All I Dreamed Is Light
When I was seventeen, I spent three months in the wilderness in Mexico on a course with an outdoor education school. Each night we slept in bivy sacks under the stars. We cooked our dehydrated beans and rice over lightweight camping stoves and moved our young bodies over mountains of sun-warmed rocks. I was entangled in a romance with the land. Every day felt alive, but one particular day, at the edge of a ravine, looking out towards the sea, I told myself that if life ever got really hard, I should remember that I could fit everything I needed into a backpack and find a feeling of peace in this lightness.
My son Jasper is six now but I used to carry him around in a toddler backpack. Even on rainy or snowy days, we'd suit up and head out into the woods to feel the textures of the bark of different trees. "Oh, hello, tree!" I would say enthusiastically, touching the soft peeling skin of the double trunked Birch. Sometimes I would watch from the side of my eye as he too would reach his little hand out and touch. It's hard to understand how Jasper experiences the world. He doesn't have enough language to tell us. He has a complicated medical history and multiple disabilities, which includes neurological blindness. Some with a similar condition have explained their visual experience as looking through a kaleidoscope or down the cylinder of a paper towel roll. We don't know what he sees, but curiously, he finds pleasure in tilting his head and looking at the world sideways or even upside down.
Lately, I've been thinking about our relationship with the natural world, Jasper’s and mine, how it is both a refuge and a barrier. How lake water surrenders with ripples to our reclining bodies or how the tree roots abruptly halt his wheelchair with an unforgiving thud, and we both stumble forward, the way the pines bend to the wind but don't break. This summer, we outfitted our car with an air mattress and went camping. Jasper delights in small enclosed spaces where the visual world is simpler, and he shivered with happiness, flapping his hands as we parked in a field and he bounced around on the "camping bed."
At the creek near our campsite, I carried Jasper to a small folding chair and set up my camera on a tripod. There is no independence for Jasper here on these loose uneven stones and shallow water. The folding chair is his island. I want to know what is around the creek's bend, but I can't carry him that far. I imagine myself with a wild brood of children as we explore, bushwhacking through the water and wilderness. But I won't ever have that family. Maybe, after all the difficult days, I was too scared to try for more children, and perhaps also, because he survived, I felt I owed him all of me. Jasper kicks his legs in the cold water happily. When I was in labor, four months early, the nurses tried to joke about the feisty desire of this baby to join us in the world. But that is not the story. It was my body that betrayed him and pushed him out into the world too soon. I don't know why it happened, but it is a cruelty I can't understand––that is too hard to face head-on but that I see every day. I stop and admire the river bank and ferns. There is a deep pleasure in the almond-shaped leaves against the sky. I kneel on the rocks, click the shutter, and advance the film. I have begun to find beauty in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Jasper loves music, almost as much as he loves water, and sometimes I wonder if he feels music more than he hears it. At my sister’s house he presses down the keys of the piano slowly, deliberately, returning again and again with fascination to the broken and silent one which plays no note. We spend a lot of time outside, and he can walk short distances. He has cerebral palsy, which affects his right leg, and he tires quickly. Before Jasper, I didn't know people who could walk and also needed a wheelchair. Jasper’s wheelchair is always around, often, just out of the frame. Today on the path in the woods, instead of wanting the wheelchair, he holds his arms up to me, and I scoop up his fifty-pound body, and I hold his warmth close. Like other mammals, I desire to lick and groom, but instead, I sway and squeeze him. I know soon he will be too big for this, and our adventures will get more challenging. How will we visit all the trees in these thick New England woods, I wonder? As autumn rounds to winter and we drive to school in the car we used to sleep in, Jasper looks to the back longingly. "Camping bed," he demands.
Some nights I wake under the down comforter to lay still and listen in the darkness to his breathing from the other room. I'm unsure if it will ever be possible to find that lightness I remember so vividly at the edge of the mountain at seventeen. Life holds a lot of heartaches now. But I'm always searching, and being Jasper’s mother has taught me so much, particularly about curiosity and joy and the way love is and the way love grows. And sometimes, I like to float in our backyard pool and look up at the arbor of trees that skirts our yard, to watch the dragonflies swooping and feasting. I realize everything is upside down, and it's beautiful.