Before Spoons, Hands

By this time I was several months into my rehabilitation program with Vera. She had shown me how to label my clothing with small Braille tags which could be sewn onto the label of a garment. I even learned to thread a needle using either a wire needle threader or a dental floss threader. We had worked on some housecleaning tasks like vacuuming and cleaning a countertop in the kitchen. I learned to be very systematic when I cleaned something, using a pattern of horizontal and vertical swaths or ever widening concentric circles to make sure I covered the whole surface.

Finally, the cooking lessons began. “Bring volume two of your Braille book into the kitchen,” Vera instructed. “Do you remember that recipe for sugar cookies at the end of the book?”

“Of course I remember it,” I said ruefully. “That was one of the most difficult parts of the whole book!”

Vera laughed, “I know. I hear that from all my students.” Returning to the kitchen with the book, I opened it to the pages with the sugar cookie recipe.

“The first problem,” Vera began, “is to know what’s what and what’s where. Oh, you’ll need your Braille label maker too.”

Fetching the labeler, I placed it on the chopping block in the middle of the kitchen.

“Where do you keep the flour and sugar,” Vera began. Opening the drawer in which these items were kept I got them out and placed them on the chopping block next to the braille labeler. Examining the jars Vera said, “Go ahead and make a label for sugar and one for flour.” As I completed each label I handed it to Vera. She affixed each of them to the lid of the proper jar.

Next, Vera asked me to get out measuring cups and spoons. “Now, the measuring cups are graduated like this; the largest is one cup, the next is a half a cup, the next is a third, and the last is a quarter of a cup.” She went on, “You’ll always know which is which if they’re all together, but they won’t always be together. So, here’s what we’ll do.”

She showed me a small file. “We’ll leave the largest cup alone. Here, hand me the others.” I heard her filing away for a few minutes and then she handed the cups back to me. “Feel along the right edge of each handle,” she told me, “the half cup has two little notches, the third of a cup has three, and the fourth cup has four. Can you feel them?”

“Yes,” I said in amazement. “How did you think of that?”

“Oh, it’s just one of the tricks in my bag.”

“Now, the next thing we need to do is mark the stove so that you can set it to the proper temperature. Yet again, Vera dug into her bag. This time she came out with some little bumps with adhesive backing.

“Mrs. Wiygul,” Vera began. “Can you help us here?”

Mama was watching from a stool on the other side of the counter. “Yes, what do you want me to do?”

“If you can just stick this little bump on the pointer of the oven temperature knob…”

Taking the proffered bump, Mama walked over to the stove and affixed the bump to the knob.

“Next,” continued Vera, “Here are three more bumps. Place them on the two fifty, three fifty, and four fifty marks.”

“Okay,” said my mother, “I think I’ve gotten them all in the proper places.”

“Sue, step up and tell me if you can feel them.” I could and I said so.

“The only thing left now is to mark the “bake” and “broil” on the oven set knob.” We proceeded as before but this time Vera had me use the Braille labeler to create two small pieces of Dymo tape. One had “Bk” and the other had “Br.” Once these labels were in place Vera had me set the oven to several different temperatures and asked my mother to confirm that I had done it properly.

“This is so ingenious,” said my mother in amazement. “How do you think of all of these things?”

“Well, it helps that I live with blindness every day. You know, sometimes necessity is the mother of invention,” replied Vera.

The preparation of the cookie dough proceeded. I found that I had to wash my hands constantly. They had to be clean each time I returned to the Braille recipe so that I wouldn’t soil the pages of the book. “How the heck am I supposed to measure a quarter teaspoon of vanilla?” I asked as I read the next line of the recipe.

“Do you have a very small wide-mouthed jar?” Vera asked my mother.

After rummaging around for a minute, my mother asked, “Will this one do?”

Taking the jar, Vera said, “Oh yes, this is perfect.”

She poured the vanilla into the jar. Then, taking out another set of measuring spoons from her bag she said, “I’m going to bend the bowl of each spoon so that each one looks like a gravy ladle.” When she was finished with this task she handed the spoons to me. “Now you can just dip the correct spoon into the jar and ladle out the proper amount of any liquid ingredient.”

Amazed again at Vera’s endless ingenuity, I measured the quarter teaspoon of vanilla and went on to the next ingredient.

When I had the cookie dough prepared I got out a cookie sheet. In the past I had always apportioned the dough using two teaspoons, one to scoop the dough and the other to remove any excess. I removed two teaspoons from the drawer and stopped.

“Vera.” I said, “I don’t think I can measure how much dough I’m placing on the cookie sheet using spoons like I used to. How should I do this?”

Well,” Vera said, drawing out the syllable, as though she was thinking of what to say next. “God created hands before he created spoons, so just use your hands.”

Startled, I said, “Is that okay?”

I could hear the knowing smile in her voice as Vera replied, “Oh yes, you’ll find that you will use your hands a lot more when you cook. Don’t be afraid of it. Just dig in!”

The cookies were great. As Vera and I sat enjoying cookies and milk I asked, “You know the book you told me about, the one written by Father Carroll?”

“Yes,” said Vera thoughtfully.

“Why does everyone say I shouldn’t read it yet?” I questioned.

“Well, Father Carroll first goes into all of the things that you lose when you lose your sight and then goes into how these things are restored. The losses are first and I didn’t think you or your parents needed to read about that so soon after your sight loss. There are twenty something of them and I thought that might not be the best place to start.”

“Things like what?” I asked.

“Oh, things like the sense of the beautiful, the sense of autonomy. You know, things like that.”

Mulling this over I said, “But you don’t seem like you’ve lost anything at all. I mean you’ve done all of those things like traveling, owning your own home, and having a job you’re really good at.”

“No, well, I don’t feel any great sense of loss now, but I did when I was newly blind.”

“How long did it take before you felt, well, normal I guess?”

“Oh I don’t know,” said Vera. “Adjustment to blindness isn’t something that just happens all at once. I mean I didn’t wake up one day and say, ‘poof’, I’m adjusted. It’s more of an ongoing process. Eventually the fact that you are blind will cease to feel like the most important thing about who you are.”

“I don’t know how that can be,” I muttered. “I mean, my whole life has changed. It’s kind of like I’m a new person.”

“Yes, that’s how many people describe their adjustment to blindness,” said Vera. “In fact, that’s Father Carroll’s premise. You have to be willing to let go of your sighted life before you can embrace life again as a blind person.”

“I don’t think I’ve managed to do that,” I said.

“No, you probably haven’t. But I can see that process beginning in you.”

“How?” I asked.

“I’ll use an example,” replied Vera. “When you want to look at something, do you consciously think of the fact that you can’t see it with your eyes anymore?”

I had to think about this one for a minute. Finally I said, “No, not really. When I think of looking at something I think of looking at it with my hands.”

“Exactly,” interjected Vera. “Your means of interacting with the world around you have changed. It’s becoming natural for you to think of interacting with your world in a different way than you used to. As time goes on you’ll find that you become more and more comfortable with your blindness. It’ll just become a part of who you are, but not the most important part.”

I had to think about that one for more than a minute. Would blindness ever be that inconsequential to me?

At last Vera told me that our regular visits were coming to an end.

“I’ll check in with you by phone and you can always call me if something comes up that you need help with,” she said on a summer afternoon. “I’ve tried to teach you enough concepts for you to be able to figure out things as they come up. I know you’ll be fine, but I’m always here if you need me,” she concluded.