- A Story -


I was born in a small valley in the mountainous region of our state. My mother was an astronomer, and my father was an electronics technician. They both worked at the radio observatory located next to our home. The ring of mountains that shielded the radio telescope from electromagnetic interference similarly shielded my childhood from society's static.

Gwen was born two months after me. Her father was a mathematician who worked at the observatory as a computer specialist. Gwen's home was down the road from mine. Our parents were friends, and from our earliest years, Gwen and I were friends.

Since our parents worked at night, much of our play was at night. Some of my fondest memories are of our nighttime adventures. Sometimes, we would pretend that the full Moon was the Sun, and it was daytime on Mars. We were Martians out for a walk. We would comment on the "sunny day" and the "unusual warmth". Whether fantasy or fact, I can remember stepping beyond the forest canopy, raising my face, and feeling the warmth of the moonlight.

Summer nights were especially magical. We would take blankets and sleeping bags to the meadow, lay back, and gaze at the stars. Sometimes, we played "first astronomers". I would discover patterns in the stars, and Gwen would make up stories to explain their special significance. Sometimes, we pretended that we were stuck upside down on the bottom of the earth like flies on the ceiling. We imagined that gravity was about to fail and drop us into the infinitely deep, dark well of the universe.

One moonless night when the stars were hidden by clouds, we played the second half of this game. Guided by flashlight, we went to the meadow and climbed into our sleeping bags. With the flashlights off, the darkness was total. We imagined that gravity had failed, and we were falling through the darkness of a great void. Along with gravity, vision had failed. The only link between us was sound. We talked long into this prophetic night. We promised each other to always be friends.

That promise has always held, but it came close to breaking in high school. Gwen and I were both members of the astronomy club. We looked forward to the star parties each month. It was a chance to share the miracle of the night sky with others and to remember special moments from our own past.

Gradually, that changed. Gwen seemed to grow "clumsy" in the dark. She increasingly tripped over and bumped into things as we moved around. She started "losing" things, and then I realized that she couldn't see faint stars that I could see. After so many nights viewing the stars together, this was a real surprise. I wondered if it had always been this way. Like the others in the club, I teased and joked with Gwen about her missteps. "Not eating enough carrots?" "Awkward adolescence?" At first, Gwen laughed along with us, but this gradually changed to indignation and then anger. Suddenly, she quit the astronomy club.

This might have surprised me more, but Gwen was changing in other ways, too. Like me, she had always enjoyed school, but this also seemed to be changing. Her grades were falling. When our teachers talked and wrote at the board, she seemed to frown more and more. Then she stopped listening. Reading drew the same response. She seemed to tense and be unhappy whenever she had to open a book. Then, she just stopped reading. Eventually, she wouldn't even open her book to follow along in class.

Waiting alone for the bus one morning, events quietly fell into place. Gwen wasn't going to school today. She had an appointment with an eye doctor at the university hospital in the state capital. She had left with her parents the previous day and would be back tonight. I wondered how I could be so close to her and still fail to understand what was happening. I promised myself to visit her that night and start to close the distance that had opened between us. She didn't return for three days.

Because of the delay, I was expecting bad news. However, I still wasn't prepared for the truth. Fortunately, my parents explained the diagnosis before I visited Gwen. She had a progressive eye disease. There was no cure. While the loss of vision would be slow, it would be relentless and in the end, complete and final.

My feet dragged down the road to Gwen's. I didn't know how to act or what to say. As it was, we both started crying when we saw each other. I didn't know that I had so many tears. Without a word, apology was given and accepted by both of us. Without a word, the distance between us dissolved. Later, like old times, we shared many words. As I walked home, I realized that part of our childhood fantasy had turned real. Gravity had failed for Gwen. In my heart, I renewed our promise. She would not make this journey without friends.

Next morning it was snowing. Somehow, this seemed right. The world was a colder place robbed of color and the longer view. I drifted through my morning classes, but in science, the world snapped back into focus. We were starting a unit on sound. I realized that I did have positive options. As Gwen's vision failed, her sense of hearing would become more important. While I couldn't rescue Gwen from her dilemma, I could learn more about it. Right here, right now, was my first opportunity. I could learn more about sound.

To be continued...

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