I remember the day I started to lose my hearing. I remember it because two things had happened the day before; I’d received a particularly painful numbing injection at the dentist’s office prior to having some work done and my daughter was raped and left for dead in a dumpster just outside her college campus.
We got the call at 4 AM. Being woken like that, by a shrill ringing in the otherwise still and quiet dark, is something no one should have to experience. You know before you pick up that something has happened, that something life changing is about to be dropped in your lap, and all you can do is answer.
“Mr. Barrister?” The voice on the other end said. “I’m sorry to call at this hour. It’s about your daughter.”
I’ll never forget those words or the icy way they wrapped around my heart. My daughter, my baby girl. I looked at my wife, she looked back at me, and she knew. If I never again hear the sound she made then, I will consider myself blessed.
In the flurry of packing and finding a flight to get to Emily and all of the gut wrenching worry, I didn’t even notice it at first. It wasn’t until we were in the air and Helena was whispering prayers under her breath beside me that I heard it; a high pitched keen in my left ear that came in what I can only describe as short beeps. It reminded me of hearing test tones.
I stuck my finger in my ear and wiggled it around, trying to lessen the sound, but it remained, steady and irritating and beeping.
It was pushed to the back of my mind the moment we landed, however, and we raced from the airport to the hospital, where Emily was lying unconscious with a row of machines standing vigil at her bedside. I’d seen them countless times before, I knew what they each did and why they were attached to her, but in that moment, they were strange, mechanical monstrosities that made her look so small and frail.
As we sat there, stroking her hair and telling her how we loved her, I had a flashback to the only other time Emily had ever been in a hospital. She had been six, maybe seven, and it was bedtime. She wanted to stay up longer like her older brother, but I told her to stop jumping on her bed and to settle down for sleep. I turned my back for just a minute, I don’t even remember why, and she slipped. Blood was pouring out of a nasty gash over her eye where she’d struck the headboard and she was screaming.
After we’d calmed her down and got a look at the wound, we agreed she’d need stitches. While Helena got her dressed, I called the hospital where I worked as an anesthetist and got ahold of one of my doctor buddies to let him know I was coming in. Helena stayed home with our son while I took Emily in.
“Is it gonna hurt?” Emily asked from the backseat. She was staring at me in the rearview mirror, one eye covered by the cloth she was pressing against her forehead.
“No, I’ll make sure it doesn’t.”
“How?” My little girl, ever the skeptic.
“Remember how we talked about how Daddy makes people go to sleep for his job?” It had become something of a joke in our house; better behave or Daddy’ll put you to sleep…forever!
“Sometimes I only make part of a person fall asleep. That way, the nice doctors can make them better and they don’t even feel it!”
“You’re gonna do that to me?”
“And you’re gonna stay with me the whole time?”
She barely winced when I injected the local anesthetic and then fell asleep during the actual stitches.
Emily was a tough little girl.
She was a tougher young woman.
It took her three days to wake up. In that time, the hearing in my left ear had started to fade until the only thing I could hear with absolute clarity was that high pitched ringing I’d first noticed on the plane.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
I couldn’t worry about it just then, though, not when my family needed me so badly, and I didn’t mention it to anyone.
Emily’s recovery was a slow process. She claimed not to remember who had attacked her and said she couldn’t offer any description or statement to the police. She was tightlipped about what happened, even with her mother, with whom she’d shared everything. My carefree, forever smiling daughter was now haunted and every time she looked at me, there was such pain etched deeply into her eyes.
I’d never felt so helpless or hollow.
After she was released from the hospital, she quietly withdrew from school and moved back in with me and her mother, where she spent most of her days shut away in her room.
All the while, the deafness and ringing in my ear continued.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Still, I put off going to get it checked out. I figured it was some kind of screw up from the dentist’s injection and there wouldn’t be much that could be done about it anyway. It would be almost impossible to prove.
My focus was entirely on Emily and helping her in any way I could, my own issues be damned. We got her into therapy, we researched healing techniques, we devoted ourselves entirely to her physical and mental health in every way she would allow. It took months, but she started to smile again, the night terrors started to recede, and, piece by piece, our Emily started to come back to us.
We had just started discussing whether she felt comfortable enough to return to school when things began to unravel.
Emily had come to the hospital where I worked to have lunch with me. We were sitting in the cafeteria, our trays of food untouched in front of us while we talked about what courses she might like to take. She was in the middle of telling me about a genealogy class she was interested in when she froze, mid sentence, and the color drained from her face.
