Says one judge: “I love the rhythm of the language, and the advances — and personal/social limitations — in the tech. Overall, positive without being … beholden to technology.”
“Mom, what is dad doing out there? Isn’t it dangerous for him?”
The little girl’s mother glanced up from her book through the sliding glass doors to the deck and down to the worn wooden landing where Carl sat, feet dangling in the water, hands in his lap, staring out across the placid lake to the woods beyond with eyes that could not see. The sun was slowly sinking below the tree line submerging the area in hues of pink and orange.
“You know he’s fine, baby. He’s been coming down to sit on that mooring since before he was your age. He knows where everything is and his place amidst it all. This property has been in the family since your ancestors escaped the South before the Civil War. Your dad is pretty much a living part of this place.” She put a marker in her book, setting it on the table as she stood up.
She smiled and put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder, “You ever see him miss a step here or at home?”
Natalia was wearing what her mother referred to as the ‘doubting face’. She was unconvinced but could not ignore her mother’s point. If her father knew a place, he really knew it despite his blindness.
“Yeah, I guess so.” She went to the fridge, not sure what she wanted but feeling hungry and knowing she had to get a bite in before the call to brush her teeth.
Pausing at the portal to a bounty of popsicles, she declared, “Mom, when I get older, I am going to build him new eyes. Then we’ll know he’s safe for sure.”
* * * * *
“Mr. Gray, we are going to scale up the interface with the neural lace. You should not feel anything, but you may notice the irises of the ocular implants as they respond to the light. If you could please keep your eyes closed until we tell you open them, that would be great.”
Carl chuckled, “You know you have my eyes covered with a blindfold, right Karen?”
“Dad, this is serious business. You are going to get some significant sensory overload if you move through this too quickly. No funny business!”
Carl turned his head in the direction of Natalia’s voice, “You got it, Doc. Although I would like to note the only serious business in this place are those patently offensive Howard University earrings dangling from your ear lobes. The shame of it all!”
“Bison for life.” How on earth does he know I am wearing these?
“Go Bears!” he responded in the same tit‐for‐tat dialogue they had repeated no less than a million times since she had chosen Howard over his beloved Morgan State for undergrad those many years ago. She could just see her mom rolling eyes at the two of them. She felt a quick pang of regret. If only mom could have been here to see me fulfill this promise.
At that moment Tania Park and Alex Benson entered the exam room. It was almost time.
“How is our patient this morning?” It was Doctor Park who spoke, her ubiquitous cylinder of coffee in one hand and her screen in the other.
“Ah, the triumvirate is now complete,” Carl quipped. “As you can see, quite normal.”
Tania laughed. Alex smiled but did not look up from his tablet. The three of them had worked for years on the Vizi‐Lace treatment, each of them the lead of a team working on specific aspects of the project: Natalia had designed the hardware, the physical implants, with a team from Johns Hopkins; Alex and his company, NeuTronics, had created the software, algorithms and wireless; and Tania’s team, also from Hopkins, the biochemical “adhesions” that tied the neural lace in Carl’s brain and the implants to his biological “circuitry”. The technique and technology had long since exited the trial phases and entered into mainstream treatment. They had all been brought together here because of their special patient, who had been one of the first to sign up, but given the volume of people clamoring for the treatment and the hospital’s concerns over the “optics” of a researcher’s father being given preferential handling, he had been waitlisted for some time before even being allowed to screen for the procedure three years prior.
“Doctors, Mr. Benson, the ocular pre‐diagnostic is green, wireless is up, and neural lace is operating within optimal parameters. We are ready to begin.” Karen was one of those invaluable journeymen fashioned from brains and experience – a nurse, IT specialist and robotics troubleshooting jack‐of‐all trades who Natalia loved for her ability to get things done.
“3‐2‐1 liftoff!” Carl joked. It was clear he was nervous.
Natalia rolled a stool to Carl’s side and sat down. “OK, dad, it’s time. Your brain cells have formed excellent connections with the neural lace, the ultra‐thin mesh we injected two years ago. With these mesh electronics, we can monitor your brain activity and have been able to validate your ocular implants are integrated properly and will function. As you know, this type of mesh interface is very much like those we have used to treat Parkinson’s disease and many forms of autism and executive functioning disorders. Our use of this technology to treat blindness, eye trauma and many diseases of vision have been standard medical practice for a decade now and continue to improve. In short, we’ve got this.”
“Thanks, Nat, I’m ready.”
Tania stepped around the exam table to Carl’s other side and stood opposite Natalia. “Mr. Gray, just as a reminder, I know Natalia has discussed with you some of the potential side effects and disorientation you may feel when you begin to see. Your entire life has been spent with one kind of adaptive sensory perception and we will be adding another you have never used before. It is often the case, particularly in adults, for there to be a kind of visual agnosia.”
