It’s my seventeenth birthday. I woke up to the sound of mom begging Elley to eat something. Mornings are always hectic. Elley was trying to put together a 50 piece jigsaw that lay scattered over the kitchen table. While I never gave much thought to what I will eat in the morning, it usually takes Elley triple the amount of time to choose between Rice Krispies and Captain Crunch. I could never understand why, because they look the same to me. My mom wished me the quickest “Happy Birthday, sweetheart” ever uttered, and finally chose Captain Crunch for Elley. Thanks, Mom.
Less than three minutes later, I heard the familiar two honks outside on my driveway. I peered outside the kitchen’s bay window to see Finnigan standing outside his navy Subaru with a helium balloon and cupcake. I shut the back door and muttered goodbye. When we arrived at Rose Hill, my parents preparatory school of choice, I saw Clara approaching the front door of the main building. She whipped around when we made eye contact and ran full force towards the car, arms out, practically slamming into the window. I got out quick enough to give her a hug before she broke something.
“Happy Birthday best friend! I can’t wait to celebrate with you this weekend. At 6:03 AM it was official! Seventeen will be the best one yet,” she smiled exuberantly.
At least two people besides om and Elley were genuinely excited to see me.
“Thanks, Clara. I can’t wait either. Finn and I are going out to dinner tonight – I’m definitely not spending it at home.”
“Is everything okay?” she questioned.
Before I got the chance to respond, the warning bell rang and I was already walking in the opposite direction. I didn’t have the time to explain myself.
Halfway through fifth period Calculus, my phone started buzzing. It was Dad, who was on a business trip in Japan for the rest of the week.
“Excuse me, are we interrupting you, Jaqueline?” asked Ms. Carey.
“No, no it’s just I haven’t spoken to my Dad in a whi—”
“I don’t really care what the reason is. Turn it off or I will have to confiscate it.”
“I’m really sorry,” I whispered as I tried to cover the tears welling up inside my eyes.
I calmly got up and signed out to go the bathroom. The normal, cubicle stalls were full so I locked myself in the handicap one and listened to the voicemail. He was wishing me a happy birthday at 6:03 AM on his time, which really was 2:03 PM here. Obviously, I would forgive the mixup. I just missed him so much, because he still had three days left in his trip and was leaving for Boston five days after he returned.
I finally finished the day after what felt like years. On the car ride home, Finn and I blared my throwbacks playlist with the windows down and the sunroof open. I put my hand out and caught the air as we sped along. He dropped me back off at my house at 3:45 so I could get ready for my birthday dinner. As I jogged inside, I almost didn’t notice my Dad’s black Audi in the driveway.
“DAD!” I screamed. “You’re home! I thought you had another three days?”
“I just couldn’t stand to miss your birthday.”
Mom came down with a cupcake and a lit candle in the center.
“I got turquoise frosting to try to match your birthstone.”
It felt like a massive wave had hit me from behind. How could she forget?
“Mom, is this a joke?”
My eyes welled up again, but this time I couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down my face. Hot, angry tears fell past my cheek and pooled by my chin before transferring onto my shirt.
“I— I’m so sorry, Jaquie. I forgot. I’m so sorry.”
Most of our conversations nowadays end up with me sprinting upstairs and locking my door until she apologizes.
“Mom, you can’t forget this often. You know I can’t see “turquoise”, whatever that even means. Even Clara has never forgotten. I can’t believe this!! ”
“Sweetie, I’ve been under so much stress with Elley. You know this wasn’t intentional.”
But somehow, it felt like it was intentional. Elley gets the most attention because of her disability, which I have no issue understanding. All I can ask for is a tiny bit more on my birthday, at the least. What was supposed to be “turquoise” frosting, on top of vanilla cake with a “fushia” candle, only appeared as muted shades of grey when I stared hard. Maybe I could see what I was missing if I looked long enough. That plan failed, and then I walked, not ran, to my bedroom and fell asleep with the same tears in my eyes. I woke up to my phone buzzing. Three texts from Finn lit up the screen, asking where I was and if I was okay. I forgot about our dinner date, and now it was ten o’clock at night.
Basically, less than 0.0001% of the population has my type of color blindness – Achromatopsia. It is completely grey-scale color blindness, so essentially I see no real color whatsoever. The condition is even more rare since I am a female, and the majority of those affected by color blindness are male. My pediatrician said I was just one of the unlucky ones. That was all before Elley was born. I didn’t even realize I was color-blind until the second grade. We went on a two-day field trip to the San Diego Zoo, where my class marveled at the pink flamingos. Besides size, I couldn’t spot the main difference between them and the hippopotamus. A few weeks later in the grocery store, mom asked me to pick out a bunch of green unripe bananas, to which I returned with a handful of overripe speckled brown ones.
