THE GYM FOR UNSTRUCTURED PLAYTIME smells like kielbasa. I’m hovering on the edge of the trampoline, ready to rush it in the likely event that my son Miles drop-kicks a ball or clambers up the adjacent pommel horse to launch himself onto a baby’s face.
“More like a pummel horse, am I right?” I ask another mother, making sure to position myself so she’s on my right side, near my good ear.
“This,” she says, with a grand sweep of her arm toward the area of the mat where her son sits whining in a hula hoop, “is kicking my ass.”
“Having them all day is hard,” I say.
Lydia and I have chatted a few times before, exchanged numbers. We want to become better friends; we’re just too exhausted to figure out how to make that friendship happen. She’s a fiddler who once sent me an original song titled “Motherhood Blues.” Her son and my son are the same age—eighteen months—and both have untamed manes. Bangs curtain their eyes. When they jump, it’s like their mullets are attempting to touch.
I circle back to our favorite topic: first haircut. “I just can’t do it,” I start. “Whenever I think about cutting his hair, I feel queasy. Even though this morning, banana fell out of it. He’s basically a fruit tree.”
Lydia is the one who told me about the supposed testing done on American Indian recruits during the Vietnam War. “Soldiers with buzzed heads were left out in the woods to see if they’d wake up when an enemy approached,” she’d said. “They didn’t. They lost their intuition when they lost their hair.”
I suspect that Lydia is more spiritual than me. She posts online about the suffering of rodeo bulls and grows ginger root for its healing properties. While a part of me doubts the plausibility of this never-confirmed recruit testing, another part believes that if hair is an extension of ourselves, it makes sense that follicles can detect vibrations in advance of danger. Whenever she describes her son’s wisps as feelers, I think of what I know of tsunami predictors: frothing bubbles and drawback, the term for when water unexpectedly recedes in advance of the first wave. Tilly Smith was only ten years old when she saw these signs and warned Thai beach-goers of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
I want Miles to have all the help he can get learning this world, which now translates into all the hair he can get. In 2015, Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham determined that more Americans were shot and killed by toddlers than terrorists that year. My son is raucous and curious. He is just as likely to pull the trigger. Still, I’d like him to have an advantage when it comes to sensing and running from other armed preschoolers.
Now Lydia reiterates, “We aren’t going to cut it until he asks us to.”
A FEW DAYS after my gym talk with Lydia, an otolaryngologist tells me I will never regain the hearing I have lost in my left ear. It’s a moderate loss. It happens to about one in five thousand people.
What I no longer have access to in that ear: the delicate jingle of a bracelet, the scrunch of my fingers. What I’ve lost overall: the ability to eavesdrop, the full richness of music in stereo, or the familiar resonance of my voice. I used to think the opposite of sound was silence, but it’s not. The brain compensates for frequency loss by creating its own noise, a tinnitus like a security blanket.
By the time I learn that my hearing loss will be permanent, I have already been living with it for a month. One morning, I woke up with a muffled, plugged sensation. I assumed my ear was clogged with wax—a familiar occurrence—and made an appointment two weeks out. I went about my days in a submerged half-state, my depression tempered by the fact that it was temporary.
In the interim, my husband, Dan, and I took Miles to Niagara Falls. It was too rainy and cold to walk out to Horseshoe Falls, so instead we drove by them, rolling down the windows and slowing the car just enough to listen. I can remember thinking that the water sounded both thunderous and partial, and that I wouldn’t know how to exist semi-deaf, unsure of the direction from which noise emanates and cottoned into isolation.
At what I thought would be a routine appointment to have my ears vacuumed, the doctor shunted me into a small, dark room for an emergency audiogram. I was given headphones and a joystick with a button. A woman behind a glass partition played tones into my ears. I pushed the button when a frequency registered. She enunciated words: take, choice, chalk. I felt a surge of panic as she tested the left ear.
“I’m a poet,” I said, mid-test. It was part plea bargain, part proof that I still loved the words I couldn’t make out.
“Have you had a respiratory illness recently?” the doctor asked, leaning over my audiogram. “Taken any antibiotics?”
