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Have you heard? New research into infant development reveals that we are listening to our world even before we get a good look at it.
In the comfort of our mother's womb, where everything is taken care of, we hear the first sound of our life. And it's loud. A mother's heartbeat reaches 90 decibels, the CBC's Passionate Eye reported recently in The Secret Life of Babies. That's a noisy factory floor, or a truck with no muffler. But to baby, it's the first sound of love, straight from the heart.
Newborns can even hear in their sleep. Infants don't remember these sounds, but their effect is nonetheless profound and enduring. Maybe that's why so many people have very particular favourite sounds that can't always be explained, yet last a lifetime.
An English-speaking friend of mine who had been adopted shortly after birth grew up on the West Coast of Canada with an unaccountable love for the sound of the French language. He even spent a year in Nice learning French.
Later in life, he was finally able to meet his birth mother – a French Canadian with an enchanting voice. It seems that part of his life had been spent trying to find his way back to those first loving tones. At one time or another, all of us may be listening for some deeply comforting, forgotten music.
For me, it's foghorns.
I know some people can't stand the sound of them, and today's foghorns have a harsher tone than the old ones, but I still love to hear that sound, and I suspect anyone over the age of 50 who grew up near a coast in Canada may feel the same way.
Growing up in Vancouver in the 1950s, I would hear them as I lay in bed at night, when there were no more sounds in our house. A little like whale music, they had a long, low pitch, one or two simple notes followed by silence, then repeated, until I fell asleep.
At some point in my life – I don't know when – I stopped hearing them. In fact, foghorns are not used very much in Vancouver these days. But in earlier times there were foghorn stations positioned all around the city. One fog and light station stood in the waters at the mouth of the Capilano River, under the Lions Gate Bridge, not far from where my family lived. It was considered so essential that over six decades, two different families had lived in it and maintained it, in partial isolation. The station was finally dismantled in 1969 as modern navigation equipment, as well as cleaner air, made it redundant. But once in a while you can still hear foghorns coming from ships moored in the inlet.
Some people find them irritating or spooky. To me, they've always felt profoundly comforting. And when I was old enough to know why they were sounded, they felt even more so. Their gently guiding song was not meant for me, it was for those who were trying to make their way through uncertain waters, alone in the dark.
No such uncertainty distressed my young life. I could hear the mournful sound of a murky world out there somewhere, but I was safe. When I went to sleep at night, I knew who I was, I knew where I was and I knew instinctively that I was loved and guided.
How my parents created that feeling is still a mystery to me, and probably was to them. As an adult I've come to realize that while successful parenting is not exactly rare, it's not that easy to come by.
Parenting is a delicate balance between stifling control and a failure to guide, between smothering love and hurtful neglect.
Like foghorns that motion ships forward and warn them away at the same time, this guidance is risky because it is almost always from a distance and invisible. If it works, it's a minor miracle and you sail through.
I had forgotten how much I missed that foghorn sound until I heard it again this winter, on a foggy December night in Vancouver.
It was late as I lay in bed, unable to sleep. My elderly mom was a few blocks away in a care home, suffering from dementia, not expected to live much longer, and I was apprehensive. Some time during that night, the sound of foghorns in the harbour emerged seamlessly out of the dark. Nothing could have sounded more soothing.
Early into that December morning, after the foghorns had faded, I got the call telling me my mom was gone.
I know it is probably too much to hope for, but I would like to think that in that final fog of dementia, she too could hear them, and that she knew where she was, who she was and that she was loved.
John Moir lives in West Vancouver.