When You’re Just Not Willing to Give up
Walking down Shotwell St in San Francisco, you’d be forgiven for not noticing the thin, nondescript brown building with its two businesses splitting the narrow front. Pedestrians walking past on October 3, 2015 might’ve smelled the scent of freshly cooked pasta and sauce wafting from the building.
Inside, an artist was cooking up an experience: with handmade unstained porcelain bowls and carved wooden spoons, artist Emilie Gossiaux served 85 guests a meal they weren’t likely to forget.
Not because of the delicious food or the bowls left unglazed for the sauce to leave their imprint.
It was because Emilie Gossiaux was blind.
And deaf. And serving each guest personally with food, dishes, and utensils she made herself.
It was all part of an exhibit celebrating the life and work of Oliver Sacks — a neuroscientist famous for studying the edge cases of what the human brain is capable of.
She had been blind for the past 4 years and 360 days. Deaf since she was 5 years old.
Art was always her coping mechanism.
As a kid, her mom used to find her hiding in the closet, drawing her own cartoons hours after she was supposed to be asleep.
She filled notebooks with her sketches and drawings as she processed what life was like growing up “different”, constantly being picked on, having to learn to lipread her teachers.
As her mom said about her art: “it is all she sees”.
On the Friday morning of October 8, 2010, she had to go to the studio of famed artist Daniel Arsham whom she was working for while attending the prestigious Cooper Union art school in New York City. She kissed her boyfriend goodbye and pedaled off through the bustling New York City traffic.
At the corner of Johnson and Varick in Brooklyn, as she waited for the light to change, her life changed forever.
An 18-wheeler took that turn too tight, plowed right over her, crushing her — fracturing her skull, pelvis, and left leg.
She was rushed to the hospital where doctors frantically worked to save her life. But the doctors couldn’t work fast enough. She flatlined.
Her heart stopped beating: 1 second…10 seconds…30 seconds…
A full minute passed before her heart started pumping blood again.
But she couldn’t breathe. Her internal organs had swollen from the trauma and were compressing against her lungs, causing her to suffocate.
The doctors had to do something — so they pulled her intestines out of her abdomen so that her chest cavity had room to breathe again.
She was alive. But inside, Emily remained in a hopeless, dark, silent void. Still unresponsive.
Her mom sat down by Emilie’s bed. She had just given the medical team permission to harvest Emilie’s organs when the time came.
That seemed to be coming all too soon.
Sitting there, she read one of their favorite books to Emilie, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a 1927 Pulitzer-winning novel about seemingly random tragedy and death.
Her mom, overcome with emotion, whispered in Emilie’s ear, telling her that she would love Emilie forever, an unending love, a love that wouldn’t quit.
To the surprise of her mom, Emilie raised her left hand.
When her mom tried to convince the doctors that Emilie was inside, alive and fighting to come back, the doctors insisted that Emilie’s responses were just reflexes.
They saw no signs of high brain function.
Every time she scratched her wounds, slapped away a helping hand, or flailed her head when they tried to reinsert her hearing aids, the doctors insisted it was a reflex.
The doctors didn’t believe it was possible for her to recover from an accident that bad. But after several weeks of steady improvement in ICU, she finally stabilized enough that she had to go somewhere.
But where? She was blind and death. It is impossible to help someone recover when they can’t respond to basic commands.
Somehow Emilie kept finding a way to fight back.
When they removed her tracheotomy, she started talking again.
She cursed out everyone around her.
She called people “Ms. Dashwood”, recalling Sense and Sensibility she and her boyfriend Alan had watched a few months back. But it wasn’t enough to prove she was a candidate for rehab.
That left just one choice: a nursing home.
Her dad flew back to their hometown of New Orleans to look for a place for Emilie (without bothering to tell her boyfriend). They felt it would be best for him if they just took Emilie away.
Alan insisted they give her a chance. He knew she’d claw her way back.
He was desperate for her to come back.
At 3 am one night, he had a breakthrough.
He had read about Annie Sullivan, the woman who taught Helen Keller through print on palm.
Taking her left palm in his and using her wrist as the baseline, he painstakingly traced large capital letters in her hand with his pointer finger.
I love you.
“Oh, you love me? That’s so sweet. Thank you.” She responded.
But she didn’t know it was Alan or that he was her boyfriend.
But to Alan, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t believe it. Neither could the doctors. He had to prove it to them somehow, so he started recording their conversations.
“What’s your name?” “What year is it?”
By painstakingly tracing each letter, he convinced her to let them put her hearing aids back in. And instantly, her personality came back.
But that was just the beginning of the fight. She would have to learn how to communicate all over again. She would have to learn how to do everything all over again.
So she dropped out of school to deal with life. What other choice did she have?
It takes most people 2 years to learn Braille.
Within a year, she finished reading her first Braille book: Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
She enrolled at a dedicated school for blind people to help them navigate society.
She could have picked a campus in her hometown, but she chose Minneapolis. She wanted to train in a city similar to New York City.
She wasn’t about to give up on her dream.
While in school, she took up an Industrial Arts class. She was determined to get back to art through whatever means possible.
Her teacher handed her a block of wood. She was told to carve the wood into who she wanted to become. As she painstakingly worked the block down, a definitive shape started to emerge.
She was carving a knife.
Emilie was going to cut through everything that was holding her back from art. That determination led Emilie to enroll in a night class where she honed her ceramics skill.
That determination led Emilie to become one of the first people to wear the BrainPort, a device specifically designed to help blind people “see” with their tongue.
The camera on the bridge of a special pair of sunglasses translates various shapes and levels of light into electromagnetic signals that stimulate the tongue like thousands of soda bubbles.
The only problem: the resolution was like using a child’s Lite Brite. Her doctors told her that even with the BrainPort, it would be impossible to create good art.
Somehow, she figured it out.
She painstakingly set up a blank sheet of paper on her desk and positioned a bright light on it so she could better see the contrast. If she drew with enough force, she could feel the wax of the crayon with her fingers — like Braille.
She also realized that a rich, dark ink called India Ink would show up well through the BrainPort.
And so she drew. Using the BrainPort as her guide, she drew a pair of hands. And as she studied those hands, she realized their cupped shape resembled a dove. She took that drawing and shaped it out of clay.
In 2013, that dove won Emilie the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Award of Excellence.
A year later, Emilie finally accomplished one of her dreams: she graduated from college.
And today, she continues to create art that inspires the world.
Every inch of her success was a fight.
She understood that small progress takes massive effort — and was willing to do whatever it took to turn her dream into reality.
Are you? Or have you decided that life is especially unfair to you?
It doesn’t matter what you have gone through so far in your life.
Get hit by a bus? Go through an ugly divorce? File bankruptcy? Lose a job? Lose a friend? Lose everything?
You can rebound. Your comeback story is ready to be written.
But only when you’re not willing to give up.
Originally published at danwaldschmidt.com on April 29, 2017.