By Kay Davis
BANG! The small child hit the ground, blood oozing from a hole in his head. But he was breathing. Scooped into someone’s arms, he was rushed to a hospital. The hours ticked by. Finally the doctor emerged from the operating room. The boy’s life was spared and it appeared his faculties were intact, but the bullet had cut right through his optic nerve, severing any visual images forever. A small, black world encompassed him. He was blind.
Perhaps having such a close call made death seem an ever-present possibility for Burns. He grew into a man driven to live fully. An educated man, too, he taught English at university. Poetry was his specialty. He had an ability to turn words into pictures he imagined, pictures often representing feelings common to us all.
The visual void that wrapped around him was enlarged by sound that titillates the imagination and sometimes vibrates in the bones. Scent and taste tell the substance of things, and touch provides dimension and shape.
At the airport we picked up Burns and Valora, his wife, and took them to the home of friends, Stan and Shirley, in Ajijic. All four live in a perpetually dark world. Dinner was on the agenda for the evening, prepared by the host and hostess. Following dinner was a tour of the home. Not for us, of course. We were preparing to leave by then. But we watched and learned.
Shirley placed Valora’s hand on the newel post at the top of the stairs. Valora tapped her feet to feel the edge of the step.
Meanwhile Stan was guiding Burns down the left side of the staircase where it makes a sharp turn using three pie-shaped steps, wide on one side, tightly closed on the other. Burns tapped with his cane to feel the shape and height of them.
Furniture arrangement in the home was simple, none of it intruding on walkways but within reach if they became disoriented. The kitchen was tidy. Cooking is something Shirley and Stan do for themselves…with a gas stove and a BBQ.
Clearly most tasks are done by feel while the sighted depend heavily on the visual. Prior to dinner we had sat with cocktails. I had looked from the upstairs terraza into the garden below, then watched the sky turn from blue to indigo as birds silently winged their way to their accustomed night perches. And as the sky yielded to black and stars began twinkling, we had gone inside. They could smell the blossoms and, if the birds called out, they could hear their musical tones, but the sky’s changing colors and the textures in the garden eluded their senses.
Ignorant of how blind people adapt, I watched each of them eat. I’m not sure their methods were much different from ours, but one thing they all did was to touch the food lightly to locate what they wanted. Napkins were always at hand.
A significant difference, however, was in how to handle the drink. We, the sighted, reach for a glass of wine but also look for its location, not wanting to knock it over. The blind, it seems, feel for the base of the wine glass or, say, a coffee cup, barely touching it with the fingertips and then reaching higher to grasp it. Putting it down again there was a slight hesitation in finding the table top and in determining whether the calculated reach had resulted in an open spot where it would be easily found for the next sip. Order is important.
Would I be able to look after myself if I were blind? Would I have an active social life? Would I hike, dance, cook, entertain? Would I become adept at creative writing on a Braille computer, reading it back as fast as one of you might read? Would I have the courage to board an airplane in order to teach in schools where I was not familiar with the town, let alone the school? Because I can see, there is so much I take for granted.
But it is not only vision that I accept as normal. I am as healthy as anyone retired can be. Nonetheless, we retirees are vulnerable to injury or handicap from illness. Losing our capabilities frightens us, yet we do the best we can, and when confronted with challenge, the courageous among us say, “What handicap?” for normal was never guaranteed. Life is precious when we truly live it.