What We Cannot See

A third-time bride realizes she's having a wedding for all the wrong reasons

The light that day must have been muted, for in the black-and-white photographs, no shadows stretch out before or behind us. Irony, I think now, for, of course, there were shadows, enormous shadows already looming into the future and trailing from the past. I remember only that it was humid, that I was sweating in my sleeveless gown, my long hair a weight against my back. The thick August sky pushed heavily against the trees.
Earlier there’d been a threat of rain, but by the time of the ceremony, I could only laugh. I had to, or else I’d cry. Nothing was going as planned. The minister who was to perform the ceremony had lost his voice. My sister and I had spent the night in the ER with her four-year-old, Sam, who was to have walked me down the aisle. He had no idea what a wedding was, only that he had new black shoes to wear and that he and his brother Zachary would give me away to “Uncle Sean.” “We’re giving you away!” Sam had shrieked, throwing his head back in laughter, thinking this the funniest thing in the world. There’s irony in this, too, though I couldn’t see it then and thinking of it now actually hurts: that I would have ever let Sam give me away, ever let Sam think it was OK for him to give me away. . . . If he thought this, might he have also thought it would be OK for me to give him away?
What does this even mean to a four-year-old? I wonder now. It has been fourteen years since my third wedding. Sam has been dead for ten of those years. Maybe, I think, the idea of giving me away wasn’t really funny to him, either. Maybe he was laughing for the same reason I laughed about the threat of rain: to keep from crying.
In the end, it didn’t matter because Sam’s fever was high enough that he had to be admitted and my sister stayed with him, which meant neither of them could attend my wedding. It was early morning by the time I left the ER, driving my sister’s van—the highways empty, the sky moonless. Loss unspooled inside me. How could Sam not be at my wedding? The whole point of getting married in Wisconsin instead of Baltimore, where Sean and I lived, was so that my nephews, both of whom had a terminal illness, could be there.
Sometimes, when I remember that night, the memory blurs, gets conflated with the only other time I drove from the hospital that late: the night Zachary died. But that was seven years later, and I was not alone then. My sister was with me; I was driving her home, the van filled with Zach’s things: his clothes and wheelchair, his binders full of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. And Zach died in November, a lacy covering of snow on the streets; my wedding was in August. I imagine, though, that I conflate these two drives because I felt the same helplessness and grief, the same sense of how things would just go on and on despite that helplessness and grief. Sean and I would get married without Sam and move into our new house and study the wedding proofs and order an album’s worth of photos.
It’s the album I’m looking at now.
There’s a part of the world in front of us that we can’t see. Punctum caecum, it is called in medical literature. Scotoma. Blind spot. Every mammal has one. It is caused by a lack of photoreceptor cells, which detect light, in the place where the optic nerve connects with the retina. The brain makes up for this blind spot by filling in the blanks with surrounding detail. Like when a word is missing in a sentence, but you still read the sentence as if that word were there. You fill in what is absent; you compensate for what you cannot see with what you imagine you can.
I began crying halfway through the ceremony. These were not tears of happiness, as I imagine everyone—myself included—wanted to believe. Nor were they pretty tears, my eyelashes fringed with dewy sparkles as I stood there in my white dress, the light fading silently from the August sky, from the flower-strewn path. I sobbed, tears streaming down my face, my shoulders heaving. Sean’s sister-in-law pushed a crumpled Kleenex into my hand. Within minutes, it was a soggy ball smudged gray with mascara. At one point, the minister leaned forward and whispered, “Are you OK?” and I nodded, because what else could I do? Admit the truth right in the midst of our vows? Admit that I wasn’t OK at all?
It’s impossible to pay attention to everything. On an average day, the brain processes uncountable billions of bits of information, although we are only aware of a minuscule portion of these bits. One result of this inability to notice the barrage of stimuli is inattentional blindness, a term coined in 1992 by two psychologists, Arien Mack and Irvin Rock. This phenomenon, also known as perceptual blindness, occurs when a person fails to notice an obvious—albeit unexpected—stimulus within plain sight because they’re paying attention to something else. Just as every person has a visual blind spot, every person experiences inattentional blindness, although many people falsely believe that they don’t.
