Annabel's Story © December 2010 Elizabeth Mills
Try to imagine darkness, a darkness so complete that it is more than the mere absence of light, it exists like a malignant being, clinging and cloying. Not one glimmer or shadow can exist within its smothering, unalloyed blackness.
Then, to complete that darkness, add a pervasive, unrelenting silence, that suffocates the soul. A silence without even the sound of your own breathing or the pumping of blood through your temples.
You cannot succeed, for there is no comparable experience. If you were alone in the deepest coal-mine or the farthest corner of space, you would not feel darkness like this, nor hear silence so deafening. I cannot describe it adequately, because words do not exist to convey such deprivation.
When I awoke after the accident, I could not tell if I was alive or dead, until the pain began to register. Then I was overwhelmed by panic. I may have screamed, I do not know.
Then my other senses rescued me. I felt firm hands restraining me as I thrashed, and smelt the strange chemicals that taint the air of hospitals. And another smell, very close, my mother's perfume. I felt her hand clutching mine and her lips touching my cheek, in a flood of sensations that included the wetness of her tears on my skin.
For weeks I lay in that hospital bed, as my broken body slowly repaired itself. After a while they removed the drips, and I could move my arms and legs, even stand and walk. But my sight did not return, nor did my hearing.
Someone, an angel in human form, came and taught me a new language, consisting of finger taps and strokes. His name, I learnt as I mastered the new skill, was Sam, and he, too, was deaf and blind. He explained, by ingenious improvisation, that the signals from my ears and eyes were not registering with my brain, either because the nerves were damaged, or because my brain was ignoring the messages it was receiving. He said that, sometimes, people recover, but he had not.
He taught my mother, too. She never became quite as good as him, but I
loved her for persisting until she was competent, and when I returned home, I relied on her totally for a while.
Time passed, and I learnt to read Braille, an arduous process that required a specialist teacher to come every day for a week and explain patiently to me, using the tapping deafblind language, what the characters were and how to follow them.
Gradually, my confidence grew, and I could move about the house unaided. My parents and my sister learnt to be constantly diligent in ensuring that everything was always in exactly the same place, and that nothing was ever left on the floor, where I might stumble and fall. I learnt to use my white cane as an extended sense of touch, and even found I developed a new sense, which I called 'body', that sometimes warned me if I was very close to anyone or anything.
But I could not bear to stay indoors. I was desperate to feel the sun and wind on my skin, so my protected environment was extended into the garden. My father laboured for hours every evening, when he returned from work, erecting handrails beside the steps and rearranging the garden so that every part was accessible and safe. And he put seats at every possible location, so I could sit whenever I needed to, and planted fragrant shrubs and flowers, like honeysuckle and lilac and stocks, so I could use and enjoy my sense of smell.
My sister, Kate, changed from being my enemy to my best friend. She, too, learned the deafblind language, and we would sit for hours chatting, or she would read to me from a book or magazine. We talked about feelings and about the future. It was she who suggested a way to hear music, by touching the speakers of the radio with my fingertips, or by pressing headphones against my cheeks.
My family was my life. They helped me, protected me and tolerated my frustrated tantrums, and they helped me to prepare to face the outside world again. At first, it was only them. Then Jessie came into my life.
Jessie, I am told, is a Golden Retriever. She was trained especially for me, and we spent a long time learning to understand each other before she was released into my care.
Each morning she says “hello” by pressing her cold, wet nose into my hand, and when it is time to go out, she brings her harness and waits patiently while I fit it. Sometimes we sit together in the garden, and I smell her warm fur as I brush her, feeling her soft, velvety ears and rough coat.
Then, at last, one day I walked outside for the first time, with Jessie and Kate beside me, and tapped my way along the pavement, feeling for edges and obstructions. I panicked at first to feel the vibrations of the traffic so close, and memories of the accident came flooding back, but gradually that passed and I began to enjoy the freedom of being able to go wherever the desire took me.
These days I even go out alone; I carry some basic messages on small cards, for communicating with strangers, and of course Jessie is my constant companion.
I can truly say that I no longer feel deprived. For everything I have lost, I now have a gift to replace it. I have the amazing love of a family that was tested beyond reason and overcame every challenge. And the world is full of wonderful new sensations, stretching far beyond sight and sound. Though sometimes I cry that I will never again see a bird or hear his song, I still have the memory of it. And now my other senses fill me with a new awareness of the hitherto unnoticed beauty to be found in ordinary things.