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I Can’t See Pictures in My Head

Editor’s Note: This piece was a finalist in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

Visual imagination is like a superpower or a sixth sense: We take it for granted. On demand, we conjure up images of those we hold most dear: family, friends, our beloved pets. We envision people, places and things that we’d like to experience in the future. We revisit cherished memories simply by picturing them, essentially reliving them, all in our mind’s eye.

That is, unless you have aphantasia—like me.

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The Dining-Room Caper

After fifteen years as a physical therapist in the long-term care industry, I’d vowed never again to get overly attached to a resident. Although I accepted my patients’ inevitable physical and cognitive declines, the deaths of those I had cherished took too much of an emotional toll: It felt like losing a grandparent, repeatedly.

Then William entered our facility.

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The Difference

My patients do not speak. Or rather, my patients do not speak using words. Instead, they have taught me the art of body language—of noises, expressions and postures.

I read the movement of ears, the way pupils dilate or constrict. Watch for the tremors, for the hunch of a spine, for the described bows or stretches that could indicate abdominal spasm. Search for the hint of a leg being favored, for the inaudible signs of pain. Wait for tongues darting over lips. Offer food that may be sniffed at or turned away from. I’ve learned to respond to fear with gentleness, to preempt the sharpness of tooth or claw with slow movements.

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Happiness Loves Company

I remember the first time I saw the gates of the Missionaries of Charity home for the destitute and dying, on the outskirts of my hometown, Pune, in western India.

I must have been nine or ten. To my annoyance, my parents had woken me early that Sunday morning to go with them to visit the home and bring donations of clothes and other necessities.

“How much longer, Papa?” I kept asking as we drove.

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What’s Wrong With You?

Editor’s Note: This piece was awarded an honorable mention in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

The words cut through my mind and hit me in the gut. My fragile fifteen-year-old ego splintered like a glass cup slipping through fingers onto hardwood.

Tears welled up, and my lips pursed, ready to respond. But I couldn’t find the words—for in that moment, I truly knew that I was broken, I was ugly, I was wrong. And even my mother knew it.

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Things I Did While Waiting for My Husband’s MRI to Happen

1. Reread the stern words, hammered into a sterile printout. The scope results: a scythe. Images of an alien inhabiting his inner world.

2. Notice the footprints on our living-room floor. Briefly consider cleaning.

3. Three breaths later. Hug him. Hug the kids. Hug myself. Hug the dogs. Tilt my head when he says that he doesn’t want to hug right now.

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Another Way to Listen

Editor’s Note: This piece was a finalist in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

“David, from this moment forward, you’ll need to listen with your heart.”

It’s been forty years since I heard these words, but they ring as clearly in my mind as if it were yesterday.

My night nurse, Jill, whispered them into my left ear—the only one still able to hear after my fourteen-hour brain surgery to remove a tangerine-sized growth from the acoustic nerve, which affects hearing and balance.

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Over the Rainbow

Two days after the bus crash, I died. It was March 1996. A bus traveling at 60 mph had hit the car I was in, shattering my fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae and instantly paralyzing me from the shoulders down.

I was only twenty years old, and father to a one-year-old son. I spent the following forty-eight hours at a nearby hospital, on life support in the ICU. I couldn’t speak or breathe on my own.

I survived those two days on a sense of faith, expressed in a mantra: This is just temporary.

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Hot Water Cures (Almost) Everything

Editor’s Note: This piece was a finalist in the Pulse writing contest, “On Being Different.”

If, like my parents, you had immigrated across the world to America with only $200 to your name, feeling hesitant to speak whenever you needed something for fear of people doubting your intellect, you might develop a certain degree of wary self-reliance.

My parents have had to fight for everything they’ve achieved here, including voices that would be heeded despite their accents, and equal treatment despite looking different.

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