Language of Loss
I’ve been shy since the sixth grade. In elementary school, I was talkative and spunky. But when I walked into the first day of middle school and realized I didn’t know anyone, I closed up. I meet Luke when I’m 19-years-old, and maybe his tendency to always be the center of attention—not shy at all—attracts me more than anything else. Once we meet, it doesn’t take long for Luke and me to fall in love. I tell him about my struggles with anxiety; he tells me he can relate—he battles obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“Well, the doctors think I just have depression,” he admits. “But I know that I have OCD.” I lay my head on his shoulder.
“I love that you understand me,” I say. Maybe being with him will give me the bravery to speak up again, like I did when I was a kid. I squeeze his knee.
Over the university’s spring break, I marry Luke. A few weeks later, we watch our wedding video for the first time. We hired a videographer to capture our fairytale day, and we snuggle up in our bed and watch my veil sail as Luke twirls me in front of the castle-like temple we married in. There are no words in the video. The videographer edited out any sounds that happened that day and replaced them with romantic music I’d never heard before. In high school, Luke ballroom danced competitively, so during our “first dance” he impromptu began adding in more advanced steps. He carried me across the floor with him, but I struggled a step behind. In the video, I see myself blush and look down. I said something, but I can’t read my own lips. I watch myself scurry off the screen after the song ends. Luke didn’t follow me, instead, he pulled his sister, a fellow dancer, onto the floor. While we watch, I turn to whisper something to Luke. He quiets me.
“Not yet,” he says. “We can talk after.” I nod and keep watching.
Tina’s fingers slip, and we watch a couple of small paintings drop to the ground beneath her desk. She picks them up, then continues to show us her artwork. During her college years, Tina studied art. She keeps a seemingly endless supply of her own artwork in her room—like Mary Poppins pulling an infinite number of items from her magic bag. Kade, my fiancé, looks at the pictures she’s created, while I hold two sculpted statues of dogs. Each statue fits in my hand, the weight of them rounding my palm.
Tina lives at Beehive Home Assisted Living as one of ten residents. I expect only older people need assisted living, but I estimate that Tina is in her mid-forties.
“What was your favorite art class?” I ask Tina.
“Probably the sculpture or the bronze.” She responds, her voice strained. A recent car accident partially paralyzed Tina’s voice-box. I have to lean in to hear her.
I glance over Kade’s shoulder at an inkless page with two grasping hands etched onto the paper. Tina tells us it’s her and her husband’s hands from their wedding day.
“You guys can have that for a wedding present if you want,” Tina says. We’d told her about our upcoming wedding when we first met her about a half hour ago. Kade and I object her offering, but Tina stops us.
“Don’t feel bad. It just makes me happy that you like them.”
“We’re gonna frame this,” Kade whispers, and I nod. “We’re gonna make sure nothing ever happens to it.”
Devin McDougal is deaf. He lost his hearing at six months old. I’d never talked to a deaf person about deafness itself, so I felt nervous to meet with him. American Sign Language fascinated me—communicating with sign seemed powerful. But I never knew very much about it. I wanted to learn more about the way deaf people communicate, even though hearing people don’t always listen. Yet, despite my admiration, I didn’t know ASL. It scared me to ask Devin to meet with me since I didn’t know sign language.
“Hey!” I said when I saw the man in the green shirt—Devin looked just like he described himself to me over text. His wife, Emily, stood next to him. Emily was not hearing impaired, and when she introduced herself first, I was relieved, assuming she would interpret for him. I hoped I didn’t look too surprised when Devin spoke up, too.
“Hey,” he said—casual, like any hearing person greeting another hearing person. “Nice to meet you.”
Once the three of us settled into a small study room, Devin explained how he became deaf. After contracting an illness as an infant, his fever got so high that he lost his hearing. Inside each person’s ears are tiny Cochlea hairs, and they send receptors to the brain to process sound. When Devin’s fever got too high, those hairs “died” and stopped working, causing him to go irreversibly deaf. His family didn’t know about Devin’s hearing damage until he was one year old. At first, it confused them when their little boy refused to talk like other children. I wonder how Devin felt as an infant to lose his hearing. Perhaps he listened to music from a hanging mobile that dangled above his crib like stars being held in the sky, only to realize one day that the percussion stopped. Perhaps he fed on the milk of his mother’s breast, comforted by the safety that came with the sound of his own sucking. Did he notice the day the noise went away?
