Photo of Barbara Walker

Barbara Walker

A Vinegar and Oil Federationist
by Barbara Walker

From the Editor: On Monday morning, June 19, 1989, I was talking by telephone to someone at the National Center for the Blind when I heard President Maurer make the announcement over the public address system of the sudden death of our friend and colleague Jim Walker, a leader in the Nebraska affiliate in his own right and husband of then affiliate President Barbara Walker. Like everyone who knew and loved the Walkers, I was shocked and deeply saddened at the news of Jim's death and profoundly distressed for Barbara and the Walkers' children Marsha and John. Then, two weeks later, perhaps the most moving moment of the 1989 convention was Barbara's gentle and loving tribute to Jim during the roll call of states in which she thanked the Federation family for our loving support of her and her children in their loss.

Throughout these nine years since that terrible time Barbara has learned to stand alone and has continued to provide steady strength to her children and to the members of her Federation family. In March of this year she attended the NFB of Missouri convention, where she made a speech filled with the hard wisdom she has acquired in recent years as well as the Federationism that has characterized her for as long as she and I have been friends. This is what she said:

Recently, during my morning time with God, I read an entry in The Upper Room, a United Methodist devotional, which has provided me with much food for thought. The meditation centered on the word "nigh." The author, Mary Dixon, was surprised to find that this adverb "comes from a primary root word that means 'to squeeze or throttle.'" She goes on to say, "I had thought of drawing nigh as a gentle way of being wooed." I admit to having thought along those lines as well. What she said next has not only changed my approach to God but also has brought into focus some aspects of my life in the Federation.

Here is some of what she said: "I thought about things that are squeezed together, such as forming clay into shapes. But then I wondered, how could something be throttled or shaken together? I do my share of cooking, and it occurred to me that the oil and vinegar that I use in salad dressing can only be mixed together by shaking. When vinegar is poured into oil, it immediately separates. In fact it really does not mix at all. But the shaking creates something new.

"We tend to think of drawing near to God as a gentle experience, but in fact drawing near to God can be a shaking experience. The spiritual life is about radical change and transformation. As our lives are intermingled with God's, we will be changed in ways we may not expect. Maturing in our faith always requires change."

As both a Christian and a Federationist, I have certainly found this to be true. Since our reason for being here centers on Federationism, I'll modify part of the last paragraph to reflect that fact:

. . . Drawing near to (joining) the Federation can be a shaking experience. The Federation life is about radical change and transformation. As our lives are intermingled with one another's, we will be changed in ways we may not expect. Maturing in our Federationism always requires change.

I want today to concentrate on some of the shake-up language we must deal with on a daily basis—the language of grieving and tragedy—and some vinegar-and-oil responses to it. I will use as my backdrop an incident in my adult life which changed forever my perspective on these words and those who use them when referring to blindness. I am speaking of the death of my husband and our fellow Federationist, Jim Walker, on June 19, 1989.

From late 1973 through mid-March, 1981, I made my living working with blind adults in the Orientation and Adjustment Center of Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired in Lincoln, Nebraska. I began on contract as an aide and spent the last of my time there as Center Supervisor. The reason for my leaving was our decision that I would be home for the birth and raising of our anticipated family.

During much of that time and continuing to the present, I have been involved in the National Federation of the Blind. One of my current responsibilities is handling phone calls to our affiliate. Many times I have heard people say, when speaking about their blindness, words which bring to mind the grieving process.

First of all I hear words of shock and denial: "I'm not really blind," followed by—if given half a chance—a thorough description of how shocking it all is, how impossible.

Without being shaken up, the vinegar in me resists this denial of reality. After all, most of the time these statements are made by someone talking to me about the inability to see something visually, someone wondering how to continue as a functioning human being. I bristle at the contradiction. On the other hand, the oil in me wants to smooth everything over, to lead the person gently to identify with and accept the reality of his or her blindness. I may encourage, plead, cajole, or remonstrate, often to no avail. Under the influence of my own shake-up experience, though, I remember: I had already gone into shock before Jim left the house on his way to the hospital the day of his heart attack. When he kissed me good-bye, I prayed that this wouldn't be the last time I saw him alive. As I paced the floor, wondering what to do, I felt him slipping away from me. When the nurse called, urgently pressing me to come immediately to the hospital, I knew I couldn't ask Jim what he would suggest I do. I needed to decide alone. I also had to wake up neighbors to come and be with the children.

