Grandma, Stapedial Otosclerosis, Puff the Cat, and Me
Puff, Grandma, and Me (aged 10)
I shared the house by the highway with Puff the cat, my parents and bareback Pistol, our big black dog that once rolled in hot coals from the barbecue grill my father had dumped in the yard. One of the highlights of my young life was visiting Grandma. My father would make the long annual drive to the country to drop my mother and me off at Grandma’s house. Then, because he couldn’t miss work, my father would turn around to head home, leaving my mother and I at Grandma’s house for a week or two.
Her kitchen was our gathering place. She had no use for the television and I never saw her use the telephone. Hearing impaired, Grandma was a fragile spritely woman with a mischievous air about her. It seemed she could read everyone’s lips but mine. Aunt Harriet, who lived with her, liked to say I didn’t “e-nun-ci-ate” clearly. Sometimes I thought she just liked to use the word enunciate in a sentence.
But no matter, Grandma and I had our own way to communicate. I wrote her long sprawling notes in my grade school scrawl and she read every word silently to herself. Then she answered me aloud, a cigarette balanced in her trembling, finely boned hand.
“Were any new kittens born since the last time I was here? How old are they? Which cat is the mother of the litter? How many?” My endless stream of questions were jotted down on paper.
She began the ritual by pulling a cigarette from the pack, coughing, lighting it, clearing her throat… and then she winked and began answering me aloud. With my elbows on the table and my hands supporting my chin, I watched her talk. Savoring her very presence. I watched her lips, her fingers, her every expression. When it appeared she had answered every question (she checked the notes to see that she did), I wrote more notes to her. We carried on for hours.
Choosing my writing utensil from the soup can on her table, I relished the task of deciding what tool I would use for my writing. Short stubby carpenter pencils (there were many) wrote rich and dark, in contrast with the yellow pencils with their long silvery points. I tested pen after pen on paper. Some had no ink at all and were set aside. Other pens appeared new and made red or green marks. Sometimes I giddily alternated writing utensils, making colorful notes. Always they were very, very long.
I wrote on the paper plate I had used for my toast. “Grandma, I have to throw these dried-up pens away. They don’t write anymore,” I wrote. I held the pens in the air for her to see the ones I had put aside. She read the plate; winked and nodded. I got up and threw them away.
“Don’t throw the paper plate away, though,” she said. “Just brush the crumbs off. You can use it again.”
Grandma’s desk was within her reach behind her kitchen chair. From its depths, she produced a safety pin and string for me to fashion a pole out of a stick. She kept paper of every imaginable kind and whatnots of all sorts in the desk’s deep mysterious drawers.
I kept Grandma busy communicating our way while my mother visited with her sister Harriet and smoked, solved crossword puzzles, drank coffee and read romance novels. Often simultaneously.
Time slowed down at Grandma’s, where small events seemed somehow more significant, more meaningful. During one of my last visits, (Grandma died when I was 13 and the house was sold) my mother and I heard the rattle of the stray cats’ food tin from the side porch where Grandma put leftovers out for them. I remember dashing to the door, standing on my tiptoes to peer through the window, expecting to see a cat. But instead, it was an elusive opossum caught in the act of stealing the cats’ food. How was he to know the food was not laid there just for him?
The doctor told me my eardrum had burst. For days, watery blood dribbled from my ear. I did not yet know I had Factor V Leiden, a blood clotting disorder, and when I would walk across the room, blood would land on the floor. It was startling. I kept cotton wads in the ear a few days but at last the bleeding had stopped and. I thought I was getting back to normal- no more cotton wads jammed in my ear.
“What happened?!” I say to my kids, alarmed. “There’s no dial tone. The phone’s dead!” The kids laugh. I switch the landline receiver to my good ear. It was my bad ear that was dead.
That night I awakened in the middle of the night, frightened. I heard the smoke alarm sounding off. I had to awaken everyone! Sitting on the edge of my bed, I wondered why my husband and three kids were sleeping through the sound of this piercing tone. Then it occurred to me: That high-pitched whining was coming from inside my ear. I guessed that I was better at ignoring it during the day. I laid back down, relieved that it wasn’t the smoke alarm. The doctor had told me that even my good ear was damaged; and I was now deaf from the latest ear event in my bad ear. This hearing “may or may not” return, he said.
I retired to the couch and flipped on the TV. I couldn’t sleep now from the adrenaline that surged through me when I thought the house was on fire and I had to rescue everyone. Since I was quite little I’d had trouble with my right ear. I was adopted at birth; but I know the story. During my birth, my birth mother was battling fever and high temperature. I was born with a 104 degree temperature myself, and with blood trickling out of my ear, the first of half a dozen burst eardrums I would have throughout my life. My childhood 'earache' memories are of my mother warming towels on the open oven door to place against my hurting ear. Once, in my 20s, the pain was so great, a doctor laid me on a table and burst the eardrum himself to relieve the pressure. The deafness would last about a week and then my hearing would return slowly but never be quite what it was. I’d always lose a little bit more.
That particular night that I’d confused the tinnitus in my ear for the smoke alarm, I had retired to the couch to lay down, remote control in hand, with my good ear squashed into the pillow. People’s lips moved on the TV screen, but with my bad ear facing upward, I could hear no sound at all.
Memories surrounded me as Puff, my white fluffy cat that was born in Grandma’s shed so long ago, suddenly came to mind. Puff liked to sleep up high on things, the higher the better. In fact she never touched the floor at all if she could help it. She had been so agile, jumping from bookcase to counter-top, to the top of the refrigerator, where she slept. We kept her food dishes on the counter so she wouldn’t have to touch the floor.
Many people found Puff’s behavior odd back then, but I understood completely. Aunt Harriet once had Puff checked by a veterinarian, who declared that Puff was deaf, as are many solid white cats. Since she couldn’t hear what was coming, she wanted to see everything coming. No surprises that way. She’d altered her behavior to make her environment more tolerable, not unlike many autistic people like myself do, like Grandma did.
After disappointing results using an external hearing aid for years, I would eventually see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist in my 40s, who announced that my stapes bone inside my ear was no longer vibrating. The stapes footplate was in a fixed position, rather than being normally mobile, so a conductive hearing loss resulted. It's called Stapedial Otosclerosis. I would undergo a stapedectomy.
For a Stapedectomy procedure, they put you under general anesthesia and a small incision behind the ear is made. The eardrum is seen with a special microscope. A laser vaporizes parts of the stapes, so it can be removed carefully. A prosthesis (implant) is put in; and affixed to the bone.
The stapes prosthesis corrects the conductive hearing loss. They say that 70% of these operations are successful. Following surgery, the bleeding was scary for me; as I still hadn't seen a hematologist and so I didn't know I had the clotting disorder (Factor V Leiden) yet. It felt like it was pouring from ear, like a faucet. This went on for days. In the end, after I healed and the internal swelling subsided, I awaited the six month period to ascertain the kind of results I was going to have. I did regain hearing, though not completely, but it’s an improvement! And no more screechy, startling noisy inept hearing aids for me! I just have to show a card now when I get MRIs of the head.
Grandma is gone now, but I have my own desk of whatnots and thingies!
An informative site on the Stapectomy procedure, complete with video
- What You Should Know About Otosclerosis | American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
The term otosclerosis is derived from the Greek words for "hard" (scler-o) and "ear" (oto). It describes a condition of abnormal bone growth around the stapes bone, one of the tiny bones of the middle ear.
Puff was blue-eyed and deaf-this article explains congenital deafness in cats like my Puff
- The Truth About White Cats With Blue Eyes | Life With Cats
White Cats With Blue Eyes More Likely to Be Deaf
It's a misconception that hearing loss only affects the elderly-This article examines misconceptions
- 4 Common Misconceptions About Hearing Loss | HeaRite Audiological Care
A big part of seeking treatment for hearing loss is understanding the realities of the condition. Because there is much weight attached to the topic of hearing loss, we thought we’d clear up a few common misconceptions about the condition.