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The Light that Never Reached Me
Light is beautiful. It’s beautiful when it streams from behind the mountains at the crack of dawn. It’s beautiful when it streaks the sky pink, purple, and red and blends it to the color of Heaven. It’s beautiful when it showers the sea with a thousand specks and shades the sun a rich red dye, and you start to see spots when you stare at the water too long, but that doesn’t matter because what you saw was worth it.
I used to see that beautiful light everywhere I went; from the moment I awoke at 7 a.m. sharp until my mother nagged me to go to bed, reminding me that sleep is an essential part of life. I used to see that light when it poured softly from our dimly lit, energy-saver light bulbs, but I have to admit, that artificial light was nothing like the real deal. There was something real special about pure sunlight, so soft and golden and natural, encasing the world in its healthy glow.
I close my eyes now, imagining it, seeing it, breathing it, feeling it. I stretch my hand out until I feel the silkiness of my curtains. I brush them aside and place my fingers one by one on the glass pane. The warmth of the sunlight radiates through my ice cold hand. Every day I do this; I sit by the window of my room and just feel the sun rise and set. My mother brings me food whenever I’m hungry, and sometimes, when she’s not busy, she reads me a classic paperback in her broken Arab accent, but usually it’s just me. I don’t mind this, but I do hate that whenever I need to take a shower or use the restroom or change my clothes, I can’t do it on my own.
I think I hear my mother call now, but I don’t know for sure. I stand up slowly, slowly, placing one hand on the soft, leathery plush of my armrest, and reaching out the other until the tips of my fingers stroke the familiar stucco-covered wall. I walk forward, brushing my arms along the wall and silently count ten steps, then turn. Still using my hands as support, I gingerly dangle my foot over the edge and lower it until I feel the step rushing up to meet it. I do it again, with the same cautiousness. I gain confidence now, and begin to step down faster, feeling the rough carpet sink under my weight. Then, swiftly, the carpet is pulled from under my heel, and I lose my balance. I hear my legs banging down with each step and feel the sting of carpet burns on my skin.
“Noor?!” My mother’s frantic voice. I hear the sound of metal clanging against metal and a loud crash and shortly afterward, the sound of her hasty footsteps. Then,
“Yallah! What has happened?” Her voice is by my ear now. My mother’s soft hands feel at my hair, my legs, my arms, my stinging, scraped skin. “Don’t you ever—” her voice comes out a little muffled, and she breaks off. I guess that she is crying.
“Ummi…” I say quietly, but she doesn’t respond. Instead, she hoists me up by the waist, and half-carries, half-drags me until cautiously dropping me on the firm, familiar rolling chair of the study. I wince as Ummi starts to dab a cold, stinging liquid on my arms and legs, probably hydrogen peroxide. I try to pull away, but Ummi roughly grabs at my heels and fingers and resumes dabbing. When she is done, I feel her wrap a piece of cloth tightly around my head: a silk hijab.
“There, you look presentable now,” she says, satisfied, but I notice that she’s still shaken up about my fall; her voice wavers. “You have a visitor.”
I hear Ummi shuffle out and then a very hesitant “hi.”
“Who are—” I stop in midsentence. That smell—mint, sandalwood and a faint trace of fruity perfume—is so familiar. It is exactly the scent I used to smell in class from the seat next to me. “May?”
“Yeah—yeah, it’s me,” she sounds relieved, and also on the brink of crying. I haven’t spoken to May since the accident, and a flashback of us laughing at a perverted joke during lunch and laughing even harder when one of us snorts, us throwing erasers back and forth at each other, us arguing over whether pudding was better than Jell-O—suddenly floods back to me. May and I aren’t best friends, but we do have our moments. I feel her get closer, and she gathers me in an awkward, loose hug, then I hear her settle into the chair opposite from me. “How are you?” She seems to choose her words carefully, as if one wrong word might set off an alarm.
“I’m fine,” I say blankly. “Ummi doesn’t let me out very much—actually, not at all, so I stay in my room all day. And not a lot of people visit either.”
“Oh, that must suck,” she gives a half-hearted laugh, and I barely smile. “Are you going to come back to school?”
“Ummi and Aba are looking for a specialized tutor.”
“Oh.” We sit in silence for a moment. “Noor?”
“Does it hurt?” She squeaks, her voice small.
“No, it doesn’t,” I chuckle; it seems ridiculous to me that something like this would hurt.
“Are you…going to get a LASIK procedure done?” She sounds scared. My eyes slightly fill with tears. I remember asking the doctor the same thing, and pitying tone in his voice when he said no, I couldn’t be cured. I remember screaming at him asking why, why, and Ummi’s rough, tearstained cheek pressing against mine when she pulled me into a tight hug that muffled my racked sobs.
“I—I can’t,” I give a bitter smile. “LASIK only cures legal blindness; I’m totally blind.”
“I’m so sorry.” She is crying now, I hear her voice grow thick and the sound of her sniffles.
“It’s not your fault,” I say quietly.
“That makes it worse because now you and I have no one to blame.” She says with such hatred, like she had eaten something that left a bad taste in her mouth. I ponder over this for a minute, and realize that she’s right.
“Yeah,” I smile sadly, “It’s been a long two weeks.”
