“We just assumed,” says Craig.
His baby daughter had slept so much, as all do, and when she was awake, it seemed as though she could see.
We both look down next to the table at the bundle of pink, still curled up in her car seat, sleeping. Waiters bustle around the patio with stacked plates while dozens of conversations swell and taper around us.
“She made eye contact?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says. “We’d talk to her and she’d look straight at us. The dog would bark, and she’d turn to see what was what.”
“But it wasn’t – ”
“No. That was just her hearing it.”
I sip my soda and watch him watch her. Just take Craig out to lunch and give him a little encouragement, my wife Emma said. Let him know he’s going to be a great father. She reminded me that he’d wanted to be one for so long and they’d tried for so long. She told me now he blames himself for her eyes.
“I feel terrible not knowing sooner,” says Craig.
“How could you have?”
“I know, I know. But I knew we should have done the modern medical thing. It was there in my mind. I thought about it. But Molly and I had these ideas.” He leans back and scrapes his fingernails through his hair. “We wanted it to be natural. You know, just us and her.”
“Sure, of course,” I say. I get it. I’m a doctor and used to all the machines, graphs, and blips – all the uniforms rushing in and rushing out, all the dull metallic instruments peeled from airtight wrappers.
“Could they really have caught it,” he asks, “you know, if we’d done the modern thing?”
“Probably not,” I say, meaning not right away. They most likely would have in follow-ups, fairly early on. But why tell him? At his daughter’s age, in the few early months we’re talking about, knowing wouldn’t have made much of a difference. And anyways, my wife Emma is right – what he really wants are more avenues through which he can feel the blame. I’ve seen this before in parents of patients, and I can’t find any fault in it. When something goes wrong with a child that young? Your child? You want to take that hurt away, and make it your own.
Lunch arrives. We pick at our sandwiches. His daughter stirs in the car seat when a group at the table across from us erupts in laughter. He leans over and whispers something to her and she calms down.
When he looks back up, I see pain in his forehead, in the corners of his mouth, beneath his eyes.
“Craig,” I say. “You did just fine. And you wouldn’t have been able to do anything different, even if you had known.”
“We just weren’t looking for it,” he says.
“Of course not,” I say. “Why would you?”
He takes a sip of water and clears his throat. “We found out last Saturday. We were out with her stroller in the sun and she didn’t squint.”
I say nothing.
He picks up his sandwich and puts it right back down. “But this is what gets me.” He’s looking at his daughter again. “Even before then, we talked about it. Molly wondered. She had that intuition. But we didn’t do anything. I told her she was being dramatic. I know; it’s terrible. We were both so tired.”
“I might have said the same thing. And anyways, sleep deprivation makes you crazy.”
“But do you know why I said she was being dramatic? Do you know how I convinced her everything was okay?” He handles his sandwich and stuffs a stray piece of lettuce back underneath the bread. Then he again looks at his daughter. “The little one smiled.”
“You mean – ”
“Yeah, she smiled at us. We’d say good morning sweetheart and she’d smile back at us and laugh. I told Molly no way she does that if, you know. No way.”
“But then, when we finally went to the doctor, do you know what he said?”
I shake my head.
“No offense, but the prick said it was a survival response. Nothing more. He said even blind children smile so that their parents will grow attached to them. Survival. That’s it.” With his fork, Craig spears a cut of melon in the small fruit bowl next to his plate.
I don’t know what to say. I suspect the doctor was only trying to do then precisely what I’m trying to do now. Craig just can’t see it.
He leaves his fork in the melon and again looks at his daughter. He reaches over to touch her feet, but she wriggles and stretches out, one arm above her head, fist clenched, and grunts. “I can’t believe he said that,” says Craig. “A survival response. Like there’s no us and her. Like there’s nothing between us.”
I am about to explain to him what the doctor probably meant, when his daughter smacks her lips and begins blinking her eyes. I watch Craig’s face soften and his shoulders relax. He looked so burdened a moment ago.
“Good morning sweetheart,” he says.
She opens her gummy mouth wide and smiles.
He picks her up and holds her with his left arm, tight against his shoulder, then shuts, and with his thumb and fingers, rubs deeply into his eyes.
Ross McMeekin’s fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in publications such as Pank, Hobart, Fiddleblack, and the Portland Review, and his essays have appeared in The Rumpus and Hunger Mountain. He received a MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He edits the literary journal Spartan and blogs at www.rossmcmeekin.com