99: Eva

99: Eva

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks to My Mom

Eva

On the shores of darkness there is light.

~John Keats

My eyes were bandaged, and a silicone “buckle” had been fastened around my left eye to hold my badly detached retina in place. Since this was a second detachment, there was a significant risk I would lose all vision in the eye and a better than fifty-fifty chance my right retina would also detach.

I gripped the hospital bed’s cold aluminum safety bars and focused on the vague swishing noises in the hall. I smelled disinfectant. So this is blindness, I thought. This is how Eva lived half her life. How did she do it? How was she so gentle, so comforting? How had she given me so much?

Eva’s vision was already weak when she moved into my grandmother’s house while Grandma’s son (my future father) served in the military. With her bad leg, Grandma needed a housekeeper, and Eva needed a place to live. She moved into the unheated room above our kitchen. My father returned from the war with a broken back and married Mom. I was born, then my brother, and Grandma’s bad leg turned out to be bone cancer. My overwhelmed Mom needed Eva to stay on. Even though cooking and outside chores became impossible as her vision worsened, Eva still could wash dishes and floors.

By the time I was born, Eva was completely blind. They say she clung to me and carried me through the house as if I were her own. She had memorized the placement of each chair, the number of stairs and which doors swung dangerously half-shut on their own. Grandma was scared Eva would trip and drop me, but Mom later told me she didn’t have the heart to forbid Eva to carry me. “She just loved you so much,” Mom said. “And her own son was too ‘busy’ to see her anymore.”

Eva and I needed each other. She had time Mom didn’t and tenderness Grandma didn’t. Grandma was fighting cancer, but she would never have been a cookies-and-lap grandma anyway. Her idea of a boy’s birthday present was a pair of new shoes. As her chores decreased, Eva signed over most of her small Social Security checks for room and board, so she did not give me gifts, except the greatest one—an education.

Before I began kindergarten, she handed me a worn nature book and asked me to describe the birds in the photos so she could tell me their names. She prodded me to study each bird and create word pictures. If I told her I saw a red bird, she’d say, “Well, that’s probably a cardinal. But you should mention its black bib and the tuft of feathers on its head too. They call them cardinals because Catholic cardinals wear red robes and hats. That makes me remember what they look like!”

Some days she’d send me to the window to spot a bird chirping outside. She’d ask me to describe its looks and behavior. I learned to see details only that bird would have, the way it would hop and stop and turn its head sideways, and then hop and stop again. “Oh, that’s a robin,” Eva would say. “That’s how they find worms. Next time watch one until it gets a worm—it can be quite a battle. Go out on a wet day when the worms come up to breathe.” I asked her how she knew so much about birds.

She laughed. “Once you really look at something, once you really love it, how can you forget? Look at things hard and love them, and your memories will sustain you.”

Later in life when I became a teacher and had blind and other handicapped students, I expected as much from them as from other students and I almost always got it. Some teachers, not familiar with the handicapped, encourage them to be passive by letting them slide, but Eva taught me how desperately they needed to connect to the rest of the world. Each time I drew out a blind or deaf student in class—each time I pushed him or her to be more descriptive or exact—Eva’s words echoed in my mind.

Eva had been a hungry reader and in mid-life taught herself to read Braille books from the library. She said, “My library card is the most valuable thing I have. It can take you anywhere, to meet people you’d never encounter and learn their deepest secrets.” She told stories so vividly and made them sound so exciting, I begged her to teach me to read. When I was six, we spent hours in her room, piecing words together in basic books and even newspapers, so by the end of first grade I zipped through school reading.

“You’re so smart!” Mom beamed at my report card.

“Eva taught me to read,” I responded.

Grandma snorted. “No! She’s blind. How could she do that?”

“She did! We read every day!” I think Grandma was jealous, because the next Christmas she bought me Treasure Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood instead of shoes. Grandma tried to help me read them, but after five minutes, she decided they were beyond me. And of course they were. But later, I secretly took them to Eva. I can’t say I read the books exactly, but she knew enough of the stories that when I got tangled up or exhausted from trudging through a page, she would take up the thread and make Long John Silver growl and wink his pirate eyes and make me hear Robin Hood’s men laughing around a campfire in Sherwood Forest.

Now, decades later and Eva long gone, as I lay in my hospital bed in total blackness, I thought of the operations she endured to restore her sight. The tools and techniques for eye operations back then were primitive, and her world remained dark. Eventually, from lack of use, her pupils drifted near the bottom of her eyes like half-sunken boats. That might be my eventual fate as well. I hated the prospect of feeling helpless, becoming a burden to my wife, and groping through a dark existence.

Yet Eva had gone on without despair, never complaining. She was grateful for having seen birds and having read great books and found joy in what she could still experience. Although she must have suffered deeply from her son’s apathy toward her, she loved a baby boy and passed on her joys to him. She made herself a second mother. Instead of dwelling on what she had lost, she held onto what she loved and taught me to love nature and books as well. In my adult life I would become a professional writer, particularly about nature, and she started me on that path. And now, I realize, she’s still with me, teaching me to look harder for the light in the darkness.

~Garrett Bauman

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