Struck Blind: A Story Of Hope

ithout warning, a rare disease was robbing me of my vision. In a frantic race against the darkness, I studied the faces of my daughter and husband, committing them to memory. For I knew I might never see them again.

March 8, 1991

I rub my eyes when I wake up I and find a sticky wetness on my cheeks. I’d been dreaming about my brother, Robin, and I must have been crying in my sleep.

I go into the bathroom, and bring my face close to the mirror. Without my contact lenses in, my reflection is blurry. I grope for my glasses beside the bed, and go look again.

I still can’t see anything wrong except that my right eye is wet, the lashes clumped into points. I hold a washcloth against the eye. If it’s some kind of infection, at least it hasn’t spread to the other eye.

“Sangre!”

riThe scream startles me. It is Teresa, our 4-year-old daughter’s nanny. She is holding Kelsey’s medicine bottle in her hand. She must have come into the bathroom to ask me a question. Kelsey had been in the hospital with a respiratory infection and last highs, after we’d brought her home, was the first time Kenny and I had had a full night’s sleep in three days.

“Sangre!” Teresa screams again.

I have no idea what she’s saying, but her screams are frightening me.

She reaches out, pulling the wash-cloth away gently. “Blood!” she shouts.

Now blood is a word I understand.

“What blood? Where?” I ask

She points to my eye and the wash-cloth. I look, but I don’t see anything. I go back into the bedroom. Teresa follows me. I start to call out for my husband and then remember it’s Sunday morning, Kenny’s birthday, and a group of his friends have taken him out early to play tennis.

I hear my daughter calling to me from her room. Our loud voices must have woken her. “Teresa,” I say, trying to sound calm. “Please take care of Kelsey.

I don’t want her to see me.” I grab the phone to call friends for help. I give up after I reach the second answering machine and decide to drive myself over to the clinic. I take a small pillow off the bed and hold it against my right eye. The cushion makes it feel better, like a big, soft bandage. I sit there for a few minutes, taking deep breaths.

I feel our dog, Jake, licking me and sniffing around the pillow. Then something occurs to me: Jake sleeps on the bed with us. Maybe he got his paw in my eye. He’s scratched my cheek before. He must’ve cut the outside of my eyelid, and I can’t see it in the mirror because my eye is open when I’m looking at it.

This theory calms me. I grab the car keys, shout to Teresa that I am going to the doctor’s, and head out the door.

The clinic is only four blocks away. I stare straight ahead, still holding the pillow against my injured eye. At the traffic light, I notice my left hand gripping the wheel so tightly that my knuckles are white. I take a deep breath. Just a scratch, I tell myself. I might need an antibiotic ointment. Maybe some sutures. I flinch, thinking about getting a shot of Novocain in my eyelid.

I drive to the end of the clinic parking lot, which is vacant. I don’t trust myself to park between other cars.

At the reception desk, I am asked if it is an emergency. I take the pillow off my face. The receptionist gasps. “Come right in,” she says.

She ushers me into an examination room and tells me that the doctor will be in immediately.

“How on earth did you drive here with one eye covered up like that?” the doctor asks as soon as he enters the room.

“Very badly,” I answer. He laughs. He comes over and aims a small flashlight into my right eye. “All right,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t see any sign of serious injury. My guess is that the blood must have come from a small capillary vessel that burst during the night.”

“You mean there’s nothing to worry about?”

“Well, nothing serious that I can see.”

“I think I’m having trouble with colors,” I say.

“Really? What color is my shirt?”

“A medium brown.”

“Really? It’s a very bright red,” he says slowly. “You have lost the color red.”

He says this like the color red is something I should have taken better care of. It has never occurred to me that it is possible to lose a color. “What does that mean?”

“Let’s test your distance vision, and then we’ll talk about the possibilities,” he says in a clipped voice, without a trace of the laugh I heard before.

He hand me an oversize plastic spoon. “Cover your left eye, and read the chart,” he says.

I put on my glasses and follow his instructions. I see nothing in front of me but a fuzzy gray cloud. I drop the plastic spoon and it clatters to the floor. “Oh, God!”

“What’s wrong?”

I can’t answer him. I don’t know what’s wrong. I cover my left eye again, this time with my hand. I look straight at the doctor. He disappears into a gray fog. I pull my hand away as if it has been burned. He comes back into view. No, it can’t be.

“I can’t see anything with my right eye,” I say.

He stares for a few seconds. “You’re sure?”

“Yes,” I say, my voice high and squeaky with panic. I wait for his next move.

All my life I have trusted doctors. My grandfather was one, and my uncle, as well as many of my friends. I spent two years practicing health-care law in a large hospital where I defended the staff doctors in malpractice suits, negotiated their contracts, and worked with them to develop hospital policies and procedures. I always respected their knowledge and experience. Underlying this respect was the expectation that when. I came to them with my medical problems, they would put out my fires too.

“What are you going to do to fix my eye?” I now ask this doctor.

He steps back as if I have slapped him. Then he says something that I have heard doctors say only when their deposition is being taken. “I’m sorry, but this problem is beyond my expertise.”

“What?” I am stunned by his sudden loss of confidence.

“Do you have a regular internist?”

“Yes…yes,” I stammer. “Bill Lang.”

His face brightens. “I know Bill. We interned together. I’ll call him. You’re in good hands.”

He is grinning at me, clearly relieved. The intercom buzzes. It’s the receptionist.

“I’m going to have to see a few other patients,” the doctor says. “I want you to call somebody to come get you. Use this phone. I’ll be back, and we’ll talk some more.”

He is dumping me, but, at least, he’s trying to be gentle about it. “Call your husband. If he’s not home, call a friend,” he says over his shoulder as he walks out the door.

I decide that I will not give this kind of news to Kenny or anybody over the phone. I can’t stay here one more second. I have to go home. I pick up my purse and walk out the door. The hall is empty. I go into the waiting room, then out to the parking lot. I hear the receptionist calling me, but I keep moving. It’s my husband’s birthday. My daughter has been sick and may need me. I have to go home.

Kenny’s face is pale when I walk in the door.

“Thank God,” he says. He’s holding the telephone receiver against his ear, but his eyes are fixed on me. “Bill, she’s right here. I’ll put her on.”

“What’s happened.?” Kenny whispers as he hands me the phone. “Teresa was crying and carrying on about blood all over your face. Then some clinic doctor calls. He says you ran out on him, and he called Bill, and now Bill’s talking about you going to the hospital. For God’s sake, what’s going on?”

I take the phone and cover the mouthpiece with my hand. “I don’t know exactly,” I squeak.

Our voices always change when there is an emergency; mine rises, and Kenny’s lowers to a whisper.

“Hi, Bill. Sorry to ruin your weekend like this,” I say into the phone.

“Jackie, I need you to tell me what’s happened. Every detail. Why didn’t you call me right away?”

I take a deep breath. Bill is not an alarmist; he’s easy-going and slow to leap to conclusions. But now he’s not sounding like himself either. He’s talking double time, his voice picking up speed with every word. “Well, it didn’t seem worth paging you on Sunday,” I say. “I didn’t think it was that big a deal.”

“Have you had trouble with your vision before this morning?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Have you had trouble with your balance lately?”

“Well…” I roll this over in my mind. I had bumped into a wall yesterday morning at the hospital, but I blamed that on fatigue. I tell Bill this, and I can hear him taking notes.

“Okay, here’s the plan,” he says after a long pause. “You’ll have an MRI of your brain done over at the hospital. Then, you’ll have that eye examined by an ophthalmologist. Then I’ll give you a complete physical, and then…Well, we’ll take it from there.”

“Bill, I won’t be able to get on the MRI schedule for days. Why don’t we start with the eye doctor tomorrow?”

There is an uncomfortable pause.

“Jackie, we need to do these things right away. Today.” He is speaking slowly and deliberately now. “I’ve already gotten a radiologist and a tech to come in for the MRI. And I have a friend, an ophthalmologist, who is going to open his office. You can stop there on the way home from the hospital.”

“All of this today?” I can’t believe he has booked these appointments for me without checking.

“Jackie,” he says, “we can’t fool around. You’ve lost one eye already.”

I am silent as I try to process this stunning pronouncement.

“I’m sorry, Jackie. I don’t mean to upset you further,” Bill says. “It’s going to be all right. It’s just that we need to get moving. Do you have someone you can leave Kelsey with?”

“Yes, her nanny.”

“Good I’ll meet you in radiology. And Jackie–let Kenny do the driving.”

“Bill said that a tumor might be pressing against the optic nerve,” Kenny tells me in the car. “And the fact that it has happened so rapidly could be encouraging. It’s probably not…” he hesitates. “Anyway, the point is that they can remove a benign tumor and your vision would probably come back soon.”

I lift my head. “Are you talking about brain surgery?”

“Bill said that it’s not as bad as it sounds. It happens more often than we think.”

“Once is more often than I have ever thought about it happening to me,” I say.

We drive through the front gate of the hospital where I worked before Kelsey was born. Kenny and I stop at admissions. I recognize the clerk.

“Dr. Lang is waiting for you. He wants your husband to stay here and fill out the forms. You’re to go straight to radiology,” she says. Then she smiles, uncertain of herself. “Welcome back…! guess.”

An hour later, the brain scan is done. Bill tells me he’ll call later with the results. “Hurry,” he says. “I’ve given Kenny directions to the ophthalmologist’s, and he’s out front waiting for you.”

I go out to the car and slide into the front seat. I look at Kenny with my good eye. His lips are pressed tightly together, a signal I can read even with only one eye. “What’s wrong?”

“Well, I told Bill that I would say a prayer there wouldn’t be anything on the films, no sign of a tumor. And he told me I’d be praying for the wrong result. He’s hoping that that’s precisely what they’ll find.”

I think this over from a doctor’s perspective. What could be worse than a brain tumor? And then I understand, with the kind of understanding that goes straight to the bottom of my stomach. The worst thing for a physician to find is something he can’t do anything about.

My grandfather was chairman of the ophthalmology department at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where I grew up. All of his grandchildren called him Doc. We thought that was the first and most important part of his name. Since he never asked us to call him anything else, he must have thought so too. When he died, a research center was built in his name. Bob Hope, whose eyes my grandfather had “saved,” gave a speech at the dedication ceremony. I was 8 at the time. I adored my grandfather, but it wasn’t until then that I understood what he meant to so many people. Now I think that even he could not save my eye.

I tell Kenny this while we sit in the dark lobby of the ophthalmologist’s building, waiting for him to open his office. “There’s no use in having any doctor examine an eye that’s already gone,” I say.

Kenny reaches over and draws me close, “But, Jackie,” he whispers, “you still have another eye.”

For a long time we hold each other, and it feels like we are the only two people in the world.

“I’m ready for you now,” the ophthalmologist finally says, motioning us into his office.

I sit down in the examination chair, and he shines a light in my right eye.

“Well, I can see that the pupil is already dilated,” he says with a sigh. “Did another doctor put in drops?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he says, sighing again. “Well–that certainly shows you.”

“Shows me what?”

“The spontaneous dilation of your pupil shows you are blind in that eye. He turns off the light.

Blind. This is the first time that word has been used in my presence. It is devastating to hear. As far as I can remember, my grandfather never spoke that word out loud. “Those eyes have gone where the woodbine twineth,” he used to say when he was discussing an unfortunate case. He was, in his time, the most skilled eye surgeon in the world, but it was the rare operation that could restore an eye once it was gone. He pioneered research into various therapies to prevent blindness. He believed in avoiding loss before it happened.

I have lost vision in one eye, but I still have the other, I tell myself.

As if reading my mind, Kenny says, “But her left eye is fine. That means it’s not having any problems, right?”

The doctor walks over to his desk. “Personally, I have never seen a case of this symptom presenting bilaterally,” he says in the same flat tone he used for the word blind. From him, good and bad news is delivered with equal detachment.

“So that means it won’t spread to the other eye?” I ask.

“No. It’s not that kind of problem,” he says.

