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by Shannon Leslie, Farmville, Virginia
My mother cried when my optometrist told her I would be blind by the age of 21. As a child, I didn't really understand the concept of blindness so I couldn't comprehend her reaction to the news; I thought maybe I had done something wrong. Once she reassured me things weren't my fault, I practically erased it from my mind. It wasn't as if growing up with glasses bothered me, they were just something cool that most of the other kids didn't have. They made me feel special--like I had some super-gadget to make my eyes better. I had that unfathomable indifference to my situation of which only children seem capable.
As I started to grow, my vision took a noticeable dive. It was then that I started to get frustrated. This was not because I finally understood what was happening to me, but because I couldn't sit in the back of the class with my friends anymore. I always had to sit up front and, even then, I often needed to squint really hard. I had to read in very specific light, and I couldn't play video games as long as I used to without my eyes hurting. It was still no big deal though, just little things I adapted to pretty quickly. I hadn't realized yet that things would get worse.
My glasses got thicker and heavier as I entered my already-awkward teen years. I could never feel good about myself--no matter how gorgeous my hair looked, how well done my make-up was, or how good my clothes were. I had glasses, and no one wanted to be with that girl. That's what my mind was telling me, at least. I was starting to feel ashamed of my obvious impairment. It made me withdrawn, introverted. I had become a stereotype of sorts--that shy girl with the glasses. I wasn't concerned with what having to wear glasses meant for my health or my future. I was only thinking about how it made me feel in the present. I started to resent them and myself.
Despite my early struggles with my lessening vision, I was able to come into my own in high school, as the social and academic pressures I faced distracted me from my sight problem. When I graduated from high school, however, I really began to notice the gravity of my situation. I had ignored what going blind really meant for most of my life, and now that I was stepping out on my own, it really hit me.
I couldn't get a driver's license, which devastated me since I live out in the country, miles away from any of my friends or real opportunity. I had to rely on others to get anywhere and read certain things for me. I couldn't get a job. Even asking for the simplest of favors struck me with guilt and a sense of dependency. I was only 17. I was expected to rely on my parents, but knowing that I needed them for something that kids my age should be able to do by themselves made me feel so incapable.
I soon fell into a deep depression. I tried imagining life being blind, but I couldn't. I could not envision having a life after the blindness. As I thought of the darkness, I began to feel it inside.
That number, 21, a milestone so many look forward to, had become like a death sentence. This was a lurking worry behind every good time I tried to have, a cloud hanging in front of the sun that should be shining on my life. I blamed every misfortune and unhappy feeling on my situation; I felt helpless and needed something to be mad at other than my own body--my own genes.
After facing down a very dark moment in my own life, I began searching for ways to accept myself and my condition. I could find no answers on my own. It wasn't until I sat down and spoke with my older brother that light began to dawn. He told me offhandedly that the beauty of all the suffering he's felt was how it sculpted him into what he was presently. Even now, he doesn't know how that comment has affected me. He has always been my hero, and hearing him say something as obvious as that was all I needed to get myself moving. He made me believe that I could still create something of myself despite this misery I felt.
It was through that conversation that I realized two important things. I am not the only person who struggles with something I cannot change. Moreover, my situation is far from the worst--many others have struggled and overcome much worse than I. With that understanding, I was able to open up to the rest of the world. I knew I had to get out of this realm that revolved solely around my problem and finally learn to love all the things that were still available to me.
I've found that because I am losing something, I am noticing the things I have in a vivid light. The worse my sight gets, my photography, my writing, my memories, my family and friends, even the nature around me speak to me in a new way--as if I'm trading in one sense for another. The more of myself I seem to lose, the more whole I feel with everything that remains. For instance, I never truly understood the feeling of my cat's fur or the sound of the wind chimes outside my mother's house until just recently.
I am 19 now, and the closer I come to that inevitable date, the closer I feel to everything else in life. As I lose my sight, I can see things in a whole different way--feel life in a sense that I never had before. I try to look at my situation as a chance to experience my life in a way not everyone else gets to, a way uniquely my own but similar enough to connect me to others. It isn't easy but it allows me to appreciate the things I have had in the past and look forward to new things in the future. Thanks to the world around me, with all of its good and bad, I am now coming towards blindness with eyes wide open.
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