Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood


The Trick

Here's the trick. I am pressing the end of a flashlight against my pregnant belly. I press the switch, and the light glows like fire through my taut flesh making it look like an enormous blood orange. I am ripe with expectations.

My husband waits patiently, his hand pressed against my side, waiting for the baby to kick. But the baby isn't impressed with the intrusion, finds no offense in the light, and the trick doesn't work. My husband makes some comment that this baby is coy. He takes the flashlight from me, turns it off, and drops it on the floor.
We lie awake in the dark, whispering our dreams, directing our baby's future. We run through our short list of names. We predict a future president. By the time I fall asleep, a small smile still clinging to my lips, I have written the script for our baby's life.

Ad Libbing

The thing about scripts is the actors forget their lines, props go missing, sets tip over. Occasionally someone takes a sandbag to the head. When Sophie is born, the lights go out. Twenty-four-hours old, and a pediatric ophthalmologist is talking about calcification and retinal tears. When my husband asks if she will need glasses right away, the doctor says, "She'll never read print or drive a car." Some doctors are assholes. And our daughter is blind.

Losing It

My mother says, "You write all day long. Why don't you write about this?" But there are no words. My ears are full of sound. My mind is numb. I squeeze my eyes so tight I fear they will turn inside out. I sit on the bathtub drain and turn on the shower so no one can hear me crying. I can't write about this because I am ashamed, and to write about shame is a confession of guilt.

My two older children are busy drawing pictures. They tape them to the wall by the crib. "They are for Sophie," they say. "She will like the colors." And I can't tell them that it doesn't matter. That the baby can't see their pictures. And I am ashamed I can't tell them the truth: I have made something less than perfect. I worry my husband blames me, though he'd never say it. Did I have too much caffeine? Forget my vitamins? Sleep on the wrong side?

But the guilt is nothing compared to pity. Pity comes like a wave that washes over me and sucks me down until I don't know which way is up. I agonize that she will never see my face, never know the look in my eyes that says I love her. She will never stand on stage and see me waving to her from the audience. I worry she will never have any friends. The loss of everything I have dreamt for her has left me gasping for air.

Faking It

Two years later and I am carving out some strange, new definition of normal. It is normal for a toddler to be quiet. It is normal for a toddler to be still. But then we step outside, and every other two-year-old reminds me of what should have been.

When Sophie faces the world, her eyes are small and sunken. Her eye sockets are purple pools. While the other toddlers climb over the monkey bars, my biceps burn from carrying a child who should have been walking a year ago. It makes it so much harder to pretend.

I speak brave words to the other mothers and wave off their concerned looks with the back of my hand. "Blindness. It is nothing." But even now, it only takes a stranger's sideways look to crack the facade. A five-year-old walks over to our picnic blanket. She has the audacity to crouch down and stare into my child's vacant eyes. I attack the curious girl with words too shameful to repeat. She is frightened, and I see the reflection of a crazy woman in her wide eyes.

Air catches in my throat, and I fake a smile. "No, no, no. So sorry. See? Everything's okay. Nothing to worry about." But she runs away to her mother and points at us. I pack our things and go back home.

Waking Words

Sophie is listening. She is building a vocabulary and memorizing patterns, studying cadence and texture, without ever letting on. When she wakes one morning, after thirty months of silence, she opens her mouth and speaks in eloquent, lilting sentences that echo my grandmother's formal style.

"How lovely to see you," she says. I am dumbstruck. Sophie continues to string together words like a lifeline, and I feel myself being pulled up and out of the hole I have so foolishly created and into Sophie's world -- a world of delicate sensitivities more beautiful than the conspicuous world in which I live.

Lessons in Listening

One month later and I am lifting Sophie from her high chair.

"What is a heliotrope?" she asks.

There is no lisp. Every syllable is distinct. I don't know the answer, but she doesn't mind. "It feels nice on my tongue," she says. I roll the word around a few times myself and agree.

I run a warm bath and she slides in. The suds build into frothy mountains.