Luke’s hands wake me up in the middle of the night. At first, I plead for him to stop. But he moves closer. Most nights I wake up multiple times, trying to whisper in a nice “wife-like” way that he scares me. That my body hurts where his hands touch. That I don’t feel safe.
“You’re my wife,” he says, and I don’t see his point. But I realize that protesting only makes it last longer. I always turn toward the right side of the bed—away from him—but it doesn’t help. Sometimes I feel my eyes and cheeks get warm, my body’s warning signal against inevitable tears. While I wait for it to end, I hold my breath so that he doesn’t hear me gasp in pain—it might make him angry and feel unloved. Then again, he doesn’t usually notice the times I do cry in bed. Or at least, he acts like he doesn’t notice. It’s easier to just lay here; it’s easier to wait in silence.
The next day I make dinner for us while he watches “Phineas and Ferb” in the living room on the ugly green plaid couch we got for free. My phone sits on the counter next to me, on silent. A notification brightens the black screen with a text from my mom that says, “You doing okay today?” My mom recently started texting me all the time; she says she thinks something seems “off” with me. I set down the knife on the linoleum and respond to the text, sure to include a couple exclamation points and smiley faces to curb her worry—and Luke’s if he looks through my phone like he sometimes does. While I hold the phone in my hand, I glance at the couch again to make sure Luke isn’t planning on moving anytime soon. He’s fallen asleep. His work shoes line up against the couch, and his pseudo leather planner sits on the desk above his shoes. I almost smile at how his obsessive-compulsive tendencies make themselves present. Instead, I duck back into the kitchen. I google “What is spousal rape?” and “How to know if you’re being abused.” I’ve already searched these many times, and I always answer “yes” to almost every question the websites ever ask. But I still check—trying to reach a site that tells me everything is okay. But none of them do. Maybe the websites are wrong. Maybe I’m just being sensitive. Maybe I’m making the whole thing up.
Irises hangs on Tina’s wall, the light blue flowers arching over the side of the vase in the painting like a fisherman reaching out of his boat to touch the water. Vincent van Goh completed the painting in 1890. He wanted the flowers to represent “harmony” and “softness.”
Photos of Stuart, Tina’s deceased husband, decorate the wall. Tina tells us that he passed nearly two decades ago. He was 29. Stuart loved shooting targets and was an excellent shot. In one photo, he holds two arrows that he’d shot, one of them sliced through the other one. Tina tells us that a “robin hood” happens when someone shoots an arrow inside of another arrow he/she previously shot. Stuart shot both arrows from 80 yards away. I look at the picture of Stuart for a long time.
Tina isn’t bitter, or mad at God or the world for taking away Stuart. Books of scripture sit on her nightstand, and a painting of Jesus surrounded by children hangs just above a “love” sign made of paperclips.
I look back at the arrows in the photo. One sliding straight through the other, perfectly. I wonder what Stuart was thinking about when the picture was taken of him. Perhaps he just thought about his great shot. I don’t know who took the picture—Tina? Was she there? Did she tell him to smile for a picture despite his embarrassment? In the photo, Stuart had no idea he was going to die at only 29-years-old without ever raising a family with his wife. He just smiles, holding the arrow. I like to think of Tina wrapping her arms around him after she snapped the picture, kissing the top of his shoulder while he held the arrows out from his side, straight down, pointing at the ground.
“He was in an explosion. Three days after Christmas,” Tina says. “I found microscopic pieces of his brain and skull in the snow.”
I ask Tina what she did with the pieces of his brain she found in the snow; she tells us she buried them. Kade and I repeat cliché sentiments of apology and sympathy. I try to make my words sound comforting and genuine, but I can’t. After a moment, we just sit in silence until Tina continues.
