by Patti Chang
From the Editor: Often when we talk about changing attitudes, we are embracing that large segment of humanity called the public, but, more often than we would like, one of our biggest challenges is changing the attitudes of people who make up our family. Has the sighted man who marries a blind woman sold himself short? Has the blind woman who marries the sighted man failed to acknowledge her betters as she pretends to be an equal in the family? These questions are difficult enough to answer in one culture where so many common values are shared, but what happens when, as in America, people of differing cultures and religions become couples, transcending the beliefs of those who raised them and, accepting as normal, people and situations never conceived of by their parents or siblings? How much more difficult is it when one must not only represent the capabilities of a blind person, but also prove herself as a foreigner who married into the family?
At one level what is offered here is simply a tale of a busy woman who finds herself even busier; but at a deeper and more emotional level, we see that there is a testing, a determination to see that blindness or its supposed limitations do not take center stage when what belongs there is the celebration of a life and the traditions that must be maintained to recognize the transition of the soul from this plane to another. Patti Chang chairs the NFB Scholarship Committee and is a member of the national Board of Directors. Here is how she tells this remarkable story:
Our household is multicultural. I am from a small town in Northern Michigan and am truly named after a dairy company which used to haul our cows’ milk to market. My husband possesses dual citizenship--Belizean and American--but is of Chinese ancestry. He was born in Honduras. We raised our children and live in Chicago. This makes for some unusual circumstances.
In April of 2013 I traveled to Baltimore to chair our scholarship committee meeting. Everything was ordinary on my trip out: I used my cane to navigate from my home to the airport and checked flight status with VoiceOver on my iPhone. All went according to plan, and then the real work began. Lorraine Rovig, other National Center staff, and I prepared for the committee’s arrival by organizing and reviewing files. I used my handy slate and stylus to take notes to train our print readers.
But then everything morphed. My husband called to let me know that his ailing father had died and that the funeral would be on Sunday in Belize City, Belize, in Central America. Since our scholarship meeting ends on Saturday evening, I proceeded to book airline travel for my husband Francisco, our children Johnathon and Julia, and me from three different US cities to Belize.
My spouse and our daughter traveled to Belize on Wednesday. On Friday, as our scholarship committee work got into full swing, this email waited in my inbox:
On Apr 26, 2013, at 12:04 a.m., Francisco Chang wrote:
On Sunday Fabian, being the oldest son, and Robert, being the oldest of the grandchildren, will go with the funeral director and pick up Papi's body from the morgue at 8:00 a.m. They will bring the body to Fabian's house. Throughout the whole trip Fabian or Robert will need to talk to Papi's body in Chinese, telling him where he is going, especially if it is over a bridge as water is bad.
Up to 10:30 a.m., visitors can come to view the body. Family members can place something personal and special inside Papi's coffin. After 10:30 or 11:00 all the family members will gather together around the coffin in a horseshoe-shaped formation, gather hands, and Juan will lead a prayer. This prayer is not traditional Chinese, but Juan wants to have one. The reason for the horseshoe is because traditionally no one can stand at the feet of the body. Then we all sit together and have a meal with Papi.
At about 12:30 p.m. we all go to Holy Redeemer Church in the following order: Fabian family, Francisco family, Juan family, and then Wilfredo family. Mami will be in Francisco's car because we have more room. We will sit in church in that order too.
The coffin will be brought into church feet first, with Robert leading, carrying a picture of Papi. When mass begins, two family members will cover Papi's face with a white veil. Then the coffin cover will close.
All the male family members will have a black band around the left arm placed halfway. All the daughters-in-law and Mami will wear a small white circular cloth in shape of a flower in their hair that Sunday and for the next forty-nine days. You can sleep without it. The granddaughters will wear a blue one for the next twenty-one days. At the end of those periods the cloth is discarded.
After mass Robert will leave carrying the picture in front of the coffin. All the sons and Richard and Chris will be pallbearers. Lisa had hoped Johnathon would be a pallbearer.
We all will go to Homeland, a private cemetery up the Western Highway. All family members face away when the coffin is being lowered into the ground. Then all take some soil and throw it into the hole over the coffin. There will be two urns with incense, a pot of tea, and a pot with liquor. One of the urns will be left at the grave, and the other Fabian will take to his house as there is where Papi's spirit will reside as he has that special altar they brought from China for worshipping the ancestors. Fabian will take some of the soil from the grave in the urn.