Since a sweat suit was the first clothing I came across when I began to dress, that's what I wore. I remember hearing later that it had been over a hundred degrees that day and feeling surprised that I hadn't felt hot. Several days later I noticed the sound of an air conditioner in the limousine at the cemetery, but I didn't feel any sensation of varying temperature then, either.

I think I probably talked more the morning of Jim's death than ever before or since. I told the chaplain, nurses, friends, policemen, minister, and doctors that I felt as if I were in a play enacting a role I didn't like but couldn't change. When I tried to eat, I found it ironic (and said so) that I couldn't swallow Life. (Someone had given me a bowl of Life cereal for breakfast.)

I came to learn that when I misplaced my keys, forgot phone numbers, or felt every muscle hurt with the effort of moving, it was temporary. That was a relief, but it didn't happen immediately. And no amount of talk, however well-meaning, could have changed my suffering at the time. Even now, when people talk about certain events, I feel distant from them. If someone says, "That happened in 1989," I have a sort of cobwebby feeling. I listen with interest to talk about events which I remember in much the same way I revisit recollections of childhood days.

So now, when my vinegar and oil have been shaken together, making a more palatable blend, instead of rushing in to proclaim the good news that blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance, I first listen to my caller. Later there may be an opportunity to offer my wisdom. But unless I am first willing to hear the person out, I probably won't be the one sought when that day dawns.

In these calls I also hear despair: "I've lost so much.

Using a cane makes me look blind. Things will never be the same. I just can't function without sight." Again, my vinegar makes me bristle, while the oil causes me to focus on the ways the person is or could be participating in life with a different outlook.

Again I reflect on my own history:

It took me a long time to acknowledge my changed status. The day Jim died I told God that, not only did I not want to be a widow or a single parent, I didn't even want to minister to such people. Earlier that year, when I commented to a friend that I didn't know how single parents managed, she, a single parent herself, said, "You do what you have to do."

Her words felt heavy as I stepped from the sterile bustle of the hospital into—could it really be?--a sunlit morning, complete with singing birds! I paused, trying to brush aside that Skeeter Davis song. You may know it. "Why do the birds go on singing? Why does the sun shine above? Don't they know it's the end of the world? . . ."

That night I couldn't sleep in our bed. I couldn't sleep anywhere, even with the pills the doctor had given me and insisted that I take. I just couldn't bear life this way, but I had to. They all said I had to—for the children, they said. But how? And why?

The silence swallowed the questions before anyone could answer them. Or was it only holding them and waiting politely for one of us to bite into one of them? I couldn't deal with that either. So a friend and I filled the silence with words— helpless, inadequate sounds—until, in heartsick exhaustion, I dozed my way into another day. About two weeks later I sat in the meeting of the Committee on Parental Concerns at the National Federation of the Blind Convention in Denver, surrounded by parents of children of all ages. One who stood to raise a question identified herself as a single parent. I cringed as she spoke, knowing that I had not yet audibly voiced my status in that way, and wondering if I ever would think or speak of myself as single. It was a long time before I did.

On Wednesday, July 22, 1992, just over three years after Jim died, I decided to take off my engagement and wedding rings and put them away with his. That morning, before Bible School, I did it. As I turned to leave the room, I realized that I needed to talk to the children first. I put the rings back on.

When we got home later that day, I talked to each child privately. Marsha, who had just turned eleven, said she didn't want me to do it. She said I wasn't single; I was still married because we had never divorced. John, who was eight-and-a-half, didn't want me to take them off either. He said he was very upset. The rings looked nice, and my husband had given them to me.

After those individual conversations we discussed the subject together in the living room. I told them of conversations that their dad and I had had in which we had told each other that, if one of us died, we wouldn't expect the other to remain single. I emphasized my love for Jim, his for me, and the fact that I had not expected ever to be in this position.

I then explained that I thought it would be wrong for me to go out with someone as a married person, but that, if someone were to ask me out, I didn't think it would be wrong to go as a single person. I added that the wedding ring is a symbol of marriage, a condition which would last, according to our vows, "as long as we both shall live."

