Three-letter Words

I awakened every morning and just lay there. I longed, desperately longed, that this time, when I opened my eyes, I would be able to see again. Once I did wake up, open my eyes and realize I was still blind, everything was a struggle. Always in the past, when I had some kind of physical injury, I knew the pain and forced inactivity was finite. But this was different. I struggled to find activities which would interest and engage me.

I also had the nagging worry of the rehabilitation teacher hanging over me. She had made an appointment to come and see me about two weeks after I returned from the hospital. What was she going to be like? What was she going to do with me?

My mother told me that my rehabilitation teacher’s name was Vera. On the afternoon of her first visit I waited nervously in the living room. I was not at all looking forward to this. It smacked of taking me out of my comfort zone. Granted, my comfort zone was not all that comfortable and not very large but it was, at least familiar.

“Hello, Ms. McClain,” I heard my mother say. “I’m Frances Wiygul and this is my husband, Harrison. Sue is in the living room. Here, let me show you the way.”

“Please, call me Vera,” I heard the newcomer say. “I’m very pleased to meet you both. You have a lovely home.” Vera’s voice was kind of husky but in a pleasing sort of way. It radiated confidence and energy. I stood as they entered the living room.

“Vera, this is our daughter, Sue.”

I held out my hand to shake Vera’s. Nothing happened. Uneasily, I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t see to shake your hand.”

Laughing, Vera said, “That’s quite all right. I can’t see either.” I gaped. They had sent a blind woman to be my teacher? What were they thinking? Somehow our hands found each other and we shook. Mama stepped in and gracefully guided Vera to a chair. Slowly, I sat down.

Vera said, “My job is to teach you adapted methods of performing all of those tasks that you’re having trouble with now. I can teach you the skills to do almost anything. Where would you like to start?”

“What do you mean,” I replied.

“Well, what kinds of things do you want to learn to do?” I thought hard about this question. The truth was that I was having trouble doing almost everything but, “Everything,” didn’t seem a reasonable response to the question.

I settled on asking a question of my own. “Could you give me some examples?”

“Well,” said Vera, “We can divide the skills I can teach you into several areas. Of course, there’s always cooking but we can save that for later. What about clothing? You know, sorting your clothes for laundering and matching them once they’re clean. Then there’s the whole area of communications. When you can’t see, the trick is to store information in a format that will allow you to retrieve it later.”

“How would I do that?” I asked incredulously.

“The tape recorder is an excellent means of information storage and retrieval for someone who can’t see. You might also want to consider learning Braille. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and that might help us know where to start.”

I hesitated for a moment and then said, “I love to read. I was an English major at Sewanee. When I was in college I also did a lot of whitewater kayaking and mountain climbing. I like to go for long walks and I like to swim.” I abruptly stopped speaking. Just thinking about those things gave me a feeling of despair. Surely all of those activities were impossible for me now.

“The recreational skills we can leave for later,” said Vera. “I know it seems farfetched at this moment but, as time goes on, you’ll be able to do all sorts of recreational activities.

“Let’s start with reading and the broader area of communications. I’ve brought some Braille instructional books with me and we can start now if you like.” This was more than I had bargained for, but gamely I agreed. I heard Vera rummaging in her bag. Then she handed me a Braille book.

“Before we get into the book let me tell you how Braille works. Each character is made up of a combination of six dots. These six dots comprise one Braille cell. You can think of each letter of the alphabet being composed of one cell of dots. There are two columns and three rows. The dots are numbered, beginning with the top left dot. That is designated as dot 1. Dot 2 is below it, and dot 3 below that. Dot 4 is on the top right, with 5 below that, and 6 the bottom one on the right side. When we speak of the dots which compose each character, we can describe them by the numbers. So, for example, the letter A is composed of dot 1 only. B is composed of dots 1 and 2. Get the idea?”

“Yes, that makes perfect sense,” I replied.

“Okay,” Vera continued. “Now go ahead and open your book. Feel across the top of each page until you feel some raised letters. The first five letters we’ll learn are A, B, C, D, and E. Can you find the page with these letters embossed across the top?”

“Well, no,” I replied, puzzled. “I don’t know what those letters look like in Braille so I’m not sure what to look for.”

Vera laughed. “No, the letters I’m wanting you to find are the regular letters, you know, not the Braille ones.”

I opened the book and began to feel across the top of the pages. Immediately I found what Vera described.

“Okay, got it.”

“If you feel just below each embossed letter you’ll find the Braille representation for that letter.”

I felt in the direction she had indicated.

“Okay, got it.”

The lesson proceeded and at the end of over an hour I was able to read words like “Cab,” “Dad,” and “Bad.”

As Vera prepared to leave she told me that the book was self paced and that I could continue as far as I liked between now and her next visit. We set an appointment for the next week and Vera left in a taxi.

It had taken enormous concentration just to get to the point where I could read simple three letter words. While this feat gave me some small feeling of accomplishment I couldn’t help thinking that the whole thing was absurd. The part of me that flew over fences mounted on a huge thoroughbred, the part of me that kayaked the toughest whitewater rivers in the Southeast, the part of me who had zipped through college, that part of me was almost ashamed. I was almost ashamed that learning to do something so simple as reading a three letter word in braille gave me satisfaction.