Elizabeth heard the sirens blaring, a clangor that drove her to the window of her city apartment to see the tires screeching down the street below. But there was nothing—not an ambulance, not a fire truck, not even a single police car. Her husband, comfortably reading the New York Times in his winged-back chair, sat unperturbed by the terrible din.
“Don’t you hear that?”
She turned to face him so that she could see lips.
“No,” he said. “What’s the matter?”
“Those sirens.” She checked the window again. “You don’t hear them.”
“I don’t hear a thing.” He looked puzzled.
And then it stopped. Silence again. She didn’t know what to make of it. Her husband pressed her for some explanation, but she dismissed it. After all, she hadn’t heard anything in years, ever since sounds started slipping away, like drips and drabs from a leaky faucet, until one day there was nothing left. By then, of course, she had learned to cope, and the doctors said hearing aids wouldn’t help. It was simply gone.
Elizabeth was in her sixties now, professor emeritus from Columbia’s English department, but still pursuing her scholarly interests. (After the hearing loss, teaching didn’t fit into the scheme of things very well.) She’d been working on the draft of her new book on Willa Cather when she ran to the window to hear the noise.
On the next day, there weren’t sirens, but music—sweeter than she had ever heard in her life. The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart. The strings crashed like ocean waves, the flutes buoyed her up until she fell back in her chair with joy. Sweet Jesus! She let the sound wash over her. She first heard this piece as a young professor, attending the many concerts put on by Columbia’s music department, but the music also had a special place in her heart, since her husband proposed after one of the Metropolitan’s performances of the opera.
And there was more. “Ode to Joy.” The Jupiter Symphony. Beethoven’s Fifth. She heard that piece performed at the Tanglewood Conservatory. She sat on the lawn, drinking wine and listening to the da-da-da-dum transform again and again through its myriad variations. Some people had placed candelabras on top of their coolers—others hung chandeliers from the trees. It was beautiful.
She didn’t get any work done that day. And she went to bed hearing a Strauss Waltz. She didn’t tell her husband, either. For fear of, well—she just didn’t want to seem crazy. In the morning, she woke up with Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” in her ears, setting her alight as she let the water stream over her skin in the shower. At breakfast, she watched her husband’s lips question her.
“You’re in a good mood,” he said. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh, can’t a woman be happy? Is that so wrong?”
She couldn’t tell him. No, not yet. There was the possibility, the distinct and quite real possibility, that all this music meant that she was falling into some deep mental disease. For now, though, she had a continuous stream of music. She drank it in, but if only she could take some control—pause, play, fast forward, rewind—and yes, she prayed, by the end of the week, please let me hit stop! Ravel’s Bolero had been winding through her head, torrent after torrent for almost two days. Her work on the Cather manuscript had ground to a halt, and Elizabeth lay on her bed in tears. She had no choice but to tell her husband.
At first the doctors didn’t know what to make of it. They squinted, cringed when faced with an explanation. They prescribed lithium, used most notably for schizophrenia, which hadn’t been ruled out. Even suggested shock treatment—something Elizabeth thought obsolete.
“You’re not psychotic,” a doctor finally told her. “You’re having hallucinations. It’s a phenomenon not uncommon to deafness. The mind is starving for sound, so it’s creating its own.”
It was at once fascinating and bizarre to Elizabeth, who read the doctor’s lips backed by Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the one with Frère Jacques. The tune’s three rising notes, rocked gently like a boat in the open water—rising and falling in that minor key rather than the usual major key that everyone learned to sing as children. Are you sleeping? The irony of these lyrics weren’t lost on her. She had pinched herself several times over the past weeks.
The doctor’s course of treatment: Give the mind what it craves and maybe the rest will take care of itself. He suggested surgery, cochlear implants, which might give her back some hearing. If her mind couldn’t do without sound, they’d give it the real thing. The newest technology might quiet the music running through her mind.
So it was done.
And the music stopped.
She remembered waking to her new world like swimming to the surface of a pool. But she never reached the top. She could carry on a conversation without reading lips, but the words came to her drowned—cold, tinny, still dripping wet. She yearned to cut through the water to blue sky and sunshine, but her world remained liquid.
“Give it time,” the doctor said. “The sound will improve.”
But Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven—they all had been banished. She stared at the stereo, the compact discs that lined the shelf. Nothing could replace the symphony that had played through her mind where the violins were always pitch perfect and the percussionist never missed a beat. It was a hallucination, but a grand hallucination. And she mourned, her tears falling from her cheek to her hand where she held a copy of Figaro, the unopened disc still wrapped in its store-bought cellophane.
Her husband watches her now. Elizabeth catches him, assures him it’s all right, but she knows he’s worried, especially when her hearing aids, the cochlear implants prescribed by the doctor, lie disconnected. But when she sees his mouth, and doesn’t hear anything, she’s satisfied with the silence. She waited a long time to hear the music. She can wait again.