“Doctor Park, just a reminder that I was a liberal arts major, but really all I am is an artist who likes to squish clay. Can you refresh my recollection as to that term you just used?”
“Certainly, Mr. Gray,” she glimpsed at Natalia who nodded back.
“Visual agnosia is the inability to recognize and identify familiar objects, which is not surprising as from a visual standpoint they are completely unfamiliar to people who have always been blind. You have always used your tactile and auditory abilities, your senses of touch and hearing, to compensate for your inability to see. So, for example, you know what this table is by touching it and its spatial location perhaps with clicks of a cane and by physically walking by it.
“You know what a table is, but you have never seen it. For you to see an object, your eye needs to detect it and your brain needs to identify it. When you first see a table, you are not going to have the capability necessarily to comprehend that the flat circle with four tubes you are seeing is a ‘table’ because you have never seen one. You may only see the table as a collection of shapes, so you will need dedicated practice over a period of time to train your brain to identify it as a table.
“In our experience, you may also have some difficulty with spatial recognition. We have developed a number of exercises to help you acclimate, but it will require concerted effort on your part.”
“Practice makes perfect, I get it.”
The lights were dimmed. “Dad, it is going to take time for you to adapt. We have downloaded experiential algorithms to your neural lace to give your brain the false sense that you have seen before, and that your two eyes have previously worked in concert to form a joint percept out of their slightly different orientations. But even though this software will be particularly helpful with respect to limiting initial confusion in spatial recognition and stereo vision, you will definitely still feel disorientation at first.”
“Baby, I have no idea what you just said, but don’t worry. I am ready to roll.” Carl gave a thumbs up.
“OK. You can take the eye mask off and open your eyes.”
Not one to hesitate, Carl promptly took off his blinders. “Blinders for the blind – you can’t make this stuff up!” He opened his eyes.
Natalia had seen this moment so many times before with her patients, and it was always something. This time it was her dad. Her dad! A lifetime of devotion to science and engineering, Howard, MIT, Hopkins – all in an effort to improve lives, all had boiled down to this moment.
Carl sat still and blinked, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. This was not what he had expected, but he had not known at all what to expect. The room was blurry, indistinct. He had never seen brightness before and it was overwhelming, even dimmed, like what sighted people would experience after walking into a sunny summer day after having their pupils dilated by iodine after a visit to the optometrist. Of course, he could not know what that was like, so he did not even try to describe it. He couldn’t. He squinted, trying to make out these shapes he had never experienced before except through contact and listening.
There was a churning of colors and while he could not make sense of any of the things or people in the room, he was mesmerized. Which one is red, and which yellow? he wondered.
“Readings are all in appropriate parameters.” Karen’s voice seemed distant, like it was coming from down the hallway.
“Dad? How are you doing?”
Carl turned to the source of his daughter’s voice. He could make out her silhouette, the white of her lab coat blending together with her dark caramel skin in his hazy vision like some kind of human yin and yang.
“It’s beautiful, and frightening and…new. Thank you so much for this gift, Natalia. I am so proud of you, and I know your mother is, too, from on high.”
The next several months were spent with “visual rehabilitation”, which consisted of monitored games and exercises that required Carl to work with new concepts of space and distance. With the experiential software created by NeuTronics, he was able to much more quickly train his brain to use stereo vision and also to recognize objects without closing his eyes and touching them. The neural lace not only allowed him to see but combined with the software “artificial muscle memory” he and other formerly blind people were able to much more quickly acclimate to their newly granted vision.
Within a year, Carl was back in his studio, sculpting, sometimes with his eyes, but most of the time still without using them. Old habits died hard, and he preferred to make art the way he always had.
He had taken up painting, because he loved colors and particularly enjoyed setting swirls of different hues on canvas, even though it all “looked like a unicorn vomited over a rainbow.” He painted for himself, and that was enough.
His only lingering difficulty was with understanding subtle facial expressions. He could grasp obvious frowns and laughter, but a curled lip or pout or sneer was lost on him. He also hated mimes and clowns for reasons he did not
provide, only noting that those were art forms that “should be thrown in the ashbin of history.”
It was two o’clock in the morning, just after the first‐year anniversary of his “vision day”, when Natalia’s phone rang. She immediately shot awake on the first ring, while James, her husband, just gently snored through the interruption.
How nice that must be? She would now most likely find it impossible to go back to sleep – once she was awake, her body would not shut down. She saw it was her father and quickly snapped the mobile to her wrist and answered as
she left the room to head downstairs to the kitchen.
