Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.
— from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
What would you do if you knew you could not fail? The answer to that question, for me, has always been easy: Sing. I’d be the lead singer in a band, or a solo artist with just a guitar, either way.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told this story here, but when I was in elementary school – either second or fourth grade, I can’t remember (it all looks the same in my memory) – there were tryouts to be in chorus. I didn’t make it. I don’t actually remember them or remember being disappointed, but that must have happened, because of what I’m about to tell you. One day in music class, the teacher, Ms. Datsun, said, “We already had tryouts for the chorus, but there’s one student who has worked so hard in class every day even though she didn’t make it, and I’m going to invite her to be in the chorus.” I can remember, even now, wriggling to the edge of my little wooden seat, knowing – absolutely knowing – that she was about to say my name. And she did. I remember blushing at being singled out, but also just bursting with pride. From then on, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, if I was going somewhere, I was singing.
I’ve been in revues, musicals, show choirs, concert choirs, and an a cappella group in college. I’ve been invited to All-County and All-District choirs (name dropping alert: when I cleaned out some memorabilia from high school recently, I came across an All-County Chorus program that listed Jason Mraz among the tenors; he went to a rival high school); I’ve performed in competitions and talent shows; I’ve sung solo more times than I can count. I’m crazy for karaoke, but for me and my “crew,” it’s not about being silly and drunk, it’s about showing off. More than once the karaoke DJ has asked me to sing a duet with him. Singing is just something I’ve always done, and it’s the single thing I do that makes me happiest.
But when I lost my hearing almost eight years ago, I thought I’d never sing again, at least not in public. I’d listen to the radio and strain so hard to hear the right pitch. I’d sing along, but one day in the car Aimee told me, sadly but kindly, that I wasn’t in tune. I was devastated. I got my cochlear implant about 18 months later, and one of the first things I did was try to listen to music. At first, it was really disappointing because it didn’t sound like I remembered and I still couldn’t get the right pitch. After a while, all sounds started to normalize, and music I knew got to be familiar again, and I was so, so grateful. But still, singing along with music and being on key eluded me.
I don’t mean to imply that I never sang again. I could always sing a cappella and be right – that’s a skill I’m lucky to have – and I would sing out loud to myself, and to the Princess and the Conductor (he even has his own song I made up for him). But adding the music jumbled everything in my brain and I couldn’t reconcile what I heard in my head and knew was the right tune with what I was hearing through my processor.
Eventually, with lots of practice (and thanks to a patch cord that sends music right from my iPod into my brain, via my implant processor), I got pretty good at singing along with music I knew. I can remember so clearly driving back to school after Christmas 2004 when I received my iPod and hearing My Own Worst Enemy by Lit come on and just singing the chorus at the top of my lungs and just being so happy it brought tears to my eyes. That happens to me a lot, actually, that I’ll be singing along and then a particularly good part of the song comes on – the key change, the bridge, a favorite lyric, whatever – and I’ll just be overcome by the absolute joy of singing and tear up.
There’s sadness there, too, of course, because for me, music is it. It’s the thing that healed the hurt of so many sorrows and amplified the happiness of so many good times. It connected me to my father, and to my grandmother (who recounted to me telling her friends about my hearing loss and saying, “She’s the only one of my grandkids who’s a singer like me”). David and I don’t have “a song” because we don’t really share music. And music was always accessible to me, not just hearing it, but being able to create it. That was a power I had, that was a thing that defined me, and it was gone. I’ve been trying every day since to get it back, and as close as I come, there’s a part of me that knows it can’t ever be perfect again. And that breaks my heart.
So you’ll understand when I tell you that this night was a battle. I knew we were headed to this bar, but I had no idea there would be karaoke. When I realized it, I had two immediate conflicting thoughts: I want to do it, and I can’t do it. I’d done karaoke twice since losing my hearing, but never by myself; I’d always had the cover of another person or couple of people if I got off track. This time, among David’s friends, I wouldn’t have that. I had so much fear, combined with such longing, that I had to lean my head into David’s shoulder to hide the tears from everyone else. I don’t think David really understood, and that’s ok. He did what he needed to do: He told me it would be ok no matter what, and that even if I sucked he’d still love me. I posted a plea on Facebook, and a friend of mine from my a cappella days replied, “Even with no hearing and underwater, you probably sing better than the rest of those drunk people.” For some reason, that was exactly what I needed to hear, and I turned my request in.
The rest you mostly know. Karaoke for me is like crack. Once I do it, I want to get back up there again and again. I sang twice and no one booed and everyone clapped and I was on cloud nine. David’s friends swore I was on key, and I’ll take their word for it. I updated my Facebook status: Melanie is just plain happy. And I was. It was bliss.