Future Reflections Fall 1995, Vol. 14 No. 3

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THE DANGEROUS YEW AND OTHER TALES OF GROWING UP WITH BLINDNESS

by Sally Caroline

Reprinted with the expressed consent and approval of Exceptional Parent, July 1994, pages 20-22. Exceptional Parent is a monthly magazine for parents and families of children with disabilities and special health care needs. Subscription cost is $24 per year for 12 issues; call 1-800-247-8080. Offices at 120 State Street, Hackensack, N.J. 07601.

There is, of course, nothing inherently amusing about blindness, or any other disability for that matter. Blindness imposes all sorts of frustrating limitations and complicates some of life's most basic tasks. Still, life goes on-busy, demanding, annoying...and yes, funny. Our family members, like those of families around the world, are bound together by collective memories that have been built up over many years. My daughters, Rebecca and Melinda, are young women now, off living their own lives, but many of the funny stories that the family still retells revolve around Rebecca's blindness.

Your Other Left

As if blindness was not disorienting enough, Rebecca also has had to cope with a slightly defective mother. Now, I don't know exactly how one would define my disability-directional dyslexia perhaps? It isn't that I don't know my right from my left; it's just that I can't seem to name them correctly with any consistency. One day, when Rebecca was in third or fourth grade and no longer had "traveling vision," she came into the living room to ask if I knew where the three-hole punch was. Either her sister or dad had used it and failed to return it to its proper place on the kitchen shelf. I glanced around, spotted it abandoned on the floor and replied, 'It's right here, on the floor about five steps to your left."

Rebecca confidently headed off, as I suddenly realized it was to my left all right, but since she was facing me, it was to her right.

"No, no!' I exclaimed. "I meant your... uh..."-the word had deserted me-"uh... your other left."

Becca stopped in her tracks and shot me the most incredulous of looks. Then she slowly and patiently asked, "Would that be the `left' that the rest of us call `right,' Mom?"

That incident proved to be a learning experience for Rebecca. Even today if I give her directions, she takes an exploratory step or two in the direction I name and waits for me to correct myself. Wise move.

Playing "Popeye"

Rebecca had always attended public school in our small town. Over the years, as her vision deteriorated, her friends adjusted quite matter-of-factly. When she was in fifth grade, Rebecca had to have both eyes removed. They were replaced with ocular prostheses, often called "glass eyes," though they are now made of some wonderful type of plastic. Becca, along with her classmates, took this new development in stride.

Shortly after Rebecca's return to school while her body and her prostheses were still adjusting to each other, she attended an all-school assembly with her class. During the assembly, Becca suddenly sneezed, and out popped one of her prostheses!

The young man sitting next to her saw where it had landed, retrieved it for her, and handed it to her, saying simply, "Here's your eye, Becky."

"Thanks a lot," she replied, and as unobtrusively as possible, popped it into her mouth to clean off any dust and dirt, then, replaced it in its socket. After the assembly, she went to the school nurse because she wasn't quite sure if there was something else she should do to clean the prosthesis and avoid infection. Apparently, she explained the situation to the nurse-by this time a very good friend-by saying, "I just got through playing Popeye."

The very idea quite discombobulated the poor woman-this was not an everyday event in the life of a small-town school nurse-and she called me in a bit of a dither. Well, we all were pretty new to this prosthesis business, but I knew enough to be able to reassure her "As long as Becca reports no discomfort that would indicate dirt in the socket just rinse the eye, right in place, with some sterile saline. We'll do a thorough cleaning of the socket and prosthesis when she gets home." That nurse eventually went into a different kind of nursing and has now retired, but I still run into her around town and she always recalls "the day Rebecca played Popeye!"

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Kids are amazingly forthright and direct, and also wonderfully accepting once their questions have been answered. Fortunately, Rebecca has never been bothered by honest questions about her condition and has always been willing to answer them as clearly as possible. A family friend has a daughter about five years younger than Rebecca. When this little girl was about six, she evidently began to think about Rebecca's blindness in practical terms. The kids were having a snack one day when Helen turned to Rebecca and asked, "How do you find your mouth?"

This was one question Rebecca really couldn't answer-you don't need to see to find your mouth, you just do it! Finally, Rebecca said, "Well, close your eyes and take a bite of your cookie."

Helen did.

"How did you find your mouth?" Rebecca asked.

A big smile spread over Helen's face and she looked relieved. Apparently, it had bothered her quite a bit that Becca might not be able to eat without lots of trouble. "I guess it's not a problem, huh?" she said.

"Well," Becca answered, " Sometimes it's hard finding food on your plate, or making it stay on your silverware. But no, finding your mouth is not a problem." Kids think about the most interesting things and ask the best questions.

Battling Bushes and Dogs

Like most suburban mothers, I ran a "taxi service" throughout all the years my daughters were in school. One day I had to pick Becca up early to go to an appointment. We had worked out a system whereby I parked at the end of the drive nearest a side door. Becca would step out that door and I'd toot the horn once, so she knew I was there.

That day, she appeared on time, backpack over one shoulder, white cane in the other hand. She had to come down a short paved path and make a 90 degree turn onto the drive, a route she traveled regularly. But for some reason, this day, she made her turn a few steps early. Her cane promptly encountered a low yew bush planted beside the walk. Realizing her error, she took a small step back but her cane had become quite thoroughly entangled in the yew's branches. She proceeded to engage in what resembled a sword fight for perhaps 30 seconds before managing to extricate her cane. This looked so funny that by the time she opened the car door, she found her mother quite collapsed with a fit of the giggles. After I'd recovered enough to explain myself, we both collapsed into another fit of the giggles and arrived at our destination still periodically chuckling. This has evermore been known in our family as the tale of Rebecca and the Dangerous Yew, which she bravely battled into submission with her sword-cane.

About the same time as the yew incident, Rebecca encountered another adventure involving her cane. In middle school, classes were held in two separate buildings set close together on the same lot. Rebecca would leave one class a few minutes early in order to cross to the other building ahead of the mob scene that erupted at the end-of-period bell. As she was crossing the courtyard one day, up bounded a large, playful dog who grabbed Rebecca's "stick" in his powerful jaws and tried to make off with it. A tug-of-war began. Neither side could win, but neither would back off, either. Fortunately, a couple of Rebecca's classmates chanced to look out the window and see her predicament. With the teacher's permission, three young men came running out. Two got the dog to let go of his " stick" and held him at bay, yelling, "Make a break for it, Becky!" The third boy quickly escorted Becca the rest of the way across the courtyard and into the other building. Of course, they all found this riotously funny, and that cane, now long since retired, still bears quite a number of canine tooth marks.

Laughter, the Best Medicine

Living with illness and disability is certainly no day at the beach; over the years our family has shed many tears. But Rebecca came into this world with a sunny disposition and a sense of humor that has never completely deserted her, even during the worst of times. Her ability to laugh has saved us all. Sure, sometimes it was a kind of "black humor," but we've managed to laugh our way through some pretty horrible things. Nowadays, I read about current research that shows that laughter actually can be a useful therapy. I believe it...but, I'm glad we learned to laugh even before it became "medically correct."

Sally Caroline and her husband, Peter, have lived in Hamilton, Massachusetts, for 24 of the 27 years they have been married. Their daughters, Rebecca and Melinda, are now adults and on their own. For many years, Sally worked as a special education tutor. When the grant money that funded that position ran out, she began a new career in retail sales which she describes as Anot as challenging, but a lot of fun."

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