“I’ve had nightmares for all these years that coyotes would dig up those pieces of his brain and skull and eat them. Because, well, they should’ve been in his casket. Not in the ground.” Tina pauses, and I stare at the tiles I can see through the open bathroom door just a few feet to the left of me. The squares gleam linoleum white with small green diamonds, strategically placed every few inches across the bathroom floor. They cover the ground in symmetrical rows, frozen like that. All lined up. No corner of a green tile touches another green tile. They never will.
“If you can’t talk, people think it means you’re lesser,” Emily shook her head, then crunched on a piece of crushed ice. I tried to nod faster than usual so she didn’t think I thought deaf people were lesser.
“I think the concept of not being able to talk, even today…” Devin, in a voice mocking people who are ignorant to deafness, said, “What do you mean you can’t talk? You gotta talk!” The intensity of their voices made me wonder if Devin experienced times when people thought his deafness made him stupid. He wore hearing aids, which improved his hearing to 85%. Still, they explained to me that missing 15% is more than one might assume.
In our society, we communicate through verbal speech. Talking allows us to connect and grow closer to someone else. If someone can’t talk, society views it as harder to form that bond—or not worth it to try. I wonder if Emily meant that when she said people who can’t talk are viewed as lesser—less important to connect with.
But deaf people aren’t less important, and the Deaf community recognizes that. The Deaf community is proud, and those involved consider deafness to enhance their lives rather than takes away from it. Those who consider deafness a lifestyle spell Deaf with a capital “D.” They don’t consider deafness disabling, rather, those in the community just speak a specialized language most Americans don’t understand.
“Some members want to keep ASL alive only in the Deaf community,” Emily told me. “It’s offensive when people outside of the Deaf community try to learn ASL just as an ‘art form’ and not to communicate with deaf people. If someone who is hearing learns ASL just for show, people in the Deaf community are more likely to take offense.” As a writer, I’ve always viewed language as art; the two being synonymous. But for language to impact someone, the language must mean something. When the hearing community views ASL as artful nonsense, it devaluates sign as a communication form. In Devin’s words, it “shuts down the whole Deaf community.”
“This is all because of your head,” Luke yells by the end of the sentence. He drives, while I slump in the passenger’s seat. We just pulled out of his parent’s driveway, two hours away from our own. In the passenger-side mirror, I see Luke’s dad step inside after waving us goodbye. I lean against the inside of the shut passenger door. Luke believes that my shyness around his family makes me come off as uncaring and rude. He says fault belongs to my “head,” the nickname he coined for my anxiety. “It’s just… selfish. You’re just so hard to love sometimes.” His voice continually rises, and at this point, I’m crying. Only a few months into our marriage, each tear signifies our shattering relationship. I wear white sunglasses, hoping he can’t see, but pretty soon my body shakes and tears gravitate to the notch between my neck and collarbone. My mascara stains the sunglasses so that I can never use them again.
“I know I’m hard to love. I get it. I get it. I’m trying. I’m sorry.” I choke between sobs.
“You know, I don’t even know if I love you anymore. Can you believe that?” He shakes his head as if just now realizing the truth. “Ha. A husband who doesn’t love his wife after only a few months. Can you believe it?”
“Lukas, please! Please stop saying that. Please. You don’t mean it. You’re hurting me,” I plead.
“But I do mean it! What if this feeling never goes away? What if I never feel love for you again? Is that because something’s wrong with me, or wrong with you?”
We pull into our driveway, and he storms inside. His footsteps are extra heavy on the hardwood floor. Luke cries now too, but I don’t know why.
“I don’t think I love you anymore!” He yells, still furious. Snot drips out of his nose and he wipes it with his fingers the way a child does. He lays on the crisp bed. Because of Luke’s OCD, the bed always looks perfect. Right now, the pillows flop out of place.
“Please, don’t say that.” I sit on the bed next to him, my tears increasing. My hand rests on his knee, desperate for the touch to connect us. Maybe I can fix this. But he rolls off the bed and crouches down into the crook between the bed and the wall. His legs are scrunched up like a dried worm. I wonder if he will turn into one when all his tears run out.
