Barry thought he may still have vestiges of visual memory, although ‘memory’ didn’t seem the right word for what had survived from his first two years of life. If there was another word to refer to the mental residues of having been able to see, until his near-drowning accident at two years of age left him blind, he didn’t know that word. He knew that it might be sheer imagination on his part, but he felt that at some level of embodiment, he retrained something of those first 24 months of his life, when—according to his parents—he had grabbed at whatever came within reach as he lay in his crib and, once he was able to walk, had eagerly headed straight for whatever attracted his interest.
Sometimes he referred to this incident as a near-drowning accident (since he was still around to tell the story) and sometimes that he had drowned (since he had probably not taken a breath for about fifteen minutes). According to the newspaper clipping his sister had sent him, he was only alive because a middle-aged neighbor had seen him fall into the water, had run through her house, down the sloping lawn, jumped in, and swum to where she had last seen his hand above the surface. By sheer luck or divine providence, she had found him and pulled him out of the cold, early spring waters of Lake Ontario. He must not have been breathing when she had pulled him to shore, where she was too weak to climb up the rocks; and he must not have taken another breath until he was revived by whomever was dispatched to the scene.
Barry had read books, in braille and audio format, about cases where young children, who have been submerged in frigid water for protracted periods of time, had survived. Apparently, they had gone into some kind of thermal-induced hibernation. He sometimes imagined himself as a sperm whale, diving into intense pressure a mile deep, who are able to remain there for 20 minutes as their circulatory system withdraws into the heart of their body—while the rest of them, compressed and inert, only expands when they return to the surface.
His interest in such speculations was only partly that he too had survived for an extended period without taking a breath. What he really wondered was what had happened to his mind at that time. It wasn’t as if he had gained some special powers of perception or cognition, beyond the fact that as a blind person, he utilized his other senses more fully. He felt that something else may have changed back then. Had he experienced a near death experience (NDE) that he couldn’t remember—just as he didn’t remember being in his crib and reaching for things?
He didn’t obsess over these questions, but they came to his mind surprisingly often, especially when—as was the case this morning—he had to wait in his darkness for something or someone to show up. This morning he was waiting for the van to take him for his weekly grocery shopping. He always prepared for such excursions well beforehand. And now he was sitting by his front door, with his backpack and white cane beside him, awaiting the call from the Sun Van dispatcher letting him know that his van was minutes away.
When he felt his phone vibrating on his hip, Barry stood up, slung his pack over his shoulders, grabbed his cane, and made his way out the door, down the steps to the sidewalk, and was waiting curbside when he heard the van turn the corner and pull up in front of his apartment.
He never knew who would be driving the van that picked him up; this morning it was his favorite driver. Maria’s friendly voice greeted him as soon as the van door opened.
“Good morning, Barry. We’ve saved the front bench for you. I know how much you like to see the mountains.”
Barry appreciated that she was comfortable enough with his blindness that she teased him about it. He much preferred that to being treated like an incomplete person in need of assistance.
He made his way up the stairs, swung himself around the pole, and settled onto the bench.
Maria closed the door, put the van in drive and as they coasted down his street to the intersection, she said, “I have one more stop before Smith’s. Do you have your grocery list with you?”
“It’s in my head, Maria. You’d be surprised how much I keep in my head, or at least try to. But what I come home with isn’t always what I had on that mental list.”
Maria concentrated on getting onto Candelaria Boulevard and heading East to wherever the next stop would be, before responding.
“Last week I tried to imagine how you can find items in all those aisles. I closed my eyes on an aisle that had no other shoppers in it and tried to find a jar of pickles. When I opened my eyes a few minutes later and I had a jar of mayonnaise in my hand.”
Barry laughed. “I know the feeling. Last week I had to sauté cucumber instead of zucchini in my stir-fried vegetables. And my giant oranges turned out to be grapefruits. But at least, I didn’t brush my teeth with sunscreen like I did last summer.”