“Then what kind of problem is it?” Kenny asks.

The doctor takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says finally, “but I believe this is a symptom of a neurological disease that has been going on for some time. Blindness in one eye is just the first presentation.”

“What?” I ask. “What disease would cause this to happen?” And as soon as I ask the question, I know I’ve made a mistake. It is what they tell you in law school never to do. Never ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.

“Multiple sclerosis,” the doctor says. “Optic neuritis–that is, swelling of the optic nerve–is almost always associated with it.”

This new piece of information knocks me speechless. I don’t have any firsthand knowledge about multiple sclerosis (MS), but all my visual images are associated with wheelchairs and lack of bodily control. I remember Bill Lang’s earlier question about loss of balance and realize this is where he was leading. Blindness is just a pit stop on the road to multiple sclerosis.

The telephone is ringing. We blink at each other for several moments before the doctor picks it up.

“It’s for you,” he says, after a moment. “It’s Bill Lang.”

“Jackie, I’ve just talked to the radiologist,” Bill tells me. “The MRI shows no sign of a mass or tumor anywhere in your brain. However, it does show that your right optic nerve is swollen and dysfunctional–a neurological problem.”

“Multiple sclerosis, right?”

“Uh-oh,” he says. “I’m sorry you’ve been told that. MS is merely one possibility we have to consider, but I want to examine you first, before we go in that direction.”

“You mean I may not have MS?”

“No. We can’t make a definite diagnosis yet,” Bill says. “Listen, I want to do my own detailed workup tomorrow morning, and then, if necessary, we’ll have a neurologist look at you. He might be able to determine if a second symptom is on its way.”

“On its way?”

“Well, yes. A specialist in neurological disorders might be able to detect a change that’s so subtle even the patient doesn’t notice it yet.”

He’s talking about me. I am the patient not noticing. And what could be missing that I didn’t realize was missing–yet?

“Oh, Bill,” I say, my voice cracking, giving me away. I am so tired and scared. “It’s late. Let’s all go home.” All this talk isn’t leading anywhere, and I want this long day to end.

When we get home, I fall into bed, fully clothed. I just want to go to sleep, without moving, without thinking.

“Eyestrain,” Kenny is saying. “That’s all it is. Your eyes just need a long rest.”

The word evokes a memory. “Eyestrain,” I repeat, trying to bring the memory forward.

Kenny goes into the kitchen and when he returns, he lays a cold cloth against my eyes. “Here,” he says. “Ice. I thought maybe it would reduce the swelling of your eyes.”

Eyestrain. Now I remember. Ice train.

I see my brother, Robin, as a young child, leaning over his train set. He is laughing as he puts an ice cube into the back of the coal car. “Ice train,” I say out loud, laughing at the memory.

I tell Kenny the story. I was in second grade and suffering from such a severe headache that I’d begged to go home early from school. It was an unusual complaint for a little girl, and so our doctor came to the house that night. He diagnosed my problem as eyestrain due to nearsightedness. A short time later, I got my first pair of glasses.

“But what about ice train?” Kenny asks, still not getting it.

“Well, Robin got the words confused. He thought we were talking about ice train instead of eyestrain.”

There is a moment of silence, which always trails the mention of my brother’s name into any conversation.

“I think it would be better not to bring up sad memories of Robin now,” Kenny says softly.

“But this memory is happy,” I say, eager to tell him.

“So we can talk about it tomorrow,” Kenny says, yawning. “You need to get some sleep.” He reaches to turn off the lamp.

“Please don’t,” I say, suddenly afraid of the dark.

Kenny sighs. He sleeps best when it is pitch-black. But tonight my preference rules, and we go to sleep with the lights on.

“It’s time to see the specialists,” Bill Lang tells me after he’s completed his examination the next day. “There is nothing unusual in your blood results, and no sign of a virus that might have attacked your optic nerve.”

“What kind of specialists?” I have hated anything having to do with the word special ever since I heard it used to describe my brother. Robin has special needs. He has to go to a special school with special teachers.

My mother always knew that something was wrong with her firstborn and only son. He was a beautiful baby and toddler, with soft blond curls, but his blue eyes never seemed to look directly at anyone. His development was slow. At 2 1/2, he could not speak, walk, or hold a spoon.

I have told Bill Lang all this before as part of my family medical history, but I feel compelled to repeat it now. I know that autism is classified as a neurological disorder and that my loss of vision is presumed to be a neurological defect.

“And that’s where the similarities end,” Bill says. “You have developed this condition at thirty-six with no history of eye trouble other than nearsightedness. Your brother was born with autism even though the diagnosis was late.

“Actually, it was early,” I say. “Robin was one of the first children to he diagnosed as autistic.” Dr. Leo Kanner, the chairman of child psychiatry at Johns Hopkins had taken him on as a favor to my grandfather. It was called Kanner’s syndrome in the early 1950’s. It was renamed infantile autism a few years later.

The diagnosis was so new it wasn’t in the dictionary. When I tried to look it up, I thought I must have heard incorrectly. So I found the word that sounded most like autistic and that fit my brother. Robin was autistic. Of course, I had always known that. He loved making and building things. He was obsessed with bright colors. He would stay up late, studying pictures with a flashlight. He could never get enough of how the world looked.

“But aren’t there other things that are the same about these diseases?” I ask.

“There are no similarities between MS and autism, Jackie. Just two unlucky breaks.”

“But I was thinking–” “I don’t want to cut you off, but I’ve made an appointment for you with a neurologist this afternoon. He may have to do some more invasive tests, but I think he can answer your questions better than I can.”

I look up at him. I am being handed over again, but I know he’s trying to do what is best for me, and there’s nothing else he can do. I go out to the waiting room and hand Kenny the address of the next doctor.

In the car, I can’t stop thinking about the two neurological disorders. Both are unpredictable and incurable. But that’s not what scares me most. Researchers have never discovered why one person in a family develops autism or MS and the others do not, and this is hard for me to accept. If the specialists don’t know how it starts, how can they predict my fate any better than my brother’s?

“I know you’re scared,” Kenny says, “but Bill told me that the spinal tap wouldn’t be so bad.”

Spinal tap! So that’s what he had meant by invasive tests.

“Think positive thoughts, Jackie,” Kenny coaches. “It really isn’t going to be as bad as you think.”

“Then why don’t you have the spinal tap since you don’t seem to be worried about it.” My voice is shaking with anger and fear. Now that I am half-blind, I feel like half a person, and I’m acting like one, a shrunken version of myself. I am screeching at the person I need most in the world.

Kenny has steered the car over to the curb. “Listen to me, Jackie. Please. I would take this test for you if I could. It would hurt less than watching the needle go into you.”

I nod. I believe him, but it’s not enough. “But you can’t.”

“No, I can’t. But this is what you must understand: I’m in this with you. Forever. I will live with you and whatever we find out, for better or for worse.”

I can’t say anything. My throat is tight with tears. Until he said those words, I didn’t understand that what I had feared most was being left alone, like Robin. I nod my head, tears spilling down my cheeks.

“I love you forever,” Kenny whispers, as he wipes the tears from my face.

Forever. When Robin learned to write, he spelled it “fourever.” Four was his favorite number.

And he will be four forever, I remember my mother saying. But she never wanted to give up on her son, even though all the specialists, including my grandfather, told her to give him up, to preserve the rest of the family.

“Jackie?” Kenny is squeezing my hand to get my attention. “We have to get out of the car. We’re late for the appointment.”

I look at the medical office building. Better late than too late–one of Robin’s favorite phrases.

I am hearing ghosts. How can I explain this? Maybe I’m going crazy. Maybe I’m not really blind, but I just think I am.

“Kenny, do you think it’s possible that all this is in my head?”

“No,” he says immediately. “Bill told me that it’s not the kind of thing that happens due to emotional stress.”

“So you don’t think I should see a psychiatrist?”

“No, I don’t,” he says. “But you have to see a neurologist. Now.”

“Okay, let’s go,” I say, getting out of the car.

The neurologist leads me through a series of tests to assess my strength, sensitivity to pressure, hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and balance. We are both concentrating. He is grading my performance, and I am trying to ace the test. The only sound in the room is the deep breath I release when he calls for the nurse to bring in Kenny.

“Unremarkable,” the doctor says, looking into my eyes for the first time and smiling.

Kenny walks in to find us both grinning.

“Your wife’s nervous system is unremarkable,” the doctor says.

I think about how neurology, like many fields in medicine, defines good news with a negative pronouncement. The goal is to be unremarkable. And I am. This is my A-plus grade. I let it sink in and enjoy its warmth.

“That means she doesn’t have to worry about MS?” Kenny asks.

The neurologist winces. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Multiple sclerosis is not a disease that can ever be ruled out.”

“What about the spinal tap?”

“I would do a spinal only if my initial examination gave me reason to proceed further. And it hasn’t.”

“I don’t understand,” Kenny is saying. “What do we do next?”

“Nothing more is called for at the moment.” The doctor turns to me. “However, if you have any other problems besides your eye, then you need to call me.”

I nod. I slide off the examination table and reach for my purse. I am seconds away from a clean getaway when Kenny puts his hand on my back.

“Wait a minute, please,” he says. “I still don’t understand. Are you saying we should simply wait for something else to happen?”

“All of us live with uncertainty,” the neurologist says. “Jackie has presented a severe symptom that is frequently associated with MS, but there could be another explanation. On rare occasions, there will be an isolated case, episodic blindness, without recurrence. This is called a `neurological incident with etiology unknown.'”

“What?” Kenny is now rubbing his forehead in frustration. “So it could be a freak thing–a once-in-a-lifetime event that’s just happened?”

“Yes, but I don’t want to raise your hopes. The far more likely scenario is that a series and variety of debilitating symptoms will follow over the next few years.”

A series and variety of debilitating symptoms. Silently, I beseech Kenny not to ask any more questions. Please.

“What is the likelihood that that will happen to Jackie? What are the percentages?”

The neurologist looks at me now, his face etched with lines of worry. I’ve seen this expression on doctors’ faces before, in depositions, when finally the one question they don’t want to answer has been asked and there is no turning back.

“Well,” he says quietly, “the range of probability for a diagnosis of MS when this optic neuritis presents is eighty to ninety percent.”

Kenny grabs my hand, squeezing hard. He never expected such numbers.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor says, trying to fill in the shocked silence. “For people like Jackie, the chances of MS are extremely high.”

I glance at Kenny. His head is down. His dark hair shines like patent leather under the fluorescent lights, with none of its usual copper highlights. Staring at it, I remember what terrible news can do to hair. It made mine turn gray when I was 25, within a few months of learning about Robin’s death. And after our mother died a little more than a year ago, my sister Sally’s beautiful blond curls began to thin and droop; my sister Polly’s hair fell out in sympathetic chunks.

“I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, Jackie,” the doctor says. “You will call me if you have any other problems, won’t you?”

“Of course,” I answer, realizing I have no idea what I am supposed to be watching for. “What might this second symptom be?”

“In your case,” he says, “the second symptom would present itself as dramatically as the first. Total shutdown of another part of your central nervous system. Perhaps the spine. You might suddenly fall down because your legs won’t support you.”

My legs buckle instantly. I crumple against the examining table.

The doctor quickly moves toward me. “I’m sorry. I told you that because I didn’t want you to worry about little things, like your foot going to sleep. I see that I’ve upset you. Can I get you some water?”

Water? How about a tranquilizer? I fear there isn’t a narcotic strong enough to ease this horror. “I think it’s time for me to go home,” I say. “I’m so tired, I can’t stand straight.”

Kenny and I are silent in the car. I stare at the stop signs. I have lost the color red, but I can still read the words in black and white, and reading is an indispensable part of my professional life. Since I left my hospital position, I have made my living by writing. I am working on two books at the moment: a novel and a labor-law manual. There is no reason I can’t continue working on these, even if I do begin to have trouble with my legs. By the time we reach the house, I have softened the horrible pictures in my mind.