“But it’s the truth! I don’t love you! You’re just too hard to love!” I wish he wouldn’t yell. I believe what he says about me being unlovable, but I can’t handle hearing it from my new husband—the one who told me he would love me forever. “No, I don’t want a divorce. God doesn’t want us to get a divorce. I know my life will be harder loving you, but I will be stronger one day because of it.” No, he can’t mean that. He can’t mean that.
“Lukas…” I whisper. He speaks up before I think of how to finish the sentence.
“I just don’t love you. I know that makes me a bad husband, but you’re just too hard.” He scrunches deeper into the crook. I hate to see him this sad. I go to the kitchen and make him some hot chocolate. He likes hot chocolate, and I want to comfort him. My tears cool down the cocoa when I bring it to him.
“Here, Lukas,” I whisper. He looks at the drink but doesn’t take a sip. I pull him up onto the bed so that I can stroke his hair. “I know you don’t love me. And I understand that. And that’s okay. I get it. I’m hard to love. I get it.”
“I just don’t think I love you,” he keeps whispering.
“And you don’t have to. That’s okay. But listen, hearing you say it really hurts me. So, I’m gonna go take a shower, okay? Just for ten minutes. Then I’ll come back” Luke sits up.
“You’re gonna leave me here?” He shrieks. “You can’t leave me here!”
“I need a break, please let me have that. Just ten minutes. I promise.” I try to keep my voice gentle. I stand up and hurry into the bathroom. Luke still shouts, and I lock the door to keep him from coming inside. He bangs on the door.
“Let me in!” He screams. “Let me in right now!”
“Please!” I call through the door. “I just need a few minutes!” The door quakes a little, and I can’t tell if he’s slapping the door with his palm or pounding with the side of his fist. I lower myself onto the ground, my back against the wall. I cry into my knees.
“Let me IN!” His voice sounds like breaking glass, and I accidentally let out a whimper. I hold my breath, so he can’t hear it. “If you don’t let me in, I’ll… I’ll…. KILL MYSELF!” I hear him sprint down the brown carpeted stairs. Unsure of what else to do, I step out of the bathroom and see him standing by the open front door. A minivan drives by. “If you need me,” his voice releases venom, “I’ll be at first dam.” Luke slams the door.
Tina has a twelve-year-old daughter named April. After Stuart passed away, Tina got remarried. Tina and her new husband had April. Even though April doesn’t live with Tina at BeeHive Homes, evidence of her decorates Tina’s room. Pictures of April and Tina together frame a quote that says, “Forever is my favorite place to be.” April made the “love” sign out of paperclips, and a chain of hearts made from pink and red pipe cleaner that dangles from the handle of Tina’s closet.
My legs are crossed crisscross-applesauce style, and I stare at my red Vans. I pick at the carpet a little, accidentally freeing a few threads from the stitching that ties them to the ground.
“It’s kinda ironic how something evil can give you something so good,” Tina says. My fingers stop clutching at the carpet. I look up at her. Her hands haven’t moved from her lap since she handed out her artwork. Tina’s lips pucker as she tells us that April’s father is the evil she refers to. She explains how he abused both her and April and that she divorced him after 17 years of marriage. Apparently, Tina took April and they up and left one day. Three years later, the divorce finalized. It’s been a year since then.
“I kept having a nightmare,” Tina says, “that my mom came to me in a dream telling me that my husband would kill our daughter and then he’d kill me. And that freaked me out so much. I don’t think it was a dream. I think it probably was real. My mom warned me.” I look at my red Vans again and see the green bathroom tiles in my peripheral vision. The bold colors want attention.
“I have fake teeth,” Tina says to us. “My husband knocked them out because I threw up while I was pregnant. And then he got mad at me because there was blood everywhere.”
“Oh my goodness,” I whisper. I tug on the carpet.
Next to Tina, a scrapbook sits on her desk. It overflows out of a broken binder. She tells us she’s making a scrapbook of Stuart for April, to teach April that all men aren’t like her father.
“It’s impressive that you, I don’t know, have gone through all that you have and still came out so strong.” I stutter over my words a little.
“I learned one thing,” Tina says. “I don’t like the way it feels to hate somebody. It makes me feel like he’s winning.” I close my eyes. I carry a lot of love for Tina, even though I’ve only known her for a few hours.
