What You Can’t See Won’t Hurt You

“Wow!” says my wife.  “Cousin Bonnie’s really gotten into piercings.  And Ricky Junior is sporting a few fresh tats.  He’s got an angel on his shoulder.”

“The angel’s there to keep the monkey off his back,” I say.  “He’s a wild one.  Wish he’d turn off his Harley.”

We’re at the annual family picnic and my wife is describing the gene pool I can’t see.

“What color is Brittany’s hair this year?”

“Chicago Bears orange.  It clashes with her Packers jersey.  She’ll need to change one or the other before football season.  Here comes Cousin Eddie showing his vacation videos.  You’ll be spared that torture.  And Aunt Caroline’s snapshots of the grandkids.”

“I doubt Caroline will ask me to babysit anymore.  I’ll miss those great games of Hide and Seek.”

“You never did find Little Nellie last year,” says my wife.  “I think she hid in that tree all night.”

“But I whacked that piñata before any of those kids got to it,” I say, relishing the memory.

“Honey,” says my wife, “I think today you’re better off not seeing what’s out there.”

“The mere sound of it frightens me.”

“And the amount of flesh on display terrifies me,” says my wife.  “When was the dress code abolished?  What happened to self-respect?  Do I sound old?”

“Well, the radio said the average American woman weighs 165 pounds.  And it was rare to find a guy without a pot belly even when I could see.  So I ask you—how do we stack up compared to what’s on display here today?”

“Shall I be honest or make up something?”

“Make it believable,” I say.  “Age-appropriate is a good image.  But flatter me a little.  Not so I’m better than anyone, just OK.”

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I’m sad.  Don’t try to cheer me up — it won’t work.  The sadness will run its course and then I won’t be sad anymore.  It has to run its course because that’s how sadness works.

Why I’m sad doesn’t really matter.  Most likely, it has something to do with blindness, with grieving a loss.  It’s not self-pity and it’s not depression — as a social worker, I’ve studied the difference; as a human, I’ve felt the difference.

Enlightened Renaissance thinkers called sadness melancholia.  They regarded it as a necessary part of life.  They honored it in song and word.  The Book of Ecclesiastes talks of a season for everything — joy and sorrow, birth and death.

We moderns misunderstand sadness. We treat it as an aberration —“Don’t be sad.”  We fear it is contagious — “Don’t bring me down.”  We self-medicate — “Just a pinch to ease the pain.”  We try to cheer ourselves up — “Oh, “Look on the bright side.”  We deny it — “It’s not as bad as all that.”

I write about coping with blindness.  I try to be honest.  I honestly think that blindness can be enriching and it can be a pain in the ass. I write about being told I’m an inspiration when I don’t feel inspired; about needing to educate when I don’t feel like teaching.  As I write this blog, I feel sad, so that’s what I’m writing about.  When I wrote my last blog, I didn’t feel sad; next time, I’ll likely feel different than I feel today.

This weekend, a new movie called Inside Out grossed $91 million at the box office.  It’s an animated film about sadness.  It’s main character is an eleven year-old girl who is sad because her family moved across the country.  The lesson is that sadness is natural and necessary and needs to run its course before integration and growth can resume.  I figure that, if a movie can make $91 million, I’d throw in my two cents’ worth.

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Argentine Tango Dancer

The last leg of my trip is on the #92 CTA bus.  Across the aisle sits a young lady who converses in a clear, friendly, sober voice.  She flew in from Brooklyn to spend the holiday with her family.  We talk about my Seeing Eye dog and her cats and my cats.  We talk of the vibrancy of city life, about what is similar and different between New York and Chicago.

We talk about places we have been.  I tell her I’ve been away for a week and that I’m eager to be home with my wife to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.  She tells me that last winter, she took a vacation to Buenos Aires and met an itinerant Argentine tango dancer.

I’m about to say, “How romantic!” but I’m unsure what she means by the word, “met.”  So, I say, “When I was young, I met a Milanese girl on the Italian Riviera and I remember her to this day.”  And she says she knows exactly what I mean, and from the lilt of her voice, I know she loved her Argentine tango dancer.  But she lives in Brooklyn and he lives like a gypsy in Argentina.  And I live in Chicago and the Milanese girl lives God knows where, it’s been thirty years.

“You meet the most interesting people when you travel,” she says.

And I say, I’ve never been to Buenos Aires but I’ll bet it’s beautiful,”

She sighs but doesn’t say a word.  And the bus rolls on and people whom I see as shadows get on and off the bus and pretty soon will be my stop.  And I just know the young lady would not have got off the bus without saying good-bye to me and my dog.  And then I hear a little sniffle and I know she’s still here and she’s far away, sitting quietly, remembering her Argentine tango dancer.

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Talking to Myself

Simple lessons last longest.  This one I learned from a childhood storybook.  The Little Engine That Could pulls the train up the steep mountain, all the while repeating, “I think I can.”  The lesson is that telling myself I am capable and making an honest effort are the best I can bring to a challenge.

What the Little Engine told itself is, in modern parlance, “self-talk.”  Self-talk is what I tell myself about myself.  The raw material for self-talk is my experience interacting with the environment.  Where self-talk veers toward the danger zone is when, “I made a mistake” becomes “I am an idiot.”  I constantly make assumptions and draw conclusions about myself.  And the tendency is that negative self-talk is my default, whereas positive self-talk requires the extra effort to name it, own it and change it.

