When Richard and I were married, nothing underscored our differences more than planning a vacation. Richard loved extreme sports. If our itinerary didn’t include, depending on the season, snow boarding or mountain biking, he was sorely disappointed. Even if I did crave intense speed and wild physical challenges, which I don’t, my body wouldn’t necessarily cooperate. Fortunately, having cerebral palsy doesn’t interfere with the things I do enjoy when traveling: wandering the streets of unfamiliar cities, browsing through museums, burying myself in novels with the sound of waves crashing in the background, and catching up with my friends who live in various parts of the country. But, even planning a trip around connecting with friends proved difficult for us. Richard’s buddies were people who raced you down mountains; mine would talk to you for hours about books, art and their complex emotional lives.
We often wound up spending our vacations in ski resorts where I’d take short, tentative walks in the hills then sit reading in the lodge until Richard returned, rosy cheeked and ready for a nice dinner out. One winter we went to Squaw Valley in California with my brother Steve. Before we left, I’d read an article about a one-legged woman who was a ski champion, so I felt inspired to try a lesson. The experience wasn’t terrible. The weather was cold but dry, the slope not very sloped at all, and the teacher not too impatient with my awkward, self-conscious moves. At some point that day, I learned of another resort, not far from there, that devoted a subsection of their school to people with disabilities. Thrilled at the idea of learning along with my kin, I coaxed Richard into renting a car and taking me the next day. As it turned out, the school was housed in the corner of the cavernous room where people rented their ski equipment, and the one other student wasn’t any more like me than an able-bodied novice would have been. Her twisted body was bent over in her wheelchair and she seemed unaware of my presence. We each had a private lesson, mine proving not that different from the one I’d had the day before.
I’ve never strapped on skis again, but, looking back, I’m glad I was willing to stretch myself, and that I tried to understand something that made Richard so happy.
These days, I take most of my vacations with Dan. We’ve been to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the famous City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and visited a number of friends and relatives on both sides, enjoying long intimate talks during which each of us has claimed the other’s loved ones as our own.
The past two summers, we’ve met up with my brother out west. This year we joined him on a day trip to Squaw Valley, the site of my first ski lesson. Upon arrival, we rode into the mountains in a crowded glass tram, the passengers vying for spots with unobstructed views of the absolutely breathtaking vista.
“Amazing,” I said.
Ethan shot pictures with my cell phone.
“Having a good time?” I asked, turning to Dan.
He sat with a bemused look on his face, making me realize how meaningless this must seem to a blind person.
“I guess it’s pretty boring for you,” I amended.
Dan smiled. “It’s fine, Honey. Enjoy.”
When we got to the valley, Ethan pulled Steve to the gated area of the swimming pool. I hung back, taking in the panorama surrounding us.
“God,” I breathed out.
“Describe it for me,” Dan said.
I told him pine trees dotted the craggy mountains. That there were also dark velvety patches of moss and surprising specks of snow. I used adjectives like stunning and awe-inspiring, expressions of largeness that nonetheless, felt slight and inadequate compared to the beauty around me. It frustrated me that as a poet I couldn’t make it more vivid for Dan. And, as happens periodically, I was struck afresh with the reality of his having been born blind. There are logistical details I handle now without a thought — guiding him over curbs and puddles, closing half-open doors so he doesn’t slam into them, describing the quiet action in films. But, in moments like these, I find myself literally winded by the realization that he’s never seen the sky or a mountain or a field of grass. That color itself is a vague, indefinable concept to him. I try to absorb those facts and the effort is humbling.
Suddenly I knew what I wanted to express.
“For me, it’s not just what the mountains look like,” I told Dan, “but the feeling of being here. We’re at the bottom of this magnificent bowl and the mountains are so enormous and they’ve been here so much longer than we have and they’ll outlast us by just as long. All those niggling problems we carry around and stress over, they’re nothing. We’re nothing.”
Dan put an arm around me. “I get it,” he said. “Seeing mountains is like listening to choral music in a cathedral.”
A few days later, we went to the amusement park on the Santa Cruz boardwalk with my niece Naomi. We’d learned the previous year that for Dan, the bigger and faster the ride, the better. Because he’s blind, we were permitted to bypass the endless winding lines. This pretty much made him a super-hero in Ethan’s eyes. While Naomi and I wandered and talked, trying unsuccessfully to prevent Dan’s guide dog from cleaning the ground of all its sticky spills, Dan and Ethan rushed from ride to ride, returning only to bluster about the size of the Giant Dipper roller coaster and the thrillingly sudden drop of the Double Shot. Late in the afternoon, Naomi joined them on a ride where they flew in high circles, poised like small planes.
My idea of torture, I thought. Maybe my slow deliberate gait had trained me to react badly to acceleration. I knew the combination of motion and height would make me dizzy and sick. The three of them whizzed by, hair blowing away from their faces, elated. I wondered what it would be like to inhabit those bodies that loved to soar.
Maybe Dan, a fellow poet, could find the words to convey the feeling to me.