“Wow.” I open my eyes.
“Just because I hate him so much, it makes me feel like he has control still. I need to learn how to forgive him or he’s always going to win. And I don’t want that.” I feel my cheeks get hot, and I tear up. I keep thinking about Luke.
Kade nudges me and whispers, “You should tell her.” I shrug, unsure of what to do. I don’t often talk about Luke. It usually makes people uncomfortable. But Tina understands in a way that few people I talk to do. “Maybe it helps her to hear other stories.” Kade nudges me again. I decide to speak.
“I was actually in an abusive marriage and got divorced,” I say. My voice shakes, and I stare at my red shoes, playing with the rubber sole. “I definitely have some really bad feelings toward him, so I’m impressed that you’ve remained positive throughout all that. That inspires me for sure.”
“Did you have any kids?” she asks. I shake my head. She nods, and I know Tina tries to stay strong for April’s sake. I feel close to Tina, secured by some external force that only lives in this room. Maybe she feels close to me the way I feel close to her—we understand each other. I’m suddenly glad I decided to tell her about Luke. Our healing scars and brokenness allow us to connect.
“I know this is the first time I’ve met you, but I hope it’s not the last.” Tina pauses to make eye contact with Kade and I. “I’m gonna cherish every moment.”
In Milan, Italy in 1880 an international conference banned sign language. The USA was the only country that disagreed with the ban. Unfortunately, the rest of the conference overruled the US.
“Up to this point, the Deaf community was really growing,” Devin explained. But the conference tried to break that. Its goal was to eliminate any communication—even between deaf people—apart from verbal. Non-deaf educators met and concluded that “oral education was better than manual (sign) education.”
“Basically, they decided to only teach deaf people oralism, which is how to speak. It was a big setback for the Deaf community,” Devin looked to his wife, who tilted her head back and dumped more ice into her mouth.
“But the thing is, that method of thinking still prevails today,” Emily said. She crunched on another piece. “Culturally, that mindset still prevails: deaf people should learn to speak instead of learning to sign.” Devin and Emily reiterated over and over that a lot of people—both during the 1800s and even today—don’t fully recognize American Sign Language as a complete language. To society, deaf people are inferior; the only way to give them value is to teach them the language of the masses.
At the Milan Conference, eight passed resolutions discussed the banning of sign language and the benefit of oral over sign. The first resolution said, “The Convention, considering the incontestable superiority of articulation over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society and giving him a fuller knowledge of language, declares that the oral method should be preferred to that of signs in the education and instruction of deaf-mutes.” After the Milan conference, some deaf students still tried to sign in secret, but authorities punished them if they got caught.
As Devin explained, the Milan conference set back the Deaf community. But it didn’t destroy sign language. Students still signed, even though they knew that they risked punishment. They longed to communicate, and people that misunderstood sign language couldn’t stop them. But even way before the Milan conference, before sign language was officially organized, deaf people still signed to each other. Before formal sign language, those in the deaf community found a way to communicate. Those with wounded bodies still found each other.
“Language acquisition is vital,” Emily said. “If your child is deaf, whether you choose sign language or hearing aids, the child needs language acquisition. If cochlear implants and hearing aids aren’t working and if parents don’t want to learn sign language, the child misses out on so much. But people think that if you learn sign language, then you won’t learn to speak, and you won’t be a valuable member of society.”
Not being able to speak doesn’t mean the deaf person can’t communicate or contribute to society. Deaf people long for communication just as hearing people do. Even though hearing people don’t always recognize sign language as a form of legitimate communication, those in the Deaf community bond and connect through sign.
“If parents of a child don’t know how to sign, the child doesn’t bond with the parents.” When Devin talked about relationships between deaf and hearing people, he leaned forward in his plastic chair. He raised his voice. “Decades of family relationships get missed out on. I know it’s hard to learn a new language, especially as you get older. But this is a way for a parent to connect with a child.”
“At the end of the day, Devin takes his hearing aids off and he’s still a deaf person. It doesn’t matter the technology; deaf people are still deaf people. And people need to learn to embrace that, rather than trying to fix them.” Condensation from Emily’s cup of ice soaked her palm.
