I am in countdown mode now, just two days until I go under the knife and fall silent. After years of fighting with my voice, complaining about the unpredictability and asking doctor after doctor why my voice had lost its power, why I lost it so easily, why I sounded hoarse and raspy even on a good day, I finally got an answer. A cyst had formed on my vocal cords and, although not cancerous, the little growth is something that must be cut out by someone with a steady hand and a lot of letters after their name.
The doctor said that he couldn’t tell me how long the cyst had been there, but I feel I can almost pinpoint the year as I remember when I realized I could no longer produce a yell with any reasonable volume. I still felt like I was raising my voice, but the sound was muted, strident. The problem has been building over time, but there was one particular day when I realized that no matter how much force I put behind it, my voice simply wouldn’t project across a crowded room. Suddenly, I noticed how my words got swallowed by the space and the noise, and I bristled internally at the inability to make myself heard even as I admitted to myself that I had no idea why this was happening or what could be done to fix it.
For years, I mentioned the struggles with my voice at doctor’s visits, and I got a variety of answers and possible solutions over the years, all of which sounded reasonable at the time and even seemed to improve the issue for a while. But the problem would always come back, and at some point I suppose I just became resigned to being someone whose voice was, and possibly would always be, muted.
~ ~ ~
I didn’t realize how soon I would start feeling resigned, how early in life I would decide to accept my current situation as the hand I’d been dealt, or how easy it would be to slip into complacency. When I contemplate my near forty-ness, I generally think (as I often hear others say) that I don’t feel any different than I felt when I was nineteen. That quintessential, internal me feels static and fixed, familiar and recognizable. That which I consider my true nature does not seem to be fundamentally different than it did two decades ago.
And yet, I must admit that I have begun to see how the fire of youth has burned out of me in many ways. At nineteen, I had endless hope for my path and my future. Everything was as yet undecided, undone, the days ahead cloudy and unknown but perceived as ripe with shimmering possibility. Who I was to become and what my life would look like were forms not yet chiseled from the rough stone of my young existence.
And now I feel in some unspoken way that I have landed in the role that I once could only wait for and imagine. My spouse, my children, my career: these things have all materialized. I sense somehow that my interesting plot points have all already transpired, and I am simply in some extended dénouement that I will live out for my remaining years. In the day to day existence, I don’t perceive my life as having lost the sense of possibility, but many times the way I behave belies a de facto surrender to the inevitability of my days. It’s not that I believe my upcoming decades will be devoid of interest or excitement, but more that the formative period is over and my life has now gelled into its permanent shape.
I suppose this is why we worship the culture of youth in our books and movies and music: because youth has that glow of endless possibility that we believe expires once we decide on a path and begin to follow it. At nineteen, a person believes she can be anything; but at forty, if she is a married banker living in suburbia, we all generally accept that it’s rather unlikely she will ever become a traveling poet writing her way across Europe. Likewise, if we are short-tempered, we don’t expect to become suddenly patient; if we are slap-dash and sloppy, we don’t expect to become meticulous; if we are bookish, we don’t expect to emerge one morning as a flitting social butterfly.
Maybe we don’t stop making New Year’s Resolutions or trying to fit into last year’s pants, but in how many ways to do we quietly give up? In how many small and seemingly insignificant ways do we decide to stay the path we’ve chosen instead of asking ourselves, or going after, the path we always wished we’d taken instead? How many ways, through clinging to routine or the safety of inaction, do we let ourselves get stuck or become muted or decide we are less than we once thought we might become? In big ways, but also in small, incremental ways that add up so slowly that we feel as if we wake up one day having decided to accept things we never consciously meant to accept.
~ ~ ~
I have always had a somewhat irrational fear of surgery (I say somewhat because they wouldn’t make you sign all those scary forms if there wasn’t at least some remote reason to fear going under the knife), but as I approach this procedure, I am wary in a new way. The issue is fraught, I realize as the date approaches, with the weight of so much unexpected meaning.
