THE POWER OF LIGHT

by Sozan Schellin

*

When I met Eric I would not have guessed he was a founding member of the Gay and Lesbian History Project. For the year that I knew him, he never bragged about his accomplishments. Now, whenever I visit the room in the new San Francisco Public Library that celebrates the cultural history of gay and lesbian people, I think of Eric, wishing he were there in body, for he is certainly there in spirit.

Eric was already blind from CMV retinitis when I was called in to teach him how to use a computer voice recognition software program called "outSPOKEN." I had learned it well, because by then I'd lost most of my own sight. Jeff recalled, when Eric was dying, that he only used the software once. I corrected him. Eric and I used their computer once, but we used my laptop together at least half a dozen times, mostly when Jeff was away at his job as director of the AIDS Support Group at Most Holy Redeemer Church.

Eric got pretty good at writing and formatting documents, sight unseen. He was a smart and determined man, but he wasn't happy about losing his eyesight. He would never have used the word "cruel" to describe it, but I would. For a man so attuned to the visual, so sensitive to light, color, space and the slightest fluctuations in facial expressions—the shifts that reveal the psychology of the people behind the facessight loss is cruel. Yet he bore it, most of the time, with dignity, if not acceptance.

Jeff and Eric had a black Labrador named Rosie. Her digestive tract was the excuse for walks around Dolores and Collingwood Parks. Eric used a cane and Jeff's arm for orientation and mobility. He did all right.

One time, Rosie picked up on something in the distance and took off. I never did learn what it was that she went after, but Jeff left Eric on the sidewalk to retrieve her. As he stood there near a bush, Eric heard the shrill but tiny cries of a newborn kitten. When Jeff got back with Rosie, Eric insisted that he look for the cat. He found it abandoned under the bush.

They took it home and called a friend who's a vet. They determined that the kitten was only days old. It turns out that throughout the cat family, from lions down to alley cats, if one in a litter dies, the mother assumes the rest are defective and abandons them, apparently to preserve the healthier genes.

Anyway, there they were on Eureka Street, Jeff with his regular job and his fulltime caregiver role, Eric, blind, anemic and diagnosed with terminal AIDS, Rosie the big black Lab, and now a motherless, fragile, starving newborn kitten straining her barely developed lungs.

They got an eyedropper at Walgreens and nursed the kitten, first with Ensure, later with another formula that the vet recommended. Finally, the little gray thing fell asleep, satisfied, at least for the moment.

After a while, Jeff said, "Do you notice anything weird about this cat?"

Eric thought a little bit and replied, "No. What?"

"She hasn't taken a dump since we found her. What'll we do?"

The vet was clear over the phone. "You've got to teach her to do it the way her mother would have. You've got to stimulate her."

"What? No way. Not in a hundred dog years! Eric, she wants me to..."

"Yuck . . . what're we gonna do? She's gonna die like this."

Jeff came back with a Q-Tip and some lube. "This is as far as I'll go . . ."

It took only a couple of minutes massaging the kitten before she produced a skinny little five-inch worm of semi-solid waste. The crisis passed; the kitten ate and began to thrive.

Her eyes were still sealed shut when I arrived. Rosie sat nearby on the floor, faking boredom, but when she had a chance, she'd take a sniff of the kitten, which was lying on Jeff's lap. Eric was sitting next to Jeff on the big leather couch in the living room, laughing about the kitten's dramatic entry into their lives.

Rosie is not a particularly oral dog as Labs go, but my Lab Zeke is. I'm sure he's checking out the identity of things when he takes a swipe with that juicy Labrador tongue; he licks the way sighted people glance, almost in passing. He was holding back, but finally he just couldn't control himself. His tongue was bigger than the kitten, and she was still so light that Jeff had to grab her from Zeke's soft black Labrador lips. Then Zeke licked her again, and she let loose a stream of urine all over Jeff's lap.

Jeff handed the kitten over to Eric, I restrained Zeke, and Rosie lay down on the floor dispassionately while we all laughed about the drawbacks of sudden parenthood. Jeff went to clean up the mess on his pants.

"How much longer will it take for her to open her eyes?" I wanted to know. "Any time now," Eric replied, "but we're supposed to help her with that too; you'll never guess how!" He giggled with enthusiasm, looking out into the now darkened, formless space around him.

Carefully picking up the kitten in his right hand, he identified which end was which with the fingertips of his left hand, then raised the tiny gray kitten his grinning, sightless face. He stuck out his tongue and gave the little forehead and closed eyes a good swipe. The dogs sat up in amazement, watching every move.

"I never expected to be a mother. How am I doing?"

"So far, so good." I was stunned by the irony of what I was watching. "Maybe you could let the dogs do it."

"It's OK. I want to." He licked her eyes again. "Shit! I can feel one of 'em opening. The left one. Can you see that?"

"Lemme get closer," I said. "God, you're right!" We both began laughing with pleasure.

"I wish I could see that," Eric said, leaning back into the corner of the sofa as both of the kitten's eyes started to open. When he put her down on his thigh, her head facing his knee, she stuck her tiny claws into his pajama bottoms, pulling herself forward a few millimeters at a stretch while Eric stared off into space.

Jeff emerged from the hallway in clean pants. "If she can see right now, she's gonna think the world is full of nothing but curious Labradors. Then he noticed the drama unfolding on Eric's lap and fell silent, watching the kitten emerge into the world of the sighted.

Eric reached out, first to find the kitten, then to pull her claws from his leg. He sat there, running his hand down her back. She started looking around, first toward the sunlight angling across the West-facing living room, then toward the source of all the Labrador wind, blinking, making barely audible squeaks as she tried to pull herself away from Eric's restraining hands.

The sun slid silently into the room. Both dogs were quiet. So were Jeff and I as we watched Eric set the kitten free. Somewhere in the distance the Castro traffic honked and buzzed, but in the room there was only Eric, the kitten, and light.

©2002 Sozan Schellin


.

Sozan Schellin (with Zeke, above) is blind. He has been a teacher and AIDS worker for thirty-five years. He began Zen study with Maezumi-roshi in Los Angeles, and continued in Japan. He was ordained by Philip Whalen at the Hartford Street Zen Center, San Francisco. His teacher is Barbara Kohn-sensei, Austin, Texas.. His poems have been published in "The James White Review" and most recently in "Van Gogh's Ear."

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/May 2002