Mathilde Cross has been Jarrah Podesta’s eyes at school since he lost his sight in 2018. Friends for three years, the 11-year-olds share a love of Harry Potter, history and hidden passageways.
JARRAH: I first met Mathilde at school [Campbells Creek Primary School in central Victoria]. She wanted me to come over to her house but I had a hospital appointment. But then we started to hang out a bit more and we kind of became more friends and we started to go to each other’s houses. I got to know her animals, like her sheep, which stamp their feet at me. Once they charged at Mathilde and she ran away screaming.
We both like Harry Potter and playing Uno. We like messing around. We mess with the cat. We play card games, walk around the house. Sometimes we do nerf wars. Sometimes we go into the forest that I have. I have about 10 acres. Her dog loves jumping all over me and attacking me sometimes. It’s protective of Mathilde.
I don’t remember having my right eye removed [because of a rare form of cancer called bilateral retinoblastoma] when I was two years old. After that my vision was fine, but the cancer came back and I started seeing shadows in my remaining eye when I was nine years old. I was terrified that I might die from another bit of cancer. I decided to get rid of my left eye [in May last year] because every other alternative seemed horrible and there was a high chance the tumour would spread to my brain.
I wanted to see a penguin before I completely lost my sight. But then I realised that was no good, because by that stage my vision was getting worse every week and I couldn’t even see the dog. I wanted to see a sloth, too, but it’s too late for that now. They spend 90 per cent of their lives upside down, you know.
When I got my second eye out, I just braced myself. Before I went to sleep with the gas I said, “Goodbye eyeball!” It’s normal to say goodbye to an eyeball before you are about to lose it! I don’t know where it is now. I like to think it’s in a Holiday Inn in Mallorca or something. I have to memorise everything now: myself, my mum, the house, the world, the clouds, the trees, the animals, the dog.
Before I lost my vision, Mathilde wore a rainbow scarf so I could see her through the crowd of shadows. When we are together, she keeps talking so I know she hasn’t left me. She tells me if she’s going anywhere and that she’ll be back. That’s important because I might just be walking along talking to myself, which I do. Mathilde and her family also raise money through GoFundMe to buy the technology and stuff I need to get ready for high school.
The only time we had a little disagreement was when she shushed me in assembly. The teachers were giving her the death stare and I thought she was angry at me. When I came back to school after getting a second prosthetic eye, Mathilde made sure I didn’t trip. I knew I could cope going back to school because I knew Mathilde was still my friend. She’s never decided not to be my friend.
MATHILDE: When Jarrah joined our school we weren’t, like, best friends at the start. We kind of sat at opposite ends of the room. But then, the year after, we started hanging out and being more friends. Then, during grade four, our friendship grew. This year we are in grade five. He’s my best friend.
We have similar hair colour and both like to read. We love asking questions and finding stuff out. We pretend we have a mystery and try to solve it. We also love teaching each other different skills. He teaches me Braille and I’ve taught him how to get out of a locked room with an old-fashioned key. You get a bit of wire and push out the key onto the newspaper you’ve slipped under the door, and then you pull the newspaper in and unlock the door.
We love trying to find all the school secrets, like legends, myths and, like, history and hidden passageways. We found a hidden passageway – a trapdoor – at school. We didn’t go down it because the bell rang. It was very annoying.
My mum knitted me a rainbow scarf that was really bright and colourful. When Jarrah’s vision was going, I put it on so that he’d always know where I was. When we found out Jarrah’s left eye was to be removed, I knitted him a scarf. He didn’t get to see it finished before his operation, but I took a wool sample to school so he could see the colours.
I gave it to him the day he returned to school, completely blind.I am getting really good at directing Jarrah, like left, right and straight ahead. It took me to break my left arm to actually learn my left and right. We came up with a game: every time I do a certain number of directions correct, I get, like, a badge.
I used to be scared of heights but Jarrah helped me to get over that. One of the first things Jarrah did when he came back to school from his operation was climb to the top of the spider web equipment in the playground. He wanted to show everyone that, even though he can’t see, he can still do everything everybody else does.
At assembly he saves a seat for me by folding his cane and putting it next to him. When we need to get up for the national anthem, I will whisper “up”. If there’s a funny bit in a film, I will laugh and then quickly explain so he’s only a minute or two behind the rest of us.
The worst fight we’ve ever had was during assembly when we were whispering a little bit. Jarrah thought I was trying to tell him off when I wasn’t.
When we grow up we are planning to live next door to each other. His guide dog will probably slip through the fence into my yard and steal something off my washing line and take it back to Jarrah and go: “Look what I found!”
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