The first time my fiancée Michelle and I spoke was via a dating website. The timing of our connection was atrocious; in less than 12 hours I would be on a jet to my new duty station in Norfolk, VA. She had no idea.
I spoke with her for nearly four hours through OkCupid’s messaging system and, after exchanging mobile numbers, by text. At sometime around 2 o’clock in the morning she asked me a question that changed my life.
“So, what’s the catch?”
Both of us had reached that point where neither wanted to accept that two people could click so thoroughly. In truth, the question was not far from my fingers either so, I told her. I’m moving to Virginia in seven hours. I’m in the Navy and my permanent duty station will be aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, I typed.
Whew. Now what? Well, turns out she had a catch too, and one she described as a “possible deal-breaker.” I braced for the worst as I awaited her confession but, it wasn’t awful. It wasn’t even insurmountable. I remember as if it happened only days ago, too. When Michelle told me, on the night we first spoke, that she was Deaf, my response was “Okay.”
“Okay” meant by the time I reported to CVN69 I was already learning, teaching myself a new language: American Sign Language (ASL). I scoured the App Store for ASL primers, dictionaries and educational courses. I downloaded practically everything from ASLPro, grabbed two dictionaries and even two beginner’s courses in ASL. I pored over them. I even made a new group on my iPhone specifically for all my ASL apps. After a week at sea with no phone service, Michelle and I finally saw each other for the first time through Skype. Impressions were made and it was…exhilarating. For a self-taught student of only a month, I have to say I was impressive – luckily, she thought so, too!
Two deployments later, I don’t pretend to be an expert. Though I have made significant progress with both Deaf culture and ASL, I am still a student. I will forever be a student. My aspirations to be faster and more fluent are milestones without doubt but, I’ve bigger plans in sight.
I will not allow myself to be satisfied with just bridging that communication gap. Think of Deaf culture as a house; one does not simply saunter through the front door and make themselves at home – one must be invited in. My hopes go beyond this; I wish to become a member of the household. Though I would not presume to ever understand what it means to be Deaf , I hope with all my being that I will understand-in-heart what it means to be a part of the Deaf community. If I settled for less how could I support the woman I love? If I cannot begin to see the world around her as she sees it, what kind of partner would I be?
Often, after an acquaintance learns of my fiancée, I am asked if it is difficult. Yes, it is difficult; love is not always easy. Most people know this from an early age…
Oh, wait. You mean, is it difficult to be with my Deaf fiancée?
No, it is not, because she is an amazing person, and I want to be with her. It isn’t difficult because I want to make myself available to her. I feel that way for several reasons; Michelle is intelligent, thoughtful, sexy and, when appropriate, she can even be a little sneaky. And, lets be honest, she puts up with me and my karate chops. The point is, difficulty is relative. It is not difficult for me because I am in love with her.
The idea that my relationship is more difficult to maintain solely because my fiancée is Deaf is archaic. It wasn’t until I met my Michelle that I realized I, too, was conditioned to this seemingly innocuous stigma of deafness. Only recently do I understand this to be the automatic response of the hearing populace. While I understand the idea comes from a place of ignorance, not criticism, the fact remains: it is tasteless.
In the above question, the connotations attached to the word “difficult” are decidedly negative and, while generally unintentional, a bit hard to stomach. Generally, the difference between something that is difficult and something that is easy comes down to how much you want it. To be perfectly blunt, if I put forth more effort loving my Deaf partner than you do loving your hearing partner, you’re asking the wrong question.
Let me elaborate; when I am asked if it’s difficult to be with a Deaf partner, my response is no, because I make that effort. Are you (the interested party) suggesting that relationships are easy, and require no effort when dating a hearing person? I should hope not, I’m sure your partner hopes not.
Therein lies the crux of my intention: to strive to keep assumptions based in a hearing world, ones that I know to be wrong, from alienating the woman I hold so dear to my heart.
In the very near future, Michelle and I will fill a venue with our friends and family to celebrate our marriage. One third of those who will attend share American Sign Language as their primary language. We will have several interpreters to facilitate communication, not for those individuals who cannot hear but for those who are non-signers.
The common misconception is that interpreters are present to help Deaf people, when the reality is opposite. Interpreters assist hearing people to understand ASL and, it’s important for me personally to set this precedent early, to send the message now. I am being traded to the Deaf team folks.
The woman I am soon to marry is not only a part of the Deaf community, she is incredibly active within it. It is this that has truly opened my eyes to the world beyond what I am familiar with. I love her not only as a woman, but as part and parcel of a culture that is as unique as she. That she has opened the door for me is more than I could ask for. To assert the depth of my intent I will not visit her world, I will become a part of it. That is the catch. While I’ve already made my choice, I will affirm that decision when we are married this coming September, by choosing to sign my vows.