Breaking News from the Class Reunion

My wife and I attended our fiftieth high school reunion.  Most of the chatter was about how everyone else looked.  They even gave an award to the person who had aged the least.  I didn’t win.  But I felt I was first runner-up because people greeted me by name—then I remembered my name tag was stuck to my shirt.  My wife told people they hadn’t changed a bit but when one guy growled, “You saying I was bald and beer-bellied back then?” she pointed to my white cane and told him I was the one saying everybody looked the same as they did on graduation day.

To classmates, I described progressive blindness not as the end of the world, but as a pain in the ass. When I got tired of the “pain in the ass” part, I said that it meant not doing some things I used to do and learning how to do other things differently or that I thought it helped my problem-solving skills or that I felt I’d become  more imaginative.  Once in a while, I said that blindness wasn’t the end of the world and I couldn’t see it from here anyway.  As the night wore on, I said simply, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you” and tried to keep a straight face.

And then there was Annie King, MIA from past reunions, telling me she’d named her firstborn son after me.  “Well, partly,” she hastened to add, “I like the name, too.”  I told Annie King’s husband that Annie had been my first girl friend—not my first girlfriend—my first girl friend and that I’ve had many female friends since, including my wife. I told Annie’s husband that women friends are a source of wisdom and perspective.  Annie’s husband nodded his assent, perhaps understanding, perhaps wondering what kind of kook his wife had been pals with.

A trio of male class officers gave speeches.  They told how their Midwestern virtues of faith, work and self-reliance had enriched them.  But, to me, their pride exceeded their humility. And when they read the names of the Top Ten Boys and ignored the Top Ten Girls, my wife cried foul.  “I felt unworthy in high school.  Now that I finally like myself, these guys make me feel invisible.”

I concluded that these reunion speeches rivaled Facebook for self-indulgence.  I silently petitioned our class officers to talk of issues deeper than upward mobility or the big game against East High.  Wasn’t a passing reference to the victims of wars then and since, women’s rights or the rule of law in order?  I wanted the speakers to give a shout out to Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  After all, the headline graduation morning read, ”RFK Shot Dead in LA.”

Maybe I misjudged my contemporaries, maybe I missed the point of a class reunion, but wasn’t it relevant to mention the crucible that forged us  in 1968?  The divisive trauma of today’s civics lesson? This night, the state of the union was whispered in dark corners by people acting like spies.  Perhaps secrecy was the safest way to express an opinion, given that in any gathering these days, it’s likely that half the crowd views the other half as the enemy.

People are incorrigibly themselves and my wife and I are unapologetically political. I whispered that, given Annie’s and other women’s evident delight  at seeing me, I must have shown them respect in high school.  Then I hastened to connect my past deeds with current events, namely Judge Kavanaugh, confirmed to the Supreme Court that very day.  Given my wife’s and my experience with what kind of high school drunk I’d been, we decided to do one better than Kavanaugh and find, not 65, but 66 female classmates who would vouch for my character. I liked our odds—ours was a big graduating class.




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Cars for the Blind

I try to avoid three things: vampires, werewolves and the lady across the street.  Most days, when she’s perched on her porch yelling at passers-by, I pretend I can’t hear her.  Today, she’s getting out of her car and I’m walking home from work and, damn, we’re on a collision course. I could pretend I can’t see her, which I can’t—I’m blind, you see, and not seeing her wouldn’t take any pretending.  Now we’re so close I hear her wheezing and I know it’s either talk to her or pretend I can’t hear her and plow right into her.

“Hi, Steve,” she says.  She’s called me Steve for ten years and I told her for eight years my name is Jeff but the past two years I haven’t bothered.  Being pseudo-Steve provides a buffer from her intrusion.

Oh, Steve, how’s Randy?”

“He’s fine, thanks.”  I grip Randy’s harness so she can’t get her hands on my dog.

“See, I’m good with names,” she says.  Then, to Randy, “Whatsa doin you big bootiful doggie?”  This last is said, I imagine, with a totally stupid, baby talk face.

“Say,” she says, “I been hearing this radio spot wanting people to donate their cars to some blind group.  How come they want cars?  Blind people can’t drive.”

