Losing Our Senses

I think most of us, at one time or another, have felt the sensation of losing our senses.  And although that phrase tends to evoke images of madness (something about which I have some tangled and complex feelings), recently I was reminded that I have, at distinct moments in my past, literally lost my senses, one at a time.

I don’t just mean being unable to smell because of a case of sniffles, or temporarily unable to taste after scalding my tongue on a too-eager spoonful of hot soup (both considerably unpleasant experiences).

When I was little I used to practice navigating my house with my eyes closed, stumbling up and down stairs and through the halls, testing my abilities with a determination that seemed to signal a certainty that I would imminently lose my eyesight.  I can’t recall if this activity started before or after I was first informed that I needed corrective lenses.  Oddly enough, I continued to do this even as I got old enough to realize how silly it must seem.  I guess I imagined there was no harm in it, and that way if I was ever attacked by a flock of birds that pecked out my eyes, I might still be able to find my way to the refrigerator.  Of course, I never imagined that I would be so thankful for the practice.

In my teens I was struck with a frightening combination of concurrent respiratory illnesses.  The severity of my symptoms delivered me to the hospital – not overnight, but just for a lung X-ray.  The procedure was routine enough that I was prepped in my heavy lead gown and directed about the radiology room by a student technician.  Poor fellow.

Everything was going fine until I realized, as I stood after the second scan waiting for the technician to reenter the room, that I could no longer see.  My vision wasn’t simply blurred as it might be without my glasses; it was absent.  I could see nothing at all — everything was darkness.  I was completely bewildered at first, and I remember putting up my hands to feel my face just to make sure my eyelids weren’t closed.  When I touched my open eyes, I’ll admit, I was scared.  I stood there silently just touching my face in disbelief and turning my head every direction to seek out some form of light, but nothing changed.  I finally heard the door open, the technician’s footsteps, and his slightly shy detached recitation of the next round of tests.

Afraid he might walk away if I didn’t say something, I interrupted with a rather high-pitched squeak of “I can’t see.”  I can only imagine his look at this point (as I didn’t see it), but I remember him stumbling over his words for a second before asking, “What?”  I can’t see; I can’t see anything.  My hands fluttered over my face again, and I felt myself losing my balance.  His voice had a confused tremor to it when he asked me to sit down, and I blurted out “Where?” under a panicked laugh.  He didn’t seem to understand until I stumbled while babbling that I couldn’t see any place to sit, trying to make him believe me.  I wondered what my eyes looked like, but they must have appeared normal since it took him so long to register the extent of what I was saying.  Finally he guided me to a chair and just said, “I… I’ll be right back.”

I don’t know where he went, what he told the doctor, or how long I was there alone, wondering what the hell was happening.  It felt like hours.

I do remember thinking, I’m glad I prepared for this.

As inexplicably as my vision was lost, it eventually returned, sometime shortly after he returned with a doctor.  I was too young to feel I could ask them for answers, and they never offered an explanation or any words of particular comfort.  Maybe they thought I had been lying and were relieved when the problem silently resolved itself.

I recall that when we were children we used to frequently ask each other what sense we would give up if we had to choose one.  Do young people still play that game?  Did you?  If so, what sense(s) did you tend to choose, and would your answer change if you were asked again?

For a long time I considered entering a convent.  Not out of religious conviction, but because of a need for silence.  I didn’t feel like the world around me was too noisy, but I felt sometimes like I myself would never stop talking, and that only an outside order could teach me the thrill of golden silence.

Then one morning I woke up, and I could no longer speak.

I have lost my voice in the past, several times.  My sister used to say I was the “voice-losingest” person she’d ever met.  But usually it was accompanied by other symptoms, came on gradually, and would allow me to have that raspy fun Hollywood minx voice for a while, maybe whisper softly, or at worst gurgle a little.  This was utterly different.  (Or unutterably different.)

I felt perfectly fine before, during and after, except for the fact that I could not produce any sound through my throat, not even a polite cough.  I decided I must need rest, and I didn’t push it.  Instead I resigned myself to hand signs, exaggerated facial expressions and scribbled notes.  I thanked my stars for my sign language class and quickly improved at shorthand, because my voice didn’t come back.

A week went by.  Finally, I signaled to my mom that I needed to see a doctor.  She made the call.  Checking in at the reception was interesting… I had forgotten to bring a notepad, and the ladies behind the desk looked at me like an alien while I floundered to communicate to them who I was, what I was doing there and why I couldn’t talk (which, of course, I couldn’t have explained anyway).

The doctor looked down my throat, did some tests, and ultimately told me that there was nothing wrong with me.  (Really.  He actually said nothing was wrong.)  But, friendly guy that he was, he prescribed me some heavy medication anyway.  (Suffice to say I never wanted to go back to this doctor again.  And I’m not even going into the time I went to him for immunizations before travel and he got the place I was going to wrong twice.  Who knows what he actually injected me with, if he thought I was off to a different continent?  But that’s neither here nor there.)

Another full week passed before the one morning finally arrived when I woke up, gingerly swallowed, and finally produced words.  As before, there was no gradual easing back, no identifiable cause for the loss or the return, and no comforting wisdom that I could prevent it from happening again.

I hadn’t thought about these experiences for a long time until very recently, and I suddenly wondered if I were being tested somehow, and whether I should be prepared to experience the loss of some other sense or ability soon.  I also realized for the first time that while dealing with some back issues last year that culminated in a sudden collapse in front of the sink — as though my body momentarily forgot how to support its own weight — I recognized the same kind of feeling.  One of shock, detached wonder, then awareness, thinking “Oh, so this is what it’s like for those who can’t do what I take for granted.”

These experiences of mine had no clear cause, no obvious reason for their resolution, and had the unusual trait of being witnessed by medical professionals.  I don’t ignore the possibility that there are, somewhere, simple explanations for all of them, but when I lay them all out like this it sounds like a fable.  The girl who lost her sight, her speech, her ability to walk.  But each was granted back to her by the power that took it away, like a light switch flicked off, then on.

To what end?  What is the moral?  Is the story over, or what lesson do I still have to learn?  And in its learning, what do I have yet to lose?

Last spring my dad lost his hearing.  In an instant.  He woke up, thought perhaps it was some sort of head cold, but the buzzing, the pressure, the muffling silence never waned.  After ENTs, steroids, acupuncture, chiropractic, essential oils, and favors called in to the brightest experts of the western medical community, there is still no change.

I never thought to draw a connection, but maybe now I can summon up the courage to tell him that I know, at least a little bit, how he feels.

Courage enough, maybe, to tell him my wish that I could find that power to turn his switch back on.

Someone once told me that pirates used to wear eye patches even if their eyes were both fine, but they would switch the patch to the opposite eye each morning and evening.  So doing, one eye was kept always in darkness, so that after sundown or below decks when it was uncovered, accustomed to the lack of light, it provided the pirate with naturally perfected night vision.  Maybe my temporary losses were teaching me to sensitize – or be sensitive to – my senses.  And maybe someday my dad will wake up above decks and have the sharpest ears, like an owl.

Thanks for listening.


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