My brother learned echo location because he was older and blinder. We were both born in June three months premature, but he came along two years before me. Since our eyes weren’t fully formed when we came out, we were vulnerable to retinal detachment. He went blind in both eyes, and I kept vision in one. My brother learned braille while I learned to read by sight, but who knows how he figured out the secrets of bouncing sound? Probably when he was a toddler and bumping around the living room between tables and couches and chairs. It was the school of literal hard knocks. He smiles when I bring this up.
“I only knocked myself out once,” he says. “Then I learned not to run so fast.”
On the playground when I was in second grade and he was in fourth he did performances, walking through the forest caneless, swiveling around trees by the jungle gym. He recruited me to help because he didn’t care to count the change we collected from kids who wanted to see his feats. I was supposed to make sure no one watched for free, but he could tell if I let a friend in without paying. He got mad later when I told him how many other kids had been there, and said it came out of my share of the profits.
My brother maintained that his talent wasn’t magic, but his around-the-house practice of tongue clicking, concentration, and careful listening. Some kids asked if I was magic, too, but I shook my head. I held books close when I read, and wasn’t good at sports that required depth perception. My brother read braille in the dark without getting caught. I was jealous.
I knew the time of playground idolizing would end, and it did when I was in third grade and a gaggle of girls wanted me to jump rope. I was the substitute twirler because another girl was sick, but my bank at home was full of loose change and I wanted badly to be included, shouting out rhymes I knew by heart. When my brother didn’t come in from recess I was sent to find him. His teacher thought he might be lost, but I knew he was pouting in the trees. He gave me the silent treatment as I walked him back from the edge of the woods.
“You can get another helper,” I said. Someone who’d be okay with only taking a third of the profits. But after that he sat on the steps at recess reading a book, and I hung out by the swings waiting for a turn to become airborne. One rainy day he started a chess club in the fifth grade classroom, and always had two other kids with him by the steps learning the finer points of pawns and rooks and bishops. We walked home from school together, just never went into business again.
In junior high he wanted to run track, so the coaches figured things out with a headset and walkie talkies to direct him around curves when it wasn’t a straight sprint. He did math tutoring for elementary school kids after school. When I started seventh grade I babysat and tutored kids in science, so we walked to the elementary school together, then home. My brother kept his cane in his backpack all the time but only used it in crowded high school hallways so people knew to stay out of his way. After school he clicked his way down the sidewalk, or held my elbow if he wanted to talk.
I don’t know if he realized how much his world scared me. Mom and Dad encouraged us to be independent, but he was better at it. The cane was mostly to reassure my parents, and let drivers see that my brother couldn’t see. Our parents were more vocal when they worried about me, reminding me to look both ways eight times before crossing the street so I wouldn’t miss anything. I didn’t have a white stick to alert people to my one-sided sightlessness.
For him the loss of vision was a shrug. For me it was perilous. I’d always functioned as a sighted person, though this was only partially true. I don’t know if me being a girl had anything to do with it, but my parents acted like I was at greater risk, while they were willing to let him careen through the world.
My ophthalmologist told me to not wait if I had problems with my vision, like if I saw a dark curtain over my sight that didn’t move, or lightning flashes from the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure what either of those things meant, but imagined the lights would look like an alien spacecraft that had come to suck the sight out of my left eye.
When my brother was a senior he dropped his high school class ring down the drain and woke me up at three in the morning to help fish it out. The bent coat hanger wasn’t working and he wondered if I had better ideas. We couldn’t take the sink apart, and our parents would be pissed if Dad needed to do the duty. We took turns with the coat hanger for an hour until I snagged the ring on my hundredth try.
“You’re a miracle,” he said.
“You’re a tornado,” I said. That’s what Mom told him when he moved too fast. He kissed my forehead and I muttered that if I failed my biology test the next day I was going to kill him. He said I was brilliant and could take it in my sleep. I said he’d better not be lying because that was what I’d do.