From the moment I told my second husband that I wanted a divorce, what saddened me even more than the divorce itself (which I knew was the right thing) was the knowledge that if I ever married again, it would be a third marriage. Already, it sounded like a bad joke. What kind of woman gets married three times? I was only thirty when the second divorce was finalized, and I hoped I would marry again, would get it right. But the poor schlep—a word I don’t even use but which somehow seemed the only fitting word for a third husband—what about him?
I mention all this because I have to, because when marrying for the third time, there is no assumption that the marriage will last forever, that this time it’s for keeps. Sure, plenty of people said things like “Third time’s the charm” and “Three strikes and you’re out, so this better work,” and perhaps I said these things myself, trying to joke, to make light of what I was ashamed of. Three marriages. Three. I knew I had a lousy track record, knew that standing before family and friends and yet another minister in yet another white dress, promising forever, I was like the boy who cried wolf. Yeah, right, And how long is forever going to last this time? I could imagine someone thinking. Maybe even I thought it, suspicious of myself. It didn’t matter that I loved Sean, that he was a good man. I had said the same things about husbands number one and number two. Why would my marriage to Sean be different, then? Because it had to be. Had to. I could not make the same mistake again. I could not.
And in the months, then weeks, and finally the days leading up to our wedding, I felt absolutely certain that this time I wasn’t making a mistake. I wasn’t twenty-one as I had been for the first wedding, to Patrick, who two years into our marriage confessed that he was gay. Nor was I twenty-seven, rebounding and scared, as I had been for the second wedding, to Ron, who was old enough to be my father. This time, I was marrying for the right reasons; this time, I was sure; this time would last.
Sean and I had been dating for five years, and I knew clearly what I loved about him—his kindness to my family, his athleticism, his love of the ocean in the winter, and the care he took in doing small ordinary tasks: bringing me a vodka martini in a chilled glass with a perfect curl of lemon or making sure I had an ice scraper in my car. I knew, too, what I didn’t love: his refusal to talk about his feelings; his habitual lateness; and his overbearing father, for whom he would never be good enough. But I’d looked at these things head on and decided none of them mattered against the good things.
And they didn’t matter on that August afternoon when I couldn’t stop sobbing.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love Sean, for I did. A part of me still does.
Even now, eleven years since our divorce.
The best-known study demonstrating inattentional blindness is the Invisible Gorilla test, in which subjects are asked to watch a video of two teams of people (wearing black and white T-shirts) tossing a basketball around. Some of the subjects watching the video are asked to count the passes made by players in white and ignore passes made by players in black. Others are told to count bounce passes vs. aerial passes. Midway through the film, a woman in a gorilla suit walks into the frame, faces the audience, pounds her chest, then walks out. She is on screen for a full nine seconds. Still, 50 percent of the subjects, when asked after watching the video if anything unusual had taken place, did not report seeing her.
I had been hesitant about introducing Sean to my family. It was one thing for me to try to love again, try to believe in love again, but for my parents and siblings to have to accept another person into the family—to open up their lives again—seemed wrong. I thought of the money my parents had spent on the first wedding, a big church affair followed by a catered meal on the beach of an oceanfront house we’d rented for the occasion. I thought of my stepfather crying when I told him Patrick and I were separating. I thought, too, of my dad taking Ron and me out to dinner when we were first dating, the foolish pride I felt in how he and my dad conversed so easily. I thought of my mom learning to bake special desserts for Ron, who didn’t eat sugar, the birthday cards to my son-in-law, signed, love, mom—all my parents’ efforts to get to know and like and care about these men, whom I ended up leaving.
I was cautious, too, because of my nieces and nephews. Brittany, who was eight when I started dating Sean, had known and perhaps loved and been loved by my previous husbands, who were good, decent men. I remember how when Ron went to Micronesia one summer, he sent her boxes of carefully wrapped shells he’d collected for her. I remember them bike riding together on one of our visits to Wisconsin, she on wobbly training wheels, and my sister, watching from the bay window, asking me, “Are you sure you guys don’t want children?” I remember being proud of Ron for the care he took with my niece, the fact that he was good with kids. Sean would be the same, I knew, but it felt unbearable to think that I might bring yet another uncle into Brittany’s life only for him to disappear after a few years, replaced by someone new.
