Braille Monitor                                                                                                           December 2004

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Santa's Little Helper

by Darrel Kirby

Darrel Kirby
Darrel Kirby

From the Editor: For obvious reasons I have been saving this delightful little story for several months. Darrel Kirby was the 2004 Kenneth Jernigan Memorial Scholarship winner. He is a graduate student at the University of Iowa and president of the Old Capitol Chapter of the NFB of Iowa. Here is his Christmas story:

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. The holiday season was always a joyous time for my family. Each year I waited anxiously for Thanksgiving, knowing that the following weekend would include walking through the snow to find a real Christmas tree in the woods near our farmhouse. A tree with no gaps and a triangular shape was a lucky find. We did our best to make the tree look beautiful by decorating it with colorful lights, icicles, and an assortment of ornaments. My mother attempted to make the tree more attractive with a set of blown glass ornaments with gold accents, but each year the tree was crowded with school-made decorations created by my three brothers and me. Like diamonds in a dime-store display, the glass ornaments, beautiful and fragile, stood out from the sturdy, homemade ornaments made of popsicle sticks, colorful yarn, and Elmer's glue.

My three brothers and I differed in personality and interests, sharing only the Kirby nose and hand-me-downs. We all had our personality quirks, and I was notorious for being hyperactive and excited by many things, especially Christmas. My three brothers and parents would rather have received a full night's rest on Christmas Eve, but I could not wait for the festivities to begin, so I pulled them out of bed every Christmas morning to gather in the living room. One advantage of being an over-active child growing up in a house full of shy boys was that the extrovert got most of the attention on Christmas day. I was happy to be the boy who enjoyed the spotlight on those brisk Iowa mornings.

Over the years I evolved for myself the role of Santa's little helper. The presents with their colorful ribbons and bows sat under the three-week-old evergreen, waiting for me to distribute them to their anxious recipients. I discovered that if I grabbed the Santa Claus hat that sat under the tree and handed out the gifts to my brothers and parents, they would begin opening their presents first, and I could watch my gifts pile up in a designated area of the living room. After my parents and brothers opened their gifts, all eyes were on me, which met my need for attention. Naturally enough I grew to love handing out gifts on Christmas morning.

Although the scene I am describing from my childhood sounds like something I would eventually outgrow, my job as Santa's little helper continued into adulthood. It was this way each year of my life, even after I went off to college. I never lost my enthusiasm for Christmas and handing out gifts. However, things were drastically different on Christmas morning four years ago. When I was twenty, I began losing my sight from diabetic retinopathy. Three weeks after being officially pronounced "legally blind" by the eye doctors, I returned home for Christmas. After becoming blind, I believed my life was over. Christmas no longer seemed so wonderful.

That Christmas morning my family sat in silence around me as I stared at the blurry lights of the Christmas tree. The silence in the room seemed louder than all the laughter of other years combined. My younger brother cleared his throat and somberly asked, "So who is going to hand out the presents?" I felt a tear well up in my eye. I did not want to ruin Christmas for my family, but my sadness inevitably placed a damper on the day for everyone. It was clear that Santa's little helper was not able to see the names on the gift tags.

Not wanting my family to see my tears, I turned away from the lighted tree and looked out the window. Something on the tree caught a ray of sunlight and focused my attention. It was one of the glass ornaments with the gold accents that my mother loved. Through the years some of them had broken in the rough-and-tumble play of the four boys. Mom had always warned us to be careful around the glass ornaments. This year the warning was to be careful around me, for I was so fragile that I too might break.

I lost my sight in the middle of my college career and was forced to withdraw from classes. Having been able to see for twenty years and not knowing how to be blind, I discovered that my life had significantly changed in a span of two months. My family recognized that I was unhappy after losing my sight, and with no exposure to blind people, they did not know how to help me. They made sure not to talk about my eyes or blindness, thinking that it would pain me to talk about the thing that made me sad. I believed that blindness would take away my strength and that I would no longer be a confident young man, full of energy and plans for the future. It would be a while before I realized that my life was not fundamentally different just because I was blind.

The next year brought more changes and adjustments. As Christmas drew near, I had lost the remainder of my sight. I had accepted that I was blind but believed I was limited by my blindness. I tried to enjoy my second Christmas as a blind person, but I was still saddened not to wear the Santa Claus hat and hand out presents. I had my mother place me in a chair near her and describe the gifts I received. I was not accustomed to accept my gifts passively from someone else. Somberness loomed in the living room, and I continued to feel as breakable as my mother's glass ornaments.

Although I had begun to accept my blindness, I had not found the National Federation of the Blind and thus did not understand that my life need not be limited by blindness. During the following year I would attend the Iowa Department for the Blind's Orientation Center, return to college as a full-time student, and discover the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. I attended my first national convention and became active in my local NFB chapter. I met thousands of people who were not letting blindness stop them from accomplishing their goals. The success of the blind people I met inspired me to challenge myself.

I was proud to graduate from the University of Iowa in December after completing a semester full of difficult classes. My performance in those classes was far better than any other semester's performance-–even those in which I could see. My success in college was just one part of my success in life. In that year I grew as a person and gained back all the strength and confidence I had lost. For the first time in two years I was hopeful about the future, and I understood that most problems are only problems until one finds the solution. With this new philosophy I knew that if blind people were finding ways to be doctors, engineers, and lawyers, there was bound to be a way for me to be Santa's little helper.

The next Christmas Eve I pulled out my slate and stylus, hurried my mom to the kitchen, and revealed my plan to her. I would Braille labels for all of the gifts under the tree. Excitement radiated from my mother as she slipped into the living room to retrieve some of the presents. We worked for about an hour, labeling all of the gifts in Braille. My mother recognized the significance of Braille as she saw how easy it was to label the things I had once read with my eyes. Braille would save the day.

Christmas morning came, and I waited in anticipation just as I had when I was five years old. In the past year my brother and his wife had had a son, and I wanted my nephew's first Christmas to be like the ones I grew up with. I searched for the Santa Claus hat and put it on. I reached for a present and felt the familiar dots of my name. A smile crossed my face as I thought of the gifts that would pile up in my designated area. Although some of the attention was on my new nephew, I could feel the pride in the room as my family recognized what I had accomplished in the last year.

It was not long before I heard my mother express her worry that my nephew would grab one of her glass ornaments. She would hate for any more of them to break and for him to get hurt. My mother's concern reminded me that I had felt like one of those glass ornaments just a year earlier. The National Federation of the Blind has shown me that blindness does not weaken a person; it had only made me stronger. I was no longer a delicate glass ornament, but a stronger version of the boy who had demanded that he be Santa's little helper.

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