“It’s so sudden,” May says, her voice getting lower, “I mean, one moment you were there with me, laughing and telling corny jokes, and the next, you’re…” she trails off, not wanting to say the word, almost like it’s taboo. There’s a long pause again.
Then, “I brought you something.” I hear the crinkle of a gift bag being opened, and May rummaging inside. “I used to paint a lot, and I found it in a whole box of others and thought of you.” May presses a flat, square-like object in my hand. I run my hands over the carved wooden frame and the rough surface. “It’s a painting of Bora Bora,” she explains, “I know you’ve always wanted to go there, so…I hope you like it.”
I am momentarily surprised; May had never told me she used to paint. But then I close my eyes and imagine the soft powdery sand and the clear water.
“I know it’s not the best thing to bring, but—” she hurriedly says.
“Thank you,” I say sincerely, not letting her finish.
“You’re welcome,” there’s a definite smile in her voice.
After May leaves, I hold onto to the painting and just stare into empty space. I hadn’t imagined this; I hadn’t imagined any of it. It’s like hearing one of those “every minute counts” stories, where some guy or girl are having fun one moment, and the next, they’re dead. You don’t take the time to appreciate the message until something similar happens to you. If only I hadn’t stepped out of the house that day…
“Noor? What is wrong?” Ummi calls out, startling me. My hands feel moist with teardrops; I haven’t even realized I’m crying. I hastily slap away the tears.
“Lashai’ Ummi, nothing. I just—just wanted to apologize. I was…foolish to go downstairs by myself.”
“You are not foolish,” Ummi’s voice was quiet. I hear a rustle of fabric and smell Ummi’s lavender scent grow stronger. I feel her soft fingers gently lace through my hair. It feels like she wants to say something so desperately, but can’t put in words. Her hands travel down to mine and she leads me upstairs to my room. Then, she releases me, and the only contact I feel is the cool kiss she presses onto my forehead. “Get some sleep; I will wake you when dinner is ready.”
The next afternoon, May comes again. This time with a painting of a different landscape: Victoria Falls. And again the next, with a painting of the Oeschinen Lake. I begin to look forward to her visits, waking up every morning, having my tutoring sessions, then sitting by the window, fingering the velvety feel of the folding curtains and the warmth of the sun until it’s nearly five o’clock. Then I head down to the study and wait for her to come. May and I have small talk; she tells me about the next test she has to take and who’s dating who, and I tell her how my tutoring sessions are going and my new experiences with my Braille.
May and I become closer over those next couple of days; there is no awkwardness between us anymore. It seems like nothing has changed; everything is so casual, it’s not hard for me to imagine that we are sitting in class again. Ummi worries though; she thinks May’s visits make me regret my blindness. That somehow, I will be overwhelmed with despair and go back to the person I was two days after the accident. She hates May’s paintings too and always scolds me for accepting them—probably for the same reason. I don’t know if she’s right about May not helping me come to terms with my blindness, but I do know that the highlight of my days is the new paintings she gives me.
I keep them in a neat stack by the window in the study. Every so often, I pick one up and try to guess the landscape. I run my hands over the rough brush strokes and form a picture in my head. A picture of a lake, snow-capped mountains, light blue beaches.
“Noor?” Ummi calls out to me one day, while I’m sitting there fingering the canvases.
“May called…she’s not coming today—she has to pick up her little brother because her mother is busy.”
“Oh.” I can’t hide my disappointment. I suddenly feel very, very lonely.
“I’m sorry, dear.” She moves to stand in front of me and pats my hand lightly. “Maybe she will come tomorrow. But get rid of the paintings! How many times did I tell you to trash them? They just make the room look ugly…”
I smile sadly at Ummi and start rising out of my seat; then I get an idea. “Ummi? Can you help me hang them?”
“The paintings,” I gesture to the stack over by the window. “Can you help me hang them?”
“Of course,” she says, but her tone conveys a hint of doubtfulness. I can tell that she is unsure why I would ask of such a thing. I hear the friction of canvas on canvas as she hoists the stack of paintings in her arms. “Where do you want them?”
I point at the blank wall opposite to the window. “There,” I say. I hear the jingle of her grab the box of thumbnails on the edge of the desk. In a few minutes, she’s done.
“How does it look?” I ask. I hear Ummi step back to look at the wall.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, and I think she really means it. She leans down to grab my hand and leads me over to the wall. I reach out my fingers until they brush the carefully aligned paintings. I notice that they are lined up in perfect little rows and columns. I stroke the paintings gently and close my eyes again. I smell the oil paint, but at the same time, that’s not what I smell. I smell the salty sea spray, the humid scent of a damp forest, the light mist of a creek in springtime. I hear lapping waves, laughter, and a bird’s soft cooing in the distance.
In that instant, I know that light will never reach me. Or at least I’m not going to see it, anyway. I know that I’m never going to see the light streaming from behind the mountains at dawn. I know that I’m never going to see the light when it streaks the sky pink, purple, and red and blends it to the color of Heaven. I know I’m never going to see the light when it showers the sea with a thousand specks and shades the sun a rich red dye. But that is okay, I realize. It’s okay because I can close my eyes and always imagine it. I can feel it, breathe it, hear it, see it. I know that light may never reach me, but in a way, I can reach it. Light will never be out of my grasp.
So remember, light is beautiful.