This story is by Alan Kennamer and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Only two years?” James sunk back into the chair, staring at Dr. Brass.
“I’m sorry. Without surgery, yes. The tumor, it’s… but we can operate. However, it will affect you…” Dr. Brass let the words hang in the air.
Well, that sounds ominous. He had gotten to know the doctor’s quirks over the past few months, speaking in fragments, letting words go unsaid. James muttered, “How?”
The doctor’s words sped up, tripped over each other. “The mass is near the Ocular nerves. Extends out to your mastoids… ear canals. Once I remove it, your sight will, er, vanish. Your hearing may eventually disappear, so to speak. But you can live a long, productive life.”
Blind and deaf? What kind of existence is that?
James squeezed his eyes shut as understanding flooded within him. Surgery, then long life. Friends will abandon me. To my parents, I’ll be a burden… and I’ll never see Julie’s childlike face again. And so soon after her mother passed.
Opening his eyes, the doctor now stood in front of him. He held something black, wrapped in plastic. “What’s that?”
“It’s an oversized sleep mask. To help you live like a sightless person.” He unwrapped the dark material, handing it to James.
Dr. Brass’s voice solemn, he continued, “To understand the experience. Total vision impairment. All the time…” His mouth quivered, though he held his head high.
A bit unprofessional. But it’s not every day someone would choose to go blind.
Idly squeezing the fabric, James peered into the doctor’s eyes. “How long do I have to wear this… thing?”
Dr. Brass stared back at James. “We have to decide on surgery within a week.”
James sighed and positioned the black mask over his eyes. Most visual stimuli disappeared. Although made of cloth, it had the weight of a piece of steel. However, a faint glow spilled around the edges. “How blind we talkin’? I see halos in the corners.”
“A little light in bright environments may filter through.” Dr. Brass adjusted the straps, his hands remarkably cold. “That’s normal for most sight challenged people. As a matter of fact, only twelve percent of people with visual impairment have no sight at all.” The doctor seemed pleased by the random fact, his voice’s inflection rising.
“Sure, easy for you to say.” Noises like papers shuffling and crinkling distracted James.
“We’ll start with sight. Add over-the-ear headphones to simulate silence.” The doctor’s hand rested on James’ shoulder. “It takes time to learn any skill. Many live a full, rewarding existence with NLP. No Light Perception.”
Feigning sightlessness, a throng of random sounds threatened to drown out the Dr. Brass’s words. Voices from nearby exam rooms, each distinct yet foreign; the shuffle of the doctor’s shoes on the carpet; his own beating heart. All noises fought for attention. A quote from Helen Keller surfaced in his mind: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched—they must be felt with the heart.”
James ripped off the mask and shoved it into his pocket. Minutes later, he left Dr. Brass’s office, carrying the sightless mask and a white cane.
Seeing is overrated. That’s what James kept telling himself as he bumped into obstacles in his apartment. Although he had lived most of his life as what he now referred to as a Seer, the past week had been among the most challenging. As a boy, learning and unlearning habits came easy. Yet living an entire 35 years and suddenly one day, Life without Eyes?
James rubbed his scruffy face, the beard coarse and unkempt. A scowl formed on his mouth, remembering the last time he experienced the sensation of shaving. The day I saw Dr. Brass and agreed to wear this contraption. But I guess it’s better than the alternative.
His shin barked against something hard, snapping him out of his reverie. “Yeow!” His arms flailed about, attempting to steady himself. Gripping the soft cloth material of his couch, he flopped down.
To the room, James announced, “I’d have to quit my job for sure. What else could I do?” His voice sounded like all other noises: disconnected.
He donned his headphones, careful not to dislodge the mask covering his eyes. All sounds dissipated, except for his own breathing and a persistent heartbeat in his temples. Testing his speech, he called out, “Hearing is overrated, too.” His muted speech reached his ears, but he could not determine how loud he spoke.
I’m thirsty. The thought came unbidden, along with a sense of dread.
He sighed, and holding onto the plush sofa, he stood and mentally pictured his room. He extended the probing cane and began a sweep, first right, then left. A vibration traveled up his arm as his pole hit ‘something’. Coffee table? He stepped forward, staff swinging. James visualized a small dining area ahead and to his left, then an opening. The kitchen couldn’t be far away, and the refrigerator just steps after that.
He shuffled forward, waving his stick in larger sweeps, sweat beading on his forehead. “Where is it!” His voice seemed dull in his ears. Living two years as a Normal person has to be better than this!
The cane thudded against something firm. He raised it, using the tip to feel whatever was in front of him. Back and forth, up and down, he couldn’t be sure where he was. Is this the fridge? A wall? Something else? His hands shook as he staggered ahead. He found purchase on a metallic textured handle. At last! He braced himself and pulled.
The door swung open, cool air drifting out to him, the smell of leftover Thai intense. He reached in, taking care not to knock over anything… again. Reciting a mnemonic device, he chanted, “Manly Boys Own White Cars”. Milk on the far left, then beer, OJ, water, and finally cream. He grabbed a chilled water bottle, closed the fridge, and began his journey back to the couch.
Now, where was the living room?
Sweat dripped down his face as he waved his cane about. Although tempted to drop on all fours and crawl around, the last time he had done so, he bumped his head against a table, leaving a tender welt at his hairline.
James inhaled a deep, calming breath. Exhaling, he gripped the staff, his knuckles aching, and slid the tip across the hardwood floor. Feeling an open doorway, he paused. Bedroom. That means…
He turned to his right, keeping the stick moving as he gingerly reached out. The fiberglass end hit something, the thump reminding him of the couch as the object gave a little under the cane’s impact. He strode forward, gaining confidence. His hand brushed against a solid surface, then he fell onto the plush cushions, his breathing labored.
He opened the bottle and sipped. The acidic taste of orange juice assaulted his mouth.
I can’t even find the fricken water… A tear formed under the mask, pooling against the soft fabric. And no more cooking. No driving. Nothing I enjoy.
James sat in his self-imposed dark, understanding anything resembling an ordinary life would be beyond his reach if he went through with the treatment.
Never seeing Julie’s middle school plays, I’d be her father in name only. Such a liability… Living only two normal years would be better than this.
She would understand. She had to.
Sleep took hold, his dreams wracked with a visual cornucopia of sights and sounds. Mocking him.
The next day, James met with Dr. Brass to decide.
“The past week has been hard, doc. I stuck mostly to the visual stuff, but tried the headphones for a bit.” He paused, rubbing his face where the mask had left indentations in his skin. He kept his eyes lowered; not being able to see for a week affected his ability to handle normal light.
“Not the best of choices.” Across from James, the doctor crossed and uncrossed his legs.
It’s like he’s more nervous than me.
“I think I’m ready,” James began, his hands trembling on his lap. He closed his eyes, the pool of blackness comforting. “Doc, I wish I had more time to decide. But I know what I have to do.”
Months passed, and James relaxed in his apartment, his fingers flowing over smooth bumps. Braille wasn’t that hard once he understood the basics. And his hearing hadn’t entirely disappeared yet, so he intended to live as much as he could with the cards that were dealt to him.
He heard a faint, shambling noise behind him. After a moment, a muffled giggle. A smile crested his mouth in anticipation.
James reached out, arms spread wide. His tiny, precious-beyond-measure daughter fell against him. He smelled Julie’s hair, felt the silky fabric of her clothes. I knew I made the right decision.
Life is for the living.