You see, to get my voice back, I have to fall silent. Once the doctor removes the growth from my vocal folds, in order to let the wound heal, I have to refrain from making any noise for one week, then I will be cleared to speak for just a few minutes a day for the following weeks. Finally, I’ll be allowed to return to a mostly normal vocal schedule, but with a heavy cautionary warning not to overdo it for several months: don’t be too loud, don’t talk too long, don’t push your voice, don’t try and talk over a crowd.
So I watch the days tick down now, trying to plan how I will be a mother, an employee, a wife without the ability to communicate verbally. And as that big X moves closer on the calendar, I cannot help but overthink the whole thing. I mean, I can’t be the only who sees the symbolic existential dilemma inherent in being silenced, or who sees the isn’t-it-ironic twist of being silenced in order to get my voice back.
The silence looms ahead like a monster that will swallow my autonomy, my identity. It lurks in my thoughts, approaching slowly and steadily, making me grateful for every word I can speak now, every peal of laughter I don’t have to try choke down, and every lullaby I can sing for my children. I see my verbal communication suddenly as the gift it is, the intensely valuable tool I have been blessed with and also as the embodiment of my voice-writ-large. I see the value of my voice as it relates to my capital-V Voice that is, in essence, my unique contribution to this world.
And this newfound appreciation makes wonder how I let myself grow so complacent that I simply became resigned to the loss of my voice. How could that have become acceptable, something that I just explained with a shrug when someone asked why I was so hoarse all the time? Why did it seem more natural to constantly apologize for being hard to hear than to launch a mission to find and remedy the problem in the first place? Did I value my own voice so little that I was unwilling to fight for the chance to nurture it, to protect and amplify it?
In fact, it wasn’t until the knowledge that I would have to become completely silent during the recovery that I realized how unsettling it has been for me to feel like I have been slowly losing my voice for years now. It’s not a new story, I know, just another twist on absence making the heart grow fonder. But for me, the recognition of my own complacence was a barbed one, painful and entrenched, snagging other stinging realizations as it was raised into the light. It has made clear for me that there are too many things that I have stopped fighting for, too many broken things I have stopped believing can be fixed.
I think about it this way: there are some floorboards in my little existence that have been creaking for some time now, and instead of getting out the tools and settling in to fix them, I have simply learned to walk a jagged and circuitous route around the damaged areas. Or I have turned their creaking into a song in my head and decided to think of that melody as the imperfect theme song of my days. But what I have stopped doing is believing that the creaking can be remedied. I have decided that my life is full enough of love and joy, that I have a lovely family and a nice life all-in-all, but anything more is out of my reach.
Now that I have an answer about my tumultuous voice, and a plan of action to fix this one threadbare part, to soothe this one creaky floorboard, I am looking at this old house with a new eye. What else have I been overlooking? What other areas of my life have become muted?
I wasn’t sure if I would ever be back writing here, but now I wonder if this space has gone the way of this same kind of gradual resignation. I liked having a space to work out my ideas in writing, but somewhere along the way I let myself overthink the purpose of having a personal blog. I got caught up in thoughts of performance, monetization, appeal and forgot the simple release of cranking out words and sending them out into the wild unknown. There is fear there, and a certain rush, as your humble little creation is sent out into the world, and you feel as if a piece of yourself has been released and now sits waiting to be seen in all its earnest imperfection.
The oncoming sentence of silence has reminded me of my Voice, of the ways I once used it that have since grown muted, and of the value I almost forgot could be found in using it. And it’s a value that is found in the doing, in the speaking and sharing and writing and singing, not in what accolades might come from the doing. The magic is in those little everyday acts of rebellion where you refuse to let the monotony of life mute your existence, where you push against the apathy and the entropy to move upward, always steadily and intentionally towards something higher. So here I take one step towards that goal, release one small part of me into the wild unknown, a humble and imperfect offering that feels in its own way like an act of reclamation. I’m getting louder already.