During my junior year he was a freshman in college and living at home, taking fifteen hours of stats and computer science classes. It was enough homework to keep him in his room with a supply of fruit snacks and granola bars.
He was sequestered on a Friday night when I had the double date with my friend, her boyfriend, and his friend who went to another school.
When we met up for the movie my date gave me a nod and shook hands, but afterward when we went out for ice cream he peered at me across the back seat of my friend’s car and said, “She didn’t tell me you had a lazy eye.”
I said, “It’s not lazy, it’s blind.” He looked at me with his head tilted like this was some sort of betrayal. I ordered a hot fudge sundae with extra whipped cream. He didn’t try to touch my hand again. I went home and cried.
My brother knew something was wrong even with my door closed and my head under the pillow. It was only five minutes before I heard the hinges squeak open and felt him patting my back. I rolled over to hold his hand.
“My last date sucked, too,” he said. “She didn’t like any good movies.”
“Meaning movies you like,” I said.
“Those are the only good ones,” he said.
We double dated to my junior prom. I went with a nice guy from my honors chemistry class, and found my brother a date with one of my science nerd friends who knew enough about coding to keep him happy. I picked the corsage for his date to match her dress, drove all four of us to the Italian restaurant, and read the menu since there wasn’t a braille version. My brother admitted that sometimes sighties could be useful, but he insisted on holding doors for us.
During the first week of summer before my senior year, I drove myself and my brother in Mom’s old car to the falling-apart train bridge at the edge of town. It stretched cautiously over a river, and wasn’t to be trusted with loads heavier than the weight of the legend surrounding its history. There were several stories about the ghosts of hobos who’d been sleeping on trains and fallen off into the river, but the more famous tale was about a young bride-to-be who had walked to the middle of the bridge and thrown herself to her death after she was dumped at the altar. She was pregnant and couldn’t bear that mark of shame without a partner, so she haunted the bridge and woods around it. You were supposed to take her flowers and pour half a beer into the river in her honor.
We had the flowers and beer–a couple of early wilting roses cut from our dad’s bushes, and one can of beer from Dad’s stash and one from Mom’s.
“How close do we have to get?” my brother asked after we got out of the car.
“Close enough to toss the stuff in the river without falling in,” I said. “Before that we call her name three times, and wait for a woman in white to appear.”
Most people made out as they waited. This was the place for getting drunk and feeling each other up as soon as you were old enough to steal the car keys. None of my friends had wanted to come, either lacked interest or had done it before, but they said it was kind of fun and spooky. It wasn’t a trip you were supposed to make with your sibling, but I tossed the flowers and he sloshed half a beer toward the water. We leaned against the car and drank the other half, passing the can back and forth.
“Do you see a woman in white yet?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said with another sip.
“I think I felt a chill in the air,” he said.
“It’s a cool night.” I didn’t feel anything special. My brother had heard about this place from other kids in his class. My class wasn’t as enamored with the bridge and bride, just drinking and making out. I opened the second beer when we finished the first, a bit pissed that I didn’t feel a sense of foreboding. Maybe that would come with another half can of beer.
“You sure you want to do that?” I said when my brother walked toward a nearby glen of trees, clicking around the spindly trunks like he’d done when we were kids.
“Sure I’m sure,” he said. “Goddamn it!” I heard a rustle and figured he’d tripped on a branch since he couldn’t see what was at his feet.
“You move too damn fast,” I called.
“Shut up,” he yelled back.
“Don’t fall down the ravine,” I said. “The bridge doesn’t need another dead person.”
“I’m fine,” he said. Mom would have freaked out, but I was not Mom and decided to let him be stupid, which was probably stupid, but my brother the tornado wasn’t going to listen. I saved half the beer for him, and he thanked me when he got back to the car.
“Next time we bring the ghosts vodka and orange juice,” he said.
I drank to that.
