With Perry on my left, I swept grass in a manner to find a steaming pile of dung. With a baggie on my right hand, I discover the offending mound. I reached back into a pouch in Perry’s guide dog harness to get a second baggie due to the amount that could not be contained in just one baggie. I wiped with a third bag; however, the planned biohazard purge had been removed completely. I laid the bags next to my right foot and I strap Perry’s harness around him. With a spring to my step and two bags ‘o stink in my right hand, we headed off to the dumpster. My unspoken acknowledgement brought the largest smile to my face as I thought, “I am the luckiest guy!”
I am certain that when I lost my sight entirely in 2011, I had no concept of what the Acceptance Stage would bring me. I imagined it would be like being forced to deal with a punishment undeserved and overly punitive. There would be zero chance of regaining my sight no matter how long I cried or protested. My sight was gone, “So, now what am I going to do?”
Oh, I definitely pouted and was righteously frustrated. I was morning the loss of the life I thought I would have as a sighted person. I grieved of the simple things like the use of a microwave. Modern devices have no physical dials. Current trends have created flat surfaces with no distinguishing characteristics. How would I drown my sorrows in a fresh bag of microwaved popcorn since I cannot see the buttons to press?
It felt like I was tethered by my blindness. I would take one-step forward and fall two steps back. Mentally sharp, life seemed to imprison me with physical obstacles.
I knew I wanted to do more than piddle around the house. Sure, I could fold the laundry and wash the dishes. I barely ventured out the front door. If Jennifer wanted to go to the store, I sat in the car while she shopped. We had made attempts to shop together. She would pull the shopping cart as I hung onto the back. The sensation was reminiscent of something done with a child. I followed Jennifer by hanging onto her arm or resting my hand between her shoulders. It may have looked natural, but I often stepped on her feet and we struggled to find a speed we could travel in synchronicity. My thoughts would wander. I tried to envision how people saw and thought of me. I found myself lost in fear and physically let go of Jennifer. She would be fifty feet in a different direction. I stood in the middle of the aisle. I may have known where I was in the store but, in stark contrast, I was lost in life.
I knew I would not find courage stuck inside my castle walls; yet, I needed to find the will to battle the depression that waged a war on my soul. With no shame or hesitation I state for the record that I went to a counselor to begin the healing process.
Actually, I went to two separate counselors. The first counselor spoke in bumper stickers. “Chad, you know that when the going gets tough…” The counselor waited for me to finish the saying. 90% of the time, the counselor did the talking during the fifty-minute session. I never felt like I was heard. I knew this individual had no wisdom that could be shared beyond the poster of the cat clinging onto the tree branch, “Hang in There!”
The second counselor listened. Each session fortified the emotional walls that would shelter me from the well-intentioned questions, statements, and prejudice from the general public. With the strength to climb out of the protective environment, I navigated to the mailbox, around unfamiliar settings, and grew more comfortable with the use of my cane.
My first cane was a collapsible, customized black cane like the one used by Al Pacino in the movie Scent Of A Woman. With no clue what I was doing, other than sliding a cane in front of me, the cane served little purpose. The general public tended to knock into the cane or me due to the lack of realization I could not see. The cane was thin enough to hide in the pocket of my pants; moreover, the lack of strength of the cane provided little feedback to me in order to know how to negotiate the environment. Each subsequent cane adapted to my growing skills. The roller tip allowed the cane to smoothly slide back and forth. The ultimate in feedback, the roller tip began to slow me down like a set of training wheels on a child’s first bicycle. The time had come to control the cane without the use of a roller tip. By the time I had graduated to the fourth type of cane, I negotiated downtown Fort Worth with the guidance of a trained Orientation & Mobility instructor. The final exam entailed being dropped off at a corner, given the cross streets, the direction I faced, and where I had to meet the instructor twenty blocks away.
I grew in my ability to get around new environments but the next frontier proved to be more of a challenge. Technology advances at such an accelerated rate that even the experts are overwhelmed. The first generation of iPads had been out for a bit. I heard stories about the accessible modifications that could allow me to use an iPad. I did not know of anyone who could instruct me how to use the VoiceOver commands. Much like my first cane, huge mistakes were made, lessons learned, and my abilities increased beyond my own expectations.
The cane and iPad opened new worlds to explore to reconnect to my past. All be it awkward, I could function in the physical and cyber environments with success.