Hours later in bed, however, I acknowledge that the neurologist’s harsh prognosis has knocked me flat. I’m resisting sleep so I won’t have to wake up and face the devastating possibility he’s depicted. My eyelids are heavy, but I won’t let them close. I can rest with my eyes open, I tell myself. I can. And I won’t let anything disappear.

The next day, Kenny won’t give in to my fears, or admit that he has any himself. Like my father, he’s relentlessly optimistic at the most difficult times.

Later, we pick up my father, who’s come to L.A. from Baltimore to help us in this crisis, at the airport. I sit in the back seat and gaze at their profiles. They look nothing alike, but I think they are the two most handsome men I have ever known.

Dad is tall and lanky, with fair skin and smoky-blue eyes. Kenny is muscular and compact. He has olive skin and brown eyes, deep-set and intense. When my father and my husband turn toward each other and smile, I want to hold the picture in my heart forever.

The following morning, it’s Dad who chauffeurs me to my next medical appointment–with a retinal specialist in Beverly Hills. Our mission this time is to rule out the possibility that the retina is somehow involved with the swelling of my optic nerve.

As soon as we walk in the door, a nurse announces that I need to be injected with a dye that will light up the vessels in my eyes. She leads me down a hall, points to a chair, and in moments has an IV up and running into my arm. Suddenly, I feel warm all over.

“Getting the hots already?” she says casually.

“I’m on fire,” I say.

“Good.” She rushes me into another room. It looks like every other eye doctor’s office. I sit down and close my eyes. A moment later, when I open them, I am looking straight into the doctor’s face.

“Did I startle you?” he says. “We have to be quick.” He shines a flashlight into my right eye. I expect it to hurt, but it doesn’t. He turns to my left eye. It immediately fills with tears. I squirm in the chair.

“Just a few seconds more,” he says, twisting his head one way, then the other “Is someone here with you? Someone who can drive?” There is urgency in the way he asks the questions.

“My father’s with me,” I say, inexpressibly grateful for this fact.

“I’d like to speak to him,” he says, turning off the light and handing me a tissue. “You just relax. The hot flash should be over shortly.”

A few moments later, I hear my father’s voice and the doctor’s in the hall. I want to get up and open the door, but my skin is still burning. Then I see my father, floating toward me through a blur of tears. “What’s going on, Dad?”

“Well, the nurse said that the doctor wanted to talk to me about my wife! That sure threw me. She thought you were my second wife. Only in Los Angeles.”

“Dad, please. What did the doctor say?”

He sighs. “He’s referring you to another guy, downtown, at the University of Southern California.”

“Why?”

Dad is making a froglike sound in his throat. I recognize this signal. He’s agitated, and not telling me the whole truth–unspoken words are lodged in his throat.

“Dad? What’s going on?”

“We have to leave right away, Button,” he says. “This other doctor is double-booked. We have to get down there as soon as we can or we’ll miss him. It’s four freeways from here. Four! Can you believe that?”

He grabs my arm and pulls me out of the office, his grip strong and determined. We get in the car and head straight to the nearest freeway entrance, tires screeching. Earlier, he drove Kenny’s car carefully. Now, he’s driving like a maniac.

“Who is this doctor we’re seeing?” I ask.

“He’s a real specialist,” Dad says. “He only takes cases referred by other specialists. You’re lucky he can see you today.”

“I don’t feel so lucky.”

Dad doesn’t comment, and I know there is something he’s not telling me.

The first thing I notice in the doctor’s waiting room is that everyone has gray hair and is wearing very dark glasses, the kind blind people wear.

“Gorman? Is Gorman here?” a voice is booming.

“Yes,” my father and I answer together.

The nurse grabs me by the arm and pulls me through another door. “Now I’m going to put some drops in both eyes,” she says. “This is going to cause discomfort. Hold still and lean back, please.”

My right eye explodes with pain, as if she had poured acid into it. Reflexively, I push her arm away, but she’s quicker. She grabs me by the back of the neck, and forces a drop in the other eye.

“Stop it!” I scream.

“What’s wrong? What’s happening?”

It’s Dad’s voice, but when I turn toward him, I can’t see anything. “Dad, I can’t see you! And it hurts so much!”

“What have you done to her?”

“It’s just the medication. She’s fine. The doctor will be here shortly.”

I can’t see an inch in front of me. I clutch the arms of the chair. I hear a door opening. Someone is touching my forehead.

“Hello,” a voice says, a nice voice, with a British accent. Something about the calm tone, relaxes me. “I’m going to examine your eyes now,” the doctor says. “Please don’t move.”

“I won’t,” I say. The stinging has stopped as suddenly as it started, but I still see nothing. My eyes feel frozen and numb.

“All right. All done. Please sit back and relax.”

I hear the sound of wheels on linoleum and I know that he has rolled his chair back, but his hand stays on my wrist, connecting us.

“What is it, Doctor?” Dad asks.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly. “Both optic nerves are shutting down.”

“Daddy?” I call out to the gray-filled air.

“Jackie, I’m sorry,” my father says in an old man’s voice, worn down and tired. “They told me that at the other doctor’s office. I didn’t know how to tell you in the car.”

“But it’s not supposed to happen in both eyes!” I protest. “The first eye doctor said that.”

“Bilateral optic neuritis of this severity is rare,” the specialist says. “I’m sure the other physician has never seen it. I’ve seen only a handful of cases, and none of them lost so much vision so quickly.”

“How quickly?” I burst out. “Is…is all of it gone already?”

“No, I don’t think so,” he says soothingly.

I feel his fingers move to press against my pulse. This small adjustment touches me deeply. I do not know the name of his specialty, but I have figured out this much: This doctor has been with countless people in their darkest hour. I sensed it in his waiting room, and now I know. His specialty is disorders of the eye that lead to total blindness.

He is the kind of eye doctor my grandfather was, who appears at the moment the patient is falling off the edge of the sighted world. He puts himself between the patient and that terrifying fall. The only way I can keep from hysteria is to put a familiar, loving face on this stranger. I envision him as a younger version of my grandfather.

“Jackie,” he says. “I know this is hard. And it will get harder. But I believe that. in time, it will get better.”

There is silence after he says this, a respectful space for private prayers.

My father has taken my other hand. He clears his throat. “Doctor, how much vision will she lose in her other eye?”

He wants percentages, just like Kenny.

“At the moment, it’s difficult to say due to the clouding effect of the medication,” the specialist answers. “That blurriness should clear up within an hour. However, the left optic nerve is swelling rapidly, so any recovery of vision will be temporary.”

“How temporary? How much time will I have?” But I already know the only answer. However much seeing time I have left, it will never be enough.

On the drive home, I keep my left eye fixed on my father. I want his face to be what I see when the drops wear off. But it is Kenny’s face I see first. He is opening the car door. I have to look straight at him–my sight is telescopic now–but I can see his face!

During dinner, I don’t eat, but stare at the food. Then I stare at the faces around the table. I can’t stop looking. Later, I memorize Kelsey’s profile watching her sleep, breathing in the sight of her like oxygen, never quite getting my fill.

Suddenly, I crave all the pictures of my life. I am frantic to find them. I gather all the framed photos from the desk and tabletops, all the albums and loose photos in drawers, even old school yearbooks from the shelves. I spread these out on the floor in a close circle around me.

As I crouch over these piles of pictures, I am comforted. Kenny and Dad have pleaded with me to go to sleep early. But how could I close my eyes as long as I can still see something with them?

Kenny joins me in the living room, kneeling down and pulling me into his arms. But I pull back so that I can hold his face and study it. I can’t let this picture escape before I capture it in memory. He closes his eyes, but does not turn away. He would never turn away from me.

mfyimcI fell in love with him 18 years ago, my first year in college. Kenny is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. Up until these last few days, I have always felt lucky. I knew I was born lucky simply because I wasn’t born like Robin. All my life, I have been riding the crest of good fortune, but now the tide has turned against me.

I let go of Kenny’s face to look down at the picture that has fallen in my lap–an old family photo of my three sisters and me and Robin, together on some special holiday. It’s a color snapshot, and I look carefully at my brother’s eyes.

Robin’s real name was Arthur, but we always called him by his nickname, because his eyes were the exact shade of robins’ eggs. But they are not blue in this photo anymore. They are gray, like the rest of the picture. I’ve lost all the colors now.

I hold the picture so close to my face that my nose skims its surface. I close my eyes. I don’t want to look anymore. I don’t want to watch my family vanish into a cloud.

“Kenny, I’m tired now. Please, help me to bed.”

Kenny pulls up the covers and sits next to me. He strokes my face. I can feel his body shaking beside me, but I can’t cry with him because then I would have to open my eyes to release the tears. And I need to keep my eyes shut tight so that I won’t see his disappearing face.

I wake up to the smell of bacon cooking. My father must be making breakfast, just as he did every Saturday morning of my childhood. I can hear the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. I sit up and fall sideways and down, right off the bed. I’m lying face down on the floor. My forehead burns from sliding hard across the carpet. I roll over on my back. Jake is licking my face. I open my eyes, but I can’t see the dog, only feel the softness of his fur against my skin. I look down at where my legs should be, touch my knees, hug them to my body. I am invisible to myself.

I can smell, hear, and touch, but I can’t see. I have woken up blind.

I crawl toward the bed and reach for the end of the bedspread, but my hand grabs air. I fall down again. “Help,” l cry out.

Kenny and Kelsey come running into the room, calling out to me.

“Mommy, why are you keeping your eyes shut so tight?” Kelsey asks.

“Oh, Kelsey,” I say, reaching for her. “I love you so much.”

“I love you, too, Mommy.”

I feel her breath against my face, her fingers pushing my eyelids open, the way she always does when she wants me to wake up. But I can’t open my eyes, even for her. I can’t bear losing the sight of her.

“Mommy, are you sick?”

“No,” Kenny says. “Mommy’s not really sick. She’s having trouble with her eyes, but the rest of her is fine.” He hesitates over the words. He has no idea how to tell her. Neither do I This is not in any of our parenting books.

“Will Mommy’s eyes get better again?” Kelsey asks.

I don’t know what we should tell her. The specialist believes that I will see again. Maybe not as well as before, but better than nothing. Better than now. Still, I’m afraid to believe it, and afraid not to.

Kenny clears his throat, and to my surprise, says, “I called the doctor this morning while Mommy was still asleep, and I asked him that same question.”

“What did he say?” Kelsey and I ask at the same time.

“He said Mommy’s eyes would start to get better in eight to ten weeks.”

I gasp. This is a miracle! He didn’t just get a number–he got a date! It’s now the middle of March. By the first of May, I might be able to see again. Two months–hardly any time at all.

“Kenny?”

“Yes, Honey?”

“Tell me his exact words. Please.”

“He said if it is going to get better, it will start to get better by then.”

“If? If? So there’s a chance it won’t?”

“Jackie, please. Don’t go there.”

“But I am there, Kenny!” My voice is rising, and I don’t want Kelsey to witness my distress. I don’t want to pull her down with me. I don’t want to bring Kenny down either. They’ve got to stay safe–away from this dark cloud that is now a part of me.

“Kenny, please take Kelsey out of here.”

“Mommy doesn’t feel well, Sweetheart,” Kenny tells Kelsey. “I’m going to take you to your grandfather.”

“I love you, Mommy. I hope you feel better soon.” Kelsey’s hand is patting my back gently, and then it is gone.

I’m shaking all over now, chilled to the bone. I hear Kenny’s footsteps returning.

“Jackie, we are going to get through this. We are.” He gets under the covers and holds me, his chest to my back–instant warmth. “Oh, Jackie,” is all he says.

The next morning, Kenny is sitting on the bed, gently shaking my shoulder. I don’t want to open my eyes. I’ve heard the morning sounds: Kenny’s shower, the blow-dryer, a ringing phone, Kelsey’s good-bye as she left for preschool. I listened without opening my eyes. This is the closest I can get to denial.

