Synesthesia by John Burgman

The way that my daughter’s head is shaped has been on my mind since Monday, when a team of surgeons at Morristown Medical successfully inserted an electrode into her miraculous brain to normalize her perception of colors. I find myself thinking about her precious, somewhat cantaloupish head when I am drifting through the assorted mundanities of the day, of which there are quite few since I took the entire month off of work at the real estate office to help her recover at home.

Consider how I pick up my daughter’s assignments at her school each afternoon and resist the urge to make a pass at her cute homeroom teacher, Miss Rostetter. Consider how I investigate the ceiling leak in the skylight above my kitchen counter each night and mull over my diurnal guilt. I am tempted these days—more than I’d like to admit—to dip into cocaine like I used to back in my freewheeling bachelor days, be productive—go-go-go! Also, I really should apologize to my neighbor at some point for going off on his cat, Caligula, last week when I was a nervous wreck. I should restart my membership at the racquet club too. Occasionally these daily cadences are rounded out with a beer on the patio with my wife, Yuni, and a quiet New Jersey sunset. But the thought of my daughter’s adorable head is always with me, that bald square on her scalp under which the electrode now lies, stimulating the neurons one electric click at a time.

Whenever I think my daily routines are boring, I just remember the incredible science, and how those little electric clicks in my daughter’s brain are helping her live minute by minute, gradation by gradation.

Don’t get me wrong, I would never cheat on my wife, Yuni, again—not with Julianna Rostetter or any other woman—and I would never risk our family stability with a vice as reckless as cocaine. I mention those mundanities simply to emphasize how the older I get, the more I define my life by what I won’t do rather than by what I will do. There is too much variability with “will,” because my daughter’s therapy over the years has taught me to stay open-minded and maintain an aura of optimism with the future, however forced such optimism might be.

Yuni has been an ideal wife in many ways throughout that process with our daughter—as a parenting partner, she is caring, and erudite, and she challenges me to rise to her incredible levels of hopefulness. This is always easy to do when our daughter’s therapy is going well, yet more trying during the unexpected deviations like last month when our daughter was found wandering down the center of the Interstate-287, mesmerized by the colors of the passing cars. That’s when I get frustrated and wonder why our daughter can’t just see the world like everyone else—red being red, blue being blue, the spectrum. I try, inevitably during each day, to see the world the way my daughter does—red being red, but also noises being red too, and the feeling of a breeze being red, and water feeling red. She once refused to go outside because the entire day was red, she said. “It’s a red-red day.” (How’s a father supposed to respond to that?) Naturally I grow frustrated when I can’t see colors as anything but colors, and sometimes this manifests into arguments with Yuni. We’ll have it out in the middle of the kitchen or scream at each other on the patio. I’ll inexorably huff down to the basement and fall asleep on the futon, usually casting out idle prayers that my wife and I made the right decision with this recent surgery—Dear God, please make the science work...

But sometimes on those nights alone in the basement, I’ll think that perhaps the colors that my daughter sees in every aspect of life are not actually colors, but puzzle pieces to a mural that we, parents, can’t yet comprehend. I realize the absurdity inherent in this, which is why the idea only comes to me when I’m lulling to sleep, unguarded and unembarrassed. And unsurprisingly this triggers an awareness of all the puzzle pieces that I must encounter every day, unknowingly. My daughter can make sense out of extraordinary colorful shapes that nobody else can see, so why should we ever force her to give up that ability?

My daughter is a color-shaman.

I’m not exactly proud of the mural that would be composed around me. I pray that my daughter can’t fit all of my surrounding emotional shapes together. There must be a shape for disgrace, looming somewhere around my aura and connectable to the comparable shape that looms around Gina Ortiz, from that year when she and I both lied to our spouses and met every Wednesday night at the Super 8 motel. (When Yuni and I argue, I still wonder sometimes how such infidelity on my part has managed to stay a secret, buried in my past—an invisible emotional shape.) There is also a puzzle piece for shame, a bright blue piece, belonging to the rare occasions when frustration gets the best of me, and I think to myself that life would be so much easier without a little daughter. That is inexcusable because the truth is the exact opposite: I can’t conceive of a life without my daughter, just like I can’t conceive of a world—like hers—where all five senses are interpreted as memories and shapes and colors.

More than anything, I am intrigued by this concept that I am contributing unknowingly to an enormous color mural every minute, every hour, of every day. I like the flagrant unfeasibility of that. I like thinking about everyone’s little flaws being connected to someone else’s little flaws on the mural. I know that Yuni occasionally climbs into the attic for a cigarette when she’s sad, but I don’t know what she’s feeling when she’s buying those cigarettes in secret at the supermarket—defeat, perhaps. I’d like to see the shape of her emotions then. And I admit that I still sometimes think about Gina Ortiz—not often, but I wonder what she’s doing these days, if she ever patched things up with her cinematographer husband—and I’m sure my errant curiosity about that has a place on the mural. My own defeats are there too, of course.

I wish my daughter could explain the great mural to me like a museum guide, and point out how every emotion and memory and reaction fits snuggly into those of someone else.

For better or worse, though, those precious translations of the world and its hidden chromatic language might be lost to the past as well.

The largest shape of all would be the fear that Yuni and I now feel after the surgery on our daughter’s brain. Perhaps by regulating the colors, enacting the electrode, we have robbed our daughter of the pure sense of wonder that the shapes brought; perhaps there is no mural left for her to see, and perhaps normalizing her visual perception has been a regrettable parenting mistake. Yet, there is no real solution then because without the electrode muting her world into gray tones, our daughter wanders possibly onto the busy interstate again to watch the colorful cars and this time gets swallowed up by the dangers. My life would be wrecked; so would Yuni’s, and I would lean on those same mundanities to stay distracted, blame the world for being cruel, blame Yuni for…something, and stay embroiled in grief that would never completely go away. See, my world goes gray like that, or my daughter’s world goes gray with the tiny electrode.

That’s not to say that one option is better than the other, just that my perception of the actions in each day is tenuous, and once the colors and shapes are gone—as they might be now—I fear that the decent parts of the vast and hidden mural might be gone as well, forever lacking form.


John Burgman is originally from Indianapolis, Indiana. He is the author of the memoir, Why We Climb, and a former editor at Outdoor Life magazine. His fiction has appeared online or in print at Esquire.com, Portland Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at Jeju National University in South Korea and is currently working on a novel.

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