In 1958, when I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with diabetes mellitus. In those days methods of injecting insulin and monitoring blood sugar levels were much cruder than they are now and maintaining good metabolic control was difficult. That I did so for the next few years was mainly due to my mother.
I was a hard-working student in the last few years of high school with the ambition to go to university. My only recreation was tennis, which I played regularly at a moderately good level. When my game deteriorated I put it down to not practising enough because of the pressure of schoolwork.
I continued to work hard at university, played tennis less and got worse at it. Towards the end of my second year, a girl sat next to me in a history lecture and opened a conversation about the lecture. She moved on to other things and asked me if I liked foreign films. I admitted I’d never seen one.
I was shy, she wasn’t. She invited me to have dinner with her and go to a film. We saw Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. I couldn’t read the subtitles and I realised that I needed glasses. I also realised two other things – that my deteriorating tennis game was due to my eyesight and that I was in love.
The romance ended tragically very soon after, when she was killed in a car accident. In my misery I went to an optometrist and was prescribed glasses for my distance vision. The effect was remarkable. I realised that I’d been seeing the world as if it were an Impressionist painting, with muted colours and soft edges. My tennis improved but it was a long time before I could bring myself to see another foreign film.
Fast-forward thirty-five years. I am a published writer, a second-time-around husband and a father of three. My eyesight has severely deteriorated as a result of my neglect of diabetes but, saved by the argon laser, it’s still basically functional. But I am going deaf.
At first I resisted this. Like many another man, I chose to think that my difficulty in hearing what my wife said was because she muttered.
‘Why can other people hear me and not you?’ she asked.
I had no answer.
I became aware that in a group, say at a table for four in a busy restaurant, all I could hear was the background noise and not what was being said to me. I had a hearing test that showed I had a problem at a certain pitch that caused this difficulty but that my actual hearing loss was minimal and there was nothing much to be done until it got much worse.
I remember attending an Allen & Unwin Christmas party and being unable to socialise at all. I thought, If someone said we should bring back hanging, I’d be likely to smile and nod approvingly just to be polite.
I had another test and was told that I almost qualified for the free government-subsidised hearing aids (the only kind I could afford) but not quite.
‘Come back in a year,’ the audiologist said.
By the next year I was using wireless earphones to watch television because the sound level I’d otherwise need would drive my wife Jean from the room. I was retested and got the nod.
I was apprehensive. My aged mother had struggled with hearing aids; my brother simply could not tolerate them. The audiologist, who’d determined the size of earpiece I’d need, tuned the aids in and instructed me how to insert them.
The effect was very much like getting that first pair of glasses so long before. I hadn’t remembered the world had this clarity of sound, this variety of noises to be heard simultaneously, with an ability to discriminate between them. I felt newly in touch with the world: I just wish it were a better one, without the politicians we have who are blind to facts and deaf to common sense.