The whim to advance to a guide dog paralleled my experiences with the use of a cane and technology. With a cursory understanding of what was to be expected from the freedom that comes along from a service animal, I would stumble and fumble especially at the initial phases. The guide dog school cannot prepare a person for every possible scenario. Imagine my surprise when Perry dove from left to right in a busy room. Unbeknownst to me, a hundred people who were blind had been given popcorn and stray kernels coated the floor. The simplest strategy was to back up and remove myself from the situation. It was a powerful lesson to learn that some obstacles are best dealt with a thoughtful retreat in order to reassess plans to move forward.
Perry & I do our best to walk a 5k daily in our neighborhood. It seems the environment changes every day with blocked sidewalks with varying obstacles, driveways obstructed by vehicles, and loose dogs that charge us. Each day is a new adventure with challenges to get it right. Life is unpredictable. I can choose to remain indoors and thus protected from the obstacles and potential threats that await us on the next corner. If I have a choice, I would rather face uncertainty and grow from the experience instead of the stagnation that results from inactivity.
I am more active than I have ever been in my life. I have never consistently worked out as I have with the addition of Perry. As my sight was taken from me, I have been given so many opportunities that would have never come about had I remained sighted. I explored Italy, Greece, and Egypt with the use of smells, sounds, and tactile cues. I felt how quickly the sun sets on the Nile River in the Sahara Desert in Egypt. Jennifer described the colors and shapes. My skin from my head to my toes sensed the rays of Amun Ra disappear from the sky. I knew the exact moment the desert devoured the sun’s rays of light.
My lack of sight provides an opportunity to sense the world from a differing perspective. Most people may not know how daunting a crowded room can be without the ability to see; however, I can appreciate the warmth and sincerity of a person’s voice that vision could bias.
The first morning I had to learn how to pick up Perry’s solid waste made me question what I had signed up for as a guide dog user. At times, I was humiliated by someone’s observations of the process of turd location and extraction. Worries surrounded others perception of standing in grass while Perry tugged and spun in circles. Mixed in was the concern how long “park” time may take for Perry to find the perfect spot to soil.
Now, I am grateful. Yes, I am grateful that I have the ability and skills to fully take care of a guide dog and embrace life’s adventure with Perry. I do not hurry him as the time gives me a break from the hustle of the day. I “get” to leave the desk. I “get” to leave the building. I “get” to put my full trust in a four-legged animal. I “get” to put a baggie on my hand and pick up fresh poop.
Only a select few know what life delivers with no sight. According to a theory in Psychology, humans grieve in stages. “Shock/Denial” tend to be the first phase. “Anger” follows up next. If the anger is not addressed, the emotions are directed inward towards the self and develop into “Depression”. “Bargaining” is a Stage of Grief that can take the person back to the other stages by exploring the possibilities. “If I had only…”, “Perhaps this would not have happened had…”, and a multitude of bargaining questions a person has to process to the final stage of “Acceptance”.
These stages may be familiar to someone who has lost a loved one. “Acceptance” can be a bitter pill to swallow. Acceptance can, also, be fully embraced. The memory remains as the pain fades with time and effort to heal.
I am proud to announce my proposal to amend Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ Stages of Grief with the addition of “Gratitude”. Beyond the pain and loss becomes a reflection that life is better now. The devastation of losing a loved one can create a wound that goes clear to the bone. The resulting healing can make the person stronger as they have learned to adapt and compensate for the loss. The path that lies ahead will be different from that point of loss but the journey forward can bring a wealth of experiences that were not on the original path. The awareness to fully appreciate life’s gifts may result from the death of a loved one. A person may, now, be more appreciative for the time they do have with the loved ones still alive. The “little” things may become more significant; alas, a well of gratitude may be unearthed.
I do not know where life will take me. Every step forward brings adventure. Yes, I may curse the setbacks that are infused with the life of a person who is blind. I will celebrate the richness of spirit and the depth of emotion I “get” to feel as a person who is blind. Beyond “Acceptance” is gratitude. I am a better person because the loss of my sight.
I am grateful to be blind. I am so thankful to “get” to rediscover the world. While I do wish the others around me did not have to bare the burden of dealing with my blindness, I hope they can appreciate and benefit from the person I am now. The journey to surpass acceptance to find gratitude only makes me stronger.