BY LORI STONE
My first morning on the psych ward in New York City, a very tall blind woman was escorted into the dining room for breakfast. Her blue eyes were strange: one was milky, and the other had a very sharp circle cut out of the blue iris, just circling the pupil. She didn’t wear dark glasses, but it was obvious that she was blind. I took advantage of her blindness and stared at her, absorbed by her beauty in this place that was institutional and ugly.
Her messy hair was piled up on the back of her head into what must have been a twist of some kind, several days earlier. Her hair was gray but the ends were rusty red, so she used to color it. Her skin was translucent, her features were fine and delicate, and she had full lips. Though she had a stick, as she called it, she didn’t use it as blind people do, tapping in front of themselves left and right. She just held it upright like a scepter and held her escort’s arm.
Her deep voice was heavily accented. She sat at the breakfast table and announced loudly, "Derek. I vant vaffles. And hot cho-co-lat." None of the staff responded, though it seemed they were preparing her food. She couldn’t see that, so a minute later she repeated, "Derek. Can I please have some vaffles and hot cho-co-lat." No response, her request repeated a minute later, exactly the same. Finally the staff became irritated and snapped at her--"Helen, you have to wait and be patient."
Helen picked up her vaffle with her fingers and ate it, no butter or syrup: a bite of vaffle then a drink of her hot chocolate. A bite of waffle, a drink of hot chocolate. When she finished, staff escorted her back to her room where she stayed until the next meal. Her lunch was always baked eggplant. Her dinner was always baked eggplant. And breakfast was always vaffles and hot cho-co-lat. Those weren’t the standard meals--they were the foods she always demanded. The rest of us ate whatever was being served, carb-dense foods usually, but Helen ate only these things. She didn’t come to the various types of therapy we were forced to endure--poetry therapy, group therapy, movement therapy--she just stayed in her dark room, alone.
One evening after dinner she appeared in the doorway of her room and said, "Would someone help me make a call?" None of the patients moved, and few people even looked up. The staff didn’t respond in any way at all, so finally, I stood up and went to her, offering to help. We walked to the phone, I dialed the number and waited while she completed her call, then I escorted her back to her room.
I don’t remember how it began, but it became our evening habit to walk around the unit together until she tired. She asked my name, and though I said Lori she called me Lora, the r sounding like a d. Every evening she came to her door and bellowed, "Lora! Lora!" The unit was very small, so our walk was just a square--a short hallway, across a small sitting area in the back, overlooking the East River and the FDR, back up the opposite short hallway, and then across the front sitting area. The insane girl would race past us, up and down with manic speed and glittering eyes, and as we rounded the corner the tiny, fat Jewish man who had a 24-hour guard would blow his shofar.
While we walked, we talked--the standard questions people ask each other when they’re on the inside of an institution that strips their identity to just one thing. Where are you from, why are you here. What did you do. Helen told me she was from Russia, and she believed that was why the staff hated her. I asked her where in Russia and she snapped at me--she didn’t want to talk about that because she was an American.
I apologized and said that I was originally from Texas, and then she started talking about her childhood. Her mother had been an actress in Russia, she said, and had been beautiful and famous. She scolded me for wanting to be dead, saying my reasons were insufficient. I told her I thought I was already dead, and she laughed and said I was ridiculous. She never smiled, but she was friendly and warm even when her words were critical. She said she was there because she’d just become blind, a year before, due to cataracts and glaucoma and something else, and all surgical options were exhausted. She said she was stagnant, warehoused. I couldn’t disagree with her, which broke my heart.
The last couple of nights she opened up more to me, and wanted to lie on the couch in the back sitting area with her head in my lap. She didn’t want me to stroke her head; she said it made her feel like a pet. But she seemed to want to be touched, and to have real contact, so I lay my hand on her shoulder. My last night there, she lay on her side with her head in my lap, curled up in a loose ball, and she pulled my hand into her chest and held it there the whole hour we sat. My leaving was a keen loss.
In the intimacy of that last quiet night, she asked me what I looked like, so I tried to describe myself. When I told her the story of my tattooed spine, an absolutely gorgeous smile spread across her face, the first one I’d seen in the week I knew her. She said, "Lora, you are so silly. This is a silly thing you have done, vy did you do this silly thing." She teased me, a light and touching moment.
Then she turned dark, and quiet, and said the staff was going to transfer her to the state hospital. She said, with her deep-voiced Russian drama, "Lora, I vill perish. Lora, I vill perish." I looked into her blanked-out eyes and had no response. What could I say?
Finally, I asked her the obvious question: "Helen, why are you here, in the psych ward, instead of in a hospital for blind people where you could learn how to navigate the world?" She said it was her punishment, because when she lived in France she made her living telling fortunes and reading cards. She was very religious and believed that this part of her life was as it should be, given by God, as punishment for that sinful time. Then she said, almost in passing, "They said I poured bleach into my eyes, can you imagine such a thing?"
Lori Stone is a writer and freelance editor living in Austin, TX and New York City. She is writing a memoir called Saving Oliver. She has three children and three grandchildren.