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I Think I Cane
A cane is only as useful as the attitude of the person wielding it. I found out the first time I went hiking with my family after losing my sight. Our kids were young at the time, so we picked a relatively easy trail around a small lake near our home in western Connecticut. Our son scampered ahead of us, pointing out every interesting bird and flower. My wife, Christine, carried our year-old daughter in a backpack, and I clung to her right elbow, stumbling along in this new and unforgiving world of darkness. Christine detached my hand from her elbow and said, “Use your cane.” This was the third or fourth time she’d done this in the quarter mile we’d gone so far. “It’s too hard,” I said. “Let me take your elbow. It’ll be much easier.” I knew she had the extra weight of our daughter, but I didn’t understand what the big deal was. Did she really expect me to walk this uneven, root-filled trail without getting hurt? A few steps later I stumbled over a rock the size of a small terrier, and fell hard, scraping tender flesh from my hands and elbows. Months of anger and frustration erupted inside me. I smashed the cane into the rock like Paul Bunyan with his axe, bending it to an angle that matched my bloody elbow. A few seconds of absolute silence followed—not even the birds or chipmunks dared make a sound. Then the kids started to cry, Christine and I exchanged a few unloving words, and our hike was finished. At thirty-five, I lost my sight, my career, my confidence, and my self-respect. To me, the white cane represented a neon sign, my scarlet letter, proclaiming to the world that I was blind, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Two days after the hiking fiasco, a new cane arrived in the mail. I’m blessed to have a wife who is caring, smart, and tough. Even though both of our lives had been turned upside down, and the weight of responsibility grew heavier on her shoulders, she had the good sense that I was lacking. “We’ve got two kids,” she said. “And I won’t have them growing up feeling sorry for their Daddy.” She paused to let this sink in. “You need to get off the pity pot and learn how to take care of yourself. I want my kids to be proud of you.” Those words proved to be the arrow that penetrated my layers of depression. She was right. If I couldn’t do it for me, and I couldn’t do it for her, I had to make some changes for my kids. Over the next several months, I began a new phase in my life. I received Mobility and Orientation instruction from our state agency for the blind. Once a week an instructor visited my house and taught me proper cane travel technique. He showed me how to get around my neighborhood, and how to use public transportation. The cane gave me a physical connection to the places I traveled, and helped me to develop mental pictures of where I’d been. For practice, I’d go for walks downtown, to the pharmacy, or the library to check out a book on tape. This was when the real lessons occurred, because sometimes I’d get lost. I’m yet to find a panic equal to being blind and completely confused about where you are. You have to resist the urge to bawl, and utilize the sounds and your physical surroundings to figure out where you are, and how you went wrong. On one such occasion, I found myself in a parking lot full of cars. I figured I must have drifted into the lot, and attempted to retrace my steps to get back to the sidewalk. Everywhere I turned, I found only more cars. I paused, and listened for sounds of traffic. But, at ten-thirty on a Tuesday morning, all the streets were quiet. I tapped around, trying to find a way out. At some point, I heard the distinctive clicking of high heels, and made my way towards the sound. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m blind, and I’m lost. Can you please show me where the sidewalk is?” “Désolé, je ne parle pas anglais,” a woman answered. I pointed my face skyward and thought—God, if this is your idea of a joke, I’m not laughing. I tried in vain to communicate with the woman, who really didn’t know a word of English, until I gave up and wished her a nice day. She went to her car, and then the solution hit me. I listened while she backed up, and followed the sounds of her vehicle as it weaved through the aisles and back to the street. Once there, I found the sidewalk I’d lost a half-hour ago, and made my way home. I joined the National Federation of the Blind and talked with other blind people to find out how they did things. I began to believe in myself, and with support and encouragement from my family, I mastered some of the alternative techniques blind people use to get along in life. With a newer, and lighter, fiberglass cane, I walked my children to and from school. In time, I learned Braille, and how to use a computer with a speech synthesizer. As I gained understanding about the true nature of blindness, I started doing advocacy work on behalf of the blind and visually impaired. Three years after losing my sight, I traveled solo to Atlanta. Two years after that, I traveled to West Virginia and attended a Writer’s conference—by myself. Since then, I’ve traveled to our state capitol to lobby our Senators and Representatives to improve training and opportunities for blind people. I’ve co-chaired a legislative council overseeing our state agency for the blind, and tapped my way to meetings with the governor and the Secretary of State. I now have a wide collection of canes. Most are taller than that first one, and most are lighter, fiberglass models—although I do have a sturdy aluminum one I use specifically for hiking. Some are one piece, others telescope or fold. Some have roller tips, others have a plastic ball or a thin aluminum disk. Now I can’t imagine leaving the house without my cane, and I always have a spare in my suitcase when I travel. My cane does announce to the world that I’m blind, but I’m okay with that. It only symbolizes inferiority in the hands of those who don’t have the skills and confidence to use it properly. When I’m walking down the street, it signals to cars and pedestrians alike that I’m going places.
