Connecting Things Unseen
I think I remember buying it on Ebay, an odd choice considering I was working at the world’s mecca of braillers, Perkins School for the Blind. Personally owning one of these cumbersome machines was both an admission of my impermanence at Perkins, and also a sort of proof, to my deafblind students and to myself, that I would stay within reach.
It’s been an odd object to own everywhere I’ve been in the fifteen years since. I left Perkins and lugged it as a carry-on through airports on my way to California, and after that, all over the country and world. I used it to keep in touch with one of my students as he grew into an adult and a dear friend. We brailled about the trials of life and planned our travels, some that we would take together but most that we would not. We outlined parts of his memoir, a project we’d never complete. Eventually emailing replaced this braille correspondence, and even this came to an end when he died six years ago.
By then I didn’t keep my brailler for its brailling function anymore, but as a symbolic grip on that part of my identity. As it gathered dust on shelves or sat in overhead bins, it reminded me of the lens on life and humanity I’d learned through the unique experience of being known and loved by a few deafblind kids. It held in it a collection of hard-earned impressions about bravery and trust, identity and interdependence, communication against all odds, and the layered secrets of a life built only on vulnerable one-on-one connection. Sure, I did some braille demonstrations in the occasional pre-school class or to entertain my son’s friends, but mostly I carried that damn brailler around because I was uncharacteristically attached to it, attached to the perspective of that year that I deeply wanted to hold onto. I felt entrusted to carry and represent it in the world.
Then this winter I stumbled on a fundraising campaign through my friend Elizabeth as she helped raise money with the Society for the Blind in Kosovo—a country that happens to border the one I now call home. Their goal was to gain the resources to give the blind kids in the area opportunity to read and write in braille. Barred from school until this is accomplished, many of them had thus missed out on years of their education already.
I immediately wanted to meet them, and instantly sensed that the years of me lugging a brailler worth $800 around the world just for sentimental reasons were coming to an end. A blind kid in Kosovo would need my Perkins brailler much more than I ever did. Even considering this sort of donation broke and filled my heart in more ways than I knew how to deal with at first.
I went to Kosovo last week, my brailler taking its final trip with me in the overhead bin of a bus. With an hour to see the small city of Gjakova before meeting the kids we stopped to admire the exterior of the Hadum mosque. The brailler drew its usual share of attention and after Elizabeth explained its purpose in Albanian the man in charge of the mosque decided to unlock the door and lead us inside. Taking off our shoes, Elizabeth’s mismatched socks reminded me of my deafblind friend that I’d lost, and as I walked around I wondered what he’d think of this place and how far this brailler and I had journeyed in his absence. After a gracious welcome and tour, the man asked if I would braille a note in their guestbook. While I thought I’d used my machine one last time the night before, I found myself instead writing a note of gratitude in a mosque in Kosovo, baffled at the ways life is often an unfolding so unlikely and so inescapable all in the same breath. Gratitude was of course the right bookend to this part of my story, in an obscure nook of the world, in an ancient place of worship so foreign to me but certainly no stranger to honoring things unseen.
Last but not least we went to the center, where they’d just gained enough funding to teach braille and mobility twice a week for two months to five of the ten local blind kids. Two months is not long to learn all your letters and how to read. The two teachers (one of them blind himself) moved eagerly and affectionately between the students at a round table, who were at varying levels of ability but all unlocking this secret of potential literacy for the first time. Watching them I smiled until my cheeks hurt.
One small nine-year-old girl, Besiana, was hammering out braille dots manually with a sharp tool. Brailling in this way it would take approximately forever to write a few sentences, not to mention the fact that you’d have to do the whole thing backwards in order to read it forwards one you flipped the paper. But for now we were just working on some simple As and Bs. Besiana practiced these letters and also some combinations that are yet meaningless to her in order to test her fingers on identifying which dots were present and which were missing in any given braille cell. She moved determinedly from one space to the next, grinning all the while. Her father told Elizabeth that Besiana had spent years wondering why she couldn’t go to school like her sister did. He said he would do anything for her, that he would give her his eyes if he could.
Besiana flipped over her page of work to try and read it. After a couple successful passes of reporting which dots were there and which were not she came to a string of As and Bs. She called them out one at a time and when prodded by her teacher she knew that together they spelled “baba.” The Albanian word for dad. Her father looked on with the other parents, his face gripped with emotion.
My brailler will likely go home with Besiana at the end of their two months of class. Meanwhile, fundraising continues as they hope to extend their work with these students, as well as to start with the other five, who are perhaps still at home asking why they can’t go to school too.
Elizabeth checked in with me as we left, knowing that parting with my brailler would be an emotional experience.
“I feel profoundly empty-handed,” I confessed. “But I’m okay. The ability to read and write… it can give someone the whole world. And in order to write, a blind person needs a brailler. Besiana just got an unlikely shot to own, well, the equivalent of a pencil.”
Ringing in my mind were Barbara Kingsolver’s words that true generosity lies in really giving something up. I’d never experienced this concept to this extent before. I cried at the end of my day, as if a chapter in my life fifteen years ago was closing yet again. This hard act of generosity did feel different than other kinds. It swelled inside me, overwhelming me with layers of gratitude, mourning, and a bottomless sense of interconnectedness. I knew I’d left a real piece of me there in those mountains, and a piece of my deafblind students who had unknowingly changed me forever and for whom I’d owned this odd contraption in the first place. There is a sparking and dancing energy that Besiana can’t yet know is thundering towards her, and as she grows I hope it carries her into the world in mysterious ways, as it carried me.
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