“It’s along the lines of 1 8 7 7 Kars 4 Kids,” I say.  “The cars aren’t for the kids to drive.  The cars are turned into cash to help the kids.  It’s a fund-raising thing”

“Oh, I thought maybe they’d turn the cars into the kind that drive themselves.  That would make sense.  Well, I gotta go, Steve.  Bye-bye, Randy.”

She makes a move for Randy but I sidestep her and call, “Farewell” over my shoulder, glad to be done with the lady across the street, fortified for any chance encounters with vampires or werewolves.

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Some Assembly Required

As my vision has deteriorated, I’ve entrusted household tasks to those with a sharper eye.  I handed the lawn mower to a landscaper who doesn’t impale the blade on tree roots.  I passed my saw to a handywoman who doesn’t cut boards a quarter inch short.  I’ve outgrown the need to supervise my hired hands, choosing to provide moral support and stay out of their way.  I’ve come to believe that somebody with decent eyesight and a screwdriver can finish my old jobs in half the time, without profanity or bloodshed.

Recently, I was struck with a vision of a Felix the Cat wall clock gracing our kitchen, above the little window with the checkerboard valence.  You remember Felix the Cat—a two-tone cat with a clock in its tummy, with eyes and a tail that moved back and forth to mark time.  The Amazon ad said that every six seconds someone bought a Felix the Cat wall clock.  I counted to six and ordered mine.

Felix the Cat arrived in a box the size of a mouse trap.  “Felix the Kitten,” I muttered, placing four plastic body parts on my desk and the print instructions under the OCR.  I could kind of noodle out what to do except for how to “snap the plastic bracket so that one end attaches to the tail lever and the other end attaches to the eye mechanism.”

“Honey,” I said, presenting the dismembered cat to my wife, “Will you please help me put this damn thing together?”

She scanned the instructions and ordered me to retrieve a small slotted screwdriver and one AA battery.  I did as I was told.

“’Loosen the screw and remove the back cover, exposing the battery compartment’” she read from the directions.

“Got it,” I said.  “Where’s the screw?”

She guided my finger to the screw.

“The screwdriver’s too big,” I said.  “And we don’t have a smaller one.  But not to worry, I’ll use my thumbnail.”

“’Failure to secure the bracket will result in…’” my wife read.

“Ouch!” I cried.  “That screw ripped my thumbnail.”

“And I can’t get this bracket to snap into the tail and eye slots,” said my wife.

While I searched for a nail file to unscrew the screw, I thought, “She ought to be able to figure this thing out.  She can see the instructions.  She can see the parts.  What’s the problem?”

The nail file loosened the screw and I handed Felix to my wife to remove the back and insert the battery.  I tightened the screw and my wife snapped the bracket into the tail and eye slots and then held up the clock against the kitchen wall.  “Tick, tock,” she said.

I thought, “See?  My theory is proven.  All it takes is good eyesight.”

Then, Felix’s tail fell from his body, bounced off the countertop and hit the floor.  “I give up,” said my wife.  ”Sorry, Honey, but I don’t know how this thing works.  I’m out of ideas.”

While I thought about how I used to be able to put things together, how now I felt so stupid and powerless and frustrated and how I blamed my wife for not being able to do everything that I can’t do anymore, I said, “That’s OK, Honey.  Thanks for trying.  You did your best.”  After I repacked Felix for his return trip to Amazon, I trimmed my damaged thumbnail and smoothed the edges with the same nail file I’d used on the screw.

I don’t have a Felix the Cat wall clock hanging above the little kitchen window with the checkerboard valence.  But some assembly required taught me a few things.  One—my wife does her best and knows when to quit.  Two—I must not displace onto her the impatience and frustration I feel at my own limitations.  Three—having eyesight doesn’t necessarily solve all problems.  And four, this message for Amazon—if every six seconds, someone buys a Felix the Cat wall clock, then every twelve seconds, does someone return one?

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Toys for All Ages

Saturday morning, I sat on the living room floor and played with my toys—just like when I was a kid.  Back then, I was the voice of the Lone Ranger, calling, “Hi Ho Silver” as the stiff-legged horse galloped across the carpeted plains.  I made funny faces on Mr. Potato Head, then set my Slinky loose on the stairs.  I built the Empire State Building, with King Kong perched atop its tower, on my Etch-a-Sketch.  Before lunchtime, I had tamed the Wild West, invented plastic surgery, mastered the laws of physics and created the Eighth Wonder of the World.

