The other day I was cleaning out my purse, taking out old credit cards and IDs, when I stumbled across a long-forgotten picture of my mother. The summer between my junior and senior years of high school my mom and I made a road trip down to Florida to look at a few schools I was considering applying to for college. At the time I was planning on majoring in marine biology. When we were near Orlando we stopped by Sea World for a day and then made a trip to the beach in Pensacola. My mom is not exactly a beach-goer. Honestly, I don’t think she’s even owned a swim suit since the time all of us kids were small and learning how to swim. I can’t remember ever seeing her in one. She most likely brought a book to read that day while I tried out the waves.
As a high schooler, I was still in the stage of being embarrassed by everything that my mom said and did. I’m pretty sure my sixteen year-old self was more than a little self-conscious that the bruise-colored purple shorts and multicolored striped shirt that my mother wore that made her skin look even more pale and pasty than it already was made us obvious out-of-towners to all the wonderfully tan natives.
When we got to Sea World we had our pictures taken for some type of park pass. I don’t know what happened to mine, but for some reason I held on to my mom’s card and have passed it from purse to purse over the years. It’s not even that great of a picture. She’s smiling that fake, forced, half-polite smile that people do when they have to get their picture taken, and she’s not looking directly into the camera, or maybe she blinked, because her eyes are looking down.
A lot of things have changed since that picture was taken. For one, my mom lost most of her vision from a benign tumor that has since been removed. Some days all she sees is a white fog, and others, dark images moving through a world like a film negative. And two, I’m no longer embarrassed by my mother but instead am quite fiercely protective of her.
A while back one of my friends, very well-meaning but slightly ill-timed, tried to tell a joke with the tag line that it was like watching a blind person eat spaghetti. In normal circumstances it might have been funny to think of someone trying unsuccessfully to eat such a messy and uncontrollable food, but at the time my mom was still struggling to learn how to eat food that she couldn’t see and she was very self-conscious about eating in front of other people, much less in public where she could make a spectacle of herself. So instead of laughing I just made a flat comment of agreement and quickly changed the subject, too angry at thought that that comment, if overheard by mom, would have really hurt her and dangerously lowered her then almost non-existent self-esteem as she battled with finding self-worth when it seemed like she couldn’t do anything for herself. Losing your sight is a very humbling experience in many ways. It was a tough time for both my mom and the people around her who had to watch her come to terms with and adapt herself to her circumstances.
I’m not sure what it is about this picture of her that draws out this sense that she is dearer to me now that she was then. Maybe it’s because she’s not smiling happily back into the camera, full of life. I don’t personally have many pictures of my mom. In fact, I’m not sure that I have ever taken a picture of her, just her, myself. I wish I had before she lost her sight.
In pictures since she became blind sometimes her face is aimed in the right direction, though tilted down and with eyes closed, but more often than not she’s either pretending to be looking at my dad who is right next to her, or ‘staring’ vaguely off to a distant point beyond the photographer’s shoulder.
There’s something about staring at a photo of someone that’s looking straight into the camera lens. When you miss someone it’s not uncommon to take out a picture of her. The best pictures are the ones in which they’re staring right back at you. It’s the closest thing we have to actually looking into their eyes in person.
I can no longer connect with my mom through eye contact. It’s something you don’t think about until it’s gone. But it makes a difference in conversations. When someone doesn’t meet your eyes, it’s a little harder to stay engaged, a little more difficult to judge what they’re thinking or feeling. It takes a little bit more energy to connect through tone and words rather than expression and body language. I can’t let her know that I’m listening just by looking at her. And sadly, as result, I look at her less. I can’t really describe it except to say that it’s like there’s a very thin veil between me and her because we can’t look into each other’s eyes as we talk to each other even though we’re right in front of each other.
I think what moves me about this picture, is that because I know it was taken when she could still see, I’m somehow waiting for her to look up into my eyes.
But then, there is always a thin veil between us and the past, and you can never really look directly into it. It’s only in the present that you can connect with the ones you love.