by Abha Sharma
“I am so sorry, but I am hard of hearing and very dependent on lipreading. I find it very difficult to understand on the phone. Can you please speak a bit more loudly?” It was easy to introduce myself on the phone, followed by the same request, each time, for enunciated and loud speech.
Occasionally, I grasped the name of the speaker on the other end. But that might be because I had already read it in the telephone directory.
“Sorry. Currently, I am not hiring anyone. I have no funding.” Easy to follow. “No” and “not” were always simple to comprehend. But trouble arose when the speaker chose to converse with me. I would be stumped.
Was it simply the anxiety of trying to comprehend the forthcoming speech without seeing lips? Was it the American accent? Kind and patient speakers repeated but were still beyond comprehension. Frustrated, I would apologize and that would be the end of our conversation. Nevertheless, I was blessed. No one ever hung up on me. Never. Not from this special “list” that I had created for myself. A labor of love.
Diligently copied and numbered in clean handwriting from that big yellow telephone directory (it was the late eighties), the “list” contained names and telephone numbers of faculty with a description of their research interests at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), Galveston. A few of these matched my expertise—molecular biology and biochemistry.
One mid-morning in early September 1989, I dialed yet another number from the list. It would be the last for the day. Perhaps I might just get lucky. I was.
A little distracted by my two kids in the adjoining living room, I waited patiently for the phone to be picked up. Bright Texas sunshine poured in through the tall French windows of our large apartment, easily bathing bowls of cereal, milk, and sliced apples set out on the table. My son, Abhishek, raptly observed by his little sister, was feverishly working his fingers on the TV remote. It was time for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood; breakfast would have to wait.
A voice came on the line and at that exact moment, it struck me that I could inform the speaker about my hearing loss and ask to repeat the question. Only this time, Abhishek would listen for me. Pass the message to me. I would take back the phone and answer the question. A kind of relay system. Maybe, it could extend a conversation?
With no time to explain anything to Abhishek, I hustled him from the TV screen, the phone and its long, twisted cord dragged up through our sparsely furnished living room. Not sure what it was all about, he was, of course, upset about being hauled off from his favorite TV show.
A spur of the moment idea that just might work. Even with no practice, I was optimistic. It did. The speaker and I had a brief conversation.
Thankfully, this was not an everyday occurrence, although to be honest, things were moving fast for us. Undeniably, much too fast. Only six months before, we led a simple, routine life in a modest, one-bedroom rented flat in the small town of Dehra Dun in India. We did not own a phone. In fact, the only phone Abhishek might have personally handled was his red-blue-green toy piece and occasionally the black “real” one set up high on the shelf in his grandparents’ home.
And now, here we were in the US with our very own phone and my seven-year-old was handling it.
Things changed dramatically when Raj, my husband, secured a two-year post-doctoral research fellowship at the UTMB in Galveston. The handmade poster adorning the walls of our tiny Dehra Dun home for shared aspirations on the American dream had worked its magic. Raj aspired to work in the US. Finally, the opportunity arrived. He applied for and was granted a two-year sabbatical leave. In due time, his passport was readied, the visa came through and Raj left for the US. The children and I joined him a few months later.
My own research memories from graduate school days in New Delhi were not always the pleasantest. Reminiscences were bitter. The countless times I wanted to quit, the relief when it was all over, and the strong conviction that I would never again enter a lab were, as expected, still not dimmed.
What changed my thoughts? Well, I began to get nostalgic whenever Raj described his experiences at the UTMB laboratories. Slowly but surely. All very exhilarating, but I had been away for six long years; I was a homemaker. Science, meanwhile, had advanced in leaps and bounds. I, on the other hand, had woefully neglected to keep up with any kind of scientific reading. How would I ever get back to the field? Would I even be interviewed?
Late September, one mid-week afternoon, Abhishek was home again.
I dialed a number and repeated my familiar phrase.
“I am so sorry, but I really could not get that last part yet again. Can you please pass the message to my son?” I handed the phone to Abhishek. Through hand gestures, I nudged him to listen carefully.
Abhishek agreed. There was a “yes,” an “okay,” and then “goodbye.” Finally, he put down the receiver.
“Ma, you have an interview.”
Soon enough, I was hired as a postdoctoral fellow by an amazing, hands-on scientist, an assistant professor at the UTMB; a joyful reinstating of a brief scientific career in the States. A few years later, we published, and I was second author in a prestigious scientific journal.
I, a mother with bilateral moderate to profound sensorineural hearing loss, did not always wear my hearing aids. Consequently, I was dependent on my little boy in ways more than I could count. And often, I did not even realize that.