"Why are you giggling?" I ask as I run the washcloth over her back.

"Shh," she says. I close my eyes so I can hear what I am missing. Microscopic soap bubbles are bursting in a fine fizzing along the edge of the tub. It is like the static on the power lines in the middle of a Minnesota winter. I keep my eyes closed to discover just a little more. The water is warm, and it slips up my arm like an elegant glove. Sophie laughs and rolls inelegantly in the water, like a seal in the surf.

Later that night, I read to her and she is smiling. "Do you like this story?" I ask.

"Yes, but who is whispering?"

"Is somebody whispering?"

"They're saying, 'shwoop . . . shwoop . . . shwoop.' But now they've stopped." We listen for a while, but there is no one there.

I turn the page with a soft shuffle of paper, and Sophie announces, "They're back."

Words of Reconciliation

Words are magic. They can puncture your heart and throw you into despair. But they can just as easily heal and make bridges where none existed before. Sophie's observations on the world, and the words she uses to capture them, are a balm to my ragged heart. We lie together in the yard, and she tells me what she knows. I capture it all in a notebook. Grass is a brutal offense and deserving of the word blade. Sophie refuses to walk barefoot across it. To bite into an apple sounds like an assault, which she refuses to commit.

I draw a veil over those early days. I press my face into Sophie's hair and inhale deeply. There is nothing but happiness in this child, and she is taking me with her.

Anne Greenwood Brown

Anne Greenwood Brown taught writing on both the high school and graduate level for nine years. She is a member of RWA and local writing groups and is currently seeking representation for her first novel. Anne is the mother of three children, Samantha (14), Matt (11), and Sophie (9). You can follow Anne on Twitter @AnneGBrown.

