Here’s the trick. I am pressing the end of a flashlight against my pregnant belly. I press the switch, and the light glows like fire through my taut flesh making it look like an enormous blood orange. I am ripe with expectations.
My husband waits patiently, his hand pressed against my side, waiting for the baby to kick. But the baby isn’t impressed with the intrusion, finds no offense in the light, and the trick doesn’t work. My husband makes some comment that this baby is coy. He takes the flashlight from me, turns it off, and drops it on the floor.
We lie awake in the dark, whispering our dreams, directing our baby’s future. We run through our short list of names. We predict a future president. By the time I fall asleep, a small smile still clinging to my lips, I have written the script for our baby’s life.
The thing about scripts is the actors forget their lines, props go missing, sets tip over. Occasionally someone takes a sandbag to the head. When Sophie is born, the lights go out. Twenty-four-hours old, and a pediatric ophthalmologist is talking about calcification and retinal tears. When my husband asks if she will need glasses right away, the doctor says, “She’ll never read print or drive a car.” Some doctors are assholes. And our daughter is blind.
My mother says, “You write all day long. Why don’t you write about this?” But there are no words. My ears are full of sound. My mind is numb. I squeeze my eyes so tight I fear they will turn inside out. I sit on the bathtub drain and turn on the shower so no one can hear me crying. I can’t write about this because I am ashamed, and to write about shame is a confession of guilt.
My two older children are busy drawing pictures. They tape them to the wall by the crib. “They are for Sophie,” they say. “She will like the colors.” And I can’t tell them that it doesn’t matter. That the baby can’t see their pictures. And I am ashamed I can’t tell them the truth: I have made something less than perfect. I worry my husband blames me, though he’d never say it. Did I have too much caffeine? Forget my vitamins? Sleep on the wrong side?
But the guilt is nothing compared to pity. Pity comes like a wave that washes over me and sucks me down until I don’t know which way is up. I agonize that she will never see my face, never know the look in my eyes that says I love her. She will never stand on stage and see me waving to her from the audience. I worry she will never have any friends. The loss of everything I have dreamt for her has left me gasping for air.
Two years later and I am carving out some strange, new definition of normal. It is normal for a toddler to be quiet. It is normal for a toddler to be still. But then we step outside, and every other two-year-old reminds me of what should have been.
When Sophie faces the world, her eyes are small and sunken. Her eye sockets are purple pools. While the other toddlers climb over the monkey bars, my biceps burn from carrying a child who should have been walking a year ago. It makes it so much harder to pretend.
I speak brave words to the other mothers and wave off their concerned looks with the back of my hand. “Blindness. It is nothing.” But even now, it only takes a stranger’s sideways look to crack the facade. A five-year-old walks over to our picnic blanket. She has the audacity to crouch down and stare into my child’s vacant eyes. I attack the curious girl with words too shameful to repeat. She is frightened, and I see the reflection of a crazy woman in her wide eyes.
Air catches in my throat, and I fake a smile. “No, no, no. So sorry. See? Everything’s okay. Nothing to worry about.” But she runs away to her mother and points at us. I pack our things and go back home.
Sophie is listening. She is building a vocabulary and memorizing patterns, studying cadence and texture, without ever letting on. When she wakes one morning, after thirty months of silence, she opens her mouth and speaks in eloquent, lilting sentences that echo my grandmother’s formal style.
“How lovely to see you,” she says. I am dumbstruck. Sophie continues to string together words like a lifeline, and I feel myself being pulled up and out of the hole I have so foolishly created and into Sophie’s world — a world of delicate sensitivities more beautiful than the conspicuous world in which I live.
Lessons in Listening
One month later and I am lifting Sophie from her high chair.
“What is a heliotrope?” she asks.
There is no lisp. Every syllable is distinct. I don’t know the answer, but she doesn’t mind. “It feels nice on my tongue,” she says. I roll the word around a few times myself and agree.
I run a warm bath and she slides in. The suds build into frothy mountains.
“Why are you giggling?” I ask as I run the washcloth over her back.
“Shh,” she says. I close my eyes so I can hear what I am missing. Microscopic soap bubbles are bursting in a fine fizzing along the edge of the tub. It is like the static on the power lines in the middle of a Minnesota winter. I keep my eyes closed to discover just a little more. The water is warm, and it slips up my arm like an elegant glove. Sophie laughs and rolls inelegantly in the water, like a seal in the surf.
Later that night, I read to her and she is smiling. “Do you like this story?” I ask.
“Yes, but who is whispering?”
“Is somebody whispering?”
“They’re saying, ‘shwoop . . . shwoop . . . shwoop.’ But now they’ve stopped.” We listen for a while, but there is no one there.
I turn the page with a soft shuffle of paper, and Sophie announces, “They’re back.”
Words of Reconciliation
Words are magic. They can puncture your heart and throw you into despair. But they can just as easily heal and make bridges where none existed before. Sophie’s observations on the world, and the words she uses to capture them, are a balm to my ragged heart. We lie together in the yard, and she tells me what she knows. I capture it all in a notebook. Grass is a brutal offense and deserving of the word blade. Sophie refuses to walk barefoot across it. To bite into an apple sounds like an assault, which she refuses to commit.
I draw a veil over those early days. I press my face into Sophie’s hair and inhale deeply. There is nothing but happiness in this child, and she is taking me with her.