Pretending to be blind (or, the influence of Helen Keller…)

All those years of pretending to be blind have served me well, for I can make coffee in the dark. I grope for the kettle and center its opening beneath the faucet. By sound, I can tell when the water level is correct. The gas flame clicks and hisses into life. As the kettle heats, it gives off clanks and tonks like the Tin Man recovering his movements along the yellow brick road. The box of coffee filters, tucked into its corner of the cupboard, is easy to find. Pour the water carefully. Once, I nudged in the wrong direction and hot coffee spilled everywhere. I won’t make that mistake again.

It’s not that I’ve lost my sight but, ever since I was a child, I’ve practiced. I wanted to be prepared. A biography of Helen Keller fell into my hands and her story haunted me. It wasn’t that I longed to be blind and deaf, to cut myself off from the pleasures and perils of the world or to exist in such a dark and silent cocoon. What fascinated me was Helen’s miraculous emergence out of the darkness: her teacher’s fingers moving in her palm, patiently spelling arcane symbols until the moment when a lock was sprung and meaning burst forth like fireworks. I longed to experience that kind of eruption.

My older sister taught me to read and write, beginning with her own simple name and, ever after, my love for her and my adoration of the written word have been entwined. I learned to read so early that I have no memory of deciphering the black marks; it seems that I’ve always been able to cast my eyes across the page and drink its content without needing to stop and puzzle over more than a word or two.

The irony of having learned about Helen’s life through reading escaped me entirely. But once I knew it was possible to become blind, as she did, through some mysterious “brain fever,” I wanted to be ready for the tragic turn of events. I taught myself finger spelling, using diagrams at the back of the book, and would secretly practice with my hand hidden beneath my school desk. At home, I closed my eyes and moved about my bedroom, risking shins and elbows until I memorized the locations of bunkbed and chairs, the cabinet that held my china horse collection, the little rocker where my favorite doll sat.

Someone gave me a small card with the Braille alphabet imprinted on it. A biography of Louis Braille informed me that he was inspired to create his system of raised dots by feeling a quilt or counterpane of some kind. Braille combined the esoteric appeal of a cryptogram with the pragmatic appeal of a method that would allow me to continue to read once I lost the use of my eyes. But despite my best efforts, I never advanced much beyond the first few letters. My fingertips were unable to discern the subtle differences of four tiny dots in this particular arrangement from that one. Never mind, I told myself. It will be easier to learn when I’m actually blind and not so distracted by all this vision!

I also thought it prudent to learn to manipulate with my toes, should the need arise. With diligent practice I managed to pick up my paper napkin with my bare feet and bring it up to my hand where I could either replace it on my lap or drop it on the floor again for another hidden round of fetch. I soon graduated to more challenging tasks: coins. Quarters, with their lined edges (handy for a blind person to tell the difference from nickels) were easy to grasp with my prehensile toes. Pennies were more difficult, and dimes were the ultimate conquest. It took me weeks before I could triumph, risking cramps as my toes scrabbled against the dining room floor, seeking out that thin silver circle. I liked to show off my new skill to my younger siblings and to friends who came for a sleepover; it was on a par with being able to wiggle one’s ears or lift a single eyebrow (which proved impossible for me). But my feat was far more practical!

There was another way in which I became blind, and that, ironically, was as I read and walked at the same time. With an open book in one hand, I turned the pages with the other. The trick was to glance up often enough to avoid collision but frequently I was too immersed in the adventures of Caddie Woodlawn or Misty of Chincoteague. I remember running into a door at school and bouncing off a lightpole on a train platform. You might think a pole would be narrow enough that the chance of my forehead directly colliding with it would be slim, but I managed to find it and suffered a unicorn-like lump for days afterward.

Helen was not the only blind character I encountered. Little Louis Braille lost his vision after a blow to the head. Sight could be lost from scarlet fever, rheumatic fever or measles. Laura Ingalls’ older sister, Mary, was blinded by illness, and eventually had to leave home to go live in a Special School where she was, no doubt, very happy. Darkened rooms were the remedy advised for fictional children laid low by any kind of sickness, whether Pollyanna or Beth March or the boy found by Mary in The Secret Garden. They were treated with compresses—cool ones laid on the forehead or hot ones containing mustardy substances for coughs and catarrhs and consumptive illnesses—and tended by vigilant, worried adults who spoke in whispers and only ever broke down on the other side of the bedroom door.

How I longed for that kind of drama, that kind of loving attentiveness!

If I went blind, I must become a brave person, someone universally admired rather than pitied. (Well, all right, perhaps a bit of pity now and then, which also seemed attractive to me.) As the blind sister, I would be ushered into the living room by my attendants (who resembled my three siblings) and immediately become the center of attention, everyone watching as I found my way to my seat without bumping into any of the furniture nor needing that pesky white cane. Although unable to see their looks of sympathy and pride, I would catch their whispered remarks and know that they were speaking about me. Upon being introduced to the neighbor, I would dazzle her by correctly finger-spelling her name: “that’s Phyllis, P-H-Y-L-L-I-S, with two “L”s, isn’t it?”

As a blind girl, I would not need to wear my annoying cat’s-eye glasses. I would be graceful and poised, displaying impeccable posture at all times. My intelligence would shine forth, recognized by everyone as one of my most remarkable attributes.

If it took being blind in order to be seen, I was game. I was prepared. Helen and Annie would welcome me.