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I sit here, Anne, in our home in Florida as an early morning thunderstorm barks in the background reading this piece of yours...and now with a tear or two...beautiful...thank you for sharing your thoughts and love of Sophie...Lars
Oh what a lovely lovely piece. thank you.
While I've read a lot, never have I been taken into a tunnel so tearfully, and then so clearly and quickly seen the light at the end.
Thank you for sharing this with us all. Both of you (and for that matter the rest of your family as well) are special people. Be well, and continue to enjoy and love each other. Bob
Such a beautiful, piece, Anne. I can't wait to read more of what you have to say some day. I'm sure it will be soon.
Anne, what a beautifully written piece. You've captured so much of your journey in such precise, carefully chosen words. Thank you for the gorgeous lesson, too, in how well our children teach us to see light where we think there will be none.
Such a beautiful, piece, Anne. I can't wait to read more of what you have to say some day. I'm sure it will be soon.
Wow - well done! Sophie has a lot to teach all of us. Thanks for sharing.
Anne, what an awe-inspiring story, beautifully conveyed. "Heliotrope" will always have a richer meaning now.
I felt pulled to the phone to call you after reading this - then thought it must be such fun to read everyone's wonderful comments here, all lined up, saluting you and this beautiful piece of writing. Not only did it give me a window into your world, it also gave me some amazing images, metaphors and phrases to enjoy all day. Thank you and congratulations!
My daughter is deaf. I get it.
Anne -- Using very few words, you captured your ongoing journey with Sophie with honesty, emotion, and motherly love. I adore it.
Isn't it amazing what children teach us about expectations, and how life ends up being so much richer than we thought it would be. Phenomenal piece.
Beautiful. Uplifting. Honest. Everything a good essay should be. Brava to you, and to Sophie.
Anna and Sophie I only wish I could write such a beautify, lovely, tearfully, awe-inspiring story, as you have are living, yes I adored it, too. Everything a good English teach should be. Wow. an A+ keep writing. And YES "Some doctors are assholes." forget them. Give Sophie a big hug from all of us. Sincerely Michael Hines
I don't even have the words for how amazing and beautiful this is. One of the best things I've read in... well, in a while. Thank you for sharing this.
Your words are so perfect. They are perfect because they give us an insight into your life that makes each reader feel as though we have **lived** this alongside you. Thank you for sharing Sophie with us.
There's this great song by Rachel Coleman called "The Good." Her first daughter was born deaf and her second was born with spina bifida and cerebral palsy, and the song is about her journey as a mother. In the chorus, she writes, "Maybe we won't find easy, but baby we found the good." Your post really reminded me of that song, of how our expectations can be shattered, but if we are strong and open, we can find that what shattered revealed another, beautiful world that we never could have imagined otherwise.
You have re-inspired me to keep trying to find the words with which to follow with our own flashlights overour grand daughter's journey of insight. Thank you.
This is so beautiful, Anne. Thank you!
I have been totally blind from birth and am becoming a mother and already a writer. It was interesting to read about those early childhood experiences I may have had to a certain degree without realizing it, even if I didn't have all of them or if they were in different forms. But I don't bite apples either. *smile*
You've reminded me how important it is to let our children be themselves, not just who we expect or want them to be. So many parents assume they can create "good" children by parenting "the right way," or that their child will be just like the parent. But what all children, both "different" and "normal," need from us is to encourage them to emerge and share with us who they are. When we can respect them and create a safe, loving space for them to blossom, we are rewarded with the joy of watching our children become themselves, and knowing that we helped.
You've reminded me how important it is to let our children be themselves, not just who we expect or want them to be. So many parents assume they can create "good" children by parenting "the right way," or that their child will be just like the parent. But what all children, both "different" and "normal," need from us is to encourage them to emerge and share with us who they are. When we can respect them and create a safe, loving space for them to blossom, we are rewarded with the joy of watching our children become themselves, and knowing that we helped.
Thank you everyone for your kind words. It was a tough one to write and 9 years in the making. Sometimes you just need a little distance!
This was a beautiful made me think of how awesome and inspirational a child can be! They take you down to "their level" and then take you to a whole other place...amazing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and emotions.
Anne, Absolutely beautiful,it touched my soul! Sophie is a delightful child, thanks to her parents. Please write more, you have a gift! Kathy
Thank you for sharing this lovely piece!
Anne, thank you for sharing your inspiring story. You and Sophie are both very gifted! I look forward to hearing more about this wonderful child. You are blessed!
Wow "strange, new definition of normal"; i know that very very well. thank you for putting into words to feelings i have had since my daughter was born; she has Down syndrome. it is interesting that no matter what disability a child is born with, there is a similarity to the journey and feelings. the beginning is SO different from the path we end up on. now, I don't scowl or want to slap people in the grocery store that stare at my daughter, instead I smile at them because ,they know nothing. mostly people are sweet and embrace my girl because she is love and joy in a simple clear package. something so rare and beautiful to behold in this world. really, there is nothing better then that. she makes my life better, period. thanks so much for sharing Sophie and your story. she sounds lovely, just lovely. i'll eat apples more thoughtfully from now on.
Thank you for inspiring me to tell the stories, the many stories and secret thoughts of becoming a mom through adoption. Thinking it and saying it are so very different. Your honesty is everyone's gift.
More, please.
That's beautiful Anne! Thanks for sharing!
Womderful piece! As to the question of shame, reader comments demonstrate once again that disclosure tends to be the universal antidote for shame.
Hey Anne, Your Mom's friend Nancy referred me to this page, she said I had to read this because it is so beautiful. She is right. Wow! Is this the piece where you started to hit your stride?
Anne! Nina wasn't kidding. I am weeping. That is possibly the most beautiful piece of writing I have ever read. Ever. My eyes are filled with tears. Such a wonderful daughter. Amazing how these curses can become blessings, our greatest gifts, no? So nice to meet you.
Anne, I don't know how you managed to get that down in words...though, clearly, Sophie had a lot to do with it. What a fountain of to Nina for bringing me here, and congrats on the release of your book.
Nina referred me to this essay... it is simply beautiful. I am deaf and I get what you are saying. Thank you for sharing.
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