The Phone Call*
Tallie: May, 1994
The sunlightís caress over my body awakened me. I yawned and stretched, realizing that Iíd slept for a long time. Then I remembered the world crashed in upon me. I didnít want to face Mama ever again, but already I could hear Mama calling, "Natalie, Natalie! Come down for some breakfast. You havenít eaten in hours." It couldnít be helped. I put on a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, socks and sneakers and walked down the stairs.
I went through the motions of school, my mind somewhere in a thick snow. I couldnít concentrate, not even during reading, a class I normally love. I just had to find out for sure about my eye condition, about whether doctors could fix it. I still felt like a child, but I knew I was researching a medical, adult topic. So calling the childrenís librarian didnít make sense this time. After all, when I asked for a book about Switzerland, the librarian mailed me a story, not a book of facts. I didnít want to risk the librarianís getting it wrong again. So when I got home, I took a deep breath, picked up the phone and dialed the number for Adult Reader Services. I was at Dadís house again. As I dialed I could hear Miles banging a toy loudly on the kitchen floor. But the l ibrary would close soon. The librarian would just have to hear the background noise.
"This is Benjamin," a manís voice said. He sounded bored and tired but nice enough. "How may I help you?"
"Iím trying to do research about, um, a cure for Leberís Congenital Amaurosis," I said, almost tripping over the word, amaurosis, trying to sound older, more professional, since I was talking to an adult librarian.
There was a long pause. I hoped he wouldnít realize I was just a kid and transfer me back into kid world. "Youíre doing research about WHAT now?" he asked finally, slowing down his words as if he had just started to pay attention.
"Leberís Congenital Amaurosis."
"Itís my eye condition," I explained, careful to use the adult words. "Iím looking for a cure. My dad told me there is a cure."
"You wonít find that here. Youíre blind. Youíll live."
I was ready to hang up. I decided in that moment that I hated him. "But I donít want to be blind anymore," I said, fighting against the tightness in my throat. "Iíd rather be dead."
He was quiet for a moment. "I donít know everything about your eye condition," he said, "but youíd have a better chance of killing yourself than of coming up with a cure. If you want to die, thereís nothing I can do to help with that either."
"Is he really telling me to die?" I wondered, hating him even more. But I felt intrigued. None of my teachers would have ever told me to go ahead and kill myself. Every time I told them I wanted to be dead, they would scribble nervously, tell me to be grateful for life, for all the kindness I received. Now here was some guy who didnít even know me, who would never know if I killed myself or not. And I suddenly knew I wanted to live. "Okay," I said after a long silence, "I donít want to kill myself."
"Thatís more like it," he said. Would he have felt guilty if I had hung up and done it?
"But I still want a cure."
"I wasnít kidding when I said it would be easier to die. I donít think dying is a great idea. But thereís no cure for you except to accept what being blind means." He paused. "Iím not always sure what it means, except that you canít see. Iím blind," he said, "so I know what Iím talking about. I even thought about the death idea a few times.""Youíre blind?" And I thought, He doesnít sound blind., He sounds like he knows what heís doing. Iíd never, ever met a blind person.
"I wouldnít make that up," he answered. "And being blind is a lot better than being dead."
"So what does being blind mean?" I wanted to know.
"It means youíll never be able to see."
Well, duh. But also I didnít want him to say that. He made it sound so simple. Had he ever felt frustrated about not understanding movies? Had he ever caught his father seeming sad that he was born or his mother seeming preoccupied and worried? Why do people have kids anyway? But I also had to admit to myself that it felt different to hear that from another blind person than to hear that from my sighted mother, my sighted Braille teacher. He knew what it meant; He was a blind person in the world. I respected the answer. My respect made me angry with him. "I am not stupid. What else does it mean?" I snapped. I had never been rude to a stranger in my entire life; it felt good. If he told me not to talk that way, all I had to do was hang up. I didnít need to call the adult library anymore, not for another few years anyway.
There was a long silence. Then he said in a voice slightly above a whisper, "I donít know." Then he spoke in his normal voice, "So youíve been asking all the questions. Now I have a question. What things would you want to see if you woke up one day and could suddenly see?"
Dumb, I thought, you canít pick specific things to see. "Everything," I said. "People who can see can see everything."
"But there must be specific things, or maybe people, you think about seeing when you wish you could," he insisted.
So I thought about that. "Mountains," I said eventually. "And the tires on the playground. And whatever will make the kids like me."
"Mmmm-hmmm, if you want the kids to like you, you ma need to see dang near everything, and thatís including what theyíre thinking. Seriously, the only way they will like you, eventually, is if you are yourself. If I can save you a few decades of figuring that out, my work here is done."
I didnít know what to say.
"I have been totally blind for over fifteen years," he said, "but the only thing I wish I could see is the moon, because I remember how that looked, and it gave me a lot of peace. I know that I should also want to see my daughter and granddaughter, but faces never meant that much to me. I used to worry about facial expressions I was missing, but I donít think much about that anymore. But youíre right, you canít pick things to see. Your eyes decide what youíll see, and thatís it. But," he continued, "I canít see the moon, but I still hear the crickets outside. They make the night real for me."
Did that mean his daughter and granddaughter didnít bring him peace?
I remembered my dream. I had understood the mountains; I had felt their height in my earsí closing up, had heard the crunching of snow. Had I been skiing? I hated the way parts of dreams escaped me. "I dreamed about mountains," I told him finally.
"So you can understand them, and you donít have to see them. I have a book you might like. Your profile says youíre a braille reader, and this book is only on tape, Iím sorry. But itís worth being on tape."
"What is it?"
"Itís called Little by Little, and itís by an author named Jean Little."
"It sounds corny."
"Maybe, but you should read it, then let me know what you think. You canít judge a book …"
"By its cover?"
"Or its title. Give it a chance. I have one more question, and then Iíll let you go. Have people tried to describe colors to you?"
I didnít want to hang up. "Yeah."
"Did you understand them?"
"You said one question."
"Youíre sharp. But one-word answers make follow-up questions necessary. Did you understand the colors? I mean, did you really understand them or just think you did?"
"So what is blue?"
"Itís a cold color like ice."
"But how can every blue thing look like ice would feel? Would the sky always look cold on a beautiful, sunny day?"
"I donít know," I had to admit. "What do you think blue is, if you used to see?"
"I used to see, but I didnít look," he quipped.
"Oh come on, you must have seen blue."
"If I tell you what I think it is, then youíll just repeat what I say and think you know, just like now you know itís icy. Every single person sees different blue things differently. Itís not something youíll ever understand. But youíll still be able to like living in the world without knowing the blueness of things. Now go read a book, not a medical book."
"But Benjamin, what if a bird of prey couldnít see?"
"Then I guess other animals would kill it, or it would starve once its mother stopped feeding it."
"Would that happen with most animals if they were blind?"
"Yes, probably, if they live in the wild."
"Do people wish," I asked carefully, "that blind people were dead?"
"Some people think that not seeing is a kind of death," he answered, "but it depends on what people do with their blindness. I talk to many blind people every day. Many of them go on to have wonderful careers, and many of them donít."
And he was gone. As I hung up the receiver, I suddenly remembered that the bird in my dream had climbed the rocks away from me without seeing them, just knowing them. And then I wondered whether the other birds would really hurt it, or whether that wounded bird of prey would surprise them all and take off jaggedly into the sky.
*"The Phone Call" is a chapter from Kristen Witucki's novel in progress Songs of the Moon. Witucki is the author of the young adult novel The Transcriber.