By William Thompson
The truck hits a car at the top of a hill on an August afternoon. My cousin is killed. I find this out later in the hospital. My face hits the dashboard, and my left leg is broken. A doctor tells me I will be blind for the rest of my life. I am ten years-old. This is one of my earliest memories of being blind.
A year later, I am standing in the living room beside the bookcase, a board and brick monstrosity my mother has put together. The day will be hot, but it’s early, and the living room is still cool. The old hardwood of the floor hasn’t yet acquired the heat of the day. But it won’t take long—the house gets hot in the summer, its coolness leached away by the August sun, just as the heat is bled away by bitter January nights.
The boards of the bookshelf are painted a creamy-white, with plants cascading passed the yellow brick. I’m remembering the colour of the paint on the boards and the brick as my fingers touch the leaves of the plant. It would have been my dad who hauled in the boards and bricks, but it was my mother who put the shelf together. The trick was to set each stack of bricks slightly behind those on the lower shelf. This way the whole thing would lean against the wall and not come tumbling forward into the living-room. The bookshelf fills the back wall between the north wall of the house and the door to the kitchen.
A sighted memory
I come home after school to find my mother assembling the bookshelf, the top shelf set with a new stereo and speakers. The table is covered in stacks of books waiting to be shelved, while more books, boxes and packing materials clutter the floor. The stereo is a receiver and turntable combination, the speakers already placed at opposite ends of the shelf. It’s November, and my mother is playing Christmas carols as she organizes the shelves. My parents don’t usually spend money on such extravagances, so I’m surprised but pleased in my self-conscious, eight-year-old way.
I trace a finger along the rough brick, flecks of grit falling with tiny sounds to the painted wood of the shelf. My finger goes to the shelf, and I can feel the accumulation of dust and grit in a fine scatter. I brush at it, and I can hear it distantly impacting the wood of the floor—a far away, miniature avalanche. I hear other sounds from the house: the slosh of the washer in the basement, the clatter of my mother doing something in the kitchen, a sound from outside the windows to my left.
As I listen, I’m aware of something new as part of my body—perhaps not new, but I have an awareness of it as though for the first time. It’s a heaviness, a thickening of my form that separates me from the world. It reminds me vaguely of looking once through a picture window—a stain of water caught between the panes and streaking my view of the outside. Like then, I’m aware of something between me and the world, a barrier that has fallen in place, obstructing my apprehension of things around me.
The quiet has gathered itself here in this spot by the bookshelf, and I feel separated, suspended somewhere else, even if I’m not. I should go to my room and listen to a book. I do this now, listen to books on tape. It’s easier for me than trying to read ever was. I can enter the worlds of my books, painting pictures and scenes that in some ways are more real to me than the concrete world I inhabit.
A second sighted memory
I’m sitting at my desk. I’m in grade four. My teacher is standing in the aisle, just behind me, and he’s commenting quietly to a student teacher that I’m a good reader. This isn’t true. I’m only pretending to read the book I’m holding—a copy of Jane Eyre. I’m not a good reader; I’m a lazy reader, my mind wandering as I try to fix my attention on the small print.
A third sighted memory
It’s still grade four. I’m pretending again—this time that I need glasses. I get up from my desk and walk closer to the blackboard, making a show out of my false need to see the chalk words. I can’t be sure why I’m doing this.
My mother takes me to an ophthalmologist. He is unsympathetic and abrupt. He wears a white lab coat that covers a protruding belly. I wear a set of chunky frames, and he slots in one lens after another. He tells my mother I’m fine and to go home. I stare at my reflection in a store window as we wait for the bus. I can barely look at myself. I feel small, stupid, and ashamed.
These are fragments of a different life, like news clips on the television. My world now has other horizons—defined by sharp edges, doorjambs, and things over which I trip. It’s a world in which I hurt myself in unexpected ways, but it’s also a world in which I have to grapple with being blind and losing my cousin, whom I loved. All this passed year I have been learning to be blind but only in a practical way—learning to walk with a white cane, learning to function again. Everyone wants me to function; that’s the goal.
And I can; I can manage easily enough. People tell me so all the time. They mean it as praise, but only part of me wants to hear it. And all the while, my other life is still there, separated into another part of my brain, and the memory of the accident that took my cousin and my sight trails along behind like a great drift of seaweed.
But as I stand before the bookshelf on that August afternoon, I understand this new way of apprehending the world as a sudden and beautiful defense against those things I can’t manage: it’s a heavy, muffling cloak of silence that separates and isolates me. It washes over me and enfolds me, promising to keep me safe from both the world and my own fracturedness.
It’s depression—as simple as that. But I don’t know this at the time. It doesn’t have a name, and it won’t for more than twenty years. But I will get to know it intimately in the coming decades. I will carry this weight going forward; sometimes it will feel heavier and sometimes less so. But it will be with me, like a companion, for as long as I need it, until I can begin to learn to piece myself back together.