If you look into Celia’s face, you’ll admire her sun-dipped complexion and infectious smile. You’ll more than likely wonder how fifty years of life could have barely left its mark. But then you’ll look into her eyes; they tell a different story. The left one—a milky mix of blues and grays–bears off and has no sight to look back at you. The other a vibrant brown—the perfect complement to her skin—watches as if it’s seen the world and now is regarding you, though its light has also grown dim.
It’s hard to explain Celia objectively because she is my mother. For many years I stared into those unusual eyes and found the warmth that has coddled me since conception. Even at those times when that love was hidden in a stone-cold glare of disappointment or the angry tears of rage, my mother’s growing blindness could not fog the windows that revealed her soul.
Looking back I realize that for many years her vision problems left no noticeable impression on me. She continued to work, maintain the household, and rear her three daughters in the suburbs of Virginia. I remember saying stuff like, “Mom, back then we had the perfect family.” Her cynical reply: “Yeah, cause back then your mother could see.” The regenerative cataracts that began when she was in elementary school had mixed with a rare blood disease and the milky blue and gray eye was the result. But when I was younger, her vision in the right eye was still 20/20, and people barely noticed when she’d bump into things or only drive when one of us rode along with her. See, she was even driving (though maybe she shouldn’t have been) and the effects of her “blindness” were more like a family joke than a real problem . . . until one Thanksgiving day.
That morning my mother awoke before sunrise to surprise us with the usual array of holiday treats. As the day broke, my family, responding to the smell of blended spices and baked goods, migrated into the kitchen. Several times I watched as my mother fingered the counter tops to keep her bearings without it registering. She’d trained us pretty well as far as help was concerned, so all the orders to slice and mix and sauté seemed quite normal. Then she started to question us about the weather.
“Is it foggy outside?” she kept asking. “Is the sun supposed to come out today?”
“Yeah, it’s kinda foggy,” I remember lying.
“I can’t see,” she said.
That was it. The elephant in the room revealed. My mother later explained to me that for quite some time before that, she had known that her sight was going. She compares it to looking down a tunnel when a train is coming. Slowly as the train approaches, it fills the tunnel and blocks out the last rays of light. That “foggy” day the train arrived, and when it left it took my mother’s vision with it.
I realized that it was less of a game when one afternoon I came home from school—with a fever of 102 degrees—and my chest wheezing under the closed grip of my lungs, the nurse decided it would probably be a good idea if I just went home. I pleaded with her to just let me sleep it off, but she called my mother anyway. Looking back I wonder if my pleas came from me caring for my mother or a selfish sense of embarrassment. That afternoon, when I opened my eyes to the thick sunglasses that seemed to steal the rest of my mother’s face, I closed them again to say a quick prayer. First I wanted to give thanks that she had walked all the way to school by cane and second I wanted to ask that we get out of there without anyone asking us a bunch of questions about my mother’s condition.
We did. As we rounded the school parking lot, my tasked breathing must have been sad to my mother’s ears.
Though I was almost as tall as she, she threw me on her back and began the trek home.
As I faded in and out of sleep, my mother and her cane walked us the whole length of my normal route to school. How she did it with me wheezing on her back still remains a mystery to me. But from that day on when I look into those mix-matched eyes or at her running into things, or at her listening to her books or at her cooking dinner . . .the strength and power that she pulls from her experiences never ceases to amaze me.
And I wonder if it will take me going blind to ever really be that strong.
Jeannine Cook is a working mother of three. She earned a MA degree in Art & Design Education in 2014 and her BS degree in Media & Communication in 2005 both from the University of the Arts. Jeannine is a Leeway Transformation Award recipient and has been named one of South Philly’s top 25 Difference Makers. Read her blog at http://Jeannineacook.blogspot.com.
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