"Why does that fellow on the TV keep asking, 'Are you ready, Brother Woodrow?' "
All of us sitting in the den turned to Daddy and looked at him as if he were crazy. In my family, this is the way we keep one another from going over the edge -- we glare at goofy behavior and follow up this discipline with ribbing and jibes. In a family as large as ours this is almost a full-time occupation; one of us is always going kind of crazy.
"That's Hank Williams Jr. on the TV, and he isn't saying, 'Are you ready, Brother Woodrow?' He's saying, 'Are you ready for some football?' It's Monday night. Monday night football. Get it?" I explained.
"Well, I wish they could get someone who could talk plain. I don't even like the way Hank Jr. sings," Daddy grumbles.
We turn up the TV so Dad can hear. Hank Jr. comes on again in few minutes, and this time, Dad repeats the correct words with him.
4 One by one, we can't help it, we start to laugh.
Mother turns to Dad and asks, "Are you ready for some popcorn, Brother Woodrow?"
More laughter. For the rest of the evening, we tease Dad about getting hard of hearing by asking, "Are you ready, Brother Woodrow?"
He takes it, this teasing. Maybe, too well. Underneath all this tomfoolery, we are seriously trying to tell him that he has a hearing problem. So far, he hasn't heard any of us when we've tried to hint that his ears aren't what they used to be.
I pretend to just think of this bright idea. I say, "Hey, Brother Woodrow, why don't you let me call the Speech and Hearing Clinic over at the college in the morning and see what they charge for an exam?"
Because he is the center of attention, he shrugs good-naturedly, OK, why not.
I have been trying to work up to making this suggestion for weeks, and it was just that easy.
I call the clinic the first thing in the morning. I learn that my father is not unusual at all. Most people will admit to almost any physical failing except deafness. I learn: Deafness can happen to anybody, young or older.
Deafness is just about the most dreaded symbol of aging -- and the most misunderstood. Ninety percent of the cases can be corrected. Improvements in hearing aids in the past 15 years have been dramatic because of the mushrooming of the stereo and electronic industry. Like eyeglasses, which have become part of the fashion scene, neon pink, yellow and green earpieces for children with hearing loss could lead to a similar reappraisal of what the well-dressed ear should be wearing.
An affordable two-hour evaluation and birds will sing again, car horns will blare discernibly, sirens will insist that you pull over, cries for help can reach that internal ear and make connection.
Jubilantly, I call Dad to tell him that I can get him an appointment next Friday. I soft-soap him: "Whaddya say, Brother Woodrow? I'll even buy you lunch."
He is not charmed by my proposal. He is a different man. "Do you really think I need to get my hearing checked? I mean, I know it has probably slipped a little, but I can hear pretty good." His voice is hard; he is not inviting fun and teasing this morning. "Tell me honestly, do you really think I need to see a doctor?"
I gulp. This is no time for feminine tact. "Daddy, I've been standing right behind you talking and you don't hear me."
"Are you joking?"
"No, sir. I am not."
On the phone with Dad, we move from being buddies to that miserable plane of existence called role reversal. Increasingly, my thirtysomething friends report the same tension: aging parent ignores the changes of his body, which forces a grown-up child to assume a parental role.
I am not qualified for this job. To complicate the issue, I, like my three sisters, have never outgrown hero-worshiping my father. We know this is hopelessly out-of-date thinking probably chock-full of psychological implications that we're all sick, but we can't help ourselves. We love our father with a devotion that surpasses any rational explanation.
Incredibly, I get fiercely angry and impatient with this man I adore when I let myself think about how he is putting off correcting his hearing loss. This is so unlike the man I know. He's the guy who brought home an eye chart when I was 9 years old and figured out that I was flunking in school because I couldn't see. For weeks I had lived a tortured existence of self-questioning. I thought I was stupid. My test grades were constantly proving that I was. I was so relieved and embarrassed to be named nearsighted instead that I screamed and locked myself in the bathroom.
I remember being in that bathroom alone, a washrag stuffed in my mouth while I looked at my eyes in the mirror and wondered why they had gone bad on me. I figure my father's had a few moments like that when he's studied his reflection and wondered why it no longer conformed to a superman image: a father's picture of himself.
I hung up the phone and picked it right back up. I called Julie, my sister.
"He's changed his mind about going to the clinic."
"Bragged on him too soon."