A story by Justyna Zmurko

Dear Inner Child,

The last evening of August 1991 saw me smiling and giggling on my bike. A six-year-old me could not have predicted the events that were to unfold that evening. Little did I know, these events, now somewhat covered by the fog of years past, were to forever alter and give me a new appreciation for what I call “the view of life.”

The big project of that summer was prepping myself for a Paralympic bicycle race that was to take place two weeks later. Beaming with anticipation for the first day of school, I took a longbike ride. The adults in my life considered this time as a training session or worse yet physical therapy. Not me, no sir! I considered the fleeting hours a breath of freedom.

That night, I giggled and rode, got tired then rested. All the while, my mom followed me with faithful eyes and enduring feet. There came a point where my mom’s body gave in to exhaustion. She stopped me and said, “It’s time to head in.” But I was having fun. I was pumped up with anticipation of starting school the next day, and excitement for the quickly approaching race. I didn’t want to stop. SoI pleaded my mom’s permission out of her.

Next thing I knew, my mom was calling my 13-year-old brother over and asking him to watch over me while she took a rest on the bench. My brother agreed, and my mom sat down. This was a decision she would come to regret. We soon disappeared behind the apartment building. Unbeknownst to my mom, my brother’s idea of watching over me wasn’t to walk either behind or beside me as she had done for hours prior. No, no, this method of watching over me was too mundane for a 13-year-old full of unpredictable ideas.

He said to me, “If you’re going to race others, you’re going to need practice. Want to race each other?” My brother didn’t have to convince me. At last, a brother’s acceptance. A long-awaited sense of normalcy was within my grasp. A nanosecond or two later, the brother I looked up to was asking a friend about borrowing his bike.

We were off to the races. At this time, a healthy bit of sibling rivalry took over my mind and body. Grinning from ear to ear, I was enjoying the moment. I tried to take everything in, etching this joyful moment into my memory forever. I can’t explain my role in the events that followed; they were all so fast, unexpected, and shocking. I watched my brother hop a curb, and I think I wanted to do the same.

The next clear memory, I have was the sharp, cold pain of my head hitting the curb. Not instantly, but I realized what happened: my bicycle tipped over sideways. The bicycle’s seat belt and foot restraints were pinning me under it. As I look at it now, the very items that were to insure my bicycle safety were in that moment hindering my rescue. In Poland of 1991, bicycle helmets were not mandated. My brother ran to my aid. He was scared that our mom would yell. I’m not sure whether or not somebody helped him lift me and my bike up offthe ground. I sobbed, tears coming down my cheeks in a steady stream. At the same time, my brother ripped cold strands of grass, and put them against my forehead as a method of bruise and bump protection.

I’m not sure how much time passed exactly before my mom got restless, and started a search. Upon finding us, she gently took me off my bike, and carried me upstairs to our first-floor apartment. She gingerly cleaned up what seemed like minor scrapes and bruises. 

Laying me on the couch, she put on a customary nighty-night cartoon, in the hopes of occupying my mind. As soon as she pressed the on-switch, I let out a panicked high pitched scream. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, I hear everything but I can’t see anything! It’s black, Mommy, just black!” I turned into a terrified human broken record.  Thinking about it now, the words “just black! just black! just black! are echoing in my ears. My worried mom ran into the kitchen. I know this because she took a spoon and started anxiously banging it on the pipe joining us with the neighbours below. The bangs were short and sharp. She was implementing their, “Emergency Need Your Help Urgently” system.

Mrs. J. heard and understood this dire call for help! The door knock was almost immediate. My mom lifted me up, she said, “She can’t see. My little daughter is saying she can’t see.” I wasn’t aware what happened next that will forever remain a secret between the two women. No verbal communication was exchanged. Next thing I knew,they were rushing me down the staircase in my mother’s arms. Her feet barely even touching each step. If anyone could fly down the stairs, it was my mom that day.  At that moment, my mom and Ms. J. had no regard for such petty things as shoes, socks, or track pants. Oh no, no, no! Who would have time for such trivial items that could keep a scared child warm?  In, their mind every second counted.

A previously unknown neighbour pulled into the parking lot. Before the car had any time to come to a complete halt, for I could hear the uninterrupted sound of its engine, Mrs. J. grabbed the doorhandle and pulled it open. The vehicle’s unsuspecting driver got a concise, clear message, “The little girl can’t see, her mother is too shaken up to drive, we need to get her to the hospital!” And with that, we got shoved into what I assume was the back seat. The driver must have understood the severity of my situation for he was blaring his horn the entire 2 to 3 km to the hospital. Later my mom told me that the kind man even ignored red lights in an effort to get me there sooner. The drive was horrifying for me. The sound of the horn mixedin with the swoosh of cars and buses. And I shall not forget the complete darkness I could neither escape nor explain.

Upon our arrival at the hospital, my mom darted straight past all the people in the waiting room into an exam room. I could definitely hear some unhappy protests. I’m not sure my mom had even registered them in her desperation to save my eyesight. My mom entered the room with me in her arms, loudly and consistently repeating, “Mr. Doctor, Mr. Doctor, she says she can’t see.” Her words mixed with mine, “Daddy, Daddy, why did you have to go so far away to Canada? Now, my little eyes will never see you again!!” Our two desperate, sincere, and sorrow-filled messages must have pulled at the doctor’s heart strings, for he excused himself from his patient and their parents. With no buts, all three left the exam room.

The doctor sat in front of us, and with kindness in his voice asked me to touch his face. I tried — really, really I did. I felt around for his face, but I just couldn’t find it, or see it. When my mom could finally talk about what happened without a burst of emotion, she saidthat watching me attempt to follow his instructions was the saddest thing she ever had to see. My tiny fingers so close to his face, but yet I could not accurately touch it. The kind gentleman, as my mom called the doctor, tried to make me look at an eye chart, but that test yield no positive results either. 

He wrote a requisition and admitted me to the hospital. After animpressive round of medical tests, x-rays, and questionnaires, the doctors were no closer to finding an answer for my unexpected and complete vision loss. At that point, my mom and I were facing a life in complete darkness. The medical team was not sure whether my vision would ever return. It was decided I would stay overnight and the tests would be continued in the morning.

That night, my mom and I both sobbed ourselves to sleep. Me, small, scared, confused. My mom, horrified with the reality that my life just became even harder than it already was. All through the night, my mom would periodically ask me, “Can you see? Do you see anything?” My answer remained unchanged. “No, Mommy, I don’t see anything but black.”

Morning came, I opened my eyes, looked around from right to left. Then, with an inexpressible amount of glee and happiness, I exclaimed, “Mommy, Mommy, I can see!! Let’s go, I’m going to be late for school!” Just as suddenly as I lost my vision, I gained it back. To this day, the doctors aren’t able to explain the phenomenon of my vision loss.

As for me, dear inner child, to the surprise of all, I got back on my bike two weeks later. I had a race to win. To answer your question, I had a bronze medal finish. Days, months, years have passed since that dread-filled August evening, but I’ve never ever taken my vision for granted. I like photography, visual arts, and travelling. Every morning, as I wake, and I look around at the world surrounding me. I whisper a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

Sincerely,

A Grown-Up You

This piece was written by Justyna Zmurko