DALLAS — While most nine-year-old boys are learning to play video games or baseball, Ben Pierce is learning to become blind.
He practices using a walking stick and his parents have encouraged him to learn Braille.
Ben was born at 23 weeks gestation, more than four months early. He weighed one pound and six ounces. He was so underdeveloped that his eyelids were still fused shut.
At that time, his chance of survival was considered remote. His parents were warned repeatedly to prepare for the worst.
"My hope was I'd just get to see him before he passed,” admits Heidi Thaden-Pierce, Ben’s mother, “I just wanted to be out of the general [anesthetic] long enough to see him and say 'hello' and 'good-bye.'"
“He had just crash after crash,” said Ben's dad, Kit Pierce. “But he kept pulling through."
Despite the odds, Ben is healthy today. Healthy, except for his eyes. He has had to have eye surgery.
“It prevented his retinas from detaching, but it also left some scar tissue," Kit explained. "And so every time he grows, as his eyes are growing, the scar tissue is not stretching. So he's losing a little more eyesight each time he has a growth spurt.”
"Sometimes I see little dots appearing out of nowhere,” Ben said.
His glasses are already at maximum strength, and he's extremely sensitive to bright lights. The colors he sees aren’t always accurate.
Reading his beloved books takes perfect lighting — and sometimes a magnifying glass. Ben uses a telescope to view things that are a bit farther away.
His world is getting dimmer by the day.
"I just don't want to be blind,” Ben said through tears.
Doctors have suggested giving Ben as many visual memories as possible... while that’s possible.
"So let him see the mountains and let him see the oceans,” Heidi said. “Take him to see animals so that he can describe it better when he doesn't have the ability to see it."
The Pierces asked Ben what he would like to see before he can’t see any more.
“Some of his answers surprised us, and were really funny,” his mom said. “Like he wanted to go to the Apple Store. OK. Some of them were things that I'd never even heard of — these amazing forests in Asia, and he wants to see the Eiffel Tower.”
From Ben’s books and his wildest imagination came Ben’s Wish List.
With destinations and experiences ranging from the Northern Lights, Legoland, Paris, London, Big Ben, Albuquerque, redwoods, surfing, snorkeling, and Harry Potter World, Ben's dreams are all over the map — not to mention the price range.
The Pierce family has six children, all under the age of 12. Their budget is tight. Making Ben’s List a reality is taking great creativity.
“Plane tickets for everyone to go see the Pyramids might not be reasonable, so his brothers and sisters said, ‘We're going to help. We're going to start fundraising to help with these trips,'" Heidi said.
Ben’s brothers and sisters began holding fundraisers, making and selling homemade truffles and bread to neighbors (and anyone else who would buy). It’s all been in an effort to nickel-and-dime Ben's visual dreams to life.
Friends and strangers have pitched in. On one occasion, tickets to an event showed up on the Pierces' doorstep.
After watching an episode of "Dr. Who?" Ben wanted to see a Van Gogh painting of haystacks. The Dallas Museum of Art has such a painting, and made that wish come true — for free.
On a recent morning, the museum opened early to Ben and his family, so he could see the brushstrokes of the great painter up close.
The sight brought Ben to tears.
The Pierce family doesn't know how much time Ben has left before his sighted world goes dark forever.
“It does feel pretty urgent to us that we try to get him to as many of these places as quickly as we can,” his mother said. “But when we look how far he's come and how many odds he's overcome and how amazing it is that he's even here, it gives us hope that maybe we'll pull off a few more miracles.”