Scrabble and my return to hearing

After a decade of deafness, a nightly game with my patient husband helped give me my words back.

(Illustration by Gracia Lam)

I’VE NEVER BEEN A JUNKIE, but I feel like one when I play Scrabble. My husband, Ethan, and I are recent addicts. Every night after dinner the ancient box comes out, held together by rubber bands, filled with the board, wooden tiles, and scores from bygone games. Our new 8-pound American Heritage Dictionary is rapidly showing wear.

This Scrabble addiction is serious play. Two years ago, after a decade of deafness, I had a cochlear implant. It’s one of the few miracles in my life. I was very lucky — as soon as the implant was turned on, I could hear.

The worst parts of being deaf were losing words and not being able to hear either my own voice or other peoples’. And a third of my speaking vocabulary disappeared. I could read and understand words the way I always had, but not retain them in my brain’s dictionary. Even with the magic implant, I had to struggle to recall words. They came back gradually, and I was ecstatic at their return, but I wanted faster progress. That’s when we started to play Scrabble every night, hoping it would help me re-create and enlarge my inner dictionary.

For us, Scrabble is not just therapy or just a game. It’s a sweet way to repair a relationship decimated by the loss of hearing. My husband was probably a candidate for sainthood as he lived with me and my deafness, but it was impossible, even for him, not to feel annoyed at times and, even worse, disconnected from me, having lost the serious conversations we’d had in the past.


At first Ethan was very generous with our games. I played with eight letters rather than seven. I could trade in tiles without losing a turn. If I said, “Don’t you dare use that open triple word square,” he graciously moved somewhere else. He let me use abbreviations (hundreds of them) — even the two-letter ones for the chemical elements. As my hearing and vocabulary returned, the game became more competitive. Just like in the old days, Ethan felt entitled to play all seven tiles at once (for a 50-point bonus). I knew I was getting stronger when I didn’t throw a tile at him.


Our competition is also intimate. We take turns asking, “Is this a legal word?” or “May I borrow an ‘E’ from you if you have one?” and complaining, “Damn it, I was going to put something great in that place you just stole!” I’ve been pushing lately to claim extra points for obscene words — my husband grew up with parents who cursed like sailors, so he went to the opposite extreme and never swore, but I could help him enjoy some “dirty words.” Although we still sometimes come to each other’s aid now, our delight in winning overcomes graciousness at other times. Very occasionally I’m generous to Ethan, but not nearly as often as he is to me.

This is a story of my return to the world of hearing. My fingers and my eyes helped give me back my words. The indentations on Scrabble tiles remind me of Braille, even while I both see and hear them touch the board. But it’s also the story of how the strength of a long healthy marriage helped make that return possible — via an old game in a torn box, but with board and tiles intact. Like us.

We’ve been married for more than 50 years, and Scrabble — and the ways we use (and misuse) it — is a good test of how we’re doing. We’ve both discovered that an ancient Scrabble game can also repair. Its give-and-take enriches the many other things we share together.


We do, of course, have other pleasures, but that’s another story.

Joan Bolker is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Newton Highlands. Send comments to

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