Of course, by the time I finally introduced Sean to my family, the reasons for my caution reached far deeper, for both my sister’s boys, my nephews, had been diagnosed with a severe form of mitochondrial disease, which was progressive and terminal. By the time Brittany graduated from college and her younger sister was in high school, their brothers would be dead, the family chopped in half by loss. It seemed—and was—reprehensible that I would bring anyone else into their lives whom they might lose. I was careful, in other words, careful in a way I’d never been before.
My sister’s children had changed me. I loved them with a ferocity I’d never known, a ferocity that stunned me. I wanted to be a role model for them, but even more, I wanted to deserve their love. It didn’t matter that they lived halfway across the country, in another time zone; it didn’t matter that they knew nothing of my life: I wanted to be a good person for them—the sort of moral person, kind and unselfish, I’d never been. I hadn’t had to be. My life had been about me—what I wanted, what I needed, my happiness. I can’t remember when exactly this changed, only that it did. Vaguely I remember that after Brittany was born—or was it later, after Zachary’s birth?—my sister was upset with me for not visiting right away, and I said to my husband (and I can’t recall, either, if it was Patrick or Ron), “God, does she think that just because she had a child, our lives are suddenly going to change?”
It’s incredible to me now that I didn’t know this, that there was once a time when I actually believed it was possible to love a child and not be profoundly, irreparably altered.
Another study showed that cell phones contribute to inattentional blindness. In this experiment, individuals were divided into four groups: they were either talking on the phone, listening to an MP3 player, walking alone, or walking in pairs. The study revealed that individuals engaged in cell phone conversations were least likely to notice a brightly dressed clown sailing by on a unicycle.
I asked everyone to wear black and white to the third wedding. My grandmother wore a black dress with tiny white polka dots. In the black-and-white photos, her thick white hair seems to glow against the black evergreens. Sean’s mother, in an elegant black dress, leans forward, laughing, and light slides along the rope of pearls she wore. Light reflects in the little girls’ white Mary Janes, glances off the white barrettes in their white-blonde hair. The little boys wore black pants and white polo shirts.
The black-and-white theme seemed elegant at the time, and there is, I think, as I stare at the photos, something beautiful and exact about the stark contrasts. Even the trunks of the trees and the branches look black; the sky is white. Tossed in the air by Sean’s niece, rose petals float like snowflakes against the background of dark grass. In another picture, a rough-hewn rail fence along a field is just two horizontal black lines, interrupted by the girls’ white dresses.
There is something certain about black and white, something absolute. Color, I’ve heard photographers say, is often a distraction; you notice more with black and white: the shape and texture of objects, the composition within each frame. I sometimes wonder if my desire for black and white that day was a reflection of the surety I felt in my own choice or if it was a kind of plea I didn’t understand I was making—please let me be sure, please let this be right. All I know is that by the time we were standing before the minister on a stone bridge overlooking Lake Michigan, the only thing that seemed clear to me was that for all the scrutiny of my own motivation, all the months of careful planning, all my weighing of pros and cons, all my deliberations and doubts and questions—are you sure, really really sure, this time?—I was doing the one thing I’d promised myself I would never do again. I heard myself repeating after the minister the familiar words that I had sworn I would never say again unless I was absolutely certain, and I knew I had never been more uncertain in my life.
I could not stop sobbing as I said my vows, tasting salt.
In a follow-up to the Invisible Gorilla Test, scientists studied the eye movement of subjects watching the film and learned that 60 percent of the participants didn’t perceive the gorilla even though they spent an average of twenty-five frames staring directly at it.
So much of our wedding was focused on the children in our lives. Sam, age four, and Zachary, age eight, were to give me away. My nieces, aged fourteen and seven, along with my best friend’s eight-year-old daughter, were my bridesmaids. Sean’s two-year-old niece was the flower girl, his six-year-old nephew his best man, and the boys my father had adopted as babies, now ages six and eight, were the groomsmen. In my favorite pictures, Sean and I are seated, holding various members of the wedding party on our laps. They make faces, stick their fingers up behind our heads. Some are missing teeth; one sucks her thumb. Oreo cookie crumbs litter the boys’ white shirts.
