Tamia is a busy 7 year old. She attends school, plays with her friends and wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Besides that, she has an extraordinary job. She lends me, her hearing-impaired mommy, her ears.
“My mom’s name is Juanita,” she tells me shuffling in her seat when I ask her to explain why she helps her mom hear. “She was a surveyor in the military before I was born. One day she needed to escort two contractors out on the airfield to do some surveying work. They were right in the middle of both runways and jets were taking off. Mom said they were loud.”
Tamia places her pink polished nails over her ears. “They wore ear protection but it was not enough,” says Tamia. “Mom told me after that she had problems.”
Suddenly Tamia’s slender body slouches in the seat. For a brief moment, she fumbles with her fingers rather than continues to speak.
By the time Tamia turned 4, I developed bilateral tinnitus or ringing noise in both ears. It took a toll on my life. It also changed my daughter’s. Tamia no longer played with her toys and watched television simultaneously, realizing it affected me. My ears would ring unbearably loud, and I would have headaches. Tamia recalls spending most of her time during those early years being as quiet as a mouse.
As my daughter grew up, my condition worsened. I developed severe hearing loss in the right ear and mild hearing loss in the left ear. I yearned to hear simple sounds often taken for granted, like the passing of cars, the blaring of the television, the singing on the radio. I especially longed to hear the sweet sounds of my daughter’s voice.
“It was hard to watch my mom suffer,” Tamia reflects. “She hardly spoke to me or anyone. We did not go out or eat in restaurants. It was like being in a little jail cell. She was so sad. Then I became sad, too.”
Tamia’s bubbly little face softens around her bright eyes, which stop twinkling as they did earlier. Instead, she slouches farther in her seat staring at her hands. When my daughter finally speaks, it’s a whisper.
“Mom yelled a few times,” Tamia mumbles. “It was not on purpose. It was hard for her to hear herself. I had to learn to talk loud back to her, too. That was not fun. Everybody looking at me, like I was being rude, but it was the only way my mom could hear me. The people watching didn’t understand. At times, I didn’t understand either. I played in my room a lot watching mommy through my door. She would sit and stare out the window. I stopped playing, too. Some days I sat looking out my bedroom window. We both were depressed.”
But Tamia’s dampened spirit suddenly perks up, her big eyes glowing with excitement. “I helped my mom,” she says smiling. “I can’t remember the day, but I picked my brain for an idea. I really wanted to help. I was only 5 then, so thinking of something was a toughie.”
Tamia’s brilliant idea was to let me borrow her ears. Are you confused? I didn’t quite get it either when she told me. “I was not really giving you my ears,” Tamia reveals. “I wanted to become your hearing buddy.”
What’s a hearing buddy? For my daughter, it is someone who learns how to listen for sounds for someone else. A hearing buddy can also create original hand signals or make facial gestures to communicate.
While helping me, learning about my hearing disability became a source of amusement for Tamia. For example, she learned how an audiometer is used to test how much hearing I’ve lost. My daughter also saw ear molds being made of my ears. These molds take the shape of the ear canal to fit a person like me with a hearing aid. Tamia also held my hand when I was fitted with my first pair of hearing aids.
Taking ownership of the situation and becoming “mom’s hearing buddy” made the situation inspiring rather than daunting for both of us. Along the way, everyone has been praising Tamia for her important job. News spread quite quickly how she was helping her mom.
At home, Tamia learned to use the closed caption option on the television. This way, I can read the words on the bottom of the screen while a show airs. Although it’s still an adjustment, Tamia appreciates not having the volume up so loud. We both are happier and get along wonderfully these days, whether the TV is on or off.
“I am not yelling anymore,” Tamia beams. “People smile when they see me helping my mom. We talk and play like we used to. I feel like a big hero. Mom tells me all the time how proud she is. That makes me very happy. Everything’s great!”
Tamia still says she wants to be a veterinarian when she gets older, but for now she’s content to help me. Does she have any advice to give to other kids who may have parents with limited abilities?
“First, don’t get depressed, and be patient and understanding,” Tamia says. “Get involved, they need you. No matter how old you are, you can make a big difference just by listening.”