“I had pneumonia.”
“Your audiogram looks like a ski slope. Here,” he said, offering me the graph.
“I don’t understand.”
“You have moderate hearing loss in your left ear. We need to order an MRI to rule out an acoustic tumor.”
I focused on a clear jar of Q-tips behind the doctor’s head. They were packed so tightly. How could he possibly remove one without removing them all? Was it only weeks before that I had caught Miles chewing on cotton swabs in our bathroom? I had known he was up to no good, even before walking in, because of the uncharacteristic quiet.
“So: let’s start you on an intense nine-day regimen of oral steroids. There’s a one-in-three chance your hearing will return; it depends on how badly the hairs are damaged. I know this is a lot. Take a moment.”
“Hairs?” I asked.
“Hair cells in the cochlea. They usually stand upright. Like trees.” At this, he held up one palm in profile, a hand in partial prayer. “They translate sounds into electrical impulses.” He wiggled his fingertips. “Some of yours have been flattened.”
MY PARENTS, like so many parents, kept a lock from my first haircut. They tucked it into an envelope with a red, white, and blue insignia on the flap, as if to signify the act of preservation as patriotic. Now that I’m a mother, I realize the sadness that accompanies watching your child grow older. A part of you always resists another birthday. Holding on to hair is one way to freeze joy. Keratin itself is resistant to breakdown. It isn’t uncommon to find hair on skeletal remains. Hair is our last mortal outpost, our long goodbye.
I was in middle school when I first discovered the envelope in a box upstairs. I peeled away the Scotch tape and lifted out my auburn strands, petting them like the fur of a sleeping hamster. In my twenties, I brought the swatch to a hairdresser in the hopes that its color could be replicated. I was jobless and floundering. Wouldn’t life be easier if I could revert to my original highlights? It didn’t work; the tint came out cold and manufactured.
A cottage industry has sprung up around saving baby hair. You can curl it into a European-style bead or entomb it in a vintage ring. You can frame it with stained-glass accents and hang it like a suncatcher. You can custom-design a time capsule from a paint can, or wear it close to your heart in a resin pendant, or cork it in a miniature vial doubly marketed as a cremation memorial if you have lost a pet.
I’m already prone to hoarding. I can’t bring myself to throw away cards and clothes. I keep a collection of discolored childhood stuffed animals because my sunny memories are inseparable from these objects. Stowed away in a dresser drawer is Miles’s umbilical cord stump. It’s hard and desiccated and looks like a raisin, and whenever I take it out to hold, I picture the arresting rings it would make if I skimmed it across the surface of a lake. I panic at the thought of losing it.
One night, I have a dream that I pickle Miles’s hair. I line up mason jars. I boil the water and vinegar and sugar and salt. Wielding miniature tongs, I deposit a single auburn strand into each jar. There’s a smoking cauldron to my back. I’m concocting a fairy tale potion that promises to entomb time in brine.
I DUTIFULLY SWALLOW the steroids for three days but can’t discern any real improvement in my hearing. Too many hours on Internet forums have led me to a dispiriting pictograph of decibel loss and frequency. In the upper right-hand corner, representing high frequency loss, are two eyeless birds. Scattered throughout the chart are other images of privation: rustling leaves, a dripping faucet, whispering lovers.
I phone my friend Shilo. She’s like me, an academic in her late thirties, but she had her kids young. One is in high school, and one is in college. I tell her the story of Miles touching my ear last night and saying the word for the first time.
“I asked him if my hearing would improve. I basically used him like a Magic 8 Ball.”
“What did he say?” Shilo asks.
“No no no no no no!”
“That’s it. You’re leaving the house. We’re hiking Buttermilk Falls.”
Miles is in daycare, so I stuff a backpack with dark chocolate, clementines, and tiny shrimps wrapped in rice paper. It’s early March in Ithaca, and where snow should be on the ground, flowers bloom. The path to the falls is still barricaded with a warning about the penalties of trespassing. We have to squeeze between the gate and the wet embankment, and our ensuing high five is ecstatic.
