When the music disappeared

The Elora quarry became a hotspot for anyone looking for a rush and a quick jump after water filled it, turning it into a pristine blue lake. With sheer walls extending down to the bottom of the pit, the abandoned cliffs were about as safe for jumping off of as one could get.

It would have been some time in the early 1980s when Peter took a trip to the quarry with his girlfriend. They were in their early 20s and they had both worked at an overnight summer camp where they had first met. She worked on the waterfront as a lifeguard, he ran the canoe trips. This was their world.

So when they got to the cliffs, Peter did what he had done dozens of times before. He took a short breath and leapt off the edge — his wiry body whizzing through the open air and sandy-brown bowl cut hair whipping wildly as he fell.

The impact from hitting the water hurt his ear more than he’d expected. But he was no stranger to a bit of pain and brushed the incident off. It wasn’t until his girlfriend, Lise, found blood on his pillow that night that they realized something had gone wrong.

Peter had punctured his eardrum. But besides some serious pain, nothing changed for him.

The real troubles with his ears would not begin for more than a decade.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first realized my father was losing his hearing. But he does — Christmas Day, 1994.

All I remember is him being able to hear normally. When I was a kid, we would all sit around the dinner table and there would always be music blasting from the living room on the other side of the house. It never used to bother him. So as a child, I didn’t understand why my mom stopped playing the music while we ate.

Now I know it was because he couldn’t focus on conversation and music at the same time.

Peter Wetselaar

Peter Wetselaar started to lose his hearing in 1994. (Courtesy Peter Wetselaar)

By the time I was halfway through elementary school, my dad had a hearing aid in one ear. He started learning to lip-read, a skill he developed quickly. My father doesn’t like to admit weakness — a trait I probably inherited — so a lot of the time he covered it. He got so good at lip-reading that we were often fooled into thinking he had heard us.

But then there would be the times that I spoke with a hand over my mouth or called to him without making eye contact and he was unaware of what I said. And I knew.

The original diagnosis was Ménière’s disease, which causes vertigo, ringing in the ears and fluctuating hearing loss. In the early days, doctors were fairly sure that was his problem. When they heard about the cliff-jumping incident, they believed that the damage to his eardrum had caused the hearing loss. But they eventually moved away from that theory.

Right now, no one has a clear definition of what happened to my dad and why he can’t hear us.

By the end of elementary school, my parents had split up, my dad had remarried. He was also completely deaf in one ear, and the other wasn’t much better. It was a busy few years.

I remember my stepmom started buying books on American Sign Language (ASL), which we started using to learn to communicate with him. I’m still not fluent in ASL but my family and I learned the alphabet and some words and phrases that come up a lot.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” my stepmom would sign.

“Let’s make popcorn,” I’d sign back. “I’ll grab some pops.”

It wasn’t exactly Hemingway, but we got by. Between rudimentary ASL, dad’s lip-reading and what little help his hearing aids were, we were able to communicate.

There were funny moments, despite the grimness.

One night, dad had gotten a little standing, wireless microphone, which sat on the dinner table. It transmitted to his hearing aid and filtered out background noise so he could focus on conversation.

His best friend Colin came over one of the first nights we tried it out. After dad explained the microphone, Colin grabbed it, leaned in close and looked from side to side.

“Red leader,” he said with a smirk. “Red leader, red leader.”

Everyone laughed, but the two friends laughed the hardest. Dad never lost his sense of humour.

Everything changed with the first surgery.

Not all at once. Not overnight. But little by little, day by day.

It seems crazy to think of those early days before the surgery. The worst of them was when he would miss conversations entirely and when you could see the frustration on his face.

In 2005, just before I started high school, Dad got his first cochlear implant. It was the early days for the fledgling technology, but the principle was the same. Using a bionic implant in the cochlea, a shell-shaped bone in the inner ear covered in tiny hairs that is central to the hearing system, you could duplicate the effects of a normally functioning cochlea. The science is complicated, but the result is not. Cochlear implants can let the deaf hear.

That concept was lost on me as a kid. I just remember the staples in the side of his head after his first surgery. He went out of his way to gross me out with them.

He would have two more surgeries at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital — one to replace a failing implant and another to make him one of the first in Canada to have bilateral implants, or implants in both ears. The long-term conclusions on the efficacy of bilateral implants still haven’t been drawn as the science is relatively new. But whatever the overall numbers say, there’s no question that his hearing improved drastically after the second ear’s implant.

Sean Wetselaar poses with his dad and sister, Danielle, at her high school graduation in 2014. (Courtesy Peter Wetselaar)

Sean Wetselaar poses with his dad and sister, Danielle, at her high school graduation in 2014. (Courtesy Peter Wetselaar)

I still have to repeat myself or tap his shoulder sometimes to get his attention. But he usually hears me the first time.

It takes time for a body to become acclimatized to the cochlear implant. The science isn’t perfect, and the implants process sound differently than a normal ear. In the beginning, everything sounded metallic to my dad. He had to relearn people’s voices because they sounded different than before. The process was physically painful, while the nerves in his ear began once again to process sound. But he adapted.

Today, with more than $100,000 worth of bionic machinery in his ear, his hearing is back at 92 per cent. He can talk on the phone and carry a conversation without lip-reading. He even hears me when I call his name.

In the basement of my dad’s house there has always been a guitar. When my parents were together, there were two. They had both bought guitars when they were in summer camp to play around the campfire. I remember my mom taking out the guitar infrequently to strum along. She was never a musician, but she had gotten pretty good over the years. I never saw my dad’s guitar out of the case because he hasn’t been able to hear it for most of my life.

Every person is different and science tells us that it’s rare for a person with cochlear implants to completely regain their ability to hear music or gain the ability at all in the case of people who were born deaf. Music is complex and harder to process than speech.

Dad can pick up tunes if he recognizes them, but music is a lot of noise to him. It doesn’t bother him like it once did, though. Almost a decade after the constant music faded from the rooms of the red-brick house, it has sprung up again.

It plays while my dad and stepmom read in the living room or cook in the kitchen. It has even joined our family dinners once again when my sister and I visit.

And one day, a few years ago, my dad took out his guitar. It needed tuning but eventually we got it working. I had waited my whole childhood to hear him play. When he was in high school he had been in bands and mom had always talked about how well he played guitar. That afternoon, perched on the edge of a leather armchair in our living room, I finally heard his music.

He was really, really good. I expected a few chords to muddle hesitantly out of the strings after decades of dust had settled on them, but after a few moments of hesitation, his fingers settled back into their old habits and complicated melodies began to thrum through the room.

My dad’s hearing loss has been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember and it has not always been easy — for him, for me, for anyone. But that day, after so many years, he played music again. He couldn’t really hear what he was playing — we joked about him being another Beethoven — but he had the confidence to play anyway.

After all this time, after so many miracles, I don’t care what the odds say. I’m still waiting for the day when, crowded around that leather armchair, we listen to him play again.

And he hears every note.


This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb 25, 2015.

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