Juan or I will make an announcement to everyone at the cemetery that there will be food at the hotel, but people need to leave after two hours. Then all family members will go back to Fabian's house. Along the way we will stop at the shop so that Fabian can remove the black ribbon that is tied over the entrance to the shop.
Before climbing up the stairs to Fabian’s house, there will be a small shallow bowl with fire going that everybody will need to jump over. This is meant to get rid of any bad spirits from the cemetery, and we don't want to bring them home. All the male members then remove their arm bands, cut a small piece, and throw away the rest into the garbage. The small cut piece is kept by the sons for forty-nine days and twenty-one days by the grandsons. At the end of these periods the piece of cloth is discarded.
Because Papi died on Monday, the following Monday, that is, after a week, Fabian needs to make sure to keep all the lights in the house on so that Papi's spirit can find the house. At 10:00 p.m. everyone needs to go to sleep because Papi is looking to make sure everyone is okay and sleeping before he ascends to the next level towards joining his ancestors. I believe there are three levels because Mami will place three sets of clothes in the coffin. One set Papi will wear in the coffin, and the others are there for Papi’s journey.
By the way, the coffin will be placed lower than the ancestor altar in Fabian's house because he has not reached the ancestors yet.
Sent from my iPad
Admittedly a couple of things in this email caused me concern. First, how was I, an attorney, going to be taken seriously with a flower in my hair for the next forty-nine days? And how was I supposed to “jump a fire"? My orientation and mobility training had left that one out.
I left our National Center by van at 4:00 a.m. for the trek to Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport by way of Miami International Airport. Anxious about my tight time schedule, I was relieved when we departed on time. My change of planes left me twenty minutes between flights, so, for the first time ever, I requested airport assistance in Florida. Of course, the first time I requested assistance, the help failed to materialize at the gate.
Thankful for my confidence that I could find the gate myself as an independent traveler, I proceeded, heart pounding, to the concourse. It would not be good for me, the only American daughter-in-law, to miss the funeral. It would be disrespectful in the extreme!
I asked a passerby if he was going my way. When I heard he was young, I explained my situation and begged him to “pleeease run with me.” He did: all the way from E16 to E1. The gate agents held the door when they saw me running, and I never even caught the full name of my Good Samaritan. I waved and jogged my way onto the plane.
When I arrived in Belize, an employee of our family business, Maria Chang & Sons Co., met me after I cleared immigration and customs. My mother-in-law, who is not generally demonstrative, hugged me as I arrived at the shop where the coffin rested before the funeral.
Self-conscious about my borrowed black dress and my tendency to stand out in the crowd, my nerves were on edge. I was the only Caucasian at many events, not to mention the only blind person.
Belize is not what you might call a disability-friendly country. There are no wheelchair ramps, and I have seen Braille on only imported elevator panels, so one must use the cane carefully to locate oft-present holes and barriers. But, since most people are unfamiliar with blindness, they tend to leave one to manage and are not overly solicitous.
The church service mixed Belizean, Catholic, and Chinese customs. A Garifuna band played and sang for us. The eulogies were touching. They helped to explain the complexity of Arturo Chang the businessman, the community volunteer, and the family man. The respect shown to my father-in-law was enormous. All of his sons, their wives, and all twelve grandchildren attended, despite the fact that five grandchildren were facing exams at various universities in the US.
We all processed to the cemetery in order of Papi’s sons’ births. Many of us dropped liquor and other items into the grave. My children comforted their father in the cemetery. The priest delivered a traditional message of resurrection. We all turned away from the burial site at the right moment.
Slides of Papi and the whole family played during the meal after the graveside service. People quietly left on cue after two hours.
Finally we returned to Fabian’s house after taking the ribbon down at the shop. But, remember I had to jump that fire. And, I was now wearing a long-past-my-knees black dress, which did not belong to me. I discouraged one relative or another from grabbing my arm. I managed to linger long enough that almost everyone in this large extended family preceded me. I stretched out my cane to figure out where this fire was, and I guessed based on the size of it as to how high it might be. I hiked up my dress, and I cleared it with room to spare. Juan or Willie made some wisecrack about my showing a lot of leg, but I was content--no burns on me or the dress. I could now recover from my three hours of sleep in the past forty or so hours.
Jumping the fire stands for me as a challenge no one could have prepared me for, but my independence and ability to believe that where there is a will there is a way can help in any situation. Those attitudes are attributable to my upbringing and the National Federation of the Blind. I know that blindness is not the characteristic that defines me or my future. I can live the life I want. Blindness will not hold me back.