Single parenting isn't easy. Parenting a developmentally delayed child is harder still. And parenting without the benefit of eyesight is a task most of us will never even have to contemplate.
Evelyn Heatwole has done all of the above. And not only managed, but thrived.
Heatwole, 42, lives with her husband, Ray, and daughter, Christie, 17, in Old Gun Estates. On a warm April evening, the family gathers on their back deck, overlooking a manicured lawn punctuated by dogwoods and azaleas in full flower. Evelyn wears a light purple dress printed with butterflies. Her makeup is subtly applied and a pearl necklace and earrings add to her dignified appearance. Her head turns toward whomever is speaking, and her lively hazel eyes follow though they are sightless. RELATED STORYGraham's World
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Heatwole says she was visually impaired from an early age. "I was always walking into things at school because I had no peripheral vision," she says. She was diagnosed with a congenital defect called Retinosis Pigmentosa at age 9. By the time she turned 11, her sight was almost completely gone.
Rather than letting her impairment become an obstacle that controlled her life, Heatwole let it launch her career, eventually settling into a job helping blinded veterans through the Veteran's Administration.
Heatwole married in 1979 and had Christie on April 16, 1982. She recalls her father's reaction when she first brought her infant daughter home from the hospital. How could Evelyn care for a child? he wondered. How could she manage even the simple tasks, such as changing diapers?
He needn't have worried. "That was never a problem," she says with an offhand shrug. In fact, she says, she tended to overcompensate, washing and scrubbing little Christie until she was absolutely certain the child was clean.
"As a disabled person, I stand out," she explains. "Like it or not, that's just a fact of life." Knowing that has always made her want to stand out in a good way, she says, so she makes sure that her home, her child and she herself are immaculately well-kept. "I don't want people making mental excuses for me," she says.
During Christie's babyhood, it became apparent that the child was delayed. Doctors gave their "official" diagnosis when Christie was about 1 year old: mentally disabled, with autistic traits. "When I first heard she was delayed, I was heartbroken," Evelyn remembers. Still, she says, "I've always been the type of person who needs to know what I'm dealing with," and once she got the diagnosis, she went straight to work getting Christie into early intervention programs.
In 1984, Evelyn's first marriage dissolved. She parented Christie alone for the next eight years. The thought of a blind mother on her own, caring for a severely disabled child, is daunting to all but Evelyn, it seems. "People find ways to make things work," she says. "Being a mom, whether you're in a wheelchair or whatever. ... Your instincts are very strong. There's a mother-child connection and there always will be." Asked what enabled her to keep going in the face of what must have been an endless series of challenges, Evelyn answers quickly. "I know my inner strength comes from God," she says. "It always has. I have a very strong faith."
As Evelyn tells her story, her husband Ray, a teacher at Virginia Randolph Special Education Center, interjects his own thoughts. "Evelyn is amazing," he says. "She's not a typical blind person. ... She's a '90s woman. There's nothing she can't do. Except drive."
Evelyn dismisses him with a pleased shake of her head: "That's my husband."
Evelyn moved to Richmond in 1988 to take a position as coordinator of visual impairment services with the VA. Ray entered the picture in 1991. "It was a blind date," he cracks. The two met at his Virginia Commonwealth University graduation ceremony and were married exactly 14 months later.
Christie took to Ray quickly. In spite of asking, "Daddy go home?" after the couples' honeymoon, she seemed to understand and be glad that Ray was now part of the family. If it had been any other way, says Ray, he wouldn't have stayed. Evelyn made it clear from the start that Christie's needs came first, and rather than feeling put out, Ray found it refreshing. "She's a consummate mother," he says. "She's wonderful."
Evelyn sometimes wishes she could be more involved in Christie's activities. "I wish I could drive carpool to church and participate in that way," she says. But for the most part, she says, "I don't know that I'm all that different from any other mom. ... I just have to do things a little differently."
The evening sun is sinking toward the horizon. Christie has been slightly agitated during the past hour, but now she turns and gently explores her mother's face. She touches Evelyn's neck and hair, then lets her hand fall back to her lap. She smiles shyly and radiantly at her mother, and though they are not touching, Evelyn can feel it and smiles back.
"I don't know if I could handle a regular, functioning teenager," Evelyn says. "God blessed me. He knew what I could handle."
"She says she's lucky to have Christie," Ray says, admiring his wife and daughter. "But Christie is lucky to have her."Click here to e-mail Holly Timberline