I did and did not want to be in the same dorm with my brother when I started my freshman year of college. He wanted to move out of the house, and wanted me to help him study for tests since I was a better reader than anyone else he knew. He also wanted me to bring illicit six-packs of beer that I got from older friends in the biology program, so we could get tipsy and gossip about our latest dates. How did he have time to go out so much? I wanted to get my career set, then work on family. He said he could do both at once, but he mostly dated computer geek girls who knew as much about spreadsheets and databases as he did.
Don’t ask me how a guy who studied computer programming and had the best memory of anyone I knew could apply for fifty tech jobs and not get anything. He took a position managing the web site at the state library for the blind to “tide him over,” then he started the library’s sci-fi book club, mystery novel book club, nonfiction book club, and the kids’ reading program. They sent out monthly packets for young readers with large-print books and braille blocks so they could learn pre-braille skills and hone their sense of touch.
I don’t know how he met the other blind software developers, but they got him hooked into the community of people working on freeware screen reader programs.
“Getting a license for a screen reader program is crazy expensive,” he told me more than once. “Freeware is getting better now, and we’re working on improvements so we can stick it to software companies.”
I don’t want to think I had an easier time than my brother getting employment, but I did.
I’d planned to be a veterinarian, but after four years of college in the pre-vet program I was tired of school and books, and I’d done enough hours volunteering at the animal hospital to know I didn’t want to do surgery. Caring for animals before and after was enough, but I was good at doing checkups, soothing pets, and giving shots with the dog barely noticing. The vet in charge of making sure I didn’t screw up said I had the best needle technique of anyone he’d ever observed.
When the world started to go blurry I was thirty-two and figured it was time for a stronger glasses prescription. After two months with a new lens, my landscape was still hazy. I returned to my optometrist who dilated my eyes, frowned, said I might be getting a cataract, and sent me to an ophthalmologist. She shined bright lights in my eye and agreed a cataract was starting to form, and the blurring was double vision.
I pursed my lips. They had to be kidding. I was thirty-two, not sixty-two, but my ophthalmologist said that my eye had spent a long time doing the work of two, so it was tired.
“I’d suggest you put off surgery for now and try a contact,” she said.
I delayed the contact for six more months until I started seeing the moon in triplicate and had problems focusing on co-workers down the hall.
“It’ll be better than glasses because the lens sits right on your eye,” my optometrist said when I returned to be fitted for the contact. “But it does take some getting used to.”
My new contact was hard, and huge, and I spent an hour with his assistant learning how to fill the contact with sterile saline, then open my eye wide enough to slip this fifteen-millimeter disk over it. My eye was not keen on the prospect, fought to close tight with a strong instinct toward self-preservation. That eye knew its own worth, how it was essential to reading and giving dogs shots and doing examinations for ticks and fleas.
I tried to smile at the assistant who said there was a learning curve with hard contacts, then I drove to my parents’ house with this eight-hundred-dollar piece of plastic that insurance would not cover. My mother let me cry for a bit, reminding me how she had tried the first generation of hard contacts and it had not been easy. She volunteered to be my after-work cheerleader as I sat in the kitchen and forced the disk onto my red-ringed eye. I was sure it’d never work, my vision would get hazier, and I should just have cataract surgery.
But even if cataract surgery was low-risk, it was still surgery with tiny knives, an IV drip, and the risk of retinal detachment and blindness.
“I had both eyes done when I was fifty,” my mom said. “Piece of cake.”
“I just have one sighted eye,” I said. “And I’m not fifty.”
“Vision is overrated,” said my brother.
I said it wasn’t for a vet tech. He said I could adjust, and there were blind vets who did great work. I didn’t doubt him, but it was a change I wouldn’t want to make unless I had to.
It took a month of red-eyed determination before I could get the contact on my eye without catching air bubbles or eyelashes. That meant I could delay cataract surgery for months, perhaps years. I hoped for the latter now that my contact and my eye had a truce. The world was less blurred, though the moon had a shadow double. I was okay with that.
Six months later my dad called from the emergency room and said not to panic, but my mom had a retinal tear and could I please get my brother and bring him over? He didn’t want to leave while Mom was having a vitrectomy.