I am older now, and I’ve put aside childish things.  Saturday morning, I sat on the living room floor and played with the Seeing AI app on my iPhone.  AI stands for artificial intelligence and the app does all sorts of amazing things, from reading text to recognizing faces.  It even reads handwriting.  I printed block letters with a black Sharpie on white paper and Seeing AI read, “Hey, good looking!”  Now, that’s intelligence!

Then I switched the menu to “Person,” pointed the camera at my face and heard, “Eighty year-old man with blond hair looking neutral.”

“Eighty years old, my ass!” I shouted at the phone.  “I’m only sixty-eight—and my friends say I look ten years younger.”  I jabbed the phone and snapped another head shot.

“Eighty year-old man with blond hair looking angry,” said Seeing AI.

“You bet I’m angry!  You cheated me out of twelve years!”

Then, recalling that crabby people look old, I forced a smile.

“Eighty year-old man with blond hair looking happy,” said Seeing AI.

“Wrong again,” I said, and, putting Sharpie to paper, I hand-lettered a manifesto.

“Fifty-eight year old man with blond hair looking smug,” read Seeing AI.

“It’s about time you got it right,” I said and closed the Seeing AI app.

Saturday morning, I sat on the living room floor and played with my toys.  I pondered modern maturity, made peace with technology, honored the judgment of friends and took ten years off my age.  All before lunchtime.

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Speaking of My Vow of Silence…

After driving crosstown during rush hour and hiking cross-country through parking lots, then careening down corridors to the Cancer Research Center, my wife turns to me and sighs, “I’m sorry, Honey.  I don’t think you signed on for all this.”

I had heard those words before.  Long ago and far away, in the eighth year of a marriage and eighth year of RP, my then wife succumbed.  “I feel like I’ve lost my best friend,” she told me.  “It’s not that you’re a person with blindness, it’s the person you’ve become.  I didn’t sign on for this.”  Her despair was exceeded only by my own, for I knew I was its cause.

We settle into waiting room chairs.  “You’re right, Honey, I say.  “Sickness and health weren’t part of our vows.  As I recall, I pledged not to talk so much and you promised not to interrupt so much.”

“In music, they’d say I added harmony to your melody,” says my wife.

“You are the soprano to my basso, the Diva to my Lothario.  And I’ll say this about sickness and health.  I’ve learned a lot, especially from you. Cancer is not your fault.  Blindness is not my fault.  Only if we let them become our fault.  As long as we work together, we’ll get through anything.  Life is ten percent what happens to us and ninety percent what we do about it.  I haven’t always done my best with blindness.  I withdrew and isolated.  But you, you’re out there doing it.  I admire your strength, your resourcefulness and your honesty and I’ll do anything I can to support you.  You have so many…”

“Honey,” says my wife, “the doctors are ready for us now.”

“Really?  I didn’t hear them calling.  I must have been…”

“Talking,” says my wife

“Hmmm, yes.  Well, let’s get on with the show.”  We rise and my wife leads me left and right and straight to Exam Room 12 for her second or third or, maybe fourth opinion.  But who’s counting?

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Our Four-Star Hospital Cafeteria

It’s not that my wife and I get off by hanging around hospitals.  It’s just that what we need to get done doesn’t get done at our neighborhood sushi bar.  So, with a squeeze of the hand and a kiss on the cheek, my wife heads upstairs for her cancer scans and I go down for my colonoscopy.

“We’ve improved the prep a lot since your last time, don’t you think?” says the nurse who takes my clothes.  “No more do-it-yourself enema, which is nice.  See?  The worst part’s over.”

“No,” I reply, “the worst part’s not over.  The worst part is starving for a whole day and a half.”

The transporter wheels me into a room at the end of the hall.  “Is this the cafeteria?” I ask the three nurses, nurse anesthetist and doctor who surround me.  They chuckle politely and describe how wonderful “Twilight Sleep” will feel.

“Might as well knock me out.  I can’t see the TV screen anyway.  I’m blind.”

“We know,” they say.

“So much for privacy,” I say and nod off.

