What a Deaf Cat Can Teach Us

NON-FICTION, 1200 WORDS.

My cat sat looking out our bedroom window, calm and entrenched in his favorite bed. I walked into the room and called to him, as I’d done for sixteen years. He remained undistracted, and I spoke louder. He gave no reaction. Not a flinch of twisted ear, not a fraction of a head movement. Sixteen was the new eighty; Petey, our Puerto Rican Siamese-cow cat mix, had gone deaf.

That discovery happened nearly two years ago. Today, as he approaches the advanced age of eighteen, I’ve had some time to think about Petey, his place in the world, and what I’ve learned from him.

In the immediate days when we discovered Petey had lost his hearing, I spent a lot of time watching him rest. His head was level, his eyes were away from mine, and I studied the face of a buddy I’d known since 1999. He wasn’t jittery or vocal, in fact he was relaxed. This allowed me to get a good read on him.

I learned that a creature can be simultaneously calm, and poised in expectation. He was the mellow guy at the party, not speaking up about not quite getting the joke. He was the simple man at the deli line, waiting, wordlessly, for his number to be called.

Petey was alone in his comfortable bed of quietness. Today, eighteen months in, he’s still the sole occupier of the silent world.

He waits for sounds which shall never come. He can’t hear how loud his normal calls have evolved. He’s seemed to settle on the opinion that the world has changed—it’s stopped creating noise—and he’s found no fault with himself. He doesn’t shake his head, or paw at his ears, or look around in a freak-out. We’re the problem, not he: We are absent of emitting. He’s not deficient in receiving.

He relies on the patience and aid of the people in his trust. He counts on his family, and that is just fine for us.

He does not appear anxious or concerned about the lack of sound. He expects noises and is prepared to act on them.

If a sense must be lost, may hearing be the one. Cats rely on their ears to defend themselves—to react to warnings, and to feed—to track prey. Since Petey lives his life as an indoor cat, those needs are taken care of. A kitchen light is the visual cue that tells him we’re home. Petey has long enjoyed sitting on heating grates and in the past would react to the basement blower and duct noise. Now, the faint whiff of dust tips him off to go find a grate. He’s adapted.

In Petey’s world, he has lost nothing. I used to fear his ailment was the start of a decline. It is not. Hearing loss is another point in the aging process, a bold point perhaps, from where there is a progression forward, not an obvious end. He’s not dying. He still explores, still crushes upright paper bags and taps tin foil balls. He still eats uncooked spaghetti off the floor in the two-paw method of hold, lift and snap. He begs for a bit of American cheese when he catches me standing in the kitchen and he must stick his head inside the curious refrigerator thing each time its door is opened.

Dying? My foot. I mourn the loss that is mine alone.

My boy will never hear my voice again. In those first days of his hearing loss, I pitied his big, magnificent ears. Over many months I’ve learned those ears are not useless. They are a part of his head. They are part of his normal. He rests his head on them and cleans them and enjoys their fleshy parts stroked. We use his ears to apply his nightly transdermal medication—he is, after all, an old man.

His precious ears have many functions, well beyond the Family Feud rank list.

It doesn’t matter that he can’t hear my voice. He can still see that I’m talking to him, just as before. He counts on me to be the owner he’s known since adoption. He rests in the crook in my arm, every day, and turns his head and looks me in the eye. Not a stare down, but a connection. A thank you for a normal life. He places his head on my arm and goes to sleep. He’s at ease, and I am happy.

What does the deaf cat teach us? We can say relaxation encourages an honest assessment. Not for self-evaluation—remember, Petey was not in a position to appraise himself. His deafness brought him to a neutral, undistracted mood and as a result, I was able to get a better read on his body language, and his perception of the world. If a manager wants to get a good read on her employees, she could start by fostering a reasonable office environment. Relaxation is a clean chalkboard, ready for honest messages that will automatically come.

The deaf cat illustrates another point: Relaxation is a warm bath for the mind. You can’t just make it happen, and it doesn’t just befall you. You have to prepare for it and immerse in it. You must recognize your need.

For the cat, deafness brought relaxation, but for people, we can enact. We can manage ourselves to be put in the position to be calm. We almost always have the power but often lack the assertion to do so. The benefit of our calmness can carry over to those around us. By experience we know this to be true.

There is more to learn. In my managerial days I was once in the position to hire a deaf worker. I was at an employee fair run by the department of employment services. I was looking for a person to work in a clean room for medical devices, a good job for a dedicated, competent, and cooperative person.

The woman who was my liaison spoke to me about the job and offered the deaf candidate. He was coming in off the street but had a great attitude. She really wanted to place him and I’m ashamed to say I was skeptical that he was the best person for the job. I interviewed him and he couldn’t have done a better job presenting himself.

I regret that my decision was to go with someone else. I chose a person with direct work experience. I thought the state’s candidate would miss out on the verbal cues that were part of my team’s environment. As odd as it may sound, I was correct on that point. I was wrong is assuming the verbal cues would remain the invariable choice of the group.

The truth is, the team would have changed its composition the moment he joined, had he been hired. The team’s legacy method of calling out information would have naturally evolved as the group worked with its new dynamic. Visual cues, training, awareness of others’ activities, all of these factors would have replaced the simple sound-carrying-through-air method.

What’s more, the deaf worker would have fostered a quieter room. Certainly, he wouldn’t have contributed much gossip and meandering which tend to tear teams apart, especially teams enclosed in clean rooms.

Humans mimic simple creatures in the ways we react to change, whether it be the loss of hearing, or similar alterations in our lives. Through observation, we learn to adapt and thrive.

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ARA HAGOPIAN’S NEW BOOK IS OUT NOW http://www.LeavesOfYouthTheBook.com

Petey Hagopian

Petey Hagopian

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About Ara Hagopian's The LITERATE Show

For over thirty years, I have enjoyed drawing beautiful shapes and writing complementary stories. The imagery tends to focus on our place in the world—whomever or whatever we may be. I am influenced by Twentieth Century history—I read vintage magazines, books and letters. Inspiration comes from visualizing human achievement and personal interaction—derived from people, places and things which may be obscure, but never insignificant. My pen-and-ink THE MAGNIFICENT RECOVERY was selected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for their 2008 summer art auction.
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