The vision loss happened fast, in the span of an hour. She’d noticed the bright light flashes and slowly lowering curtain in her right eye, then there was nothing. I’d had a vitrectomy when I was four and a half months old, trying to prevent my retina from detaching in my right eye and save my sight. The surgeon took out the vitreous, a jelly-like substance in the back of my eye, and replaced it with saline and a gas bubble that was supposed to hold my retina in place.
“It can happen to anyone,” Mom said when she came out of surgery. She was lying face down on a hospital bed with her head in a donut-shaped pillow and a patch over her right eye. She’d need to keep her head horizontal for a week so the gas bubble wouldn’t move while her eye healed and the retina reaffixed itself to the back of her eye. Someone would need to be home with her most of the time, help her fix meals and find good audio books.
I didn’t know whether to be amazed or terrified of the irony, that she’d seen the dark curtain I’d been warned about for years. My brother was chill, sipping coffee with his legs crossed, while I paced Mom’s hospital room. I thought of the vitrectomy that had failed to save half my sight. Not that I’d missed it. Dad sat next to my brother, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Mom said she’d like sandwiches for lunch next week. Soup would be too messy.
“I’ll give you a straw,” said my brother, who had texted his boss to ask if he could work from home so Dad and I wouldn’t have to take time off.
“Having just one eye seems strange, but I guess this is how you always see the world,” Mom said to me softly.
“Kind of,” I said, since that wasn’t exactly true. My way of seeing was perfectly normal for me, but the slight tremble in her voice suggested my mother was scared. I patted her back, said everything would be fine, and crossed my fingers behind my back.
My brother’s boss had no problem with him working remotely.
“As I long as I get stuff done, she doesn’t care if I’m on the moon,” he said.
I went to my parents’ house for dinner after their first day together. My brother made pasta and salad, cheerfully chopping carrots while my downward-facing mother told me he was a little too cavalier about vision loss.
“It’s like he doesn’t care whether the surgery works,” she said.
“It’ll work,” I said. But if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. She’d get used to it sooner than she thought. In the meantime my brother was a good mother-sitter, could access all the audio books at the state library for the blind, and made grilled cheese sandwiches and smoothies for her. She said tomato soup through a straw was okay, but she didn’t want to make it a habit. It was the first time in years we had family dinners for seven days straight.
I rubbed the back of Mom’s neck when it ached from being in the donut pillow.
“I have to remember this is always how you see the world,” she kept saying.
“I don’t have to see the world face-down through a donut,” I reminded her.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “I love having your brother around, but he’s a little annoying.”
“I’ve been saying that for years,” I said.
After eight days she went back to the ophthalmologist and was given clearance to sit up and remove the eye patch. She was not joining my cyclops world, and I wasn’t sad about that. She was supposed to only do light exercise for a week, so my brother and I walked with her around the block, him clicking his tongue and keeping his hands in his pockets, me with my arm through my mother’s elbow like I wanted to anchor her in place.
“How is the contact?” she asked.
“Not as annoying as before,” I said, though sometimes it was a hassle in the morning. “How does it feel to have your head out of the donut?”
“Less achy,” she said. I felt her slight shiver. “That was scary.”
“I can imagine,” I said, holding her elbow more tightly as my brother clicked along, our steps synchronized as we listened to the cicadas.
“He’s still doing that,” said my mother, nodding at my brother.
“He’s always done that,” I said. “Why would he stop?”
“Amazing,” said my mother.
Not really, I wanted to say. His world scared me in ways it shouldn’t have, but he moved through it with confidence. I knew I could, too, if I had to. But not before. When I glanced at my mother her eyes were closed. She was letting me guide her with our linked arms, maybe trying to understand my brother’s body as she’d tried to understand mine. It was our duty as children not to dissuade her, just pat her elbow and keep walking.
Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Milbrodt lives in Salem, Virginia, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Roanoke College. She believes in coffee, long walks with her MP3 player, and writing the occasional haiku. Read more of her work at: http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/