“Jackie, I know you’re awake,” Kenny says.

I turn and look in the direction of his voice. I blink at the gray space where he must be. My head snaps back against the emptiness. I shut my eyes again. I need a mask that will weigh down my eyelids so they won’t open out of habit or hope.

“Listen,” Kenny says, “the phone has been ringing off the hook. Your sisters, your friends, everybody wants to know how they can help.”

“Tell them there isn’t anything they can do.”

He takes a deep breath. “Jackie, we need a plan. I’ve got to go back to work. Somebody has to be here with you and Kelsey.”

“Teresa can stay full-time and help with Kelsey.”

“I’m talking about help for you.”

“I don’t need help. I’m not leaving this room until I’m ready. And I’ve got everything I need here.”

“People want to come visit.”

“No.” This is the one thing I am sure about. “I don’t want anybody to see me when I can’t see them.”

“Even your sisters? They’re ready to fly out here.”

“Kenny, tell them not to come. Tell them I’ll telephone them.” An idea occurs to me. “Please buy a phone with big raised numbers.”

“All right. I’ll go to the store right now.” He is excited. “I’ll get you books on tape, too, and a tape recorder. one you can dictate into if there’s something you want to remember.”

He’s ahead of me. I can’t read or write, hut I can speak and hear.

“Jackie, we’ll figure out a way for you to do everything. But even so, it’s only temporary.”

“Do you really believe that, Kenny?” I have not dared to ask him before.

“Yes, absolutely, I do,” he says firmly. “I can’t explain why I’m so sure, hut I am.”

I know why. It’s because he loves me too much to allow himself any doubt. “Kenny? When you get hack from the store, would you take me to the sink and put out my toothpaste and stuff?”

“Of course. But you don’t have to wait. I can do that now, or I can call Teresa.”

“I’ll wait for you to help me,” I say in a small voice. The greatness of my needs hits me in the stomach. Everything is so hard.

As Kenny leaves, the dog jumps on the bed. I give in to tears, releasing huge, gasping sobs. I cry for my brother, my mother, for every person who has ever been sick and felt this alone.

The dog leans against me and licks my tears. Jake is a retriever-husky mix. Kenny and I have had him for 15 years. He is deaf and almost blind with old age. What a pair we make. I throw my arms around him and cry into his fur.

Over the next ten days, I stake out the territory of my home, counting and remembering steps. I feel as though I am in a fight, tired all the time, trying to storm my way out of this dark place.

Then there’s the emotional roller crying and laughing in inappropriate moments, yelling at the dog, cutting off Kelsey mid-sentence with some biting remark. I don’t recognize myself.

I spend much of my time with a phone in one hand and a radio in the other, flipping switches, alternating between taped and live voices. I call my father, who has returned to Baltimore, and my sisters. I report that the specialist remains confident that my sight will return, but so far there is no sign of improvement.

Kenny has told me that, night after night, I cry out in my dreams. I try to focus on positive thoughts, to guide the imagery of my approaching sleep toward a future full of hope, hut I am stuck looking backward, at my brother and the past. In my sleep, old pictures resurface, and I have the full spectrum of colors restored to me. This view of my childhood comes at a terrible price, hut I do not wish to give it back. I cling to these dreams.

In my family, everyone has always had their assigned role.

Polly, the oldest girl, is the questioner. She tries to get at answers by finding the right questions. The classic middle child, I am the mediator, looking at both sides of every issue. The third girl, Sally, is the listener, letting other people talk until they’ve figured out their problems on their own. Mary Clark, the fourth and youngest sister, is the cleanup batter. She takes a huge swing at a problem and almost always hits it out of the park.

Now, our biggest problem is my situation, and we burn up the phone wires talking to one another, trying to come up with a strategy to pull me through.

Sally is a psychologist. Dreams and thoughts are the currency of her trade. So she is the sister I tell first about my dreams of Robin.

“What kind of dreams?” Her voice deepens to its professional baritone.

“Mostly happy childhood memories.”

“Happy ones? Are you sure? And they are about Robin and you?” She rapid-fires these questions at me, not waiting for an answer. “Do you want to know what I think?”

“Yes.” I not only want to know what she thinks, but I want to think the way she does. I want to share her sunnier view of everything.

“All right then,” she says. “You are at a very low point. It’s natural for you to reflect upon every other sad memory in your life. But it’s comforting thoughts you need now, not disturbing ones, so you have to refocus your concentration.”

“How do I do that?”

“Well, each time a sad image comes to you, visualize sweeping it away, replacing it with a happier picture.”

“Sally, we’ve been doing that as a family for years. But don’t you ever wonder what happens to the other pictures. Where do they go?”

“You don’t have to worry about that now.”

“But that’s all I worry about–everything that’s been hidden and covered up. It’s come back to me now for a reason. I have to believe this.”

“I think we’re going around in circles here,” she says. I can hear her little boy calling for her in the background.

“Listen, I can hear this is a had time. I’ll call you tomorrow, all right?”

I hang up and dial the next number.

“Polly, do you remember when Robin was beaten up by that gang of kids, my freshman year at college?”

“Oh, Jackie, there were so many times that he was hurt. I’m not sure I recall that particular incident.”

I tell Polly what I remember. It was October 1973, and I had just met Kenny. I was home for the weekend. It was a sparkling fall afternoon, and I was in the kitchen, looking out the window, thinking how perfect everything was–an 18-year-old girl in love.

I heard knocking at the door. It was our neighbors’ son. He told me that my brother had been “roughed up” by a pack of kids. They’d thrown things at Robin, called him names, then knocked him down and kicked him in the head.

“Jackie,” Polly said. “It’s hard for me to picture Robin’s face without some kind of bruise or cut. All those years that he was in the mental hospital, he would be beaten up all the thee, usually in a struggle over his things–his camera or radio, which Mom and Dad were always replacing. But I always thought that out in the real world and on his visits home, he would be more protected.”

“But, of course, he had even less protection on the outside. That’s why Mom agreed to admit him to Rosewood.”

“But he was so big and strong,” Polly says. “Why didn’t he ever fight back?”

We are both silent, thinking about this. It’s true that he was tall and not physically disabled, but his mental handicap showed in his posture and in his eyes. He was an easy target for cruel children.

“I’ve had a difficult time remembering him without his head being hurt in some way too,” I confess. “But recently, in my dreams, it’s been easier to see happier pictures. I’ve been seeing Robin in a different light. He looks peaceful. His presence brings me a kind of stillness, as if he is trying to comfort me.”

Speaking these thoughts confers a weight to them, something to hold onto. It’s been 11 years since Robin died. He had built a life for himself in the years after he had been discharged from the mental hospital. He was on his way to work from a group home when he was hit by a car. Polly, a lawyer then, handled everything. She reviewed the accident report and spoke to witnesses. They all saw it the same way: A young man, anxious to catch a bus, ran into the street into oncoming traffic. He never looked for cars. He was pronounced dead at the scene, in the crosswalk of one of Baltimore’s busiest intersections.

“Polly,” I say in a quiet voice. “When I can see again, I want to look through the bag he was carrying that day. I don’t know what I’d be looking for–I just want to see his things.”

“Oh, Jackie, I’ve never found the strength to do that. When your sight gets better, we’ll do it together. Maybe we’ll find out what he’s trying to tell you.”

My sister Mary Clark has always been a genius in math. She’s now a bank executive, who talks as fast as she computes, stringing sentences together like long-division calculations.

“Mom comes to me in dreams,” she tells me when she calls, having already spoken to Sally and Polly. “She gives me advice.”

“Really? You never told me this before.”

“Well, there didn’t seem to be a reason.”

Some things never change–we need permission to talk about the most important things in our family.

“Anyway, I agree that Robin is trying to tell you something by appearing in your dreams,” Mary Clark says. “I think he’s telling you to be brave, to hold on, you’re going to make it through this. You’re on your way to that old light at–”

“I know,” I rush in to finish her sentence. “That old light at the end of the tunnel, and not the one that is the headlight of the approaching train.”

She laughs. “Now that we have solved your problem, please put my favorite person on the phone. I want to know if she got the book I sent her.”

I call out for Kelsey and put the receiver down as soon as I hear her voice chirping away to my sister. I lie back in bed. I try to summon happy images.

I remember Robin and me, side by side, as children, down in Virginia, on a vacation visit to our grandparents. I remember the colors of that summer, the dark yellow of a piece of jagged glass that Robin used for finding crabs in the murky water, the blue of the tips of their claws, all the ivory and brown shades of our tanned hands, holding crab nets and fishing rods.

With all my heart I wish there were more happy pictures of my brother to summon. I had so many plans for making up to him all the lost, sad years, all the later family vacations we took without him. The last time I saw him, I told him I was moving to California. We talked about how I would buy him a ticket to Los Angeles, and we would go to Disneyland together–his lifelong dream.

He died before I moved, and the first time I went to Disneyland, I could feel him beside me, riding all the rides, shaking hands with his favorite cartoon characters, in life-size versions. I seize on these pictures that were never taken and rescue them from oblivion, if only to prize them in my blind dreams.

May 22, 1991

In our house, the living areas are upstairs, to take advantage of our ocean view. The bedrooms are on the lower level. I must climb the stairs–five steps to the middle landing, nine more to the top–for my first cup of coffee of the day.

A few weeks ago, Kenny stopped bringing my coffee downstairs. He didn’t have to tell me why, although he mumbled something about missing me sitting with him during breakfast. As an added incentive, he reads the newspaper to me. I don’t mind this routine; I’ve been getting up earlier anyway, so that I will have more daylight time to look for blue–the color that would be restored to me first, according to the specialist.

It’s been ten and a half weeks since my gray fog descended, beyond the range the doctor had forecasted.

“It could take longer,” he said. “But I still believe your sight will improve although you shouldn’t expect a dramatic moment. It will be subtle. That’s why you must concentrate on looking carefully.”

I reach the top of the stairs and stand for a moment, looking ahead to the picture window. Still nothing. I hear Kenny, rustling the paper, and reach for the counter to guide me the seven steps to the table. My hand hits something. It slides across the tiles. There is a loud crash.

“Please, don’t leave anything at the edge of the counter. It’s like you’ve laid a trap for me.”

“Good morning,” Kenny says.

“What did I break?”

“A little clay something that Kelsey made for you in school.”

“Oh, no.”

“It’s all right,” Kenny says. I hear him get up. “Stay there, Jackie. I don’t want you to cut your feet. I’m coming over to clean it up.”

Then, when I least expect it, I lift my head to my husband’s voice and the grayness moves. “Kenny!” I shout.

The gray shape gets larger and takes on a blue tone as it moves closer toward me.

“What?” he screams. “Did you hurt yourself?”

“Kenny–I think I can see you!”

He grabs me and pulls me into his arms, but I pull back. I want to see more.

“Kenny what are you wearing?”

“That blue bathrobe you gave me years ago. I’ve been wearing it every minute that I’m around you.”

“Move around! Let me see you move, Kenny!” I am shouting.

“Mommy, Daddy, what’s going on?”

Kelsey! I want to see her–the shape of her moving.

I hear Kenny whispering to her.

“But Daddy, I’ve been wearing that blue dress every day since you bought it for me–it’s in the dirty clothes bag now.”

“Go get it!” Kenny and I call out at the same time, and then collapse into laughter. Finally, together, laughing out loud.

I have Kenny dial the doctor. When he gets on the line and I announce my news, he tells me he’s delighted. He reminds me that he had assured me my vision would get better and it did.

“So even great doctors indulge in I-told-you-sos,” I say, and he laughs.

It may take months before I have any functional vision, he cautions, and that’s going to be hard. In the meantime, I’m to keep looking.

March 1995

I can see all the colors now. It took me over a year to get them back, with Kelsey’s help. We went to places where I could feast my eyes on color–art museums, fabric stores, flower nurseries. My favorite discovery was the tropical-fish stores, where I could watch colors swim before my hungry eyes like tantalizing morsels of food.

