The Last Thing He Heard

I was talking to some friends a few days ago and we somehow stumbled into a conversation about super sad things.

The chat was indirectly about sad things, more about stories that grab you with such a tight grip that you have no other option than to read or listen or watch it until you have reached it’s final conclusion. The most successful incarnations of this were sad stories, stories that ultimately ended with you sobbing in the driver’s seat. In the radio world, specifically in NPR, this is called a “Driveway Moment,” a story that keeps you so wound that you won’t be comfortable until you have the ending.

Two friends mentioned this happening to them recently, both in regards to a story of a twentysomething man who was losing his hearing and was, in a sense, “curating” the sounds that would be stuck in his head for the rest of his life. His sense of hearing was slowly waning and, in discussions with doctors, he learned that some sounds would bounce around like lingering sonic ghosts from his hearing years. This motivated him to carefully monitor what he listened to, figuring out a soundtrack of songs that reminded him of happier times and songs that were pleasant enough – Or good enough! – for him to want repeated for decades of his life. It’s an insane, sad story that wanders between health and art, tapping musicians from Prince to Beck to manifest examples of music that was most touching.

This is the story of Matt Hay, a man who suffered from neurofibromatosis type 2. His story was shared with KQED in 2017 and is quite an emotional ride. But there is one point, a real world tragic moment, that crushes the heart. This moment is when Matt and his girlfriend, Nora, a woman who helped him work through hearing loss, realized that the day had come where his hearing was coming to an end and it was time to cram the final sounds in.

What did he pick to hear? Nora telling him “I love you.” until he couldn’t hear anymore. The two explain, transcription courtesy of Children’s Tumor Foundation.

Matt: I hopped on the train and I went home. As soon as Nora got home from work, I said, “I think…We’re done.”
Nora: We were told this is how it could go.
Matt: There was a place on Division Street, Adobo Grill, that has great margaritas and great guacamole, the table side guacamole. We went and got guac…What do you do when you lose your hearing? You go get margaritas and guacamole. I can remember walking there and just sitting across, having margaritas and telling each other, “I love you.”
Nora: He wanted me to laugh. He wanted me to laugh so he would remember that…And hear me say, “I love you.”
Matt: You can mouth the words, “I love you” to somebody. You can sign, “I love you” to somebody, but I wanted to make sure I remember what it sounded like.

Ugh. Ugh. Tragedy collides with love, gripping us all by the shoulders. What a story.

A lot more happens, from experimental surgeries to learning how to fight while deaf, but it’s this moment and their wobbly, loving, tender voices at this moment that really illustrates the power of a good story – and how every good story is rooted in relationships. It’s super sad, yes, and it taps into a certain primal empathy, hooking you around the neck, to pull you closer to whisper this directly in your ear. There is certainly a power to that and it’s definitely a lesson on how to capture people in a story successfully.

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