“I’m here in college, I have a lot of friends who are deaf who are also in college,” Devin said. “Deafness doesn’t hinder us. We just learn how to take it in stride.”
For a long time, the thought of questioning Luke terrifies me. Being silent and submissive is easy, and I don’t want to accept the abuse in my marriage. But the more I interact with people besides Luke, the more I learn that maybe my quiet fear was right. Maybe it isn’t normal to tuck in my clothes before bed, clutching them, so that they take longer to pull off. Maybe it isn’t normal to be used to my husband telling me I’m broken.
Walking into our kitchen one day, I have the first thought that I need to leave Luke. I imagine getting hit by a car or having a heart attack or starving to death so that I can be free of him. I choke on nothing in my mouth when I remember that the religion that bound Luke and me promised life together after death. Not even death could save me. Crying, I fall to my knees on the hardwood floor.
“Are you saying you want to go against God?” Luke shrieks the day I tell him that I am leaving. Permanently. He recently taped an index card with the words “What Would Jesus Do?” in his crisp cursive handwriting to the wall. I glance at it and immediately notice the irony in the note.
“I don’t think God wants me to be treated this way,” I respond. I’m crying, again, and out of instinct, I reach for his hand to comfort him. I catch myself and pull my hand away.
“If you leave me, I will tell every guy in five cities what you do to people. I will make sure you never find someone else.” He glares at me, his blue eyes hardening. He starts to say something else, but I stop him.
“Luke,” I say. “I don’t care what you do to me. You can hurt me, and you have. For a long time, I believed you that it was normal. But it’s not. Okay?” I slide forward on the couch. He looks like he wants to respond, but I don’t let him. “I thought I could be okay with it, and I have tried so hard to convince myself that I can be. But it’s abuse, Luke. And if I have a child, I know you would treat them the same way you treat me. And I never want you to be the father to my kids.” Luke’s eyes widen—I have never said anything that aggressive before.
“So, you’re just giving up? Is that what you’re saying? You just came here to tell me you quit, and then you’re just gonna go?” He shakes his head. I let out a short sob that almost sounds like a laugh. I stand up, stepping away from the couch. I never sit on that plaid couch again. My entire body shakes, and I grab onto my skirt to steady my hands. We both sniff.
After the divorce, people approach me to tell their own stories of divorce, abuse, or trauma. I listen to stories I never realized existed from those I thought I knew. And they listen to mine. I sit on a stool at work, talking with my boss and another coworker. Both women escaped abusive marriages themselves. Previously just my coworkers, the women become my friends.
For a long time, love terrifies me. I don’t tell the attorney about the moments of rape, and I never report Luke, which I might always regret. But with time, I learn to have the courage to share my story—and the courage that allowed me to leave Luke becomes a more permanent trait of who I am. Eventually, with work, I heal. I fall in love with Kade. I have permanent wounds, but I refuse to be a broken person. My boss doesn’t cheer or ask me about my wedding dress when I tell her about mine and Kade’s upcoming wedding. Instead, she cries out of happiness for me. “Thank you,” I say to her, “for listening.”
PAGE 2: “Probably the sculpture or the bronze” Bodell, Tina. Personal Interview. 25 September 2017. Everything that Tina said came from this interview we had in her room at Beehive Homes.
PAGE 3: “Devin McDougal is deaf”: McDougal, Devin and Emily. Personal Interview. 26 September 2017. All information about Devin and Emily came from this interview.
PAGE 5: “Irises hangs on Tina’s wall”: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436528.
PAGE 7: “Those who consider deafness a lifestyle”: McDougal, Devin and Emily. Personal Interview. 26 September 2017.
PAGE 13: “In Milan, Italy in 1880”: https://www.verywell.com/deaf-history-milan-1880-1046547
PAGE 13: “At the Milan Conference”: https://www.verywell.com/deaf-history-milan-1880-1046547
Alyssa Witbeck Alexander studies English with an emphasis in creative writing and a minor in family and human development at Utah State University. This is her first publication in a national periodical.