  I was also generally optimistic.  I figured in the months that followed, I would persevere through my trials and tribulations.  I predicted that one day I would say to you: Yes, the beginning of this journey SUCKED, but LOOK AT ME NOW!   I’d be sharing stories of how I talk for hours on the phone with my friends, or how when driving in the car, I pick up all the lyrics to a song, or how my new hearing makes me feel fully competent, completely included, connected and whole.

I tend to describe my cochlear implant success based on how well I communicate in “bigger” milestone events as opposed to everyday occurrences.  I realize this analysis might not be the most accurate, but I can’t help but put more emphasis on the significance of hearing during special occasions.  Post-activation, it was my son’s communion and my daughter’s birthday party—two events surrounded by a storm of unrecognizable noise.  NOT a great hearing weekend.  Then came my first family vacation with the implant, and the reality that life with a processor was often inconvenient.  I mourned the loss of natural hearing I once had in my right ear.  I was also saddened by the difficulty I experienced trying to understand multiple voices in a single setting. 

With each milestone that passed, I hoped the next big event would be better.  May events were difficult, I still struggled in June, but with the arrival of summer, and a few different mappings, I thought I was on a better track. Though I still wasn’t where I wanted to be, people around me were noticing a difference, saying I was more relaxed and seemed to understand more than when I was without the implant.

My BIGGEST event of 2012, the one occurring a whole six months post-activation, was the wedding of my best friend, Kathryn.  She and I talked about the occasion before I even went through surgery, and I’d say things like, “I’ll be able to HEAR at your wedding!  YAYYY!”

This was NOT just any wedding.  Oh no.  This was a full five-day event in Montego Bay, Jamaica, complete with all-inclusive cocktails, a trip to the spa, uninterrupted, child-free time with my husband, and more than 70 guests joining for what would be a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.  In my airplane group alone were four sets of parents collectively leaving seven children ages 8 and under with trusted babysitters.  This does NOT happen every day, friends, and I promised to embrace every second of Jamaica to the fullest.

And I did.  The wedding was beautiful, the resort was amazing… but it’s not a complete story if I didn’t admit to the cochlear implant frustrations.  First, before I even made it to LaGuardia Airport en route to Jamaica, the ear hook on my processor broke.   Of course, it was my last small one.  I was forced to use a large hook for the remainder of the trip, resulting in an awkward fit around my ear.  I spent the first two days at the beach feeling my processor dangling from my head, petrified it was going to get too wet and no longer work.  But I didn’t sweat it… it was the trip of a lifetime, and in the days that followed, I didn’t wear it at the pool or beach.  Was it hard to hear?  Yes, but I was in Jamaica.  No problem, Mon.  Plus there were endless frozen drinks.

I was able to push the processor frustration aside, but another remained.  I had anticipated hearing much better WITH the processor than what was actually occurring.  I expected success in the airport (I had never been able to hear in an airport before), but I found it just as difficult to communicate as it had been in pre-implant life.  I also found group conversations to be more difficult than I expected.

At dinner one night at a restaurant at our resort, I sat among some of my favorite people in the world—beloved family members, my best friends, my husband’s best friends.  Conversation was occurring all around me in various directions, and several times, people had said something to me but I failed to understand.  For a few seconds, I let my frustration show, and admitted to the table I was having a lot of trouble.  As soon as I said it, I felt the tears coming.  

 I was NOT going to cry in Jamaica, I had told myself, and I excused myself from the dinner to shake it off in the ladies’ room.  I later realized the tears were not just because I hope to do better, but because I realized, others so wanted it to be better for me too.  I saw the hope in each person’s face that surrounded me at that dinner table.  I often cry when I feel loved, and that night I definitely did. 

The next day- the wedding day- Kathryn had gone to her suite to start getting ready.  It was midday as I sat by the pool when suddenly, those tears returned.  But this time, there was no shaking it off.  This time, they flowed freely and uncontrollably.

The few women around me understood I was emotional because my best friend was getting married.  I blubbered on and on about how much we had been through together,  how she had been by my side at my wedding, and a bunch of other dramatic-girl sentences that left all of us in bathing suits sniffling and hugging while slurping our daiquiris.

But it was more than that.

Perhaps prompted by the previous night at dinner, I had been thinking about the cheerleaders in my life.  I thought about how Kathryn had always wanted the best for me when it came to my hearing.  Having lived together for four years during college, she knew of my situation during a time when I spoke with very few other people about it.  Her understanding of me wasn’t just because I shared my feelings with her, but because she saw it.  She LIVED it.  And in many circumstances, she was my lifeline, filling in the missing pieces when I didn’t understand, rephrasing or repeating when I needed it.  Above all, I knew she didn’t see me as “the hearing impaired friend,” but just as Pam.  I’ve been blessed to have developed other similar relationships since that time, but considering how special Kathryn’s and my friendship is, and how really, she served as the first person I truly “came out” to, it was completely justifiable that I turned into an emotional basketcase three hours before the wedding.  I cried from a place of gratitude.

So why haven’t I written?  Maybe it’s because the writer in me felt that the story was not getting any more exciting.  Maybe I felt I was not only letting myself down, but letting others down, as well.  Six months post-activation is really no different than three months ago.  Sometimes life with the implant is fine, and other times, it’s annoying.  I remain grateful I can hear the phone ring, but totally pissed that I can’t talk on the phone without struggling.

Speaking of phones, I recently talked with my friend Kathryn, now  married and settling into life after Jamaica.  We don’t speak on the phone though… rather, we text each other for hours at a time, often providing one another with amazing commentary during Real Housewives episodes.

In our last texting exchange, we talked about continuing to motivate each other to work out, to maybe do a half marathon soon… and at the end of the conversation, she suggested we put a phone call- a REAL one-  in our schedules.  She followed up by saying, “Who cares if you can’t hear me?  We can text about it after.”

At this point in the journey, I seem to be at a plateau in the climb.  Still those who love me continue to be patient and cheer for me, and even push me to try harder.  I am grateful because frankly, I need it.  The challenge continues, but I try to remember what my friend Kathryn tells me: “You’ll get there.”