The Braille Monitor                                                                                       June 2003

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Behold Beauty

by Noel Nightingale

Noel Nightingale and Jim Peterson hold their children Cosmo and Leila.
Noel Nightingale and Jim Peterson hold their children Cosmo and Leila.

From the Editor: Leila Peterson, daughter of NFB of Washington President Noel Nightingale and her husband Jim Peterson, will be three years old next November. When she was a small infant, her mother, newly sensitized to beauty in all its forms by the birth of this remarkable baby, wrote a reflection on beauty and what it means to blind people. That little meditation found its way into I Can Feel Blue on Monday, the nineteenth in the National Federation of the Blind's series of Kernel Books. Since we have just celebrated Mother's Day, it seemed appropriate to reprint it now. Here it is, beginning with President Maurer's introduction:

Noel Nightingale is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington State and a member of our National Board of Directors. She is a mother, a wife, an attorney. Here she reflects on the nature of beauty and the magical moments of life:

My husband Jim Peterson and I recently had the joy of having a baby. Her name is Leila Nightingale Peterson. She weighed six pounds, three ounces at birth and is now a couple of months old. Objectively speaking, Leila is absolutely perfect. She is smart, advanced for her age, and extremely well behaved, crying only when it is convenient for us. And she is beautiful.

One of my nurses told me the day we left the hospital, "All the nurses are talking about how beautiful your baby is, one of the prettiest they've seen." Earlier my nurse asked her colleagues whether they had told me what they thought. They said they had not because the mother was blind, and they did not want to make her feel bad.

She admonished them that all mothers want to hear that their babies are beautiful. I thanked my nurse for telling me and told her that I already knew that Leila is lovely but was glad to hear that others thought so too. This exchange reminded me that I had once wondered whether beauty would be denied to me as a blind person.

I will never forget the only time I saw a butterfly up close. It was when I could still see. I was with a friend on the top of a mountain in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington. We were having a picnic with all of the usual picnic supplies. Among other things, we had a carton of orange juice with us. At one point the butterfly landed on the orange juice carton.

I slowly moved my head closer and closer to the butterfly. Amazingly enough, it did not fly away. My face was just inches away from the butterfly, and I could see all the details of its coloring--yellow, white, and black. I could see the lines where each color ended and the next began. I could see the delicate edges of the wings. It was a magical moment.

At this point in my life, I had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative eye disorder and knew I would soon be blind. I savored the moment of seeing the intricate detail of this handsome creature. I worried that when I became blind I would never again experience the beauty found in such rare and privileged moments.

A few years ago I was riding in a car with Jim and noticed that I could not tell what color the sky was. I knew that it was blue, but I could not see that it was. It looked like it could be either green or purple or blue but did not look definitely like any of those colors. I cried because I did not want to lose the ability to enjoy those moments when we pause and savor the beauty that can be found in our world.

For many years now I have been unable to see color or detail. The visual world is a blur of neutral, undefined objects and people. Despite this loss I have continued to live a normal life and appreciate beauty. I have married, had Leila, work, am a member of several boards of directors of nonprofit organizations, and occasionally find time to travel.

Some time after I had become blind, Jim and I took a trip to Europe with our tandem bicycle. We rode from London, England, to Madrid, Spain. We spent several weeks riding in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain.

During one stretch we found ourselves low on food and out of water. We had underestimated the number of miles between towns and had no hope of finding water for an entire day. We were riding in the searing sun of the Spanish summer. To make matters worse, we were riding up mountains most of the day. I began to cry because I was thirsty and afraid. There were no cars, no homes, and no hope that we would be rescued from our thirst and hunger. We continued riding, though, because there was nothing else to do.

After hours of riding in this desperate state, we rounded a bend in the road and heard water running. A pipe was sticking out of the side of a small hill, and water was pouring out of it! Not only that, but there was a sign next to it that said, "Potable Water" (in Spanish). It was absolutely magical. In the middle of nowhere in those dry mountains was cold, drinkable water. We stopped, put our heads under the spout, gulped the water, and rejoiced.

There are two middle‑aged brothers living in Louisiana who have been blind since their birth. When they were born, their parents did not know that their blind babies could grow up, have careers, marry, raise families, and be active members of their communities. Their parents had such low expectations for them that they placed their blind boys, who were only a couple of years apart in age, in a room with cement floors and left them there.

They fed them, but they did not teach them how to use the bathroom. They did not read to them, send them to school, or play with them. The two boys had so little intellectual or social stimulation that they became mentally retarded. After their parents died, they were sent to a residential institution for retarded people. One day the brothers' case worker gave each one an orange. It became apparent that they had never before touched or eaten an orange. They held their oranges, smelled them, marveled at the oranges' coolness, shape, texture, and sweet aroma.

Beauty is experienced by blind people. Both the Louisiana brothers and I as blind people have experienced the depths of the world's beauty. While our experiences are not visual, they have been as profound as if we were seeing the wings of a butterfly or eating an orange for the first time. Although we share blindness, the difference between the Louisiana brothers' experience with blindness and my experience fifty years later is marked. I have had a range of opportunities available to me that was denied to the brothers.

What happened between the time the Louisiana brothers were children and the time when I became blind? The National Federation of the Blind has worked to let people know that blindness does not prevent people from living normal lives.

Were the brothers born today, members of the National Federation of the Blind could have told the brothers' parents the truth: blindness need not be a tragedy if blind people are given proper training in the use of a long white cane, taught to read Braille, allowed to use special computer equipment, and develop other skills. Not only does blindness not have to be a tragedy, but we can enjoy even those fleeting, magical moments that make life the wonderful gift that it is.

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