Water makes sound.
It crashes, it swishes, it drips, it cascades, it pours.
Amanda Eshelman, a typical 13-year-old in many ways, had had no idea.
The first time she flushed the toilet after getting a hearing aid in her right ear a year ago, she jumped back, startled by the sound. The hearing aid brought back sounds that had been getting softer for years.
She was deaf in her left ear. She had been born with some hearing in that ear, maybe enough to hear a lawnmower right next to her, but it gradually faded away almost a decade ago. Her right ear started deteriorating when she started middle school two years ago.
Amanda, a bubbly teenager, found ways to cope with the gradual hearing loss. She sat in the front in her classrooms. She asked her friends to repeat themselves often. She focused on watching people's mouths when they talked, so she could read their lips.
When she got a hearing aid in seventh grade, she picked a hot pink one. Suddenly, it was like everyone was talking into a microphone. She could hear the dishwasher, the water when she turned the shower on and that crazy sound the toilet made when it flushes.
It was easier for Amanda to hear her teachers at school, but she still couldn't understand anyone when there was a crowd, like in the cafeteria or in the hallways. She couldn't tell where sounds were coming from, either. And every few months, the sounds became fainter. The hearing aid had to be cranked up as her hearing declined.
Her mother, Betsy, worried about what would happen if the hearing in Amanda's right ear kept worsening. Would her child's world become completely silent?
Amanda had already started preparing for that. She joined a club at school to learn sign language, and taught herself even more by watching YouTube videos of popular songs being signed. She, her twin sister and three friends performed Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark" in sign language for the talent show.
Looking for options, her parents took her to see a specialist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, who suggested she might be a candidate for a cochlear implant, which can restore hearing in a different way than a hearing aid. It requires surgery to implant an electrode inside the inner ear, which attaches magnetically to a sound processor worn outside the head.
But there was a risk the implant wouldn't improve Amanda's hearing at all because her left ear had been "dead" for so long.
"It's your choice," her father said.
In typical Amanda fashion, she wanted to go for it.
"What else am I supposed to do?" she said. "Sit in my room and cry all day? I can't do that."
In mid-November, she had surgery to get the Cochlear company's newest implant and sound processor, called Kanso. Two weeks later was activation day, when audiologist Amy Carlson would turn the system on to see how much sound her auditory nerve and brain could pick up. Whereas people with normal hearing hear sounds acoustically, the implant transmits electronic pulses, which can be difficult to adjust to for patients who have had hearing before.
Amanda had picked out a hot pink cover for the sound processor that magnetically attaches to her head.
"Are you sure you want pink?" her father had asked. She was very sure.
I spoke with Amanda prior to activation, and asked what she might want to hear if it worked.
She thought about the question and remembered a pair of socks she wears on Christmas Day. They have little bells on them, and her mom can hear her wherever she walks around the house.
"I can't hear the jingle bells," she said. "I don't remember ever hearing it."
When she walked into the hospital room where Carlson would turn on the device, Amanda was nervous and excited.
While the audiologist began the testing, Betsy's gaze, full of worries and hopes, was fixed on her child's face. She remembered holding Amanda in her lap during hearing tests as a young child. Betsy could hear the beeps through the headphones her daughter wore for those tests, but Amanda wouldn't respond. She had wanted to poke her daughter to get to raise her hand and show she could hear. But she couldn't.
This time, it was different.
Carlson turned it on.
Amanda's hands flew to her mouth. Her laugh mixed with her tears, which mixed with her mother's laughter and tears.
"Hi, baby," her mother said, grabbing her in a tight embrace.
"I like it," Amanda said, through her tears. "It's a lot better than I thought it was going to be."
She heard the sounds of the fan and the heating system in the room; even the overhead lights made a slight buzzing sound. Her own voice sounded so strange to her. Carlson explained that there was a long road ahead of gradually increasing the sound levels, and retraining the brain to focus on new sounds and block out background noises.
Amanda could hardly wait to start. The next week, she was sitting in the living room, surrounded by her siblings with the television on, like she had on countless afternoons before. There was so much sound all around her. She turned to her mom and said, "I didn't realize how quiet my world had become."
It had hit her when she walked inside their home after the activation. Their cat, Geno, was waiting by the front door.
He was purring. That's what purring sounds like, she thought. It was louder than she expected.
When he ran off, she heard another new sound.
He had a bell on his collar.
"I could hear it," she said.
A jingle bell.