Future Reflections Summer 2000, Vol. 19 No. 2


Listening to the Leaves

by Carole Conrad

The National Federation of the Blind.


From Barbara Pierce, the Braille Monitor Editor: This week the President of the Ohio Student Division called to inquire about the resources available in another state for parents of blind children. She explained that friends of a friend had just given birth to a blind infant. I made a recommendation about whom to call for support and information, but since that conversation I have been thinking a good deal about the journey this young couple has just embarked upon.

The first and most difficult stage will be shock, disbelief, anger, and heartbreak. The pain of this period is intense, but it passes, usually fairly quickly for those, at least, who come in contact with the National Federation of the Blind. The next phase is usually a determined intention to do everything humanly possible to make up to the child for what he or she will miss visually throughout life. Then, as parents begin to discover that their blind child really can learn and do and enjoy life, there comes a period when it is easy to believe that this small person is truly remarkable, has extraordinary powers of observation or recollection, or is especially sensitive and understanding. The final step is the recognition that the blind child is by and large a normal youngster, complete with individual abilities and shortcomings.

These stages are not a neat series of plateaus; they are all part of an evolutionary process. In one moment a mother can discover that her blind child has just taken note of something in the audible environment that she herself has never before taken the time to listen to, and in the next she can circle back to attribute extraordinary powers of observation to that child for making sense of the familiar world without benefit of sight. Such moments of discovery can be life-changing in their very simplicity, because they hold out the promise of fulfillment and normality. Never mind that having stretched to catch a glimpse of one’s child as a normal person, the parent slips back into wonder at her extraordinary gifts. The breakthrough has been made. The child is free to develop and grow normally.

For parents of blind children as well as for the children themselves, life is filled with such moments of discovery and joy as well as with the frustration and pain of being different. But it is rare for a mother to capture one of these moments and commit it to paper. Carole Conrad of Michigan managed exactly this last fall and sent the result, a letter to her daughter Sara, to Barbara Cheadle, Editor of Future Reflections, the quarterly magazine of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Because the magic of this moment of discovery as Mrs. Conrad described it seemed to have a universal quality, Barbara Cheadle passed the article on to the Braille Monitor for publication. Here it is:


Sara, the most exciting thing happened to me today! I want so much to tell you
all about it and share my excitement with you, but at three years of age you wouldn’t understand the significance of my discovery. So I’ll share it with you in writing now—and perhaps in reading when you are older.

You were right, Sara; I heard the leaves fall today. I was sitting right here on our cement front steps, looking over our large front lawn, when I heard it. The autumn breeze was stiff, and the giant oaks that line our yard let go of their first dry, brown leaves of October. This they have done for hundreds of years—but today was different—at least for me—because I heard it.

Ever since we learned how seriously impaired your beautiful blue eyes were, I have tried to teach you more about our world. I’ve struggled to explain what clouds look like and why I can see across a pond but not across Lake Michigan. I’ve tried to tell you about the beauty of trees and the rich green of spring time. And oh, how we’ve argued. You say the trees are fighting; I say the wind moves them so that their branches bump into each other. You say the summer leaves are brown at the tree tops and green further down. I say all the leaves are green until fall, at which time they all turn to brown. And I’ve tried to explain that we don’t hear leaves fall; we see them.

Today, as I sat alone on the step, I shut my eyes and listened. It was one of those rare moments when I didn’t need to be anywhere or do anything. I just listened. And then I heard them. I heard the leaves rustle in the air as they fell—bumping into each other. When they reached their destination, they tumbled across each other as the breeze stirred them. They skidded stiffly across the paved driveway—scraping their thin yet rigid points. And acorns dropped from the sky to land on the grass with a soft but audible thud. I can hear without straining now. I just needed to tune down my own thoughts so that I could hear. My closed eyes filled with tears as I listened.

I have tried, oh so hard, to see as you do so that I can help you understand things as they really are. I have shut one eye and squinted the other nearly closed to try to experience what you see. But I can’t. And I realized today that my objective was to teach you the difference between the incorrect perceptions you acquire and the reality that the rest of us observe. But today, when I heard the leaves fall (much as you probably hear them), I understood something. You have a lot to teach me, little girl. You hear things, feel things, and experience things in ways different—yet not always less correct—than I do.

I will never experience what you do. You always hear trains coming before anyone else. You continually amaze me when you identify the voices of individual children as they play together in our backyard. And only you can tell those neighborhood identical twins apart. You have something special, little Sara. You don’t see much anymore, but God has given you perceptions that I can’t understand. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your gift with me. Thank you for insisting that I listen...to the leaves.