Christmas was coming up, my first as a fellow with only slightly more hearing capacity than a candy cane. First and only, I kept telling myself. First and only.
My wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas. “Well, not CDs,” I said.
In point of fact, music had been my holiday default for years. I don’t use a whole lot of tools that require electricity. I haven’t hunted since my Mississippi youth. I don’t golf. Fallen arches had long ago put a big crimp in my tennis game. Christmas for me was good chocolate, funny boxer shorts, and new music.
What I wanted most, however, was old music, familiar music. I still have the copy of the Elvis Presley Christmas LP that I found under the tree when I was 10 years old. It has a few scratches but it’s still playable, and I wanted to hear it during the season to be jolly, just as I had for decades. No go. I put it on the turntable but I could barely track the cadence of familiar songs, much less comprehend the melody. I could hear Elvis singing in my head — “I’ll hah-have a blue Christmas without you” — but what I was missing was not my baby but my working cochlea.
For years I had grumbled about the too-early onset of Christmas music, the increasingly inescapable presence not long after Halloween of Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby crooning yuletide evergreens on the radio, in shops and in elevators. Now, in my first near-deaf holiday season, I would have been thrilled to hear “Do You Hear What I Hear?” by the Johnny Mann Singers or “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Hollyridge Strings. I would have glowed to the sound of Christmas Muzak.
Elvis’ Christmas LP was just part of my longstanding Christmas routine. I have other albums that I have treasured for years, especially A Nonesuch Christmas, an amazing sampling of music from the Renaissance and Middle Ages assembled by Nonesuch Records, a label that specializes in offbeat and overlooked classical music; The New Possibility, an album of musical meditations on the nativity by guitarist John Fahey; and a Modern Jazz Quartet best-of that included “England’s Carol,” the combo’s celebrated rendition of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” and secular MJQ originals like “The Cylinder” and “The Golden Striker” that, in such close association, sounded as holiday-spirited as “Joy to the World.”
Starting in early December, I would get up early and do my morning stretches to one of these records. It was my version of advent. I would bathe in the aural ambiance of festivity, calm and reverence. What I had taken for granted in December 2009 was gone in December 2010. The Nonesuch collection, so harmonically rich, sounded especially dreadful, a sonic mush. I stretched in silence.
We did our best to make up for my silent days and nights with food and sights.
We went to a cut-your-own tree farm and sawed down our own evergreen, savoring the clean, piney smell of the sawdust.
We baked cookies and banana bread and made gumbo from an old Mississippi Gulf Coast recipe that takes two days prep and enough crustaceans to feed a seal colony.
We went driving all over greater Athens in search of Christmas-decoration extravaganzas, houses outlined from roof peak to hedges in lights, manger scenes and inflatable snowmen cheek to jowl.
We went to a Christmas Eve service at an Episcopal church, a high mass. The choir sounded like banshees to me, but the clergy were in splendid, full vestment, and the sanctuary was redolent of evergreen boughs and incense. I basked in the service’s beatific vibe.
Under our tree on Christmas morning, I found several pair of really cool sox. Argyle was the new jazz.
(This post is adapted from my memoir, “Life After Deaf: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery,” published in November by Skyhorse.)