It’s a long time since I met the Little Engine.  I am not a kid anymore and blindness has taught me this:  I cannot do what I used to, and to deny that is folly.  Sometimes, I feel this whole blindness thing isn’t going particularly well.  But the less I tell myself that I am a mess, the less I feel so.  And the more I continue to think myself   capable, the more capable I may become.  When I tell myself that I can adjust to continuing vision loss because I have successfully adjusted to losses in the past, it takes me out of the helpless victim mode.

In the stories I tell myself about who I am, small edits can lead to lasting change and significantly impact outcomes in life. This is the premise of University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson’s book, Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By.  I’m on the trail of Redirect as an audio book. I’ll let you know when I find it.  Who knows, it may turn out to be this year’s version of The Little Engine That Could.

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The hottest ice in town is under the skates of the Chicago Blackhawks.  And the hottest ticket on ice is for the Hawks’ Stanley Cup series against Anaheim. So, when I bump into Billy, he greets me with, “Long time no see.  I’m going to the Hawks’ game tonight!”

Had he said, “I’m eloping with Jennifer Lopez tonight,” he couldn’t sound more excited.  ”That’s great,” I say.

“More than great, it’s awesome!” says Billy.  “I got the ticket from my dad.”

“That’s awesome, too,” I say.

“Not really,” says Billy.  “He died last week.”

Billy’s version of “turning lemons into lemonade” inspires me to look for new ways to adapt to blindness.  Since my recent slip in eyesight, I’ve been feeling sorry for myself.   This self-pity breeds inertia when what I need is action.  Rather than my customary approach of trying to think my way into action, I’ll try to act my way into right thinking.

I’m getting busy — not just busy using manic activity as avoidance (I’ve already cleaned the house three times), but goal-directed busy.  By having my cataracts inspected, I make informed decisions. By brushing up on orientation and mobility skills, I am safer.  By investing time and effort, I master new ways to do old things.  By learning technology, I find a world at my fingertips.  By listening, I connect.  By talking and writing about this overwhelming life change, I’m more positive.  By learning about grief and loss, I’m coping better.

The key is self-knowledge.  When I know what I bring into transactions, including diminishing eyesight, I better understand the outcome. Knowing I tend toward perfectionism, I understand my frustration.  Knowing I like things done right and done right now, I understand my impatience.  Now, imagine if I bring into these interactions that I am adaptable, that I have adapted to many drops in eyesight.  The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and, if I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

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“April is the cruelest month,” writes the poet Eliot, and April hit me with another round of vision loss.  “RP is blindness at its cruelest; it is the slow death of vision,” writes my friend Beth Finke who, with eyesight taken by diabetic retinopathy, has felt her share of cruelty.

That this little death comes with spring compounds its irony.  Spring — rebirth, rejuvenation, renaissance.  At first, I sought to pass it off as sunlight glare but it’s everywhere, inside and out.  It’s that thick silver fog, that layer of gossamer, glistening and reflecting but not permitting me to penetrate the scene, to distinguish figure from ground, to discern the right path from a dead end.

Orienting to sidewalks and buildings, stairs and furnishings is now more by touch than by visual contrast. And, as orientation precedes mobility, getting underway involves an educated guess.  Once moving, where I had perceived my landscape of big, gray blobs from a distance, I now find people and things nose-to-nose or, as with our Nissan Rogue, nose-to-hatchback.

The ability to adapt is vast but now I sense its limits.  The prospect of losing light perception has me rethinking my aversion to the minimally restorative sci-fi goggles, hard-wired to a belt-clipped battery pack, hard-wired through a hole in my skull to a point mid-brain.  If that’s the best thing going today, I’ll wear it proudly until a syringe full of fully DNA-encoded, microscopic stem cells can be implanted during a fifteen-minute out-patient procedure from which I drive home.

Today, my RP prayer is, “Please leave me with what sight I have.” Leave me with shadows and light: a dark wood rocking chair against a white wall, my black Lab standing on a snowbank, the opened door down the long hallway.   These clues solve the mystery for me now.  Please, leave me with what I have today, while I again absorb the truths I have learned from life with RP: what the body loses, the spirit restores; what the body denies, the spirit accepts; what the body withdraws, the spirit expands.

Footnote: T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,”

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I turned 65 yesterday.  That makes me a senior citizen.  If you don’t believe me, I can prove it to you.

It’s midday of a weekday and the doorbell rings.  I’m expecting a delivery, so I grab my house keys.  I grab my keys because yesterday, in the midst of a delivery, I locked myself out of the house.

I hurry down the stairs.  I don’t run because I’m afraid I’ll fall and break my hip.  A broken hip, for senior citizens, triggers a precipitous process known as “The Dwindles.”

Inside the front door, I gather the mail from the floor so I don’t slip on a glossy circular.  I place the stack on the first step and try to remember not to slip on it and break my hip on my way back upstairs.

I open the front door and, as it’s taken me so long to get there, whoever rang the bell has left.  I move into my Saturday Night Fever posture, extend one foot and slide it left and right across the porch, sweeping for packages.

Then I hear the diesel engine idling and the man shouting, “Hey, mister!  It’s behind you, leaning against the railing.”  The delivery man knows I’m blind; I told him yesterday when he helped me find the hidden set of keys we keep in case somebody locks themselves out of the house.

“You OK to get back inside?” he asks.

I give him the thumbs up, then hold my package aloft—1000 dog poop bags in teal color.  Teal is one of those modern shades that came along after I lost my eyesight.  I wouldn’t know it from mauve or taupe, but I’m sure I will be ultra-stylish as I bend over to pick up after Randy.  A stylish senior, yes, but will I be able to straighten up again?

Posted in Blindness, Guide Dogs, Seniors | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments