LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

by Randy Rieland

The following story is reprinted from the October, 1993, issue of The Washingtonian. Besides being a delightful story of the Yeager family, it is a refreshingly positive example of the kind of news feature that helps rather than harms the public image of blindness.

Early on, Tracy knew that her parents' eyes didn't work. Even at a few months of age, she realized that pointing at things brought no response. So Tracy, an infant testing life, found another way. She began grabbing her parents' hands and putting them on whatever she wanted. If she was hungry, she would touch her fingers to her mother's mouth. Together, Tracy and her parents, both blind since birth, began to shape their world.

Nancy and Jerry Yeager know all about pity. How to the sighted theirs seems a poignant world, rife with limitations. They know they will never see their daughter's smile, or watch her run across the room to them. But these images, they point out, are memories of the sighted. "If you don't see, what you aren't able to see of her is a non-issue," says Nancy.

It seems odd, then, to find a video camera on a tripod in the Yeagers' living room. To them, the camera makes perfect sense, even if, like most parents, they don't use it as much as they thought they would. "If we think she's doing something cute," says Jerry, "we aim the camera in the direction of the sound. It gives us an audio record."

Tracy's sounds are their baby snapshots, collected on tape or stored away in their memories, keepsakes of these times. "I love to hear her talking to herself in her bed," says her father. Jerry, who's thirty-eight, had always worried about what kind of father he would be, because he didn't have much patience with babies. Nancy, forty-one, was nervous about how having a child would affect her career—she works for the Farm Credit Administration. "It was never an issue of `Do we not want children because we can't see?' We knew we had both overcome enough obstacles. We knew we would deal with whatever came up."

They also had heard the stories from other blind parents of sighted children. Some people, the Yeagers were told, would think they had created a child to give them eyes. Others would feel sorry for Tracy, imagining a life dimmed by her parents' blindness. Not long ago the Yeagers heard a woman tell Tracy, who had just turned two, "Now, honey, don't let your mom and dad get hurt." Nancy is particularly sensitive to the "poor blind person" treatment, no matter how well-intentioned, in front of her daughter. "We can teach her that blindness is okay. But when people act like we're helpless, what kind of message does that send to her about us?"

The Yeagers describe themselves as being like any other couple with a child. Little in their Alexandria high-rise apartment suggests otherwise. Toys lie scattered around the living room, flotsam from a toddler wave. "You learn to shuffle like this," says Jerry, sliding his feet along the carpet, "and kick them to the side."

A Barney tape sits ready next to the black-and-white TV. Nearby is a Sesame Street book-its Braille notations not only translate the words but also describe the images. At one end of the room is a red plastic table, crayons strewn across the top. It's the only place in the apartment where Tracy is allowed to color. Nancy and Jerry always know where she is, but they don't always know what she's doing, and they don't want her wandering around the apartment with a crayon in her hand. Not that most parents wouldn't feel the same way, but the Yeagers, more than most, must set boundaries they can guard.

So they make rules, rules as ironclad as they are practical. Tracy knows, for instance, that she must answer when she's called. "Hide-and-seek is not a game we ever play," says Nancy. Tracy also has learned to give her parents any strange object she finds. Once she handed them a wet caterpillar. "Our first thought was, `Did she have this in her mouth?' " Jerry remembers thinking, "I figured, `Well, she's gotten her caterpillar protein for the day.' "

"Daddy, can I run?" Tracy asks. She is standing outside the apartment door, looking down the long, narrow hallway that leads to the elevators. Jerry says okay and she's off, scrambling stiff-legged across the carpet. This is the one place where Tracy is allowed to run free, but even here there's a rule. Once the elevator bell rings, she has to grab one of her parents' hands and wait to get on with them. "She is a good little hand-holder," says her father.

The family tries to go out for a restaurant meal once a week. Just as often they go to the neighborhood playground, a trek that takes them through a parking lot and the sounds of moving cars. Nancy and Jerry are used to maneuvering around traffic, but doing it with a two-year-old brings new risks. So before they go out, they fit Tracy into a little harness. When it's secure around her waist, Tracy grabs the loose end of the tether and presses it into her mother's hand.

"When we go out," Nancy says, "we like to explore things together. I'll ask Tracy if she sees the birds that I hear. Or I'll ask her what color the flowers are that I smell. And if she asks me what something is and I don't know, I just tell her that I don't know. Sometimes we have to learn together."

What they have learned, above all, is that their lives are not about the disparity of blindness and sight, but rather how the two can merge. Sometimes Tracy will grab a cane and tap it in front of her. Sometimes Nancy will join in a game of mother-daughter peekaboo.

Tracy, across the room, crouches behind a playpen. Suddenly she pops up, giggling, "I see you, Mama." "I see you, too," answers Nancy. Nor does Jerry miss a beat a moment later when he is complimented on Tracy's grin.

"She has a beautiful smile," he says. "I just know."