Turtle knows sign language. I taught it to her when she was a baby, I was fluent in ASL, American Sign Language. I didn’t do it because it was “in”, I did it because my child knowing sign language was always a given for me. I did it almost without thinking. At that point in my life, signing was as natural for me as breathing, I’d have to stop myself from signing while I was talking because I was no longer among the deaf community. People tend to give you odd looks if you randomly break out in sign.
I have known sign language since I was in seventh grade. A friend taught me some basic things, and then dropped it, but I kept going and taught it to myself. By the time I graduated from high school, I was fairly fluent, and I became active in the deaf community. Marlee Matlin was my idol and I loved the movie “Children of a Lesser God.” I felt like the main character, desperately wanting to communicate, but on my terms, not because I was pushed or pulled, or told the “correct” way to do it. I watched every deaf movie or show there was, and could get my hands on.
I preferred my deaf friends and “my” deaf community to my hearing ones. I started freelancing as an interpreter and I attended many deaf community activities. I began to look into colleges that were predominately deaf, and look into speech therapy and sign language interpretation degrees. But, as time wore on, I found my birth family and moved to South Dakota. I did not search out a deaf community and pretty much lost touch with that part of myself. I still signed anytime a favorite song came on the radio and I started to teach my boyfriend-turned-husband to sign. We didn’t get very far for whatever reason. It wasn’t urgent.
Tonight, Turtle and I watched a heart wrenching movie called “And Your Name is Jonah.” It takes place in the 70s and even with my medium depth knowledge of deaf culture and history, it really bothered me; the way this boy was treated, by his family, by the hearing community in general. When he finally is able to sign, I started crying joyous tears; (Picture the end to “The Miracle Worker” only amplified by 10) and it hit me. I finally knew why sign language was my preferred community and mode of communication. In a way, I felt like a deaf person in a hearing world. I had always had a hard time understanding my adoptive family, we never seemed to speak the same language, and the harder we tried to communicate, the angrier we each became. But when I was with the deaf community, it was never about who I was, where I came from, or where I was going. I was just Mary who knew how to sign. I could talk to my deaf friends so much easier and felt so much more at ease than I could with my hearing friends. In the deaf community, nothing felt expected. I felt like I had more breathing room in the deaf community. I felt like I was understood, heard and supported. I rarely felt like that in my hearing world.
Which is why I didn’t have to seek out a deaf community once I moved back to South Dakota and found my birth family and my tribal community; I was part of something bigger than me again. I could talk and was understood, and I didn’t feel like I was expected to be anyway other than who I was. I was accepted.
Now, years later, I’m so happy to see that Turtle has always had communication. Always, and it just gets bigger. Her views of the world, her understanding, she can clearly communicate her needs, wants, desires. She gets mad, but it’s usually only because I won’t do things her way. I always joke that she has the world by the horns; she’s here to eat chocolate and play games.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It feels like parts of my life are coming full circle.
“Now you know how it feels to be a deaf person. You have to settle for something you don’t want, just because no one understands you.”
—Kate, from the movie “And Your Name is Jonah.”
Tiny Hands by Qole Pejorian