I crashed into a wooden model of a building at school when I was 11. One moment, I was walking and chatting with my friends, the next, I was sprawled on the floor with splinters all over. I had smashed the model like a tornado tearing through the Oklahoma plains.
I went home in a state of panic, saying, “I didn’t see it! I don’t know what happened!”
My mother told me why I hadn’t seen it.
The model had been in the peripheries of my vision, which was full of blind spots. Blind spots that were growing larger with each passing day. “Your peripheral vision will get worse and start to close in” – my mother brought her hands together, imitating a circle constricting into a single point – “and then you won’t see much.”
That was how I found out I would one day go blind.
This news would gut anyone, but it was an especially devastating blow for me. I had been born Deaf. Although I had received a, I remained absorbed in all things visual. Everything I loved from books to Sign to art all were things you see. Now my mother was telling me that all these things would fade away, a retinal cell at a time. “By middle age” was the only prognosis I got for when my sight would move from “impaired but manageable” to “blind.”
My mind has erased the conversation and the accident from my memory. My mother has recounted all of this to me, saying that I got up and retreated into my room without a word. I didn’t cry – at least not in front of her. I might not remember the events, but I remember what I felt. I felt as if I were a natural disaster, wreaking havoc on everything in my path. I also felt the light of my future dim. Not extinguished, but it lost its luster.
I might’ve been born Deaf, but I had been an irritatingly precocious child. I taught myself to read at 3. School came easily to me. I had lots of friends, both hearing and Deaf. People told me I was going places. Exactly where, they didn’t know, but the places were surely high up. How could I get to these places if I couldn’t even see them?
My prepubescent self came up with an answer. Even if my eyes and ears didn’t work as well as everyone else’s, my mind could.
I began investing in my mind full force. I stepped up my efforts to make use of my, a bionic ear that gave me limited perception of sound. (The cochlear implant had been more of until that point.) I threw myself into my studies, becoming a full-on nerd. My nerdery carried me through some pretty fancy schools: a prestigious boarding school with honest-to-God ivy-covered gates, an Ivy League undergrad, and top-tier law school. I became massively overeducated and possibly more worthless.
I devised a plan, one that would refute any nagging doubts and fears about my future. I would first prove my mettle professionally before my sight declined too severely. In my late thirties or early forties was my expected due date for blindness, ages I had fixed upon without any concrete data (because there wasn’t any). Then, I would do what I really wanted to do: be a writer. This plan dazzled me with its simplicity and effectiveness. I would prove my worth to a world that expected me to be either Helen Keller or useless. It all sounded perfect.