I wrote this in honor of my wife, Stacy, deaf since birth. It reflects how she genuinely feels these days, after her 40th birthday and 19th wedding anniversary.
I’m sending you a letter, Mom and Dad. Again.
I mean, I’ve sent this message to you before in a variety of ways; small letters and notes, comments and discussions. They came in a variety of forms. Sometimes it was an email. Other letters came as casual conversation, or messages carried by others; never a phone call, though. More on that later. I sent the letters many times, always either in print or face to face, but I don’t think you got them. At least, it seems like you didn’t. So, I’ll try again.
You remember that little deaf girl you used to know? The one with the hair that was either in pigtails or sticking in every direction? She had those two great big hearing aids that had a maximum output of somewhere around 120 decibels; they replaced the body aid you used to strap on her. You made all those flash cards and picture books, and you taught her to talk. You spent hours and hours with that little deaf girl, talking to her and working to help her catch up. She was two years behind in her language skills, and yet you caught her up and sent her off to school.
Remember when she was nine, and little hearing sister was two? Remember how much that deaf girl lashed out at her sister? It was wrong, sure, but it was understandable. Here she was, nine or ten years old, and little sister understood more about what was going on than the little deaf girl. Neither of them understood at the time what made her so envious of little sister; little sister only knew it was unpleasant. It wasn’t until the deaf girl was gone that things became clearer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
She went to church with you, that deaf girl. Sunday after Sunday. She never really did grasp why she had to spend so much time with her eyes closed during worship, or what the preacher always got so worked up about. When she became a deaf teenager, she walked away from the youth group, the one little sister would be a major part of later. Comprehension was so hard in groups of hearing people, and the point of church was lost on the deaf girl anyway.
Remember her favorite television program as a pre-teen? Yep. “Three’s Company.” It was the one progam on TV where most of the plot was communicated through body language and facial expressions. She could summarize any episode by saying, “I think this is the one where there’s some misunderstanding.” Oh, and the trips to movies with the family were such exercises in dishonesty. She sat right next to you and gleaned what she could from the action, poor little deaf girl. Everyone walked out into the Texas sun, blinking at the light, saying, “Wasn’t that a great movie?” Deaf girl would nod and agree that yes, it was fabulous; what a little liar.
Phone calls. You spent time on the phone, and tried to teach that girl how to use it as well. She tried, but it was usually an exercise in futility. She could express herself, but never quite hear what was happening on the other end. You tried, though, to help her through it.
Remember that girl, that deaf girl who read at family picnics, who read at the dinner table, who read all through Christmas visits with the entire clan? Who retreated into books because at least there her deafness did not stand between herself and comprehension?
Well, she doesn’t live here any more.
It took a long time, but I think I’ve finally figured out when her departure was assured. There was a moment that snuck up on her, and turned her into me, into someone with an identity that is different than the one for which you prepared me. You’ll never guess what that moment was.
It was the day that little girl fell in love with a guy who had a closed caption box. It’s ok: he knows.
That girl went to college, and met a guy who didn’t hear much, either. Even so, he could hear more than she could. They dated, but she was still that same little deaf girl. They spent 5 months apart, writing letters back and forth across the state. Then he got a TTY, and she did, too. Remember those things? You dialed the number and put the phone on the unit, and typed back and forth. Finally the phone was something she could use. She went to see him that year, during Thanksgiving. He had this curious black box sitting on top of the TV. It allowed the two of them to rent movies, and to watch Cheers, a program she previously thought to be the most boring thing in history. All that talking!
At any rate, this guy with his own hearing aids, and a TTY, and a closed caption thingy taught her something that made that little girl go away: deafness does not hinder relationships. Reaction to deafness does that.
That girl went away a long time ago. A Deaf woman has since taken her place; that would be me. Since then I’ve learned American Sign Language, which allowed me to use interpreters in college. With free-flowing information, I made the dean’s list. I took my sign language to a Deaf church, and learned about Christ for the first time. My first Deaf pastor baptized me into His Family. My socialization finally matched my personality; always a frustrated extrovert, I was never able to be myself when lumped in with all the hearing people in my world. With Deaf friends, though….oh, it was different.
I married that guy, and we used that caption box for years. Everything that has entered my world since then has been a result of being Deaf. God called me to Deaf missions. I’ve learned 6 different sign languages. I have kids whose communication with me in sign thrills me beyond words; personally, I’ve known families where my deafness isolates me, so having my own family where there is no isolation is a blessing. I appreciate communication more than others, I think, because I treasure it so much.
I know you are frustrated. You live in a hearing world, and a hearing family. Everyone has a cell phone, and you all talk all the time. You don’t write much; it’s hard even to find pen and paper in your house these days. Family gatherings are rated on size (bigger = better) and chaos (crazy times = good times). You treasure and value good things, and yet your values and mine are not exactly the same.
I treasure communication, expressed and received visually; everything else pales in comparison to that. Everything. Your phone plans mean nothing to me. I don’t know your phone number. I can’t understand groups of hearing people, and I don’t plan to spend my time begging people who have known me for 40 years to remember that I am Deaf. Smaller groups are better, because I have a chance at being part of your family. Chaotic communication keeps me from entering your world.
I know you are confused. You remember that little deaf girl, the one who tried to use the phone, and went to movies, and sat in groups with the entire family as though she understood. What you don’t seem to understand is that your little deaf girl spent so many years telling so many lies, pretending to understand the auditory world the family inhabited. Now, whether you realize or not, she’s been gone a long time; she’s not coming back.
I love you, probably more than that little deaf girl loved you. But I miss you. No, I miss being a part of the family. It’s odd to miss that when I’ve never really, really had it with you folks.
I know now what it means to be a part of every joke, every conversation, every problem in a family. That guy with the caption box and the hearing aids, he and I are building a family that includes everyone. It doesn’t center on the deaf parents; that would be selfish. Instead it simply has a style that includes everyone. I’ve seen how it can work, and I just wish that it worked that way with my parents, too. It can, but it isn’t up to me.
Did you get it this time? Did you get my letter, Mom and Dad?