Just Words on a Page

By Laura Edwards

Yesterday, I did the most amazing thing: I scheduled my day. My husband promised a friend he’d help him with a home improvement project that I suspected would turn into an all-day affair. I had a couple of tasks I wanted to accomplish with my Sunday of solitude. I not only made a list – I scheduled the items into specific blocks – and I told myself if the time on a task ran out, that’d be it.

After I organized my notes from interviews for a book-length project and went for an eight-mile run in the January sunshine, I worked on PR for the piano playathon, an annual event benefiting Taylor’s Tale and the fight against Batten disease in Raleigh, NC. Two hours before the UNC-Clemson basketball game, I took a cup of decaf coffee, a blanket, my snuggly dog and a book I’m reading for fun (I love to read, but it doesn’t happen often) up to my reading nook by the front window in my bonus room.

For awhile, I lost myself in the book, a novel set in post-Civil War Virginia. As I soaked up the silence and watched the late-afternoon light dance on the spines of books I’ve collected for almost three decades, I thought about how my sister, Taylor, who taught herself to read before she graduated from the preschool class at our church, can no longer enjoy the stories that fill the pages of the books lining the shelves in her own room.

Taylor with Braille placematWhen we learned Taylor would lose her vision, she began working with Jill, a VI specialist (teacher for the visually impaired). My sister learned the letters of the braille alphabet. She learned how to string the letters into words and the words into sentences. She showed me the correct way to read the raised dots of the braille alphabet with my fingertips, even though, because I’m not blind, it would have been easier for me to learn how to read the letters with my eyes. She learned how to type on a Perkins Brailler, a braille typewriter. She typed braille notes for me and made a braille birthday card on fire engine red construction paper for my 27th birthday. Her teacher, Jill, wrote the words underneath the raised dots, because, unlike my little sister, I never mastered the braille alphabet.

But then Batten disease stole braille from Taylor, too. My sister is the girl who, not so long ago, foiled her church preschool teachers’ idea to help the other kids learn to read when she skipped down the hall and announced the names printed in neat, block letters above each cubbyhole. But then her eyes quit on her, and a few years later, her fingers quit on her, too.

You could say the books lining my shelves are just things. You could say the stories they share are just words on a page.

But while they’ve brought me great joy, they’re another symbol of all my sister has lost; of all she stands to lose. 

I’ve heard something about this story.

I don’t like the way it ends.

Taylor King, Sixth Grader

By Laura Edwards

I’ve been officially mired in my longest stretch between posts since I started my new blog in February; the Charlotte summer has arrived – along with its trademark, near-unbearable humidity – and I think it has fried my brain.

I haven’t written about T in awhile, so a quick update: she “graduated” from elementary school the first week of June and officially became a middle school student. At the moving up ceremony, her teachers recognized her for her “inspirational attitude” and her “amazing accomplishment of learning Braille.” Well said.
Every time I see T lately, I’m shocked all over again at how quickly she’s growing up. She’s getting tall. She has a crush on a boy who’s not on the cover of a Disney album, but rather a real-live classmate, and she’s already talking about this fall’s sixth grade dance. I see her thinking often, the way she does – she gets real quiet and still and tilts her head as if to train her gaze on something off to the side, though her gaze is unseeing. Sometimes I want so badly to know what’s going through her mind, to understand what it’s like to have the things happen that have happened to her. But then I would have to have Batten disease.

I don’t know what is going through T’s mind day in and day out, but I think I have an idea of what’s in her heart.
Tears sprang to my eyes as T’s friend guided her up the steps to receive her fifth grade certificate on moving up day. Really – how many parents cry at these things? And I’m only the sister – the sister who sat with the dad in place of the mom who was on another continent trying to save her daughter’s life.
I’ll never step back, evaluate my sister’s life and decide that she has had her fill; I can’t say, “well, she made it to sixth grade and learned Braille and ran two 5Ks, and that’s already beating the odds;” it will never be enough, and I’ll never stop fighting for more. By that, I don’t mean to detract from the blessings that have graced the first eleven years of her life. I am so thankful for those. And, since I’m on the subject of moving up day and achievements and growing up, my heart goes out to those angels who have been a compass for T, who have encouraged her and loved her and carried her – and her family – when we could not walk. T is our angel; you are hers. Stick with us awhile longer – we have more miles yet to walk for this girl.

The Quilt

By Laura Edwards

Mom is back from San Diego; she arrived on the red eye this morning. I have many things to report from her journey out west and will do so in time. Tonight, though, I just want to share some reflections from her time with Daniel Kerner, who is nine years old and has late infantile NCL, and Daniel’s mother, Joanna. Together, Daniel and Taylor form the bookends of the historic clinical trial in Portland, OR. Daniel was number one; Taylor was the sixth and final participant. Joanna and my mom have talked with one another countless times across cyberspace and telephone wires, forever connected by their children’s at once great hope and great sacrifice that was their experience in Portland, but they had never met in person. Since the day I was first contacted by another family stricken by Batten disease, as ours is, I have struggled to put words to the relationship that is forged between us all, even if the road between us stretches thousands of miles, as in the case of the Kings and the Kerners. However, Joanna’s most recent CaringBridge journal post recounting the time she and Daniel spent with my mom described it beautifully, so I emailed Joanna and asked her if she would share her words with me. She said yes, so I’ll share them with you now:

“Meeting Sharon King, Taylor’s mom, for the first time was immediately comfortable and welcoming. There was no way that I would not bring Daniel to meet Sharon. We exchanged gifts for the kids; Taylor sent Daniel a UNC baseball cap signed by the Women’s Basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, and Daniel gave Taylor his newly edited Braille book entitled Love. Someday, Daniel and Taylor will have an opportunity to meet in person. Until then, they will have a coast-to-coast friendship through their moms. There is a special bond the moms share that is on a level deeper than any peer friendships. We are woven together into a different cloth of life that creates a strong and compassionate quilt, assembled painfully through heartbreak and upheaval, grief and acceptance, strength and perseverance. A quilt, we hope, big and strong enough to smother the dragon and deliver our children back to their childhood dreams.”

As I write these words from my living room on the East Coast, Daniel is on the West Coast, probably sharing the company of his parents and his older brother and sister, perhaps eating dinner with them, no doubt making happy memories (because they, with the exception of our constant search for the cure, are the central purpose of every day we are given). Thousands of miles away, I am searching for answers, in the world out there and within my heart. I am fighting for Taylor. I am fighting for Daniel.