Sunrises, Sunsets, and Other People’s Sadness

The sun is a bit of a show-off. Have you noticed? In its rising and setting, it makes such a spectacle of itself that every camera-owning human has tried to capture it at least once. Artists try to recreate it. Composers try to evoke it. Writers try to describe it. Whether greeting or leaving us, the sun offers magic that never stops impressing the eyes of the world

As someone with almost no vision, I mostly don’t get it. I’ve heard the songs and read the purple prose, but this singular beauty remains largely theoretical. Blind people who have never had vision know sunsets and sunrises are breathtaking in the same way they know that black goes with everything, or that fair complexions and bright yellow don’t mix. That is to say, they know it because they’ve been told often enough to make the knowledge stick, but they probably can’t explain why.

As a kid, I was able to see quite a few sunrises and sunsets with my limited vision, which has degenerated from ‘barely there’ to ‘even less there’ over the past 20 years. The contrast was interesting, I remember, and the colours were nice. In high school English, I accidentally depressed my entire class by sharing a personal reflection about sunrises and the fact that I’d one day be too blind to distinguish purple from gold (sorry, folks, I didn’t know we’d have to read them out loud). But up until recently, I had no idea what all the fuss was about.

Then, while headed north by car during a spectacular prairie sunset, something made me look up and out the window, which I hardly ever bother to do. I caught a view so stunning I stopped breathing for a moment. Don’t ask me to explain it, because it’s beyond me. Somehow, the contrast was just right, and I could actually see the layers of cloud and sun, dark cushions supporting a long, slender bar of yellow-gold. The word ‘holy’ was coined for just this sort of experience, set apart and perfect. It was every bit as enchanting as I’d heard, and I have never seen anything that way since. At the rate my vision is deteriorating, I never will again.

Whenever I mention this revelation to sighted people, they assume I’m about to share deep grief and sadness. They expect me to behave as someone cheated or deprived. Since I am very frustrating, I do none of those things. I express overwhelming gratitude for having experienced this unexpected gift, and then go back to my regular routine: reading, singing to myself, and ranting about thrice-cursed scooters blocking the f***ing sidewalks. Knock it off, would you please?

I’ve written about my vision loss journey in posts like this one, but borrowed grief weighs on me more than anything I’m feeling for myself. Many of those who have loved me best and longest can’t help but feel that deep sadness on my behalf. Unlike me, they know what I’m missing, and it hurts them to realize I’ll never enjoy what is so freely available to them. Loving me as they do, they can’t wrap their minds around my ability to hold that once-in-a-lifetime sunset loosely, as a cherished gift to which I have no right. Try as they might, they can’t adopt my sense of defiant wholeness in the face of a world that thinks I’m lacking crucial human ingredients. My essential sense of enoughness, of abundance, must feel like desperate adaptation to someone who can watch the sun put on a show whenever they want.

“Well,” they might say to themselves, “I suppose she has to live with it somehow.”

I used to fight this borrowed grief with tooth and claw. Convinced as I was that my life was pretty great, thank you very much, I accused my loved ones of trying to wish me into a more acceptable, less upsetting body. I thought they were silently wishing me into a better version of myself, one with normal eyes so I could take this gorgeous world for granted like everyone else.

The marvellous thing about growing up is that your understanding of love becomes much more spacious. You start to welcome nuance and explore the messy middle. You realize, in spite of yourself, that someone can love your whole self, fiercely and unwaveringly, while feeling a little wistful about what might have been. My husband, for example, thinks altogether too highly of me, but he still gets the blues (pun intended) when he thinks about the colour perception I will never get back. Yes, he knows I’m an independent, joyful, fully actualized human, and he sometimes wishes I could see the things he sees. There is no need for him to drop one perspective to authentically inhabit the other. Both/and is where I find myself more and more these days. Either/or, well, I seem to have outgrown it.

I am making room for messy-middle feelings about love and loss and our faithful star-friend in the sky. And I am also making room for your messy-middle feelings about these things, even when I don’t understand them and can’t own them. All I can do is honour your borrowed grief, and hold very loosely to the gifts this world is giving. They are enough for me, beloveds. I promise.