Douglas Mine, a former foreign correspondent, shares this memoir about meeting his Italian wife, starting a life together, and the honest emotions that accompany finding out, at age fifty-five, that you’re going to be a father again. — This memoir originally appeared on The Big Roundtable, a digital publishing platform that aims to connect passionate nonfiction writers with readers who will support their work. If you enjoyed this story, you can visit The Big Roundtable here and contribute to the author directly. The funding allows the author to continue reporting stories you’d love to read.
I’m pretty sure our fourth son, who wears a circular radio transmitter attached to the side of his head by way of a subcutaneous magnet, will not use the burr-head haircut his older brothers gladly sported between the ages of five and twelve. It’s not that the little guy, Theo, would mind. He’s unselfconscious about the thing he calls his apparecchio, the external part of a cochlear implant, which also has surgically installed cranial and trans-cranial elements. But Nicoletta, the boys’ mother and my wife, likes the way Teíto’s silky brown hair partially hides the half-dollar-sized disk and the dark gray crescent of a capsule (tiny microphone and micro-processor) hooked over his left ear. If he had that Marine cut, the device would be too obvious, she says. On that small head, “It would jump out at you and become the first thing you see, and the defining thing about him.” As usual, she’s right.
Bruno, Joseph, and Tobias, who as I write this are nineteen, eighteen, and seventeen, were all happy to sit on a stool once a month or so throughout their elementary school years (GW Carver in Miami), and even into middle school, to be shorn by dad with his trusty electric clippers. It’s the haircut I’ve given myself for the past few decades because of its simplicity, and in those days when the big guys were small, there was nothing wrong with being like pop. Everyone says all four of our sons are good-looking, a handsome mix of mom’s Italian and my mongrel American WASP. They have pleasantly shaped skulls. So a closely cropped hairstyle, or non-style, didn’t look weird. Even as little boys they seemed to appreciate the absence of hassle it entails.
Who knows if Theo, who is four-and-a-half, will want a burr-head when he’s an adolescent? Most of the kids you see walking around these days have wires attached to their noggin anyway, buds stuck in their ears. Maybe in a decade Theo will think it somehow hip, in a Robocop way, to flaunt his technology and be way up front about his deafness.
Which really isn’t deafness anymore. Thanks to the implant, he hears quite well, at least with regard to the spoken word.
That’s what this marvelous contraption was invented for—to allow its user to perceive language, to “hear” human verbalization, to learn to understand what people are saying and in so doing develop the capacity to speak and become integrated into society. The method both approximates and circumvents the (here un-functioning) biological components of natural audition, an astounding process common to all mammals in which physical signals—vibrations—run through the ear and the timpani and the cochlea. There, miniscule hair-like cilia cells convert the message into low-grade electricity and pass it on to the acoustic nerve, for relay to the gray chunk that relates that info to the myriad other sorts of perception, instinct, thought, etc., flashing along the convoluted cerebral circuitry.
In Theo’s case, the mic behind the ear picks up sounds, prioritizing language, and the processor produces a code that travels on the four-inch wire to the transmitter for “broadcast” across the centimeter or so separating the disc from the receiver glued into a depression scraped into the skull and covered with scalp. The radio-wave step is necessary because there’s no way to have a watertight physical connection between components on opposite sides of the protective sheath that is our skin. The embedded receiver catches the transmission, processes it again, and shoots the data along another wire through a tiny hole drilled in the cranium to the inner ear. This metal thread, encrusted with electrodes, winds through the cochlea, where auditory cells are stimulated electrically and the message hops the train of the acoustic nerve.
Theo was not born deaf. He began losing his hearing at around sixteen or eighteen months, by which time he was saying “mamma” and “ciao.” It took Nico and me a while to realize what was happening. After a period of having to call him with an ever-louder voice, then of his not turning around even if his name was shouted at his back, we had a preliminary check-up of sorts with an otolaryngologist acquaintance whose two grammar-school boys were doing an hour a week of playtime-cum-English lesson with Bruno. Sonia, la dottoressa, came over and we engaged in the empirical procedure of sneaking up behind an otherwise engaged Theo and whacking pots with spoons and clapping lids like cymbals. Yes, Sonia said, he definitely is at the least very hard of hearing.
But this story is not about Theo’s yearlong gradual slide into deafness, or the way that condition has been virtually overcome with amazing modern technology and the expert medical attention provided by the Italian national healthcare system. I have to back up, because right there after saying he wasn’t born deaf I really do have to say that Theo came close to not being born at all.
Part 2 coming next week…
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