I awaken in the hallway.  A voice from above intones a prayer. I blurt out, “OMG!  Who called the priest?”

“It’s Sister Savannah reading the Daily Prayer over the intercom,” replies the transporter, accustomed to drug-addled rambling.

The nurse brings my clothes and a snack: orange juice, fruit cocktail, cheese and crackers.  I wolf it down—now I’m really hungry. The doctor comes in and says I did very well.  He hands me a glossy folder with my results and photos.  “Polyp pictures!” I say.  “Oh, boy!”

I am wheeled, blessedly, to the cafeteria, where my wife has a cup of tea and a piece of fruit and I choose a donut and chocolate milk.  It’s the best donut I’ve ever had.  My wife tells me she and the cancer center staff are on a first-name basis and she considers them friends.  I tell her I’m glad that kindly connection helps her but I wish she and the cancer center staff had never met.  She agrees, then asks about the colonoscopy.  I tell her those people don’t want me back for five years because they think I’m a smart-aleck, to which my wife agrees.

“So, what’d they find up there?” she asks.

“Two polyps,” I reply.  “Wanna see the pictures?”

“If they’re yours, they’re beautiful,” says my wife.

“How did your scans go?” I ask.  “I mean, I know we won’t get results ‘til tomorrow, but…”

“Actually, they did tell me what one scan looked like,” she says.  ”But it’s something I’m sure you’ll say you already knew.  They told me the CT scan of my head revealed nothing.”

I hear mirth in her voice.  “Wide open spaces, eh?”

“Yep,” she replies.  “Nature’s perfect vacuum.”

And we laugh long and loud.  I get another donut because I’m still really hungry.  And my wife pours another cup of tea.  “Here we are,” she says. “Our little table for two.”

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Two years ago, my wife had cancer surgery.  Once the bad parts were removed and she was back on her feet, we figured we were in the clear.  But my wife’s cancer has returned.

Two years ago, I disproved skeptics predictions that this blind husband would fail as post-operative home health aide.  I brought earnest imprecision to my duties and, mercifully, did no harm. This time around, I am dogged by feelings of inadequacy and frustration that I can’t run interference—drive my wife to treatments, navigate the medical maze or pore over the fine print in her medical records. Instead, we’re finding ways I can help with our shared vulnerability.

I’ve discovered 111 NLS Talking Books on cancer and I’ve read seven so far.  I’ve learned how rapacious breast cancer is, how relentless and necessary are side effects of chemotherapy and how to be the best and most supportive husband I can be. I’ve learned not to fill her with false hope, ply her with vacuous cheerfulness or burden her with my anxiety.  For once, I avoid trying to fix things.  I’m learning the value of being there, the power of being present.  I listen to content and tone and sometimes say the right thing and sometimes the wrong thing.  Sometimes I don’t know what to say so I say nothing at all.  I’ve learned to accept and support her decisions about her health, her body and her life.

We each carry conditions without cure.  My aberrant RP gene kicked in thirty years ago; my wife’s cancer has been hit and run for fifteen.  Despite my symptomatic head start, I must not presume to know what she’s going through nor pretend to have the answers.  I recognize that she uses her strengths and meets her needs in ways different than I.  I must honor my wife’s experience as hers, separate from mine.  Honoring her reality, and she mine, values both.

I’m encouraged how briefly either of us dwelt on fairness.  So easily I could rail ad nauseum, “If life were fair, I wouldn’t be blind and my wife wouldn’t have cancer.”  Still, I catch myself murmuring, “Please make her well because I don’t know what I’d do without her.  I’m not asking for cures, just containment.”  Selfish prayers from my own needs may seem unseemly.  Writing about my blind needs rather than her cancer needs may seem self-centered. For this, I beg your indulgence for my self-indulgence.

My wife and I are not islands—Cancer and Blindness.  We are a system, a constellation, a family.   We’re ordinary people—we let the dog up on our bed.  We’re ordinary people in extraordinary reality—we get too up or too down based on events of a single day.  As for the fluffy parable that adversity brings perspective, we’ve got perspective up to our ears. We practice surrender and strive for acceptance.  And every time we think it’s OK, we are stung by the reality that no, it’s not OK.  It is what it is and that’s all.

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