Despite having come into this world with a debilitating birth “defect” — a word she hates — Sherry L. Cook has succeeded in living a successful, productive and meaningful life.
Born with congenital coloboma, a condition that threatened her eyesight and disfigured her face, Cook has overcome major medical obstacles and endured heartbreaking ridicule, and has published a book about her struggles. She has had several interesting careers; she’s an accomplished artist and craftsman and has stepped forward to volunteer with a group of like-minded women bent on making the world a better place for fellow citizens.
Sherry Cook was born in Mobile, went to school here and, as a child, suffered the slings and arrows that come with looking and being “different.” Her parents, she said, were told she may one day lose her sight completely from the coloboma.
“Not only was my vision impaired, but my right eye was bigger [than the left] and the pupil was distorted and cloudy. This resulted in millions of questions, stares and ugly comments throughout my life. I was the only person I knew of with this type of physical disability,” she said.Cook grew up, became the mother of two now-grown daughters and has four grandchildren. She has had several different occupations. She’s been a hairstylist, owned and operated a dance studio, and worked for a local nonprofit organization assisting developmentally challenged adults with vocational skills. She recently opened her newest venture, called “New Visions Specialty Art.”
But she long nurtured a dream and felt she had a specific purpose in life.
“I’ve always known, since I was a young child, that I wanted to write a book about my life,” she said. “Growing up, I dealt with a lot of emotional issues. I wanted to tell my story so my future children would know what it was like to be me,” she said.
“Imagine having a very abnormal-looking eye while being out in the public,” she said. “The eyes are the first thing you see when you meet someone. This was not a scar that I could cover up with clothes.”
It’s said that your eyes are the windows to your soul, Cook said, but for her, they were a constant source of humiliation.
In 2008, when she was 47 years old, she began writing her life story, “A Blind Eye’s View.”
“It was a long, gut-wrenching process that turned out to be a positive, healing experience,” Cook said. In addition to giving a message to her children and grandchildren, her mission for publishing her experiences was to “let people know that it’s OK to be different and it’s so important to love yourself just the way you are … I believe every person has a very real purpose in this life,” she said. “It’s so important to find your passion and fill your reason for being.”
In her research about her condition, Cook said she found that congenital coloboma is a genetic disorder that happens in 1 of every 10,000 births each year. Most cases are so minor many don’t even know they have it. “My doctors had never seen a case as severe as mine,” she said.
Cook tells about the circumstances and events that led to her finally looking “normal.”
“Fate has a sneaky way of appearing in our lives when we help others,” Cook began. “In 2010, while helping my father, who has macular degeneration and was losing his vision as well, I was searching for any organization that could help.”Seeking help for her father, she said, raised questions about her own eye and vision, “which ended with me sitting in the hot seat,” meaning that some of the focus shifted to her situation.
“My book explains all the gory and humorous details. I had three surgeries in all. Removal of the eye, a lid tuck and another cosmetic tuck on the corner of my eye. My ocularist made a beautiful matching [artificial] eye and the transformation was complete. I have 60 percent movement and no one can tell there was ever anything wrong,” Cook said.
It is a strange feeling to have experienced two views from “our society,” she said. “For 50 years I was noticed as different, and suddenly I was seen as normal. That took some getting used to.”
To get her story in print, Cook suffered the usual frustrations of a first-time author. “I’m not a professional writer and I had no idea how hard it was going to be to accomplish this task” of writing and publishing a book.
However, five years after first putting pen to paper, “I was begging my friends to proofread my book. I didn’t have the experience of writing and publishing; all I had was the passion to get it done.”
She used an online publishing site and, “after proofreading for the hundredth time, I clicked the ‘publish’ button. It was done. It may not be perfect, but neither am I,” she said.
There’s more to Sherry Cook’s story than living half a century seen as “different,” then “looking normal.”
She has a talent for an unusual art form that somehow seems to epitomize her own transformation and continued journey.
“I recently started painting on oyster shells, an endless commodity in my area. The more I looked at them closely, the more beautiful I realized they are.” Her paint brush turns the lowly, common oyster shells into lovely candle holders and handpainted Christmas ornaments.
Her art, she said, is always evolving and is an outlet of expression. “Having monocular/poor vision while painting with depth perception is something most can’t understand. It just comes from within.”
And about her involvement with the philanthropic organization Queens with Dreams, she said: “It’s very important to give back to our community and help others in need. I looked for a long time for a way to do this.” Queens with Dreams, she said, has been “a fun way to serve and assist people as a group in a big way.” One entity the Queens have visited and aided is McKemie Place for homeless women in Mobile.
When asked what people might find specifically surprising about her remarkable life, Cook said, “I think most people would be surprised by the way I’ve learned to adapt to my vision problems. Being monocular means misjudging things, the depth of steps or curbs, and reaching to grab something. I’ve learned to hide these things or to let others think I’m just clumsy. Only my closest friends know why I’ve almost knocked myself out by the kitchen cabinet!”
Cook’s memoir is available at Amazon.com by searching the title “A Blind Eye’s View” or by the author name. She also sells her book when she exhibits her art in shows and at festivals.
“I’m following my passions finally and it’s leading me into some awesome ways of touching lives,” Cook said. “I’ve had the opportunity to give some motivational talks to groups and organizations, to make beautiful personalized art for others to have in their homes, and to share my story with anyone who may be going through some difficult times.”
Jo Anne McKnight is a freelance writer in Mobile. View her community blog, joannemcknight.com, for news of activities and events in the Mobile area.