I used to have excellent hearing.
A goldfish coming to the surface in a bowl in my bedroom could keep me up, its tiny mouth doing whatever to make those soft popping noises that drove me crazy. Once I was startled awake by rustling sounds that turned out to be ants in the wastebasket.
“Abigail has the ears of an elkhound,” my mother said, although it has been my experience that hounds rely on their sense of smell.
My hearing is no longer keen. I watch American movies with the subtitles on. I cup my hand behind my ear when sitting with a murmurer. I cup my hands behind both ears in a restaurant, but the loss has been incremental so it’s no big deal. The curious thing is that, as if to make up for what I’m missing, I am now hearing things that aren’t happening: voices, conversations, messages left on my answering machine that aren’t there when I run downstairs to retrieve them. Maybe what I am hearing are ghosts of conversations. The house is seventy years old. So am I.
Today, from the bottom of my pocketbook while I was unpacking groceries I heard a man’s voice saying something that sounded pleasant, but when I dug to the bottom my cell phone was off. No message. No record of a new call. I can accept this. Stranger things have happened.
I tell my daughter Catherine, who has come over for tea.
“I used to think there was a little man who lived inside the Victrola at Big Mom’s house,” I said, “and I was always trying to surprise him.” I wash two cups. “But nobody would last long in the bottom of my bag.”
“Mom,” says Catherine nervously, “maybe you should have a brain scan.”
She is sitting in the rocker while I put the kettle on.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “It’s been happening for years. It’s not getting worse. And they aren’t talking to me.”
In other words, I’m not hearing voices, I’m overhearing them.
Except that one time in Maine, when I woke up freezing cold and every hair on my body standing up and I heard a voice saying, “If you want to know our secrets, look in the jar.” I spent the rest of the night way under the covers.
I’m also losing my memory. Great chunks are falling away, like cliffs into the sea. I never had a particularly good memory, so the loss of a name or a month or what am I doing in the kitchen (living room bedroom dining room yard) is familiar. Telephone conversations after nine at night seem to be lost forever. What I read last week, vanished. What I read yesterday, pretty much ditto. But this evening I asked my grandson Joe what he did today and he told me. Four minutes later I asked him what he did today. Joe is twenty-six, and kind, and he began to tell me again.
“Oh God,” I said, interrupting him, “I’m so sorry. I think my brain is erasing itself.”
“I forget all the time,” said Joe. “I forgot…” and then he told me something he forgot, which I’ve forgotten.
He is very nice to have around. He has been living with me about a month now, and his brother Sam visits often. They are in their twenties, figuring out their lives. I keep wanting to say forget career, forget the future, forget existential worries, just get yourselves a couple of dogs and everything will be alright. The way I remember how long they’ve been here is by the number of meals I have actually cooked. (I never cook when I’m alone.) I still have a good memory for food. Pork tenderloin, lamb stew, chicken soup with dumplings, roast chicken with carrots and onions, pasta with capers and tuna and lemon juice and olive oil and other things I forget. Baked Indian pudding made with sorghum from Kentucky.
But that’s as far back as my memory goes.
Sometimes after a nap or in the middle of the night I wake up and realize I have no idea what town I’m in or what street I live on. Which direction are my feet pointing? Which way is north? Where are the windows and doors in this bedroom? It takes me a moment, but then there are the warm bodies and sweet snores of my dogs, and I know where I am.
My old beagle Harry is going deaf too. Still, he lifts his head to monitor a scent drifting through the closed but leaky windows, and up he gets, creakily, and off he limps to the back door to strut what remains of his stuff. He has never learned to negotiate the dog door flap, so I rise, also creakily, to let him out. The other two, Rosie and Carolina, who were awakened by Harry, have already zoomed past us into the yard, noses to the ground. Rosie’s hearing even at eleven is just fine. She can hear me open my eyes. Carolina is all about her nose.
I love their enthusiasm. Sometimes I see Rosie rolling on her back in the ice-crusted snow, all four legs pawing at air, having a ball. Carolina can howl for hours, which is admirable but a mixed blessing. I think it’s because she can’t complete the circuit. Whatever varmint traipses through the yard invariably passes over the underground electrical fence that keeps Carolina in. So she has to keep going back over old ground, running in circles. There is no payoff.
Here’s something I love about dogs. They aren’t careful not to disturb you. They don’t overthink. They jump on the bed or the sofa or the chair and plop down. They come and they go. I’m not sure they love me exactly, but they count on me because I am a source of heat and food and pleasure and affection, as well as the creature in the living room who has behind her the softest cushion, hence a good place to sleep. If Rosie is lying there and suddenly prefers the sofa, I don’t take it personally. She has her reasons. It’s not because I’m a drag. The dogs don’t care. When I said to my grandson Joe in response to a pun he couldn’t resist, “I leapt over that to higher ground,” the dogs didn’t care, nor did they wince at the awful pun. I forget what it was.
I have been meaning to write about losing my mind, but instead I keep falling asleep. Distressing, but what could be more comforting than a dog sleeping next to you? And when dogs wake in the morning there are no bad moods, no grumpiness. Dogs don’t get up on the wrong side of the bed. There is no wrong side of the bed for a dog.
I used to lie in the crook of a lover’s arm getting a stiff neck, or needing to scratch my nose, or losing all sensation in my arm, unwilling to move lest the man find out I wasn’t comfortable in his embrace. I spent hours hyperventilating in the arms of my soon-to-be second husband, feeling claustrophobic and terrified, yet unwilling to disturb his sleep to free myself. Would Snow White have scratched her back in the middle of a cozy snuggle with her prince? Did she wake out of her hundred-year sleep with terrible breath? Would Snow White have rested all eight pounds of her head on any part of the prince? I doubt it, and I never did either. My daughter Sarah says that is why elderly women have such prominent cords in their necks.
The reason it works so well between humans and dogs is the lack of extended conversation. Too much talk can lead to misunderstanding and muffed apologies and resentments and all manner of difficulty. Not that Rosie doesn’t understand what I’m saying a lot of the time, and not that I don’t understand her penetrating stare that means I can still smell the chicken even though you put it away, or I’ve got to get out of here, or how long is it going to take you to see what I’ve brought you and left on the floor next to your feet?
Anyway, besides what I’m forgetting and what I can no longer hear, I’m recalling all kinds of unnecessary things, like going to Sardi’s with Tony Wallace and his family when I was fourteen and seeing an actress named Betsy Palmer at a neighboring table. I was wearing a scoop-neck black velvet blouse belonging to my mother. It didn’t fit. I ordered pheasant under glass because I’d never heard of it. Why do I remember this? But I do, vividly. Now it turns out I might have gone to Sardi’s with Larry Pym and his family. I spoke to Larry recently, and he remembered an evening we spent there with his parents. We were both of us children. Back then, according to him, I was someone I don’t recognize or remember: pretty, charming, unattainable, perfect crush material for a boy in the seventh grade. A couple of years later, my family moved away and the future shifted.
“Where did you go?” he asks me.
I have no idea.