“Kiddo? You ok?”
I followed her fixed stare back to the register line, where a trio of people were waiting to pay for their food, and then looked back to her.
“I need to go.” She said suddenly.
“Love you, Dad.”
She practically ran out of the cafeteria.
I turned back to the three at the register. Two I recognized, the chief of medicine and an oncologist, but the third I didn’t know. He was a young man around Emily’s age and the passing resemblance he bore the chief led me to believe he was a relative of some sort, probably a grandson.
The longer I looked at him, the louder the ringing in my ear became.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
When I got home that night, Emily was sitting on the back porch, staring off vacantly while our dogs wandered about the yard. She jumped when I opened the slider and took a seat next to her.
“You ok?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She said.
The silence that fell between us was a heavy one.
“About today…” I started to say.
“Victor.” She said quietly.
I didn’t say anything, afraid to interrupt and cause her to shut down again.
“He goes to the same university. We had a biology class together.” Every word sounded like it was being torn forcibly out of her. “We found out were from the same area so we talked a few times about classes and how you and his Grandpa work for the same place and then we…traded pictures and stuff.”
“And stuff” was clearly things that no father ever wants to think of his daughter doing. I just nodded.
“It was going too fast, though, so I…I told him I wanted to just be friends again. He didn’t like that. He told me if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d share the pictures I sent him.” Her voice cracked and she turned away from me. “That’s illegal now in a lot of places, though, and I said I’d make sure he got in trouble. He got angry.”
Victor had cornered her outside a club and tried to get her to go home with him. When she refused, he became violent. He’d dragged her into alleyway and attacked her.
“He said if I ever told, he’d share all of our texts so people would know I wanted it and he’d make sure you were fired and that your career would be over.” Emily was shaking with sobs. “His grandpa’s the chief of medicine, he could’ve done it!”
I pulled her in close and held her while she cried.
No matter how much I tried to tell her that we needed to call the police, she refused.
“I can’t, Dad.” She said. “He has texts and pictures. No one would believe me.”
The next day when I went in to work, I went straight to the chief of medicine’s office. I didn’t know what I was going to do or say, I just had to do something. I had barely knocked on the door when he called me in.
Before I could speak, Dr. Gladson looked up and said, “Oh, good, Martha found you. I wanted to talk to you about my grandson, Vic. He’s having surgery this afternoon, nothing too serious, but I’d like you to be his anesthetist. I’d ask Taylor, but he’s already scheduled.”
I almost said no. I almost shouted that his damn grandson was a monster. I almost told him I’d sooner see him dead.
Instead, I took a deep breath and said, “Of course.”
“Good. It’s at 2:30 with Dr. Lim.”
As I turned to leave, the ringing in my left ear seemed so loud that it was almost throbbing.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
At 2:30, as promised, I was seated at the head of the surgery table behind the ether screen. Victor, a good looking kid with a cocksure attitude about him, was lying in front of me.
“Hello, Victor.” I said.
He wasn’t at all nervous, which told me he didn’t know who I was. It didn’t surprise me, not many people bothered to learn the anesthetist’s name.
“Is this your first surgery?”
“So you know how anesthesia works?”
“Count back from ten, yeah.”
I made small talk while I set up, asking him about where he went to school and what he was majoring in. When it came time to put on his mask and count down, I asked him one more question.
“I think you might know my daughter.”
“Oh yeah, I think so.”
“She ever tell you what I do for a living?”
“Maybe?” He was getting drowsy.
“I put people to sleep for a living, Vic.” I was whispering.
“Huh?” He was struggling to stay awake.
The beeping in my ear was especially loud then and, slowly, I realized that it was echoing. I looked up at his heart monitor, sitting not too far over my head, and it beeped in time with the ringing in my ear.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
The surgery went well for about twenty minutes, until Victor experienced a sudden drop in blood pressure. The shock to his system sent him into a violent seizing fit and the surgeon was barking orders, demanding this and that to stabilize the boy.
But there was nothing that could be done.
Anesthesia overdoses can be such terrible, tricky things.
As the staff struggled to revive him and I made a show of doing the same, the steady rhythm of the ringing in my ear changed for the first time.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeep.
Victor was pronounced dead at 3:02 PM.
At the same time the heart monitor was turned off, the ringing in my ear ceased and sound returned to it in a loud, almost painful burst.
I was glad for the surgical mask, then, as they covered Victor with the white sheet.
No one could see that I was smiling.