Always the store clerks would ask if we wanted to buy something. “Just looking,” Kelsey would say, smiling.

In September 1993,1 had a second child, Benjamin. At 18 months old, he bears a startling resemblance to Robin at that age, with bright blue eyes and a cloud of blond curls. But the difference is that Benjamin, like Kelsey, has already learned how to look.

Some children never learn to look, and they turn into adults who cannot see the most important things in their world. It takes an early loss–something that had always been there and was supposed to be there forever. Something very important and loved must be snatched away, suddenly, unexpectedly, for this loss to be imprinted on a child’s mind.

When Friends Pass On, Moving On Is All You Can Do

wfpoWhen Beth died, Steve lost his wife and Alice lost her best friend. How could Alice forgive him now that he was dating someone new?

Alice couldn’t remember a time when Beth hadn’t been a part of her life. From that first day at nursery school, they’d been closer than sisters. They’d shared everything, from dolls and dancing lessons to proms and crushes to marriage and motherhood.

They were lucky, they’d often said to each other, that their husbands were friends too. In fact, it was at Alice and David’s wedding that Beth met David’s friend Steve. And when they got married a year later, they moved into a house two blocks away.

Now, Alice’s eyes ached with unshed tears as she remembered those early years with babies, first her Elizabeth, the Beth’s Peter, her Robbie, and Beth’s Michael. They lent each other maternity clothes, baby-sat for each other, organized shared family picnics.

And now, suddenly, shockingly, it was over.

No, she’d remind herself, not suddenly. It had been more than two years since the first diagnosis of Beth’s illness, followed by long months of operations and chemotherapy, of hopefulness and losing hope, and then gradual acceptance that she wasn’t going to get better.

Alice was with her through it all. When Steve couldn’t get off work to take Beth to the hospital for her treatments, Alice went instead, then stayed with her at home afterward.

Even then, they managed to find things to laugh about.

“Maybe this is my chance to become a blonde,” Beth joked when her hair began to fall out. “How do you think I’d look?”

“Funny,” Alice told her truthfully, looking at Beth’s brown eyes, and her skin, which was still, then, quite dark.

“Not as funny as I’d look bald, though,” Beth pointed out.

As Beth spent longer periods in the hospital, Alice juggled her own family and Beth’s, watching Beth’s boys, now 9 and 12, after school and being there to listen to Steve.

“I feel so helpless,” he confessed one night when he came back from the hospital to pick up the children. “If only there was something I could do.”

“But you are,” Alice pointed out. “You’re keeping your home going and you’re keeping things as normal as possible for the boys.”

“I couldn’t do it without your help,” Steve said quietly. And then, even more quietly, he added, “Sometimes, when I leave her, I get this feeling of sheer panic, of wondering what I’ll do when…” He didn’t say any more. But then, he didn’t have to.

Two months later, Beth died. Steve was with her, and Alice had seen her the day before.

So many times she wondered how she could have gotten through her grief without David there to hold her and comfort her. When she thought about Steve, her heart broke. There was no one there to ease his loss.

She and David did what they could, watching Peter and Michael after school, having Steve to dinner two or three times a week.

“I worry most about Peter,” Steve said one night after dinner while the children were watching TV. “He’s hardly cried at all.”

“Peter’s twelve, Steve. It s not an easy easy under any circumstances,” she said slowly. But she knew he was right.

One day. when all four children came in from school, Alice had just come back from taking their collie to the vet.

“Is Glen all right, Mom?” Elizabeth asked right away.

“Yes,” Alice said. “It’s just a stomach bug–he’ll be fine.” Then, firmly, “All right, out of here and upstairs for homework.”

Elizabeth and the younger boys hurried out of the kitchen, but Peter stayed, kneeling beside Glen’s basket. “Are you sure he’ll be okay, Aunt Alice?” he asked, stroking the dog’s silky ears.

She remembered now how devastated Peter had been when Shandy, his Labrador, had died soon after Beth was diagnosed.

She knelt beside him. “Glen’s only six,” she said gently. “He’ll be fine. Shandy was thirteen–he’d had a good life.”

The boy looked up at her, his brown eyes–Beth’s eyes–anxious. “When Shandy died, Aunt Alice, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried more for Shandy than I have for Mom.”

She put her arm around his thin shoulders, searching for the right words. “That was easier,” she said, “You loved Shandy, Shandy loved you, but he was old and…well, he died. It’s different when you think about your mother. She was too young to die. We all feel that way. She should have been with us, for Christmas, for birthdays, for–just for every day. We all need time to come to terms with that, Peter. You can’t expect it to be easy.”

I’m talking over his head, she thought hopelessly. But after awhile he nodded and got up, looking a little less troubled.

A few nights later, she told Steve what Peter had said. “I don’t suppose you could get another dog?” she asked him. “I think it might help.”

Steve shook his head. “Not right now, Alice,” he said. “What with me coming home late. It wouldn’t be fair. Maybe when we get back to something more like a normal way of life.”

Soon after that, Steve told Alice that he’d arranged to do more of his work from home. “So I’ll be there when the boys get home.”

“I love having them here,” Alice said. “It’s no trouble.”

Steve smiled. and she thought, not for the first time, how much older he looked since Beth became ill.

“I know,” he said. “We couldn’t have managed without you, Alice, but…we have to get on with our lives now.”

After that, Alice would bring over a pie or a casserole, and once a week she’d have Steve and the boys over for a meal. But she was sorry they weren’t with her as often; it felt as if her ties to Beth were slowly fraying.

“This is great, Aunt Alice,” Michael said one night, accepting a second helping of meatballs. And then, as his brother glared at him, he added, hastily, “But Dad makes good food too.”

“I’m learning,” Steve said. Across the table, his eyes met Alice’s. “Alice…” He stopped. “Can I have some more too, please?”

But she had a feeling that wasn’t what he’d meant to say.

A week or two later, she called to remind Steve that the potluck supper for the kids’ Sunday school was coming up. When a woman’s voice answered, she thought she had the wrong number, and she apologized.

“No, Steve’s just gone in to the office. Can I give him a message?” the woman answered.

Alice said no, she’d call back, and put the phone down. It must be one of Steve’s new neighbors, she thought, that’s all, and dismissed it from her mind.

The next night, Steve came over on his own. As Alice poured coffee and he and David talked, she noticed that Steve was beginning to look less strained.

Abruptly, in mid-conversation, he put his cup down. “I believe you called last night, Alice,” he said.

“Yes, was that your new neighbor who answered?”

“No,” Steve said. “It was Brenda Wilson. From my accounting department.”

Alice felt as if there were a tight band around her throat.

“She and I…we’ve been seeing each other fairly often,” he went on. “I wanted you to know.”

Alice shook her head. “You don’t have to tell us anything, Steve,” she said quickly. And then, her voice unsteady, “I can’t hear about this.”

With that, she got up and left the room. In the kitchen, she stood beside the sink, her hands trembling. She could hear the rise and fall of the men’s voices, but she didn’t want to know what they were saying.

A little later, she heard the front door close, then the sound of Steve’s car driving off.

“Alice, love,” David said, coming into the kitchen. He put his arms around her, but she stood stiff and unyielding.

“I suppose he told you they’re just good friends, he just needs company?” she said shakily.

David sighed. “No. That’s how it started, but he says it’s more than that now. He… they’ve become very fond of each other.”

sdbftaShe drew back from the circle of his arms. “It isn’t even a year since Beth died,” she said. “How can he do this?”

“I guess it is soon, but Alice, you’ve said yourself how lonely Steve must be, and if he and Brenda are right for each other–”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “How can he even think of this woman, when Beth… I don’t even want to think about it!”

But she couldn’t forget about it, and the next night, in bed, she said to David, “It’s a rebound thing, that’s all. He’s lonely. She probably just saw a good opportunity–”

“Don’t, Alice,” David said sharply. “He wants us to meet her.” He was quiet for a moment, then he went on. “He’s talking about getting married, Alice. He wants us to be there.”

She turned away. “Oh, no,” she said. “He can’t ask that of us–of me. I can at least be loyal to Beth, even if he can’t.” And then, her voice unsteady, she added, “He should still be mourning.”

David’s hand on her shoulder was gentle. “Steve did a lot of his mourning before Beth died,” he said quietly.

“What about the boys?” she asked, trying hard to keep her voice level.

“He’s talked to them. He says Michael is taking it in stride, and Peter is cautious, but not resentful. He knew you’d worry about them, so he wanted you to know how they feel.” He took her hands. “Alice,” he said quietly, “Beth wouldn’t want Steve to be unhappy. You know that.”

She tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her. “Yes,” she said after awhile. “But it isn’t even a year since she died.” Tears ran down her cheeks.

When she stopped crying, David said softly, “At least meet her. Give her a chance–give us all a chance. If you don’t, we’ll drift apart. I don’t want that–Steve and I go too far back. The kids don’t want it.” He put his arms around her. “I don’t think you want it either. It’s up to you, Alice. It’s your choice where we go from here.”

She knew he was right, but she couldn’t bear the thought of having anything to do with this woman who’d made Steve forget Beth so soon. But losing touch with Beth’s sons and with Steve himself would be even worse. Beth wouldn’t want that.

The next day she called Steve. “I’d like to meet Brenda,” she announced.

“She’ll be here tonight,” he told her.

Her first instinct was to say no, she didn’t want this first meeting to be in Beth’s house. But she stopped herself. She’d have to get used to seeing someone else in there, in Beth’s place.

“Do you want me to come with you?” David asked, but she said no, this was something she had to do on her own.

After supper, she drove over to Steve’s house. It still seemed unbelievable that Beth wouldn’t be there, waiting for her. She still had a key, but she rang the bell.

She could see through the glass at the side of the door that it wasn’t Steve answering and she had a moment’s panic when she remembered he’d be out picking up the boys from Scouts. But it was too late; the door was opening.

“Alice? Come in,” Brenda said.

She was surprisingly ordinary-looking, not at all the head-turning creature Alice had envisioned.

“Steve will be back soon,” Brenda said. She hesitated, then said uncertainly, “I’ve just made coffee–would you like some?”

Alice had been dreading going into Beth’s familiar kitchen with this woman. But the tension was broken completely by the appearance of a small, shaggy puppy hurtling across the room.

“We thought it would help Peter,” Brenda explained, as Alice knelt down to return the exuberant greeting.

“And has it?” Alice asked, determined not to give in to sudden panic at the word we.

Brenda nodded. “I think so,” she said tentatively. She poured coffee and set cups on the kitchen table. We used to sit at the counter, Beth and I, Alice thought, and the small difference somehow helped.

Now that she was here, she didn’t know what to say, and the silence between them stretched awkwardly.

“Alice,” Brenda said at last. “I realize how difficult this is for you. I know how close you and Beth were, and how much you did for her, for all of them.”

Suddenly, it wasn’t as difficult to say what she’d wanted to say. “It’s just that it’s so soon.”

“I know,” Brenda replied. “We didn’t plan it that way. It was just…we both needed company. And then suddenly we knew we felt more for each other.”

This is even harder for her shall it is for me, Alice thought, and the realization shook her. She put her mug down on the table.

Give her a chance, David had said. Give us all a chance.

She took a steadying breath. “Will you and Steve and the boys come for dinner on Saturday?” she asked.

“Yes, we’d like that,” Brenda replied calmly, but there was relief–and real pleasure–in her eyes.

Just then, they both heard Steve’s car pull into the driveway.

“Steve will be so glad you’re here, Alice,” Brenda said.

“So will David,” Alice said. And then with some difficulty, “I’m glad too. I’ll just say hello to Steve and the boys–then I have to get home.”

It was a start, these few words. It wouldn’t be easy, coming here, seeing Steve and his sons–Beth’s sons–with someone else. But she would do it.

It’s your choice, David had said, and he was right. She had made the choice, and she knew, with complete certainty, that it was the choice Beth would have wanted her to make.