The following evening, Finn called again to go out and make up for the night before. I still felt awful that I missed our date. He understood the situation with my family almost as well as Clara – only my closest friends knew that my sister has Down Syndrome. Finn and I sometimes go to the outlook point, which is the highest (walkable) point in Santa Monica. If you stand at the right angle, you can see basically everything that we call home, and the ocean is right on the other side. The outlook is connected to a steep set of stairs that leave you standing in the water at the bottom during high tide. The ocean is my favorite place on this Earth because I can go there to think without any interference from the real world. I think the sound of the water flowing makes up for every color I can’t see. Finn takes me there when he knows I’m especially despondent. On this night, the sun is setting over the water and Finn tells me the sky is a portrait of watercolors. Swaths of red, orange and purple filter over the aquamarine waves and seafoam gathers around our feet. In a place where I usually am filled with joy, I found myself starting to cry again.
I love Elley with all my heart, but she takes a lot out of buy parents. I used to compete over attention with Elley when I was younger. The more she screamed, the louder I would yell. When she learned a new word, I would have already finished a challenging book. Not that it would have solved any of the prominent issues, but my coping mechanism was flawed at the beginning. Sometimes I truly think she’s robbed them from their happiness, and maybe that’s why Dad can never be home, because he wasn’t meant to cope with it. I could probably do more to help, but mom is her primary caretaker. She does everything for Elley that she can’t do on her own. That means that most of the time, Elley is the priority and my parents save the majority of our interactions for after Elley is asleep. They’ve both been there for me, but it’s just not the same anymore.
The next morning was overcast. The sky was grey, just as usual, but there were clouds covering the Sun’s shadows. Overcast days can be some of the prettiest to me, because everything looks different without the Sun’s usual contrast. I look in the mirror and see the same face looking back. Sometimes, Clara will ask what I think I look like, and then try to describe the colors of my hair and skin (which never works out.) I am aware my hair is auburn, my skin is tan, and apparently I have good taste in fashion, but I can’t see myself. I’ve learned to not let it affect me because if it did, I would never be satisfied. The thing is, I can’t even know what I’m missing, so I can’t be upset. The day came and went like the tide. At 3:31 AM, mom burst into my room.
“Elley is having seizures. We have to take her to the hospital, right now.”
Down Syndrome is comorbid with Epilepsy (they commonly occur together), so Elley experiences seizures often and we have to bring her to the hospital when there’s a flare up. It hurt to see Elley fall ill again, and in that moment I regretted every bad thought I’ve had about her.
“I have two finals at school tomorrow that I really can’t miss.” I moaned. “Do you mind if I stay with the Clara until you get back?”
“That is fine.”
I wanted to hug mom but she immediately turned around, closed my door, and jogged towards Elley’s room. I quickly packed a bag with only the essentials and took the car to Clara’s. Luckily her parents consider me as kind of a second child, even at two in the morning, and welcomed me inside when they heard the news.
My parents came home two days later. They rolled Elley up the wooden ramp that Dad had built especially for her. I felt guilty. As much as I wanted to be relieved that she was home safe, I was guilty for the terrible feelings I harbored only 48 hours prior. Elley could have easily died while I was worried about finals and the attention she was getting. Pathetic. I couldn’t stand to bear her presence in the house. It was daunting. Every word she spoke was piercing my ears. Every giggle hurt that much more.
I went back to Clara’s just to keep myself busy. I pulled into her driveway and she was standing in the garden with her mom, collecting fresh tomatoes from their garden. It was almost dinner time, and I realized I had imposed myself on them at an inconvenient moment. Nonetheless, Clara ran over to the car to ask how Elley was doing. I replied and nodded my head, but then the tears came. They were unstoppable.
“Jaquie. It’s okay to cry. I have something for you, but only when we get to the beach. ”
She ran into her house and returned with a small box wrapped in polka-dot wrapping paper with an oversized bow. She held it in her lap on the way to the water. We parked at the lookout and slowly made our way down the stairs. The waves swarmed our ankles. Few clouds rested in the sky, and as I glared into the distance, Clara turned towards me.
“I wanted to give you this on your actual birthday, but I never got the chance.”
She handed me the tightly wrapped box and motioned to open it. I slowly took apart the paper which revealed another cardboard box labeled “Enchroma”.
“What is this?”
I teared off the tape and lifted open the cover. A pair of black wayfarer-style sunglasses sat in tissue paper.
“Close your eyes. And no peeking!”
She took them out of the box and placed them on the bridge of my nose.
“Open your eyes.”
It was bright. So bright. Everything was right there in front of me. I turned to Clara while choking on another burst of tears and asked,
“Can I see what you see?
Swaths of fuschia were in front of my eyes. It was so real. The clouds were so much whiter than I ever imagined, but with the colors of the sunset floating behind them. The water brushed against my legs, but this time the light reflected off the shimmery turquoise surface. It was Elley I thought of first. Suddenly, everything locked into place like a jigsaw puzzle. The last wave came up past my feet and brought all of the pain I carried back out to sea.