I’m out of shape and off-balance. We struggle up the stone stairs, the waterfall to our left, until the summit opens up to patches of moss and coltsfoot and periwinkle. Everywhere, green shoots are underfoot. I worry about their longevity with a cold front approaching; this unseasonable respite will end in ice.
Shilo tells me about the time, years ago, when she tore her ACL and could no longer play soccer. “Soccer was a large part of my identity,” she says. “We have a saying in my family. First, you learn to crawl; then, you learn to walk; and when you can run, you learn to play soccer.”
“What do you miss most about it?” I ask.
She hesitates. “The joy.”
Beethoven was almost completely deaf when his Ninth Symphony debuted. A soloist touched his arm to get him to turn around and face the crowd in order to hear the applause. In high school, I played “Ode to Joy” as a first violinist. A cello teacher had to quit because of arthritis in her wrist. I caught her crying one afternoon, out by the traffic circle. Maybe what characterizes joy the most is its departure; maybe we only recognize it once it’s gone. The tender touch of a hand signals for you to wheel around, and there it is, resplendent at your back: the past.
“I’ve been doing something I call The Jingle Test,” I tell Shilo. “I hold up my wedding bracelet to my ear, and I jingle it. I alternate sides. I can’t really hear it in my left ear. If I do, it’s because the sound travels to my right ear unless I plug it. I’ll show you.”
I pull out the bracelet and dangle it next to my bad ear like a limp snake. Shilo looks concerned and unimpressed.
“I can’t stop doing this,” I confess.
We hike for about four hours, meandering switchback trails that circle Lake Treman. When Shilo snaps a photo of a striking constellation of tree lichen, she shows it to me. “It looks like an ear,” she says. I know she’s trying to get me to see the beauty in my impairment.
It’s quiet on the trails, and sometimes, we walk in silence. Still, my ear hums, a refrigerator I can’t unplug. At one point, I’m annoyed that we’ve stopped so long for Shilo to examine a fern. I slump down and arrange a clementine peel into spokes in the dirt.
“What if I have to live like this?” I ask.
“Close your eyes for a minute,” she says. “Try something.”
I comply because Shilo is one of the smartest people I know. The air smells citrusy from my fingers, and I rock side-to-side, a habit I developed from a year spent swaying a strapped-to-my-chest baby to sleep. The wind picks up, whipping hair into my mouth. I’m listless, even bored, until it occurs to me that I’m bored to the sound of trees creaking.
WHEN I WAS TWENTY-FOUR, I discovered a hair growing out of my lower back. I turned to show my boyfriend, who was drying his face with a washcloth. “Look, spider’s silk,” I bragged, lifting my shirt. He was lanky and angular; his chest, smooth. He wanted to remove it with tweezers.
I slid the hair gently between the tips of my pointer finger and thumb. It was practically invisible in the bathroom light. When I straightened it, turning my body to find a good view, it shimmered taut. I felt like a marionette in control of its own body. I felt like I was radiating energy.
My boyfriend had just begun flossing when I felt the hair ripped from my body, right from the root. As he held it up for close inspection, my loss doubled in the mirror: power and power reflected. “Got it,” he said, pretending to work the hair back and forth between his bottom teeth.
We kept it in the medicine cabinet for weeks, weighed down underneath a bar of rosewood hotel soap. The hair blanched the color of an arctic fox pelt. I snuck periodic looks at it until it finally lost its pulse.
I’VE NEVER HAD AN MRI before. The technician explains to me that the nature of my scan doesn’t permit headphones, so no music. I’m asked to remove all jewelry. Before I take off my bracelet, I do one last jingle test as a kind of Hail Mary.
Inside the tube, everything is white. I’m more aware of my body because of its restricted motion. I’m a nerve encased in a myelin sheath. I’m the invisible part of a hair shaft. To ward off claustrophobia, I close my eyes and think about my son running in circles and laughing, his plastic hammer held high, a joyful Thor.