Magical Couture Performers

mcpAccessible, pragmatic, youthful, profitable. These terms have never belonged to the vernacular of the haute couture, the 88-year-old practice that marries Paris’s top creative fashion talent with its most skillful seamstresses, craftsmen and furriers for a price tag that starts at $12,000 and climbs steeply once the embroiderers are called in.

But a gaggle of new names have joined the Paris couturiers’ ranks — seven in 18 months — and there’s a revolution afoot. While none of the newcomers are quite pushing beading while-u-wait, most are trying shortcuts to slash prices and trim the order-to-delivery waiting period from the standard six or eight weeks to something under a month.

“I’m very happy that there are new faces,” says Yves Saint Laurent. When pressed on whether it was a problem that not all of them meet the old standards for couture, he smiled. “That’s what young people are supposed to do, break the rules and do things in a new way. It’s normal.”

“I think exactly as he does,” says Pierre Berge, his business partner. Berge’s most memorable proclamation in recent years has been that couture would die after Saint Laurent, but he seems to be lightening up of late. “I am against the rules and I have nothing against these young people changing things. I am absolutely convinced that this couture that we have known will die and that other forms will grow up in its place.”

At Versace, Donatella Versace plans to select 15 looks from her first couture collection and produce two models of each to be sold at the company’s boutiques worldwide. “Delivery will be 20 days later,” she explains. “That’s the only way to do couture now. You have to give the service. We started this last season and it worked well.”

Mix those notions with a more relaxed approach to receiving clients, and some would say you’ve knocked everything that was ever “haute” out of the couture. Most of the houses, or at least the groups who back them, prize the publicity they receive from the money-losing business of couture more than the clients who buy it. In fact, the media’s growing interest in the once arcane event — ABC will air a two-hour special on this week’s shows on Thursday — has helped attract all the new blood. While the newcomers are certainly not shying away from the cameras, many do not yet have licenses for fragrances or sunglasses and for them, recruiting younger clients is important.

Victoria White O’Gara, a tall, slender, very attractive Californian is in her mid-30s and just the kind of woman they’re looking for. She was front row at Versace on Saturday, her first couture show ever, but she’s been a client for several years and the word is she spends a fortune on fashion.

“I’ve just always loved clothes,” says White O’Gara. She’s also interested in Jean Paul Gaultier and Dior this season, but agrees that when it comes to attaining couture client status, her peers still face a few obstacles. “Women need parties to wear these things to. In California, it looks out of place to be dressed like this,” she says, motioning to her blue-green beaded Atelier Versace gown from January. “The big problem is money. You’ve got to have a rich husband or boyfriend to buy.”

The new convenience couture, whether it be a couture jacket mixed with a machine-made skirt or dresses done in advance and fitted locally, would therefore seem to make sense, but it’s kicking up a controversy. Talk of cutting corners inevitably leads to worries about whether labor-intensive couture in any form can withstand the heavy government payroll taxes in France. If the couture dies, the thinking goes, centuries worth of French savoir-faire will be lost and so will France’s fashion hegemony. After weathering an unsuccessful attempt by Hitler to pack all the couturiers off to Berlin in 1940 and the explosion of designer ready-to-wear in 1967 — when the number of houses shriveled overnight from 37 to 19 — can couture accommodate convenience? Surprisingly, it’s not a predictable old guard versus new guard debate.

“There is nothing convenient about couture,” says Givenchy’s 29-year-old Alexander McQueen, whose provocative designs have sent some of the house’s old clients running scared. McQueen has just been working on a bustier in sterling silver fabric which, like many of his imaginative creations, is best cleaned by hand with a Q-tip. “The princesses, the elite that buy couture, they don’t want convenience,” he says. “They know that couture is the most luxurious thing one can have in clothing.”

But if the client is queen, and the queen is in a hurry and doesn’t care if an inner seam was stitched by hand, shouldn’t a house do her bidding? McQueen looks annoyed. “That is just disrespectful to the people who do couture. Couture is about workmanship and the customers have got to have respect for the craftsmen,” he says. “You can’t just send things and say `do it’ as if they were shop assistants taking orders; they are the most fantastic artisans of their kind. In couture, it takes two to tango.”

fsNo one speaks more reverently about French craftsmen than Christian Lacroix, whose name is synonymous with elaborate fashion. But he says he’s on the fence when it comes to convenience. “I’m not against Couture Lite — mentalities have to evolve,” he says.”Convenience couture, even if I don’t practice it, makes some sense. A pant is a pant. When the jacket is very elaborate, you need a simple skirt. It could be made elsewhere. We have to find new recipes if we want the couture to be alive for the next millennium.”

Lacroix recalls a recent fitting for his friend, the French singer Mireille Mathieu. “She, like everyone, pays, because I’ve always said we were too young to give anything away. I can’t remember the price of the simple skirt, but we did it by hand to go with the embroidered jacket. With the same money I would have preferred that she had a skirt made by machine and two embroidered dresses.”

Purists don’t share his view. “Even a simple skirt should be beautifully done. If it’s a suit, it has to be the same hand doing the whole thing,” insists Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld. “Couture should be one piece. Otherwise it’s expensive ready-to-wear and it already exists.” In fact, Lagerfeld says that couture-like elements have existed for years at rtw’s most rarefied levels. “I don’t see the difference between what they’re doing and what Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons are doing. For me, what they [Yamamoto and Comme designer Rei Kawakubo] do is real couture. And I know because I have photographed Yohji’s work.” And the gray area between couture and rtw is expanding fast. There are rumblings among even the high volume rtw companies about doing made-to-measure. Miuccia Prada has designed dresses for Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore and Winona Ryder for special events. Although a spokeswoman for the house denied that Prada has actually made any made-to-measure dresses for its less famous clients, some customers reportedly have been told it might be possible in the future. Prada declined to comment.

“Let’s not talk about couture, let’s talk about fashion,” urges Lagerfeld. “Some of the prestigious names were couture but they were about hideous dresses that had nothing to do with fashion and this was bad publicity for French fashion. You tell me Prada is doing semi-couture or whatever they will call it, and it’s interesting because it is fashion and people will want it,” he says.

At Valentino, Giancarlo Giammetti says he’s unsure what to do when the designer retires. “I don’t have the answer yet. I’m not so blind and egocentric as to say the couture will die when Valentino is gone,” he says thoughtfully. “I can imagine that a good group of designers could carry on with a new couture — six of the same dress made only for you. Of course they would be made by hand, but they would gain speed by getting rid of all the fittings. It’s all about the planning.”

At Dior, John Galliano’s extravagant presentations have been essential to reviving couture. “My team at Dior, we’ve made couture very fashionable to women,” Galliano says. “I think the whole idea of service — the opposite of those faceless stores — is the way to go for the 21st century.” He says the new interest in couture and all its derivatives simply indicates that women are finally catching up with the services available to men for decades. “Men like having a shirt made and it really doesn’t cost that much more. Women should have more possibilities.”

Dior is controlled by Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which includes Lacroix and Givenchy as well as Louis Vuitton, Celine, Kenzo and Galliano, all of which do rtw but not couture. Asked about whether some of those brands might one day offer made-to-measure, Arnault says: “Why not? What’s important is creativity, not whether it’s couture or rtw or something in-between.” Adds Daniel Piette, the president of the LVMH fashion division: “The question of made-to-measure is one that is under debate in our houses. One could imagine that one day some of these brands might offer such a service.”

Made-to-measure by Prada would probably be more streamlined than the traditional couture fittings, but Lagerfeld thinks the women who can pay might miss the ordering process that can fill an afternoon and the follow-up fittings — usually there are at least two. “Couture is for women who come for the package deal — having the fittings, being pampered, receiving their dress in a special packaging that is more beautiful than the ready-to-wear.

“OK, maybe the whole thing is a little chichi, a little demode, but they adore it,” Lagerfeld continues. “For them it’s an achievement that they can buy couture. Couture is not for women who have to get a dress.”

Ocimar Versolato, a Brazilian who recently got backing from a Brazilian industrial group Pessoa de Queiroz, launched his couture business with a show on the Place Vendome on Saturday. His cocktail dresses start at $3,000 and evening can run to $20,000 and though Versolato is a believer in handmade, he says what’s archaic is the traditional process of working up toiles, the cotton canvas versions of each couture garment that are fitted and tinkered with before the real fabric is cut. “In the past, the fabric was expensive and the labor was relatively inexpensive,” he says, sitting in his sleek marble salon. “Today it’s just the opposite. For many pieces — but never the mousseline which must be worked out on a stiff fabric — I prefer to cut directly on the fabric, even if we waste some.”

Jean Paul Gaultier president Donald Potard says his house, which presented its fourth couture collection on Sunday, tried shortcuts, but they didn’t work out. “In the beginning we thought some of it could be done by machine, but from the first season we realized that the result was not the same, the hand was not the same and we abandoned that approach and we went to something that was more traditional, more qualitative.” He’s says he’s delighted with how it’s going: The house is spending $2 million to produce and show couture each year, but he figures that, press and TV combined, the house has raked in $40 million in publicity. Plus, he says the couture has raised Gaultier’s profile and even boosted his growing company’s credit line at the banks. Still, the house wants to keep its prices lower than those at the more established houses — Gaultier couture suits start at $10,000 compared to $18,000 for those at Lacroix, so Potard moved to Plan B and focused on controlling costs. “We think about the price as we go,” he says, suggesting that at Chanel and Dior there are no price constraints.

One of the complaints that the established houses make against the newcomers is that they reap the publicity of their couturier status but dodge the rules laid out in a 1945 Ministry of Industry decree controlling the number of full-time hands a house must have on staff and the minimum number of models that must be presented each season. Asked about the “rules,” new Chambre Syndicale president Didier Grumbach takes a deep breath to explain and then stops: “They’re inoperative so why even bother. If a new house started with those rules today they would be dead immediately.”

Lacroix’s business partner Jean-Jacques Picart has been dining out on a tale of a wedding dress for a bride from the provincial city of Nancy that’s hanging in the atelier. “It’s shiny, it’s got metallic pieces and they said she was going for something `futurist.”‘ Picart recounts. Wondering aloud why the bride hadn’t gone to Mugler, he was told that in fact she started there. “They didn’t want to do it because it was a girl from Nancy and it cost too much money to hire the hands, so they sent her here,” Picart says. His point is that Lacroix and LVMH are subsidizing couture.

“That’s ridiculous,” says Grumbach, who recently stepped down as president of Mugler to take the Chambre post. “These houses have a few dozen women buying regularly. There are thousands of women who can buy a couture dress for one occasion and a young house can’t serve the mall. When Mr. Ungaro started out they were four in the workroom and he did the deliveries himself and he was forced to send clients away too.”

The new couturiers may be skimping on workers, but they’re exploring innovative ways to tackle the couture. Thierry Mugler, for example, has been working with computer graphics companies to simulate not only a woman’s body, but the movement of different kinds of fabric on-screen.

And any discussion of cost issues inevitably turns to embroidery. “Mr. Lessage does fantastic work but his bills are enough to give you a heart attack,” says Potard. He speaks from experience: Lessage’s studio was behind the show-stopping beaded tartan skirts and also microbeaded tapestry patchwork jackets at Gaultier’s show on Sunday and Francois Lessage was front-row. Lessage is the best-known of a group of French embroiderers and his handiwork this season also will turn up at Dior and at Chanel, but don’t look for his work in Oscar de La Renta’s collection for Balmain. De la Renta, the only American among the 24 couturiers showing in Paris, sold enough dresses last season, according to Balmain executives, to place him, along with YSL and Chanel, among the bestselling couturiers. In addition to his designs and his insight into exactly what kind of clothes his wealthy clientele needs — he and his wife Annette spend time with many of them — part of his formula was to knock down the price by sending out to India for embroidery. “If I do an embroidered dress I would love to be able to sell it.” de la Renta says. “If the embroidery alone costs $40,000, I will not,” he explains in the vast, white salon at Balmain. “I do work a lot with India, but let me tell you, the Paris embroidery houses do too.”