“Dad, it’s so early, it’s not even the crack of dawn yet. What’s going on?”
“Natalia, I just had a dream. In color. Of you and your mother at the lake house when you were in maybe first or second grade. I could see your mom, and it was like she was right there with me. It felt so real. I just needed to share that with you.”
“Oh my gosh, dad. I would like to think that she actually was there.”
“Me, too, Nat. Me too. I think I will take that as a sign and head up to the lake house tomorrow. You should bring James and the kids. It has been a while.”
“Sure thing, dad. Good night – I love you.”
The next day, Carl closed the studio at lunchtime and drove from the city to the lake. He would never trust himself to drive; even with his ever‐increasing acuity, there was still too much disassociation between his surroundings and his brain’s ability to identify objects in his environment. He set the car to autopilot and relaxed to watch the milieu change from city to suburbs to trees.
After several hours, he arrived at the house, promptly dropped his things in the kitchen, slipped off his sandals and walked straight to the dock. It was a beautiful late afternoon and he was going to enjoy it.
After some time, Natalia arrived. “Mind if I join you?”
“I would love that, Nat, and your six friends are welcome, too” Carl responded and motioned her to take a seat beside him. “Family not coming?”
She sat down placing the clinking six‐pack between them, popped the caps off two and handed him one. “No, the boys have a lacrosse game tomorrow morning, so I get you all to
myself.” She noticed he had his eyes closed as he nodded and took a deep whiff of the bottle.
“You got your old man Backwoods Bastard!” Carl guffawed. “My favorite brewery with your momma’s sense of humor. Cheers, darling!”
They toasted and each took a draft. It was then Natalia noticed his monitor was by his side with no readings and the battery indicator blank. “Dad, are your implants OK? The monitor is out of power.”
“They are fine, Natalia, I just turned them off.”
“Why? Are they malfunctioning? Maybe I should perform a diagnostic test.”
“No, Nat, they are operating exactly as you designed them.” He sighed and opened his eyes, staring into the distance despite his inability to see.
“Then why turn them off?”
“Sometimes, I feel more comfortable being blind. More in tune. These implants you developed not only allow me to see the human spectrum, but have settings for night vision,
thermal vision, ultraviolet vision. I appreciate all of this technology, but sometimes it’s too much. I’m not a Navy Seal, what do I need night vision for?”
“Dad, it sounds like you didn’t really want them. Wasn’t it a dream come true to see mom’s face, to see me?” She sounded hurt.
“Sweetheart, I was always blind, so I never missed being able to see. I never prayed for vision – I never saw the point of wishing such things. And I did not need eyes to see you, my most precious creation.” He put down his bottle and gently held her face in his hands. “I know your
face’s every pore, your hair’s every kink, your bones down to the atoms. You’ve seen my art, the sculptures of you and your mother, exact replicas that I “saw” with my fingertips. I never needed eyes to see you – I have seen you your entire life.”
“Then why did you agree to the procedure?”
“Because it was the only way for me to experience your art, and baby, I would not miss that for the world and a slice of heaven.”
They both teared up, and he put his arm around her. They sat there quietly for a time and their tears subsided.
“Nat, do you remember asking me, every time we stayed at this house, why I came out to this dock by myself and just stared across this lake?”
“Yes – same place, same position, what seemed like hours at a time.”
“I couldn’t explain it before, but this is my…my church.”
To this, Natalia raised an eyebrow.
Carl chuckled, “Now, now, I don’t need my implants on to feel the ‘doubtful look’, so before you start channeling your momma to verbally whoop me into submission, I do not mean it in place of our brick and mortar place of worship. I mean, I always felt this place, originally erected by our blood in this otherwise untouched wilderness, built by hand by escaped slaves for themselves and their own kin, this place was like the “Church of Me”. A place where a blind boy could commune with his lineage and all of God’s creation, and perhaps be more in tune with it precisely because he could not see.
“I do love this precious gift you have given me, Natalia, but sometimes the tech, the options, the vast amount of input, is too much and I need to unplug, especially when I want to get in touch with that boy. Do you want to try?”
“Close your eyes. Put your hands on your lap. Let your feet just ever so slightly touch the water, almost like they are hovering, on the liquid but not submersed. It’s like you can feel the coolness of the water without getting your feet wet. The sensation of the wind, the murmur of the trees. The crickets, the bullfrogs and katydids, they are speaking to us. If we are lucky, we may hear a whippoorwill or two, or even an owl. Just breathe and listen.”
And they sat in the dark, star lit night, enjoying the touch and sounds of their sanctum.