Even the scripture we chose was about children. From Matthew 18: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And our vows, taped into the front of the wedding album—I now see that they aren’t really vows to each other so much as a list of what we’d learned from each child and a promise to hold onto those lessons in our own lives: Brittany has taught us to accept responsibility to others with grace. Zachary has taught us what it means to be courageous and strong. I wrote these words. I remember that. I have not read them in over a decade, and I find myself squirming as I read, embarrassed by how false and sentimental and cliché they sound, nothing like I remembered. All these abstractions: courageous, strong. All these generalizations. What did I even mean? I shake my head, frustrated, though I understand: the words had to be general so that I could hide from myself what I was really trying to do that day, something I couldn’t see until I was in the midst of making my vows and the person I most wanted to make them to was not there.
I was crying for Sam and crying for the future when he would be gone and crying mostly because I understood that this wedding wasn’t about Sean, no matter how good a man he was. I loved him, but I wasn’t in love with him, and I didn’t really want to marry him. What I wanted was a public ceremony where I could stand before God and my family and witnesses, and make a vow to my nephews and nieces: I will always love you. I will always cherish you. In sickness and in health. Until death do us part.
Often, inattentional blindness occurs when a person expects certain things to happen and therefore blocks out other, unexpected possibilities. For instance, say Person X is picking up Person Y at the airport. Person X has promised to be parked outside in the passenger pick up lane. So focused and intent is Person Y on getting his luggage, getting outside, finding Person X’s car—will he even recognize it?—that when Person X approaches Person Y inside the airport, where Person X is not expected, Person Y can look right at Person X without recognizing her until Person X says his name.
Of course, it never occurred to me that I wanted to “marry” my nephews and nieces. It’s preposterous. A gorilla in the midst of a basketball game.
A clown on a unicycle.
And yet, when I look at it from this perspective of years, I see that it wasn’t as Sean’s wife that I longed to be recognized that day, but as Brittany, Abby, Sam, and Zachary’s aunt. And yes, the boys’ illness was a huge part of this, for I was terrified that once they died, nothing would remain of my love for them. No proof of our connection, nothing to mark or memorialize or make real the life-altering love that I had felt for them and they for me. What was I, after all? Not a mother or grandmother or sister, bonds as thick as steel cables, bonds people intuitively understand to be important. But an aunt? Such a flimsy word. I don’t know if not having children of my own allowed me to love my sister’s children as I might never have otherwise; I don’t know what role the boys’ dying played in the ferocity of my love. I know only that nothing in our society acknowledges this bond, and nothing in my own life publically identified me as Brittany, Abby, Sam, and Zachary’s aunt. And so, without understanding what I was doing, I created a ceremony to mark our relationship.
I’ve often wondered how things might have been different if Sam had been there that day. Would I have realized the mistake I was making? I’m not sure. I only know that once you realize the gorilla is there, beating her chest in the center of the screen, you can’t not notice her.
It is easy to think of the “Invisible Gorilla” experiment as something akin to an optical illusion or an amusing parlor trick. But inattentional blindness can have devastating consequences. Lifeguards fail to see drowning victims on the bottoms of pools; drivers hit bicyclists; airline pilots (in flight simulators) fail to notice other planes blocking the runway. If you’re focused on another stimulus, or otherwise cognitively engaged (for example, talking on a cell phone), you can look right at something and not see it.
I was devastated when I saw the proofs from the photographers. Yes, the pictures were black and white as I’d asked; yes, they were mostly impromptu shots rather than staged group photos, which I’d also requested. There are pictures of Sean and me saying our vows, feeding each other cake, watching my father lift his champagne glass as he toasts us. We laugh with our friends and siblings; Sean straightens his father’s bow tie; I dance with my grandfather. But of the hundreds of photos, there are just a handful of me with my nieces and nephews.
There are only two pictures of Zachary walking me toward the stone bridge where Sean waited. White rose petals litter the ground. Just behind us, the cellist lifts her bow. Zachary is beaming, waving to the onlookers as if in a parade. I look happy in this picture, and I was happy, for, I realize now, I was exactly where I wanted to be: walking down “the aisle,” with my nephew, his hand in mine. Friends and family line the walls of the bridge, their eyes focused only on us. And my own gaze? I am not looking ahead, either.
I cannot bear to.
All I can see is the boy at my side.

About the Author

Maribeth Fischer
Maribeth Fischer

Maribeth Fischer is the author of two novels, The Language of Good-bye and The Life You Longed For, and has received two Pushcart Prizes for her essays. She is the founder and executive director of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where she teaches and lives.

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