Nothing illustrates the way the couture is changing better then to linger in the salons of one of the established houses then stop by Josephus Thimister’s cramped two-room workroom-salon-cabine in the Marais. At Lacroix there’s a spacious reception room with thick carpets and specially commissioned sofas and chairs. There are armfuls of fresh flowers and assistants offer coffee in the service Lacroix designed for Christofle. But at Thimister’s, some 15 pattern cutters and seamstresses jockey for space on makeshift work tables and a noisy Singer whirs in the background. The model changes behind a closet door and then sidesteps litter on the floor — discarded patterns, plastic wrapping — to begin the fitting.

Almost all the assistants appear to be under 40 and the scene is reminiscent of the night before the school play. “Some of them volunteer at night. They want to have a couture experience,” says Thimister. The former Balenciaga designer consults for a large Belgium clothing manufacturer to help scrape together the more than $300,000 needed to put on the couture show. “Some people have a nice car, we have a couture collection,” Thimister says.

His poetic presentation on Monday had the the audience rifling the program notes to decipher the fabrics — black paper leather, wax-colored latex and sometimes the canvas the other couturiers use as their toile. Many pieces are priced around $6,000. At a fitting, he tugged at an unfinished black silk crepe skirt on a hanger. “Often we think this is more beautiful than the final dress,” he says. “It’s all about the inside work, putting little strips of organza in. Honestly, I think it is more beautiful like this than if it is finished on the outside.”

For many in the establishment, the biggest threat is not the newcomers, but the so-called couturieres de dimanche, the skilled French seamstresses who knock off name designers. “We have to find clues to be competitive with these couturieres,” says Lacroix. “I hate bourgeois weddings, these horse races with all the little hats. And I’d prefer to see the magazines filled with things from Monsieur Sirop and Mr. Thimester, who have some ideas, than these little couturieres.”

No wonder the houses, established and new couture alike, are doing their best to recruit new customers. Several have taken on young people to do public relations. Versace is even thinking of inviting a young group in New York to come to the boutique for a special couture show. And Valentino invites “young friends” in post-season to buy up the leftover couture pieces at rock-bottom prices. But it won’t be easy, says Valentino’s Giammetti. “If you are used to the Gap, then it will be hard to adjust to couture prices.”

Couture Hits Home In Paris

chhipVALENTINO: Serenity? At the couture? It’s almost become an oxymoron. But it has found an imposing, if unlikely, champion in Valentino and, in the collection he showed on Sunday night, he made an alluring case for it.

Having forsaken the ways of overstated glitz — at least for the moment — Valentino preached a gospel of artistic discretion, one that still left plenty of room for the well-placed flight of fancy. And for the most part, it looked great.

This collection marked the completion of a significant shift in Valentino’s approach to couture. A year ago, he flaunted the glitz, the fur and the feathers to a near-camp degree, while last spring, he transmuted his embellishment enzymes into a more graceful bohemian juice. Now, he is asking his Ladies to embrace — mon Dieu — an even greater sense of discretion. Would Valentino lead them astray? You can bet your hand-jeweled stilettos not. He might want them to tone down the voltage, but that doesn’t mean they’ll surrender an ounce of the glam they covet.

Valentino made his point from the start, opening the show with a statement of drop-dead chic: Subtle or not, these clothes pack quite a punch, coming at you in head-to-toe winter white. The coats, suits and dresses were detailed with embroidered or perforated geometric motifs. Such geometry, from triangular seaming to the square jeweled handbags, was one of the collection’s key themes. In lieu of the more expected sparkling flora and fauna, this cleaner approach fused the right touch of artsiness with a smart modernity.

Valentino showed a softer side in gentle dresses and skirts, often with patchwork patterns. And even when he did something that sounds over-the-top — a gold lace coat, for example — he made it seem as effortless as a breeze. If along the way one could sense the occasional faint reference, no matter; Valentino’s savvy perspective is nothing if not worldly, distilled from all sorts of influences.

The weakness came at night, perhaps the result of the same restraint that made the rest of the collection work: except for a slinky velvet cowl dress, the killer evening pieces everyone expects from Valentino weren’t there. And they were missed — even though the collection was a hit.

CHRISTIAN DIOR: One of the great things about being in Paris for couture is that political correctness goes out the floor-to-ceiling window. And nobody gives it the old heave-ho like John Galliano. Take, for example, his latest extravaganza — a ride on the “Diorient Express,” which shuttled that great heroine of Native American lore, Princess Pocahontas, across Europe.

When Princess Pokey (by the way, many of the non-Americans in the audience didn’t have a clue) arrived by train, a pair of protectors preceded her onto the platform — young, virile braves, done up in major feathers and warpaint, who whooped it up with their war hoots like nobody’s been able to do on the States side of the Atlantic in years.

A great opening act for the high theater that was to follow. But while it may be a little dicey to seek metaphor in the goings-on at a Galliano show, there is one to be found: John Galliano simply refuses to buckle under pressure. He won’t go p.c. Season after season, he faces a singular criticism: Where are the clothes? You know, John, the real clothes, the buy ‘em, hang ‘em, wear ‘em clothes? And season after season, he sticks to his guns — or bows and arrows, depending upon his mood of the moment. He does what his gut and his wildly wandering imagination tell him to do.

This season, the disassociation from reality was epic, even by Galliano standards, and it disturbed and even angered many in the audience. In place of clothes for the here-and-now, Galliano offered a stunningly gorgeous production that saw Pocahontas wrapped in one intricately patterned embroidered blanket after another, and then cast her in all sorts of Shakespearean roles clad in the stuff of paintings and those early BBC miniseries.

Ridiculous or not? The debate rages on. But even from among the waistcoats, the doublets, the balloon dresses and coats, there was real news. First, Galliano dreamt up a reverie of color — strong, joyous and daring. And he introduced some new shapes. The balloons, while utterly theatrical, point to a new, substantial A-line silhouette. Galliano also made a significant pitch for the return of the micro-mini in sexy, skinny suits, and he showed a really retro evening shape — an Elizabethan silhouette with a natural waist and gentle skirt, cut from sturdy fabrics. A hard sell, perhaps, but then, let’s not forget all those naysayers who pooh-poohed Galliano’s bias binge: That look has become the Levis of the party circuit.

If only John would throw us a few crumbs — a few more realistic jackets, skirts and pants — the results could be not only amazing but more approachable, as well. And he could do it without surrendering a bit of the showmanship so instrinisic to his nature. Otherwise, all his glorious indulgence might do for him what it did for Marie Antoinette — and that would be a tragedy, not only for Galliano himself, but for Paris and all of fashion.

embdEMANUEL UNGARO: Showmanship isn’t for everyone. Certainly not Emanuel Ungaro — even if he is dressing Sharon Stone for an upcoming film. In fact, these days Ungaro is in a particularly mellow mood. In the couture collection he showed on Monday, that mood translated into an au courant chic, one that balanced sophistication with a newfound ease.

“The collection is very pure in a way,” Ungaro said before the show.”Nothing is overdone.” He then instructed a model to relax her runway walk. “Be fatigue. You have to show your soul, not your body.” Fatigue? No, these clothes were anything but tired. Instead, they exuded a refreshing attitude of contentment, and what they may have lost in exoticism they more than made up for in their new, younger spirit.

Key to it all is Ungaro’s embrace of discretion, starting with the dearth of prints. Instead of piling pattern upon pattern, he now lets textures do the talking, mixing all sorts of lavish fabrics tone-on-tone, usually in shades of gray — tweeds, cashmeres, laces, embroideries. And, taking a page from his own archives, he focused on the unconstructed jacket, cut to perfection but devoid of internal structure and easy as a cardigan. These came long and short, shapely and linear, worn over easy dresses or Ungaro’s favorite pants, cut wide and cropped above the ankle — a sounder choice than the harem pants, the show’s only real faux pas.

At night, there were no major surprises. Nevertheless, Ungaro often managed to infuse the gowns — elaborate webs of laces, and tulle, flounces and feathers — with a subtle sense of mystery.

JEAN-LOUIS SCHERRER: With new designer Stephane Rolland creating both the couture and ready-to-wear, the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer was back on the fall couture calendar after skipping the spring season. Rolland, who came to Scherrer at the beginning of this year, replacing Bernard Perris, didn’t stage a couture revolution. He did show, however, that he can cut an evening gown for the woman who wants to make an entrance. Strong points included a backless velvet sheath or the silver embroidered bronze lace dress worn under a hand-painted velvet coat. But Rolland got carried away with heavy-handed ballgowns in satin duchesse and zibeline, as well as with a black gazar bubble.

Fine Fragrances Change To Survive

ffctLeonard Lauder, chairman and chief executive officer of the market-leading Estee Lauder Cos., has no trouble pinpointing what’s ailing the crucial fine fragrance business. In fact, he needs only one word to describe most department store presentations: “Boring.”

“The fragrance bar has not shown the vitality that it has in the past,” he said, underscoring the need for “a more exciting presentation” as the industry heads into what some executives see as a pivotal year.

Lauder ticked off a number of experimental initiatives already under way, including the U.S. rollout of the French perfumery chain Sephora, which “is not big enough yet, but it’s out there enough to raise concerns of department stores.”

One of the most encouraging developments came from May Department Stores, which launched four prototype fragrance shops. Federated Department Stores is contemplating a pilot retail format to compete with Sephora on the West Coast. Another move has come from Lauder, with the rollout of 10 Tommy’s Shops, stocked with Tommy Hilfiger toiletries.

In addition, Bloomingdale’s began experimenting with open-sell self- service merchandising in its California branches and then showcased the approach with the renovation of its flagship here in late October. Macy’s West is also expected to make full use of open-sell with the redo of its San Francisco flagship in the fall.

But while these developments may seem encouraging, Lauder’s patience apparently is wearing thin. “I am not waiting for the market to straighten itself out,” he said, and without offering details, vowed to take a strong hand in finding a solution.

Arie Kopelman, president and chief operating officer of Chanel Inc., saw 1998 as a year in which the business-as-usual approach got swept away by “a sea change of emotional thought process.”

Consumers have become choosier and less impulsive. “It’s a tighter filtration,” Kopelman. “People have started to think not about what they want, but what they need.”

This shift in mind-set was triggered by a confluence of developments – – the overseas financial meltdown, the “yo-yo” fluctuations of the domestic stock market and the whole casualization of American lifestyle, where dress-down Friday has extended to an entire week and consumers are more concerned with quality, rather than quantity, of living.

What this will mean for marketers, Kopelman continued, is that “inventive bold strokes” will be required — no more flying on automatic pilot. Companies will have to take a hard look at the advantages of pricing, merchandising will be an issue and competition will be fierce.

One executive who is looking forward to toasting the millennium is Robert Brady, president and chief executive officer of Christian Dior Perfumes Inc.

A year ago, he took over a Dior beset with problems involving distribution and promotion and began chipping away. Brady said he expected a difficult Christmas and that’s what materialized. Although it’s been a tough year for women’s fragrances, Brady has had the added burden of having to mop up merchandise seepage into the gray market.

“The fragrance business has not been good,” Brady said, “and mine is worse than the norm.”

He sees the entire department store fragrance business sinking into a downward spiral. The erosion of manufacturers’ margins, caused partly by chronic overpromotion, has led to diminished activity and hence slowing sales.

“You have to go back to the basics,” he said, noting that the industry must focus on developing widely acceptable fragrances and sampling them incessantly.

For next year, Brady is shooting for gains in his fragrance business as high as 5 percent. Color cosmetics and skin care, however, are a far rosier picture, where Dior is “outperforming the category” with strong double-digit gains. Brady is looking for more of the same next year in the 20 percent range for color and treatment.

Peter England, president and ceo of Elizabeth Arden, sees a low-growth year ahead, with retail gains held to 2 to 3 percent for the prestige beauty industry.

Arden has what England described as a “strong momentum” created by a double-digit growth of more than 10 percent at retail for the holiday season.

