The Christmas season of 1981 was no holiday for me. The day after Thanksgiving I had awakened blind in one eye, the result of diabetic retinopathy. Doctors told me that it was only a matter of time before I would lose the vision in the other eye as well. I had recently left Boston University with one year remaining, hoping to repair my damaged eyes with laser surgery. Now, back in my parents’ home in Pennsylvania, I believed I had no future and that any worthwhile living had ended.
For days I lay in the bed in my old bedroom, feeling hopeless and incapable of the simplest task. As each day passed, I watched the details of the world fade into a blur, knowing that soon it would all disappear into a cavernous darkness.
My mother kept me alive during those days when my only purpose seemed to be to watch myself deteriorate. She made me special meals and cut my food, helped me find the right color clothes if I ever dared to dress, and rubbed my back through hours of inactivity.
Trying to maintain some semblance of Christmas, my mother bought a tree and shopped for presents. As she hung the lights and the fragile glass ornaments on the tree, she thought of all the years when she and I had done it together, reminiscing about past Christmases and laughing at our own foibles. Now, she had no idea whether I would even be able to make out the shape of the tree, or the brightly colored lights that studded its branches.
One afternoon my mother went out to the mall, feeling little Christmas spirit as she shopped for last minute gifts. I remained in bed, half listening to the television that droned on in my bedroom.
A few hours later, I heard her return. She burst into my bedroom, still wearing her coat, and sat on the edge of my bed. She smelled of the cold, crisp air outside and had tiny bits of snow melted on her collar. From one of her bags she excitedly withdrew a package. “I found you the greatest thing!” she said enthusiastically as she opened the box. Inside was a small silver cube with a large button on top. She depressed the button and a steady male voice announced, “It’s 4:36 p.m.”
She watched for my reaction, placing my hands on the button. When I depressed it, it announced the time again in the same clear voice.
“Where did you find it?” I asked, actually smiling for the first time in days.
“I got it at Radio Shack,” she said. “I thought you might like it.”
I sat up in bed and inspected the clock with my hands. My mother read me the instructions, explaining that I could make it announce the time on the hour if I wished.
It was then that I realized–for the first time since the start of my impending blindness–that I could do something independently. It struck me how totally helpless I had been, not even able to know what time it was without asking for assistance. I cleared a space on the table next to my bed and put the clock there.
In the weeks that followed, my vision deteriorated and so did my spirit. I could not imagine being competent at anything ever again, much less capable of caring for myself. I was destined to spend the rest of my life in my parents’ home, far from the life in Boston that I had adored.
On one rare occasion, I left the safety of my bedroom and inched my way downstairs. I felt along the walls, heading toward the kitchen. Before I reached the door, however, I heard my mother crying inside. She was pleading with God, angry that he had destroyed the life of her child. How could he have taken away a life so full of hope and promise? Tears fell on my nightgown as I turned and climbed the stairs back to my bedroom. Not only had my life ended, but my mother’s had as well, for I knew that she would sacrifice most of her time and energy to care for me, doing her best to put joy back in my life. If that meant giving up her career as a writer, her many friends, and her frequent travel, I was sure that she would do it. I sat on the edge of my bed and abandoned my own self-pity for the moment.
Although I had no future, I could not condemn my own mother to a life of servitude. My blindness was a freak of nature. My mother’s sacrifice would be one of pure love. I went to the telephone and called the Pennsylvania rehabilitation program for the blind. I had met with their representatives earlier, at a time when I was too hopeless to be encouraged by their words. This time, I was prepared to listen. When I told my mother that I was ready to begin living again, she seized the opportunity to help me. While I had occupied my time watching my world fade away, she had been forced to stand by helplessly and watch. Now she could be a part of my recovery. Since I had always loved to read, we decided that reading Braille must be my first priority.
It had never looked very difficult when I had seen blind people reading Braille in the movies, their fingers skimming lightly along the pages. Perhaps I could do that.
My mother ordered a book of Braille instruction, with raised dots on one side and print on the other. As I struggled to distinguish the confusion of meaningless lumps beneath my fingers, my mother taught herself to sight-read the configuration of the dots. She spent hours with me, practicing the frustrating task of training my fingers and my mind to recognize the various letters. She made me excited about the joy of learning something new, despite my frequent desire to abandon the effort as hopeless.
As she had when I was a child learning to read for the first time, she came up with creative ways to help me practice my reading. At that time, we were still spending hours in the waiting rooms of eye doctors, pursuing the slightest chance of a magical cure. As we sat next to each other in overcrowded hospital hallways and doctor’s offices, my mother would grasp my hand and place it on her own. Slowly, she would tap out Braille messages in my hand, converting the raised dots to a sort of Morse code.
I loved the stories my mother told me in those days. She always made me laugh by describing the fat and forlorn Philadelphians in the waiting room with us, or telling me jokes with punch lines enhanced by my struggle to decipher them. The words I grew to know the best, however, were, “I love you.”
My parents hired a private tutor to begin my mobility training before I entered the rehab center. As I wandered aimlessly down the street, waving my white cane in front of me, my mother tagged along, making careful note of the instructor’s words. She could feel how terrified I was to step into the dark space before me, unsure of what dangers might lay ahead. While her being there added little confidence to my walking, I knew that she would be there to pick me up if I fell down.
As the weeks progressed, my mother delighted at my slightest progress. She listened with interest as I introduced her to my new world, and cried with me over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
I was moving forward, and she was right by my side.
By the spring I was ready and anxious to return to Boston. As I packed up my possessions, I was far too excited about returning to a productive life to fear the consequences. My mother had helped me find a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city. She shopped with me to find suitable furniture and equipment to stock the kitchen, and made beautiful curtains for the bedroom and living room.
I don’t know how we survived the actual move, for it entailed several sleepless nights, an overpowering rainstorm, and movers who failed to arrive with my furniture. But some inner core of strength and determination held us up. We even found ourselves laughing at the absurdity of the whole disastrous situation. Once the boxes had arrived, my mother helped me put everything in its place. She cleaned shelves before lining them with paper, ran to the hardware store to buy a hammer and nails to hang pictures on the wall and hung the new drapes at the window.
Once the furniture was in place, my mother patiently converted my possessions to those of a blind person. She sewed Braille tags into my clothes to indicate their color and labeled my voluminous files with similar tags. She helped me organize my shoes so that I didn’t confuse the black ones with the blue ones, and sorted the food in my freezer into distinct sections. Together we took endless walks around my neighborhood to acquaint me with the various twists and turns of the streets.
Finally, the day arrived when my mother had to return to Pennsylvania, my father, and her own life. As she hugged me for the last time, I panicked, wondering what on earth I was doing there.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I cried.
She put her suitcase down and hugged me again.
“Then you can always come home,” she said.
I know that it was just as hard for her to leave as it had been for me to let her go. We had shared so much in the preceding months, such tragedy and triumph. She had watched me grow up all over again and now she had to let me go for the second time. When she had sent me off to college many years before, we both had known I would make it. But now, the future was a mystery.
My mother has become an even closer friend in the years that have followed. She had me written up in a magazine when I got a job as an aide to a state senator, cheered louder than anyone when I graduated from a Master’s program at Harvard and even traveled with me as my assistant on a consulting job I had in Kiev. She brags about me to anyone who will listen, often making me sound a bit too super- human. Yet, she never gives herself credit for inspiring my spirit and lighting the spark within me that makes me want to go on. Perhaps she doesn’t realize that she is a part of every one of my accomplishments.
Maybe that’s just part of being a mother.