Miles has none of the pessimism of his parents. Strangers either mistake him for a girl—“It’s the long hair!” they apologize—or comment on his unbridled energy. He steamrolls sidewalks with curiosity, moving in excited bursts punctuated by attentive pauses to regard details. He’s a fundamentally happy kid.
“Where does that come from?” Dan and I ask each other. It seems more likely to come from his hair than from us.
I worry that Miles’s mullet is the wellspring of his temperament. I wonder about the subtle ways we modulate after our bodies are compromised.
The MRI technician has his own young son, a fact he revealed to me while reviewing my medical questionnaire and learning that I am still breastfeeding. Maybe this is the reason he pulls me aside, after the scan is over, to break protocol. “I’m not supposed to do this, but if I had seen anything of concern, I would tell you.”
WE’VE DRIVEN DOWN to Binghamton for the afternoon, to bring Miles to the Discovery Center, an interactive children’s museum. Dan is keeping him occupied in a café adjacent to a strip mall while I go in search of an emergency avocado—Miles won’t stop asking for one.
“Vo-caaa.” He has a handful of words that arrived in a vocabulary explosion, and like an audiogram tester, he says each one to me in the expectation that I parrot it back.
He doesn’t have a preference for whether or not we cut his hair, though. I’ve asked him countless times as I pull it back from his face, trying to simulate a lightweight, unencumbered feeling, but either he doesn’t answer or he moves equally between yes and no. Maybe he doesn’t understand.
When I see the discount hair salon across from the supermarket, I check to see if they take walk-ins. They do. I find my husband, back at the cafe table, wearing Miles on his shoulders. “Let’s just cut it already,” I tell him. I’m so anxious that I’ve left an imprint on the avocado, like it’s a stress ball.
The salon is empty on a Sunday, but tufts of hair litter the floor. A woman with blonde tips and dark roots squats eye-level with my son to offer him a blue lollipop. First hard candy, first haircut. A babyish wisp jabs at Miles’s lashes, and I instinctively brush it back from his forehead. I think of old warning labels on Joy dish detergent that read, Keep Joy out of the eyes of children. Now I can’t remember if this copy is real or if I’ve made it up.
The hairdresser fills out a keepsake card and drapes a gown printed with elephants and deer and zebras over Miles’s head. The collar emerges out of trunk and tusks so his face is meant to look like an elephant’s face. “Elephants have great memories!” I say to him, which comes out sounding cruel. Will he remember this? Do I want him to?
He starts to cry, but he doesn’t pitch and thrash as he does when we restrain him in a highchair. Instead, he’s still. There’s no risk of the scissors slipping, but his keening is insistent. I fight the urge to whisk him out of the chair and run. The woman’s hands move in flashes around the base of his neck, his ears, his forehead, and the transformation is quick, like a sped up video of origami folding.
Buying the avocado, I was struck by the intensity of low-tone wind chimes coming from a far aisle. I’ve learned this is called hyperacusis—to be sensitive to sounds that never seemed loud before. It can be a painful compensation, but it’s also a valuable reveal, a new frontier of processing. The steroids didn’t work. My hearing isn’t coming back. I don’t have an acoustic neuroma, but there are unidentified bright objects on my MRI dismissed as non-specific and normal.
“Unidentified bright objects,” I said to Dan when I saw the results. “My brain is the night sky.”
I have this mental image of Miles on Easter Sunday, breaking free from the egg hunt hosted by our local fire department. All of the other toddlers stayed to turn over hay in search
of plastic eggs while Miles slipped out of the corral and ran full-force toward an open field. The morning was windy and overcast. His hair sprocketed from his head, vivid and electric in the gray light. The joy that propelled him seemed intangible. It radiated out of every pore. In that moment, his long hair was just another surface sign of his rapture, an indication that the joy erupting out of him is bigger than his body, bigger than the sky.
“Now you’ll be able to run even faster,” I whisper to him in the hairdresser’s chair. “Streamlined.” I think about how an entire new starfish can regenerate from a single lost arm so long as the central ring is preserved.
I’m holding the hand that clutches the lollipop. Cut hairs have attached to it. I turn my good ear towards him, wait.