Goin' to Graceland
In late summer 1996, I was blind in one eye and losing ground fast in the other. I'd been a relatively healthy diabetic for the past twenty-five years, but the Mountain Dews and Ring Dings were taking their toll. With Blindzilla breathing down my neck, I needed a miracle. It arrived when my boss sent me to Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is written that Jesus lived in a state of grace in a middle-eastern land. As I picked up the phone to make travel arrangements, it occurred to me that Elvis lived in Graceland in a Middle Eastern state. Coincidence, or the divine hand of Yahweh? Memphis was a mere 283 miles from Chattanooga. Before I knew it, my alarm went off at the Fairview Motor Lodge and I was going to Graceland. The parking lot was already buzzing when I arrived at seven a.m. License plates ranged from Florida to California and Quebec. Blue-haired women in their Sunday dresses chatted like little school girls about how gorgeous Elvis was in Kid Galahad. I followed the other homage payers and purchased my ticket. Naturally, Graceland was set up for maximum profitability. Visitors must park across the street and wait for a tour bus to take twenty seekers at a time. Meanwhile, I visited the memorabilia shop, saw Elvis’s collection of cars and airplanes, and ate a peanut butter and banana sandwich at Elvis’ diner. Once through those uniquely musical iron gates, I was enamored with the gaudy beauty of Graceland. To those who appreciated the seventies, the interior is heaven. Brilliant and opulent, it reeks of expensive tack. The billiard room’s ceiling and walls drip with a single cardinal colored tapestry. Elaborate animal carvings embellish the chair arms in the Jungle room. A hallway of blue suede features hundreds of platinum and gold records. The magnificent Silver Phoenix Jumpsuit from his 1968 Comeback Tour is displayed in a glass case. At one point, I hung back from my group to get a word with a guard who sported a diamond stud earring. I said I need to see that most sacred of grounds. I need to sit on the toilet where Elvis died. I'll give you twenty bucks to take my picture." A glint of white showed in the corners of his mouth, but he shook his head and asked me to move along. "A hundred bucks" I pleaded. "I won't tell a soul." He took my shoulder and guided me out to Elvis's grave and meditation garden. I elbowed my way past a French speaking woman with mascara dripping down her face like butter off a baguette, and knelt before the remains of the King. Elvis, you were a good man, always generous to your friends. You don't know me, but I'd sure appreciate your putting in a good word on my behalf with that big Cadillac dealer in the sky. As I headed to the airport, my suitcase full of Elvis dog-tags, a Graceland Viewfinder, Love Me Tender Shampoo and a Burning Love 45, I reflected on something the King once said. “I believe the key to happiness is someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.” No miracle, but wise words from a King who also paid dearly for his love of deep-fried Twinkies.
One of the better aspects of losing my job along with my sight is that I get to spend more time with my kids. Every morning, I walk them the half-mile to school, and I return in the afternoon to accompany them home. During our walks, they tell me about their days, who got in trouble, who likes whom, and how a kid named Brian always cheats at kick-ball. We live in an old neighborhood, and along my route there are a dozen homes with bushes planted near the sidewalk. While there are several varieties, they all inevitably grow outwards, eager for the opportunity to snag an unobservant pedestrian. At the beginning of every school year, I bring a pair of clippers with me as I drop the kids off, and on my way home I help those who are too busy to trim their bushes. One house has a huge rhododendron bush, which must be decades old. Tall and thick, branches hang over the sidewalk like a canopy. When it’s blooming, the fragrance is unmistakable, and I’m sure it’s quite beautiful. Now, I’m about five foot eleven, and I could feel the presence of one close branch as I passed underneath. Following a heavy rain, the branch got heavier, hung lower and whacked me in the head. After the third or forth such incident with the wayward branch, I asked around and found out the name of the homeowner. I called and left a message stating that I was the neighborhood blind guy, that their shrubbery had assaulted me, and would they please do something about it? Several weeks went by, no action was taken, so I followed up with another, stronger, phone message. When winter came, the aggressive branch adopted a regular five-foot nine stance. Most days I was able to duck and miss it. But, every now and then, I’d wind up with another hunk of flesh donated to the Rhododendron God and five more points on my blood pressure reading. I sent a letter asking the homeowner to please take care of the bush. I even volunteered to help tie the branch up higher, if they needed assistance. Nobody did anything. One morning, we all got up late because the power had gone out and the alarm clock hadn’t worked. Everybody scrambled to get ready on time. During the frenzy, I knocked a box of cat food on the floor, accidentally poured orange juice on my cereal, and misplaced my left shoe. So I wasn’t feeling particularly loving or charitable. The kids had warned me to duck on the way to school, but the battering bush got me on my return trip. As Popeye used to say, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!” At home, I stuck a wad of toilet paper to the gash in my forehead and grabbed my tree saw. I tapped back down the street with one arm raised protectively in front of me and located the assailant. At first, I started trimming small branches to take weight off the thick bough overhanging the sidewalk, but this was time consuming, and had little effect. So, I went to the major branch, one evil nub still sticky with my blood, and started to saw. About this time, I heard a car pull into the driveway and stop, not five feet from me. This was a little awkward. While I’m no lawyer, I figured that cutting down a neighbor’s bush was probably illegal. But, the car just sat there idling. I imagine the driver, presumably the homeowner, was frightened by the sight of the angry blind guy, a wad of bloody toilet paper stuck to his forehead, waving a saw around like the villain in a bad horror movie. I did a quick mental calculation, and figured if the driver had called the cops on a cell phone, I was already in trouble, so I might as well finish the job. I found where I’d been cutting, completed the amputation, and dragged the limb to the edge of the property. Still no activity from the vehicle, so I picked up my cane, gave them my best Jack Nicholson smile, wished them a good day, and returned home. I don’t expect to get invited over any time soon for a barbeque, but at least my forehead and hairline will stay intact. Now, if I could only do something about the guy who refuses to shovel his sidewalk…