Marriage blooms where love is blind

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Chris and Stephie Belle are even more grateful than most for the Internet because without it, the two self-described soul mates never would have met each other.

While some view the world of Internet chat rooms as dubious place to meet your significant other, it wasn't so for the Belles, who resided on different continents.

Their online courtship was helped along by voice-operated software that allowed them to talk to each other. As for photos, they had no need. Chris and Stephie are both blind.

It all started six years ago through a voice-operated chat room when Stephie, 43, was living in Australia and Chris, 41, in Cape Girardeau.

They quickly built up a friendship because of their skewed senses of humor, interest in computers and love of music. But when they first started talking to each other, both were already married.

"Me and Steph, it seemed like we had a spark from the jump start, even though we were just buddies," Chris said.

Their friendship grew when they both started working for the same small Internet start-up company that was focused on creating a voice chat community online. Stephie coordinated the nuts and bolts of the operation and Chris worked on audio production.

Through their working relationship, Chris began to notice qualities in Stephie that he admired, like her ability to deal with people in potentially stressful situations and her capability in getting things done.

During the time that Chris and Stephie were getting to know each other online, their marriages fell apart, although they said the reasons had nothing to do with the relationship between them, which they say was not romantic while they were married.

As time went on, they would spend hours and hours talking to each other online or by telephone. A decision by Stephie pushed the relationship out of cyberspace and into the real world.

"One day, I just said, OK, I'm coming over," Stephie said.

The decision impressed Chris.

"This was my first inkling that this was the woman who would usurp all others," he said. "I thought, hey, this is a gutsy woman who must really like me, she's not playing games."

So, in 2000, Stephie made the trip from her new home in New Zealand to St. Louis. This was the first time she had traveled to the United States on her own.

She said she remembers being nervous, especially when Chris and his friends were not at the gate when she first got off the plane in St. Louis. Then he showed up and the two hugged for the first time.

"It's certainly something I won't forget," Stephie said.

Chris said being with Stephie was different from any past dating experiences he had, partly because he had never been romantically involved with another blind person. Although he had not thought about it before Stephie, Chris found that being with another blind person allowed for a deeper level of intimacy because they had a greater understanding of how the other perceived things. Both had gone through their whole lives without being able to see. Stephie was born blind while Chris lost his sight as an infant.

Stephie's first stay with Chris in Cape Girardeau lasted three months, at which time immigration rules dictated she had to return to New Zealand.

After three months together, saying goodbye was rough. But they had practice.

Stephie returned to visit Chris three more times.

"It was so hard for her to leave," Chris said. "She was supposed to be with me, and that's all there was to it."

During one of her trips to the United States, Stephie and Chris began working with immigration officials in order for Stephie to receive a visa as a fiancee. After about a year of filling out pages upon pages of paperwork, going through extensive physicals and making countless phone calls, Stephie was granted the visa in January.

She arrived in Cape Girardeau in March, and two months later she and Chris were married.

The ceremony took place at Grace Bible Church, where the Belles are members.

They said they wanted a low-stress wedding that was in the presence of the Lord and their friends, and that is exactly what they got.

"Everybody got together and made it wonderful," Chris said.

The newlyweds even displayed their mutual musical abilities by singing a duet together. Chris has been a professional musician for most of his life and has sung and played guitar -- among other instruments -- in many Cape Girardeau venues. Stephie sings and plays piano.

"We were just so happy that we were finally married," Stephie said. "Now I have a calm sense of belonging somewhere, and I can settle down."

kalfisi@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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