They both again expressed their concerns but agreed that it was my decision to make. I thanked them for their opinions, invited them to talk about it further any time they wanted to, and said I had decided to take my rings off. I knew that day that I had finally completed my transition from wife to single woman and from partner to single parent.

You may wonder why I have said so much about this experience. I have done so because the difference between before the shaking together and after consists largely of time and effort, give and take, loss and redirection. The person who speaks to me now of an unwillingness to change internally and the struggle to incorporate external symbols finds not only a listening ear but also a comprehending heart. In my case it was the putting away of rings. In the case of many blind people it is the use of a cane or Braille. But for all of us the transition is far from instantaneous. It also doesn't happen in a vacuum. Family members, friends, co-workers, acquaintances—all participate in some way. And the path is seldom smooth or straight.

I also hear anger in my phone calls: "I hate being blind, and I hate living in a world like this!" Often angry actions also occur. I have taken part in many conversations in which people both yelled and destroyed things. My response to this reaction also varies. Although my vinegar identifies somewhat with both vocal and physical outbursts of anger, the oil in me recalls that I was raised to control, subdue, bury, or ignore anger. Because without the blended tartness of vinegar the expression of anger often frightens me, I tend to counsel people toward the choices of my childhood—often pointing out how little anger accomplishes. But when I confront the fury and resolution of adult grief, I remember this:

Almost a year after Jim died, a wave of emotion surged through me one evening, straining every fiber of my being. My children were making ordinary kid noises, but it felt to me as if one more sound from either of them would blow me apart. I fled to the garage and, oblivious to close neighbors, screamed at the top of my lungs. Before long I was squatting unsteadily on the floor, the tension gone. I was limp with exhaustion. As I finished my evening duties with the children, my muscles ached as if from overexercise. I went to bed that night thinking that I had wasted much-needed energy on pointless anger.

I vividly recall another evening when anger flung me into action. The children and I had been at odds about something. With a rush of adrenalin, I burst into John's room emphatically insisting on silence. To give emphasis to my words, I thrust my hand forward, ultimately breaking a panel of his window. The sound of shattering glass brought me to a standstill. I didn't feel the pain in my bleeding wrist and fingers until the children's voices, tight with shock and concern, penetrated my pulsating head. I felt ashamed and humiliated as we cleaned up the mess and fastened a piece of cardboard over the opening.

On the first anniversary of Jim's death, I went on what seemed like a fast replay of the emotional labyrinth of the past year. The anger that day was brief and furious. I remember snatching off my rubber thongs and throwing them across the room. I was later glad that I hadn't done anything harmful. But again I felt the waste of energy and the seeming pointlessness of my outburst.

I did eventually feel and express anger toward Jim. The children were not at home. I yelled at Jim for dying, for not letting us have a final good-bye, for leaving me to take charge of things by myself. I was glad the children hadn't heard me but hoped Jim had. Afterward I lay for a long time on the bed feeling spent. Then I said how much I loved Jim, acknowledged that neither of us was in control of these events, and asked God for the strength to continue.

I felt lighter when I got up, as though a weight had been lifted from me, and my memories of Jim were more complete after that. I had at last spoken aloud the anger I sometimes felt, and it had not consumed me.

At that moment I began to understand the purpose of releasing such anger. In so doing, I felt the struggle to stand firm, to breathe, to reach for life and freedom. When I shake together my vinegar and oil, I'm no longer afraid of someone else's anger about blindness. I know that, with support and direction, the person can release and learn from it.

I certainly don't want to imply that all of the calls I receive center on shock, denial, anger, or despair. Nor do I want to leave you with the impression that I continually flash back to one event in my life as the source and explanation of my vinegar and oil's being blended. As the single parent of two teenagers, I have many opportunities to be shaken up. I also don't want to suggest that vinegar and oil have no value unless they are shaken together. There are certainly recipes, and life events, in which one or the other is appropriate, either alone or in combination with other ingredients.

My reason for using Jim's death, and not my own blindness, to express myself here is that, among other things, it is the deepest, most encompassing experience of loss in my adult life. And as a friend's minister put it: "You will not always be grieving, but you will always know that you have grieved."

