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We Listened To Ourselves

Rose and I worked at the same printing company...she being one of several deaf employees (she hates the term hearing-impaired!) hired through a special program. I knew she was deaf when I heard her voice while she was conversing with another worker. I had no girlfriend, so I took note of every new female employee! And later I found that Rose had recently split up with a hearing boyfriend. One afternoon we looked over at each other and smiled, and there was that cliched "click" of something.

We had lunch on our first date. Rose reads lips extremely well, and speaks much better than many deaf people I've met subsequently -- but during that lunch, I think I understood a third of what she was saying at best! Eventually I got better at deciphering her, though even thirteen years later I have occasional difficulty. Other people, strangely, often understand her better than I even when meeting her for the first time!

One problem I never anticipated between Rose and me is that she has a great difficulty reading and writing...and my aspirations are to become a well-known writer (currently I am a published and obscure writer). I soon learned that the AVERAGE deaf person has the writing skills of a third grader, and reading skills of a fifth grader. Deaf people don't think in words as much as hearing people do, but in a more abstract way, largely involving "actions" and "occurrences". And in American Sign Language, they skip connective words (one will sign, "I go store" rather than entirely express, "I am going to go to the store now"), so they generally tend to write in that same way.

So how would I feel, writing stories a partner couldn't fully appreciate? What I ended up doing over time was to TELL my wife my stories. She gets something from this, because if it's a scary story she'll shudder, if it's a sad story she'll cry. We've often ended up crying together after one of these story-telling sessions!

I've learned some sign-language but have never been good at languages (two years of Spanish and one of French were entirely wasted on me). I've asked Rose many a time to sign to me EVERY time she speaks to me, so that I might learn more simply through constant exposure, but she has become too used to conversing with hearing people without signing. So now I merely toss in the occasional sign as an "illustration' (or to talk to her in a noisy location, or behind another person's back).

Some of Rose's deaf friends asked her why she wanted to go out with a hearing man (some deaf people refer to hearing people as "hearies"). Men seemed most resentful. I imagine they felt that the ranks of available deaf women were being invaded, the way some white men resent seeing one of "their" women with a black man.

In the beginning, it was an exciting idea to me, having a deaf girlfriend. The movie CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD came out right when we began dating. It was exotic, as dating an Asian or African-American woman would have seemed to me. But the reality of certain difficulties arose later on. I have to "slow down" my speech to Rose, speak more clearly and simply, as I would to a child, despite Rose's adult intelligence. Profound conversations about literature are saved for my brother or certain friends.

Much of our relationship is of an unspoken harmony...despite all the fighting like cats and dogs that has existed from nearly day one -- but I attribute this to our mutual bad tempers as much as to our communication differences. In school, Rose was taught to be tough and bold and independent, so she is not afraid to butt heads, and is much tougher than I am...more willing to deal with the public in the course of errands than this shy hearing person is. I think my withdrawn nature and my feelings of being an "outsider" type might have a lot to do with me being attracted to a deaf person. We can be in our two little bubbles linked together.

There have been many occasions when my family found Rose difficult or awkward or frustrating to deal with, and vice-versa, so there have been numerous embarrassing flare-ups at holidays and family gatherings and the like. And at work, I felt Rose's bosses were insensitive and impatient with her, and there were several angry, messy meetings that I demanded be called to address these problems. But Rose works for another plant now, where she is greatly respected and liked...and the head-butting with my family has seemed to decrease over the years.

When we found out our son Colin was autistic, I thought Rose would be even more devastated than I was. The opposite was true. Again, Rose is tougher -- but I think it has more to do with the fact that she has accepted her own "disability", and it isn't a tragedy to her. My fear had been that she would despair, because in ways her childhood had been very rough, and she might fear for Colin's, too. But she has been strong.

So now our household is doubly challenging, but triply loving. Now it's three little bubbles -- but firmly connected.





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