Part of the increase was generated by a revamped promotional format, typified by the “pick your own” gwp dividend and a new “Buy One Get One Free” program that will begin after Christmas.

Guy Peyrelongue, president and ceo of Cosmair, said the company’s plan for 1999 is a continuation of this year’s strategy: new products, more advertising and less promotion. The goal? Double-digit growth for all divisions, from Lancome to Redken.

ccl“People say next year should be a little tougher than this year, but our destiny is in our hands,” he said. Launches next year will include the new fragrance duo from Emporio Armani and a new introduction from Ralph Lauren. Peyrelongue would not comment, but it has been reported that Cosmair is working on a color cosmetics line for Ralph Lauren. Peyrelongue predicted that tough times are ahead for the mass side of the business, as new brands make their debuts. “But if people spend more money in advertising,” he said, “it makes the market more active and grows the market.”

And Peyrelongue would like to see a lot less promotion in 1999. “Two of our latest launches, Acqua di Gio for men and Ralph Lauren Romance, we’ve done without gift-with-purchase and purchase-with-purchase, and they’ve been extremely successful,” he said.

Marjorie Wollan, president and ceo of Guerlain Inc., also is feeling optimistic. The fragrance house’s signature scent, Shalimar, is performing more strongly than ever, she noted, and the makeup side of the company has had “a fabulous year.”

Although the company’s advertising budget is not finalized yet, Wollan said Guerlain will spend 20 percent more on ads next year than it did this year.

As for the general health of the industry in 1999, the overproliferation of brands concerns Wollan. “I think the consumer is completely confused by the number of makeup artist lines,” she said.

She also said retailers are a bit too smitten with what’s new. “They are giving space and location to these new brands, but they really get saddled with a lot of inventory if the products don’t sell through.”

Camille McDonald, president and ceo at Parfums Givenchy Inc., also is looking forward to the new year, especially when it comes to changes at the fragrance bar.

“It’s healthy for the category,” said McDonald. “It’s been a long time since the fragrance bar was destination shopping on the main floor.”

McDonald contended that classic brands will thrive in open-sell. “With the open-sell alphabetical setups, you’re not as much a slave to corporate clout as you are to the alphabet,” she said. “When marketed correctly, you can take seven- and 10-year-old brands and achieve double-digit increases.”

However, she noted that service can’t slip as companies move toward open-sell. “If we are going to maintain our ability to do multiple transactions, then we’re going to have to have service that will educate the consumer,” she said. “Without that, our business will suffer.”

Coming off a robust year in which mass cosmetics sales climbed 13.8 percent to $2.9 billion at retail, beauty marketers are predicting another healthy year in 1999. Two major cosmetics launches — color cosmetics from Oil of Olay and Neutrogena — plus increased promotional activity by existing players is expected to further expand the category.

George Fellows, president and ceo of Revlon Inc., said, “Nineteen ninety-nine will bring significant global challenges, particularly in view of the widely varying economic conditions that exist throughout the world. The changing trade patterns, as well as the rapid expansion of the self-select marketplace, create enormously positive business opportunities for Revlon, however.”

“I definitely expect to see some real, significant growth in the next 12 months,” said Marc Pritchard, general manager and vice president of cosmetics at Procter & Gamble, whose brands include Max Factor, Cover Girl and the new Oil of Olay line, which will roll out this spring.

“There is unprecedented activity,” he said. “Cosmetics are really becoming ubiquitous. It is everywhere a consumer shops.”

P&G is optimistic about its own brands. With the new Oil of Olay color cosmetics, P&G hopes to rank among the top five mass lines by yearend. For Max Factor, which was repositioned this year as a brand for movie lovers, and Cover Girl, which will emphasize color promotions and heavily support a mascara relaunch next year, Pritchard anticipates sales could grow “in the high single digits to low double digits.”

Joseph Campinell, president of L’Oreal Retail, believes the total mass cosmetics market could expand another eight to 10 percent in 1999. “The category is quite healthy, and it is a reflection of the number of new product initiatives and a continued interest in color at both the older end of the market as well as a strong middle group.”

Next year, “I think we will see strong performances out of the foundation and lip segments, perhaps a little less in nail,” said Campinell.

Meanwhile, the mass fragrance business is also looking up. Continued efforts to strengthen core brands, along with the further development of alternative fragrance and bath and body lines, are expected to perk up the category next year.

“In traditional fragrance in the mass market, I think we will see growth, said Eric Thoreux, president of Coty Inc. “Our sell-through data for Christmas has already trended slightly higher than last year.”

Coty intends to reinforce its core franchise through line extensions and strengthened media support, said Thoreux.

Also planned for next year is a new traditional fragrance brand, designed to target an untapped market for the company, said Thoreux.

Fragrance plans at Renaissance Cosmetics are following a similar course. Emphasis is on its core brands, with fewer promotions planned, which typically bring in narrower margins.

Hose On Sale!

hosKayser-Roth Corp., the world’s second-largest hosiery maker, is on the selling block.

The company is expected to be sold within six months, according to Alfredo Fernandez, an associate at Morgan Stanley Realty Corp., which is handling the sale.

“We’re in the process of selling the subsidiaries of Grupo Synkro, including Kayser-Roth,” he said.

Fernandez declined to name the interested parties or to outline their offers. Kevin Toomey, president and chief executive officer of Kayser-Roth, could not be reached for comment at press time.

Morgan Stanley is reportedly entertaining offers from five companies — two legwear makers and three nonapparel firms, industry sources said. The U.S. hosiery business, which includes No Nonsense and Burlington as well as Calvin Klein sheers and Hue socks and tights, is expected to be sold for about $140 million, sources said. Kayser-Roth is ranked second in the segment, behind Sara Lee Corp., which makes Hanes Hosiery and licensed Donna Karan legwear.

Ithaca Industries is one of the firms being considered, according to James Waller, chairman, president and ceo. He expects to receive a formal decision on the offer within a few weeks.

Ridgeview is also in the running, said Barry Tartarkin, executive vice president.

“We think the sale of Kayser-Roth is going to dramatically change the landscape of the hosiery business in the United States,” he said. “We want to be on the right side of that change.”

Great American Knitting Mills and Alba-Waldensian reportedly also offered bids. Executives at those companies could not be reached for comment.

In 1993, Kayser-Roth was acquired by Legwear Holdings Corp., a holding company controlled by Mexican hosiery producer Grupo Synkro SA de CA and a group of individual Mexican investors. The move nearly tripled the Mexican firm’s business to some $600 million based on the then-more-valuable peso.

At that time, Kayser-Roth’s volume was $350 million, including a retail outlet business that has since been disbanded. Sales today are estimated at between $250 million and $275 million, sources said.

After running into serious financial problems last year, Grupo Synkro was taken over by the Mexican government in an effort to save jobs and keep the company solvent, according to an executive close to the deal.

Grupo Synkro also owns two Argentine pantyhose makers, Revision and Modecraft. Grupo Synkro would prefer to sell its three hosiery businesses — the Argentine and Mexican units and the Kayser-Roth operation — as one entity, according to a bidder who has been eliminated and asked to remain anonymous.

Waller declined to give specifics about his company’s proposal, due to a confidentiality agreement with Morgan Stanley.

“They are adamant about not breaking it up,” he said.

Monday’s news came after months of speculation that Kayser-Roth was up for sale. During May market, Toomey told WWD, “Sometime in the future ownership will change.”

“It certainly doesn’t surprise me, but I’d be hard-pressed to give a reason why,” said Frank Oswald, a consultant for DuPont who has specialized in hosiery for more than 40 years.

“I think it’s a good buy. Kayser-Roth has a strong management team. There is strong equity in the No Nonsense brand, which can be extended into other classifications. Their new products, such as Sheer Endurance, have been successful. Calvin Klein has consistently improved both product and performance in the department store channel. There is knowledge and experience around socks — the growth classification today. It’s a well-balanced and well-managed operation.”

Should a buyer invest in the brand and expand its offerings, the hosiery market as a whole would benefit, Oswald said.

Glamour Let Fuller Shine

The fashion and beauty pages are where Bonnie Fuller plans to make her mark at Glamour.

bfIn the past, Glamour’s fashion coverage has been, by and large, very accessible. While there will still be that element in the new Glamour, “10 to 15 percent of what we show in the well will be top designer looks. There will be more of a reach,” said Fuller, who has made her debut as editor in chief with the January issue, which hit newsstands this week.

“We do have readers with money to buy it [designer], but it’s a change. Before, Glamour showed 100 percent bridge [sportswear] on down. There was not much room for fantasy before,” she said.

While the new issue has many elements of the magazine’s redesign, the full effects of the fashion and beauty changes won’t be evident until March, she said.

A white Richard Tyler Collection dress is featured on Fuller’s January cover, and a Donna Karan dress will be on February’s. In January’s pages, there’s a full-page Calvin Klein Collection yellow dress.

“It wouldn’t be in Glamour before,” said Fuller, who succeeded longtime editor Ruth Whitney. Other designer lines sprinkled throughout the pages are Chanel, Dries Van Noten and Dolce & Gabbana, as well as Moschino Jeans, Ralph by Ralph Lauren, DKNY Pure, CK Calvin Klein, Gap, Esprit, Diesel, Tommy Jeans and BCBG.

To bring up the level of photography, Fuller said she’s working with such fashion photographers as Robert Erdman, Myers Robertson, Wayne Maser, Walter Chin and Tiziano Magni.

Fuller, who was editor in chief of Cosmopolitan for 1 1/2 years and enhanced the fashion pages while freshening the magazine’s editorial, feels she now has an opportunity to present fashion her way.

“She [the Glamour reader] is much more fashion and beauty motivated than the Cosmo reader, because she’s buying the magazine for fashion and beauty. It’s not a secondary reason to pick up the magazine. At Cosmo, it [fashion and beauty] was a secondary reason. Sex and relationships were the primary reason.”

Fuller’s brief tenure at Cosmo as the much-heralded successor to Helen Gurley Brown was generally perceived as successful; newsstand sales gained 7 percent. So why would she jump ship, from Cosmo’s cash engine to Conde Nast’s cash engine, after only a year and a half?

It wasn’t about size. Cosmo, whose rate base is 2.4 million, generated an estimated $188.5 million in ad revenues in 1997, while Glamour, with a 2 million rate base, did an estimated $137.4 million, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

Word has it that Fuller simply got an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Fuller gulped, then laughed when told of rumors that she may have set a new standard for editorial salaries — $2 million — to make the move. “Fantastic. I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be in Tahiti,” she joked.

“Money wasn’t really an issue. The motivating factor for me is I really missed doing fashion and beauty to the degree I wanted to do it. You have to accept what your reader wants from a magazine. This is a fashion and beauty magazine, and I wanted to get back into that and work with wonderful photographers and better paper.”

With the March edition, Fuller plans to add about 15 more pages of fashion and beauty, up one-third from a year ago. The magazine also underwent a graphic redesign under creative director Don Robertson and art director Henry Connell.

“We tried to make it look more readable and more accessible and more engaging,” said Fuller, who changed many of the department headings — “Fashion figure it out,” “Chat Room fashion,” “G Things,” “You! You! You! Private Time,” “Glamarazzi” — jazzed up the headlines, did more outdoor shooting for the front-of-the-book sections and tried to make the lighter aspects of the magazine more playful.

Fuller, who has a reputation as an incredibly hard-working and demanding boss who knows exactly what she wants, overhauled the masthead, changing about one-third of the 70-person staff. Several editors left for Redbook, New Woman and other places; others were fired. Fuller brought her fashion director from Cosmo — Enna Halie — with her, along with Robertson and Connell and a few top editors.

One area that was heretofore “a Glamour don’t” under Whitney was celebrity covers. Fuller plans to run several celebrity covers in 1999, but will continue to show models, too. “The magazine has strong newsstand sales without celebrities,” said Fuller, noting the magazine sells a million newsstand copies a month.