I have always been blind; and frankly, when people have told me what a tragedy that is, I really don't understand emotionally what they are saying, and I don't believe that my having been born blind is a major determinant in that reaction. Instead I thank God, my family, my education, and the National Federation of the Blind for it. In my experience the point in life at which one becomes blind isn't nearly as significant in forming a perspective on blindness as is the overall environment. What is different since Jim's death is that I no longer have to reach for isolated small griefs in my own life in order to identify with those who do initially find blindness to be an unbearable loss.

I have fielded calls and entered into conversation with many, including some of you, who accept the presence of blindness in life as a characteristic which can be reduced to the level of a nuisance. In a similar way I have now come to terms in some ways with Jim's death.

As you may have read in the Braille Monitor, we put a Braille plaque on Jim's grave marker. The Braille is not, as some have conjectured, there so that I can read the tombstone. I can easily read the print tactilely. It is there because, when I thought about what I could do to have the marker reflect something important to Jim without putting words in his mouth, I decided that to have his name and dates in both Braille and print might be the best legacy a slab of granite and a plate of stainless steel could convey. I hope it will stand as a symbol of our changing what it means to be blind in a positive way.

My children and I are also donating copies of each of the Kernel Books to our church library in Jim's memory. As I said in the memo with the first installment: "These books embody the struggle, progress, and hope we experience."

Personally I have found a description of Jim's constant place in my heart. It is, of course, not really possible to put either Jim's life or his memory into words any more than it is possible to put a value on sight or a price on its absence. But in November of 1990, about seventeen months after Jim died, I ran across the lyrics to a song which I had written down from dictation in high school (rather sloppily and unwillingly, as I recall, thinking then that it was a bunch of romantic drivel). It comes closer, even with the old-fashioned language, than anything I have read or written, to expressing his presence in my life now. It's called "A Spirit Flower," and the author is noted only as Campbell-Tipton:

My heart was frozen, even as the earth That covered thee forever from my sight. All thoughts of happiness expired at birth.

Within me, naught but black and starless night. Down through the winter sunshine snowflakes came All shimmering, like to silver butterflies. They seemed to whisper softly thy dear name.

They melted with the teardrops from mine eyes. But suddenly, there bloomed, within that hour In my poor heart, so seeming dead, a flower Whose fragrance, in my life, shall ever be The tender, sacred memory of thee.

Acceptance of the loss or lack of sight does not compare in every way, of course, to acceptance of the death of a person. But some of the feelings are, I think, more similar than we may want to believe. And the potential for understanding one another is also, I think, less elusive than we may suspect. In both cases it's attitude that makes the difference. It's remembering how to use the ingredients of our personalities, including our vinegar and oil, in ways which will bring us toward greater tolerance and more complete acceptance of each other and those with whom we interact collectively.

We know as Federationists that it's respectable to be blind. But we didn't just wake up one morning knowing that. Most of us, blind and sighted alike, have learned it from Federationists who have shaken together their vinegar and oil and shared the blend with us over time. I am grateful to them.

I would like to say something about time, though, which I think applies to both the resolution of grief and the acceptance of blindness as a respectable characteristic. I think Earl A. Grollmann says it well in his book Living When A Loved One Has Died:

"Time heals," many people say. It may. It may help to dull the pain. But the medicine of time is not sure. Time is neutral. What helps is what you do with time. . . . You must help time to do its healing. Do something. Even routine things will help. It's hard to begin a new way of life.

But that is what vinegar-and-oil Federationists are all about. We are creating a new way of life for blind people, mostly through very routine things. And nothing that any of us does, however great or small, is irrelevant to our movement.

Mr. Jernigan had been living out our philosophy of blindness within the Federation for almost twenty-five years before the day in his office at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1974 when my understanding of it began to take root and my willingness to find a place in its work began to take shape. And now, more than twenty years later, still finding strength in his love, life, work, and words, I have come before you to share some of what striving to be a vinegar-and-oil Federationist has meant to me. I invite you to come with Mr. Jernigan, Mr. Maurer, Bruce Gardner, Gary Wunder, Barbara Cheadle, and tens of thousands of us whose earthly journey is not yet complete; and with Dr. tenBroek, Jim & Dave Walker, and countless others who continue to make their mark through us as we press on toward first-class citizenship for blind people everywhere. Together, I know, we can and will find the way.