When Stacy and I first married, we had the usual quirks and issues to work out. We had to decide, for example, if working three part time jobs while attending graduate school exempted me from having to hang the clothes on the line outside. We also debated whether slamming an entire basket of wet clothes on the floor next to the bed was truly the best way of communicating, “Could you help with the clothes, dear?” I’ll leave you to figure out what we decided.
One issue that came up was communication, but not like you think. You see, Stacy was born deaf, and I was born hearing. However, I began to lose my hearing as a child, and it continues to trickle away as the years roll by. When we married, Stacy was as deaf as she had ever been and I had two hearing aids that helped me quite a bit. I could hear more than she could.
A second issue in communication that figured heavily into things was personality. Stacy was a frustrated extrovert, meaning she loved to visit with people but struggled to understand what was said around her by hearing friends and family. I, however, was an introverted neanderthal. I could sit in a group of the most fun people in the world and stare at spot on the wall while trying to make a mental shopping list. I’ve mostly grown out of the neanderthal stage, in my opinion; others might disagree.
So there we were, newly weds with communication issues; what were the odds, right? Here’s how it often played out…
Stacy: Honey, do you know what they are saying?
Me: What who is saying?
Stacy: Those two women sitting across from us.
Me: Why would I know what they are saying?
Stacy: Well…you’ve got your hearing aids on, and I thought maybe you could hear them.
Me: I do indeed have them, but I turned them off.
Me: Some people were talking somewhere, bothering me.
Stacy: Well turn them on!
Stacy: So you can hear them maybe and tell me what they said?
Me: Why would you want to know what they are talking about? Besides, I’m your husband. I’m not an interpreter.
From there, the discussions would generally deteriorate into what we call “moments of intense fellowship.”
Being an extrovert, Stacy was driven to know what others were discussing. To make matters worse, she saw me sitting there with two imperfect ears that worked better than hers, but refusing to use them in order to interact with strangers. Me? I just wanted to sit there in silence, and could not fathom her obssession with other conversations. My motto was, “I won’t bother them, and hopefully they’ll be decent enough to return the gesture.”
Later, as I was able to find work and she was not, a new pattern developed. I would arrive home from a hard day of minimum-waging and find her, lying in wait. Like an alligator lurking under the surface of a muddy river, waiting to drag down a wildebeest by its neck.
She started by asking, “What did you talk about with people today?” Later she learned to modify that question, changing it to, “Did you talk with people today?” She was isolated and bored, and I couldn’t blame her. Even after I got a real professional job, she could not find work. She spent hours alone while I worked, and looked forward to ambus…I mean, asking me about my day.
In order to serve her better, I began to try to listen. I admit that it took a few years; I was stepping way outside of my comfort zone, and was engaging in behavior that struck me as nearly rude. I took my hearing aids, and I worked at it. I started paying attention when I was out alone, working here or there. I still didn’t care, but I knew she did. I knew she was somewhere, just waiting to know what someone else had said. Sometimes, I would even try talking to (gasp) people!
I started carrying a small notebook. I wrote down funny stories others shared. I made notes about who I met, and what we talked about. I expanded my notes over time, copying down funny advertisements and interesting sights. I wrote down who said what, when, where.
And before I knew it, two odd things happened along the way.
The first was that I started figuring out how to handle people. I’m still not great at it, but I have learned how to talk with other sentient lifeforms. What started out as questions to elicit information so I could enable my little addict back at home became opportunities to get to know people. Turns out, some of them aren’t all bad.
The second result was that Stacy and I began to absolutely love talking to each other. We liked it before, don’t get me wrong. It was fun to chat, and nice to remember that this was the girl I fell in love with. However, we moved from the tendency to chat nightly towards valuing that chat very highly. There’s a very human pattern to do exactly that, to elevate our tendencies and habits to the point of becoming part of our values.
Something else unexpected came of all of this: we talk about everything. When I get to the end of the list of items I have recorded, we keep going. Nothing is off limits. Who said what. When that thing happened. Something we read. Something we saw. Inappropriate words shared by others. The children’s antics. Bathroom habits. The Bible. Morality versus religion. You name it, we talk about it.
Only 19 years into this, Stacy still looks at me to help her understand what is going on sometimes. I mean, just because we have figured out how to communicate with each other does not make her hear any better. After all these years, I actually hear worse. I still don’t like interpreter duty much. However, we know from our lives as deaf people that communication must not be taken for granted. What’s more, we’ve learned as married people that communicative competence is not guaranteed.
Someone said to me recently, “Relationships are built on trust” He was right. But trust is built through communication.
Gotta go. I think Stacy is talking, and she’s holding a laundry basket. I wonder what she said.