Really listening to her

Doctor-ordered silence after my throat surgery had an unexpected side effect: I started really hearing my wife.

Gracia Lam

From the time I realized that I liked girls so much that I’d one day try to live with one, every older married family member and friend has been telling me that the key to a healthy relationship is communication.

It was ironic advice, given my choice of career. As a reporter, I talk to strangers for a living and love the challenge of getting them to open up. Yet here’s a big confession: I’ve been married for eight happy years, but until six months ago—though it sounds terribly chauvinistic to say now—in the area of conversation, I could be the stereotypical inattentive husband.

It’s not that my wife and I never had pleasant conversations. We talked all the time — at home in the evenings, during work breaks, strolling through the park with our son and dog on weekends. But more often than I care to admit, I was just going through the motions , nodding when I was supposed to about things I had no interest in — antique fairs and vintage clothing shops, for example. (Thank God, my wife also likes to talk pro football and politics.) I was the guy who’d defensively snap, “Of course I did!” when my wife would ask, “JB, did you even hear what I just said?”


So it should be no surprise that when I began to lose my voice repeatedly in January and sought treatment at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, my first thought was not “Oh no, how am I going to communicate with my family?” but rather “Oh no, how will I do my job!”

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Doctors said one of my vocal folds was blistered and stiffening and bleeding into my throat. The best analogy here is the adage “Lift with your legs, not your back!” Apparently for years I’d been “lifting” with my vocal folds instead of forcing air from my gut to project sound. I needed surgery, or my throat would be permanently damaged. Total silence would be required the first few weeks of my recovery.

Two hours after the surgery, tears welled in my eyes as my son, recently turned 2, stood in the recovery room looking puzzled because I wouldn’t answer his questions. I looked at my wife and nearly broke down. I wanted to talk, but I couldn’t. I was glad I’d recorded myself reading some of my son’s favorite books. They’d come in handy the next couple of weeks.

My pity party lasted only a few hours, because by the time I got home and had settled into a Zen-like peace, I noticed another “side effect”: As my wife talked to me to keep up my spirits, I wasn’t just hearing her, I was listening to her. Over the next couple of weeks, I found myself not wanting to miss a word she said. I began to hear a sweetness in her voice that I hadn’t recalled since we were first dating. It had never left. I’d just stopped noticing. I found myself understanding her better on topics I’d previously dismissed as “things I just don’t get as a guy.” I also realized my toddler wasn’t just chattering nonstop, but that he often had surprisingly thoughtful things to say for his age.

Even walking my dog in the woods near our home in Braintree, I began hearing pleasant patterns in bird songs. The leaves rustling sounded crisper to me. Before my surgery, I’d have spent those walks on my phone.


I started whispering for a few minutes a day 2½ weeks after my surgery. A week later, I was in a voice therapist’s office learning to craft sound with minimal strain. After several months, my therapist had me singing old standards to her piano accompaniment. I was fully recovered.

Conversation in our house is better these days, but not because I’m talking more. I’m just listening better and becoming less and less surprised that I like what I hear.

James H. Burnett III is a Boston Globe staff writer. Send comments to

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