At two and a half, without completely understanding it, I was already heavily identified with the body. Of course I didn’t really know what that might mean. I, Rosalie, was a little person. There were other bodies in my family: my mother, my father, an older sister and a baby sister a bit younger.
I really only have two significant memories or memory shards below the age of five. One was of myself playing in a little sand pile outside our backyard, with toy cars and trucks on an imaginary town or ranch I created. I loved to invent the storyline of me driving around on roads in a truck. Oh, the freedom of it. I’m not even sure where I got the idea of a ranch, maybe from a little story book? or maybe having an imprint from going with mother past farms? Regardless of where it came from, it existed and for some inexplicable reason, it brought structure, organization and inventiveness to my world.
And the sun. I was always aware of light—bright, bold, effervescent light!
Why this memory sticks in my mind at all is mysterious, other than to say the 𝐌𝐞𝐦𝐨𝐫𝐲 also included a sense of something else that existed: nameless, peaceful, reassuring, warm. It was more reassuring and peaceful even than my mother although I had a strong impression she contained a solid measure of those qualities.
But this is from the rearview mirror. Regardless, naming it at the time was not relevant. All I knew was that I felt the scene’s quiet power. It was carried by the sun’s light and heat, existing in the space both within my being and outside of it, separated only by a thin but potent membrane. I was aware of this otherness through not only light and sunshine but also nature, other physical elements of the world.
Light seemed to be a primary delivery, however, communicating in a wordless language. And as much as I knew anything, it was my first crude memory of a sense of being cared for, by protection that was massive even beyond my mother but included her too. I’d be tempted to call it love with a capital L, maybe Divine, but I knew of no such construct then.
The other significant memory occurred at around two and a half. I had a lump on the side of my right eye, near the temple. I think my mother had been fretting about it for quite some time. As it happens, she took me to an eye doctor and it was confirmed to be a cyst, a reasonably benign protrusion, harmless in and of itself. While I didn’t understand that at the time, I had a sense of no real danger. If anything, I had an awareness it was of more concern to my mother, which stands in stark contrast to her otherwise unflappable demeanor.
I was told this particular cyst was problematic because of its location. Internally, it was pressing on my optic nerve and had the potential to compromise vision in that eye. Okay. But events overtook any crude understanding I had of the situation. One morning my mother led me by the hand, purposefully, walking across a large lobby. Bizarrely, I remember her walking quickly. This is bizarre in that it was out of character for my mother to do anything quickly. It simply was not her style—for walking, working, or anything else. Normally her gait was slow, methodical, determined, anything but quick. I’m assuming she had some sense of urgency about this little trip to the doctor’s office. This perception was new information for me.
The next part of the memory is hazy. I remember being in a little room, my mother speaking with the doctor, and him talking to her, then me. But I didn’t understand what either of them were telling me, not really. The best I can cobble together is of her saying I was to have a little procedure. She may have used the word procedure, surgery, etc. I cannot say. What I best remember was that I had to come back to have the cyst taken out.
IT’S NOT NICE TO TRAUMATIZE SMALL CHILDREN
Whether the procedure was the next day or a week later I do not know. Regardless, at some point I found myself again being led by the hand across a lobby and into a small room. Mother tried to explain that I had to stay overnight in the hospital, though I don’t really recall. What I do recall is a gauzy image of her trying to comfort me, that “everything will be fine” once the cyst was gone. She also swears she had explained more about what was to happen, that my eyes would be patched after the surgery but it would be temporary. Did I know what Temporary was?
All description about this cyst and the resultant eye surgery has likely been reinforced over the years while my mother was alive and throughout my childhood when I would bring it up. Even in my young adult years, I would question her about the event, all in an effort to understand why this was so upsetting to me even years later.
The only reason I questioned her was because I had a lingering fright and even greater confusion as to the event’s meaning, along with the actual events themselves. Memory is a funny thing, the perception of a very small child in particular. It gets filtered through limited language and even less comprehension, as to its meaning. Perception by definition is distorted and memory further distorts what was initially perceived.
There are two aspects, scenes really, mother could never explain, memories that she was not physically present for. After leaving me in the hands of a nurse the day of the procedure, the nurse put a little nightgown on me. Then she took me to a large room that was very, very cold. There was a lot of light in that room but I swear, even the light was cold. This was NOT like the light experienced in the sand pile. It was its opposite! The nurse helped me onto a very cold table while trying to explain what was to happen.
I recall a man—the doctor?—coming over to the table and saying a word or two. None of what he said do I recall. Rather, the scene is fixed like a cartoon character’s “wha-wha” description from Charles Schultz’s Snoopy before he leaves, goes over to the other side of the room to what I think must have been a sink. The nurse at my side whispers something to me and all goes black.
The next thing I remember is waking up in a bed and screaming. Desperately. Both of my eyes were covered, thick patches obliterating sight, even light! I continued screaming even after a nurse came in and tried to shush me. I thought the doctor had removed my eyes! How would I navigate the world? I was terrified and would not be consoled.
Evidently, the nurse tried to explain my eyes were there, they were just covered to protect them after the operation. Regardless, I had no faith in what she said because all I knew was that I could not see, believing instead there were no eyes to see from. Distorted as it may have been, my fast conclusion was to rely on myself and not anything she was telling me.
The hospital must have called my mother because I was told later that I kept screaming until she came, that no one else could calm me. How mother convinced me my eyes were still there I couldn’t tell you. I don’t remember her words but I do remember her energy. My mother was never a very affectionate woman but she was calm, reliable, steadfast, to be counted on. I knew that even then as sure as I knew there was a sun and a moon. But there was a change, palpable and real, in how I perceived her and more importantly, myself. A kind of doubt crept in. It was about the world and me in it.
WHAT YOU THINK YOU SEE IS NOT WHAT’S THERE
At some point I go home. The patches have been removed. I can see again but there is a difference in what it is I think I see. While everything looks the same, my perception has changed, my understanding of what I can count on is off kilter. I am told I have to go back in a week or two to have stitches removed which seems like such a small thing at this point.
I suppose one could draw all kinds of conclusions from this traumatic event for a very small child. Without entirely realizing it, however, perceptions occurred in my little brain as a consequence of all that had come before. The first was that my mother was cemented in my mind, and I suppose my heart, in her reliability, her constancy. After the surgery, however, the gravitational pull of her felt weakened and, in a turn, the gravity of her love and protection changed, modified somehow. My impression now included some inexplicable need to look to my small self for verification of the world and all things in it.
The second was that I firmly believed—without knowing I believed —the brightness of the sun had dimmed, was remote in a way that turned me into a separate “me” and less connected to that brightness as if I had been cast off from it. A sense of separateness and on my own had replaced the previous feeling of connectedness. No notion of a greater Other existed as comprehensively as the impression I previously held from the sand pile days, and of mother! It was a kind of grief I didn’t understand. Though not completely gone, it would be some years before I felt that powerful presence, and 50-plus years before I recontextualized my life.