Braille Monitor               October 2022

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As Gratitude for Knowing Replaces the Pain of Losing

by Audrey T. Farnam

Audrey T. FarnamFrom the Editor: Losing those we love always comes hard; especially is this true when it seems to happen too early as it has with the passing of Jeannie Massay, born August 24, 1968, and taken from us on May 21, 2022. Here is what one of the people she valued most has to say about her. May we all be so lucky to have one who remembers us in this way:

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Jeannie Massay? For me, it's her laugh. It still echoes in my head and makes me smile. I think about all the times I used it as a beacon to find her in hotels and banquet rooms at conventions and other large gatherings. Meeting Jeannie somewhere? Just get to the general vicinity, and wait for the laugh. It worked every time. As I navigated my way around national convention in New Orleans, I didn’t have Jeannie’s laughter to guide me, and I felt her absence deeply. My beacon is gone. But as I reflect on Jeannie, I am also struck by how she was a beacon to so many of us, not just with her infectious laughter but with her leadership, her strength, her love, her tenacity, and her never-wavering belief in the mission and philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind.

Jeannie and I met, not in Oklahoma as you might think, but at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts, where we attended personal adjustment to blindness training in 2006. My first impression of Jeannie was that she was strong, intelligent, and determined to face blindness on her terms. She knew what she wanted to do, and her top priority was to get the skills needed to be successful. Helplessness was not an option. Up to that point, all I really knew about the Federation were the stories and warnings people gave me about those crazy, angry, militant blind people. In fact, Jeannie and I had a lengthy discussion about the Federation while we were at the Carroll Center where we discovered that we both decided against NFB affiliated centers because of the biases and misperceptions about the Federation that have taken root in Oklahoma and were shared with us by blindness professionals in the state. I had been to a few meetings of other organizations and never felt like I belonged. In late 2008, I learned that Jeannie had started up an NFB chapter in Edmond, Oklahoma. Upon discovering that the smart, funny, confident, amazing woman who I met at the Carroll Center had been somehow lured into the Federation, I started to question all those dire warnings and odd stories I had grown up hearing about the NFB. I attended my first chapter meeting near the end of 2008 solely because Jeannie seemed perfectly rational to me. We shared common attitudes about blindness, so if Jeannie believed in the Federation enough to start a chapter, I reasoned that perhaps it might be worth looking into and that I might find my place in the Federation as well. I did, and I will be forever grateful to Jeannie for helping me realize that I am one of “those” blind people.

Jeannie Massay, August 24, 1968, to May 21, 2022My dear friend didn’t stop at getting me to the Federation. It wasn’t long before I realized she was nudging me into taking on leadership responsibilities. I never saw myself as a leader, but Jeannie recognized things in me that I never recognized in myself. Every time I took on a new challenge and was surprised by my success, she would always tell me, “I told you.” Jeannie believed in me more than I believed in myself, and she was always there to encourage me, push me into trying new things, and celebrate my accomplishments. Jeannie mentored and encouraged countless blind people like me during her service with the National Federation of the Blind. She believed whole-heartedly in the capacity of blind people. She was passionate about the Federation and above all wanted to share her belief that, “our hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations are no less real simply because we do not see.”

Jeannie always referred to the NFB as her “Federation family.” She loved sharing the message of hope and raising expectations. If you were blind, she wanted to welcome you into the family to help you achieve your dreams. When I first started attending state conventions, there were twenty-five to thirty-five people in attendance. Prior to COVID, our attendance had grown to about one hundred. She helped so many Oklahomans reach their goals by encouraging them to get blindness skills training, which would be the foundation for success on the journey through college or finding that dream job. She helped advocate for newly blind people navigating their way through the state rehabilitation system. When a rehab counselor told one of our members that blind people couldn’t be chefs, Jeannie denounced those low expectations and helped ensure that the young woman was able to go to culinary school. Jeannie firmly believed with proper skills and opportunity, blind people could live their dreams, and she worked tirelessly to help people achieve their goals.

Our friend and colleague’s influence was felt far beyond the borders of Oklahoma. I was overwhelmed by the number of Federationists from across the country who reached out to me after Jeannie’s passing and while I was at national convention to tell me stories about Jeannie. I heard stories from her former scholarship mentees, people who received advice and encouragement from Jeannie, people who attended a memorable state convention where Jeannie was the national rep, and stories of fun times and special memories. When I was hurting and missing my friend, the Federation family reached out and picked me up with memories of love and affection for Jeannie. I loved hearing how she touched so many people and learning that the qualities I loved most about Jeannie were also loved and enjoyed by countless others.

Jeannie was a wonderful friend. She loved food, coffee, a good fantasy book, anything purple, and dogs. Most of all, she loved sharing her love of things with her friends and delighted in sharing in the things that made her friends happy. Going to a restaurant with her was always a treat. Not only could she pronounce all those fancy items on the menu that I had never heard of, but she could tell me what they were and then recommend about five other places I could go to get that fancy thing somewhere else. She loved her coffee. She always had great snacks in her room at conventions. She always bought me a box of my favorite Girl Scout Cookies every year. She listened to my endless rowing stories with enthusiasm when most people just wanted me to shut up about it already. She listened to me rant when I needed to blow off steam, then gave me good advice and input when I was ready to stop ranting and start dealing with it rationally. She listened without judgment when anxiety and depression were becoming too much for me to handle on my own, and helped me to reach the conclusion that therapy was okay and not shameful or weak. And I think the thing that might be most amazing about Jeannie is that she did all these gestures of true friendship and kindness for so many, even when she was going through unimaginable loss and deteriorating health.

Before I close, may I share the words of President Riccobono as he wrote to the NFB Board of Directors where Jeannie served so well as a member and an officer:

Dear Friends,

With deepest sadness I am writing to share that our friend Jeannie Massay passed away in her sleep early this morning. I received a call from her sister-in-law Jan about two hours ago. Jeannie fought hard all the way to the end, and she decided on her own terms to stop fighting. Last evening she told her brother she was ready for hospice. In true Jeannie form, she did not wait for the bureaucracy to get it done for her. She simply passed away quietly in the night, knowing with peace that she left everything she had on the field.

As you know, I had the opportunity to visit with Jeannie a month ago. We had hoped that we would get another trip in to visit her before convention, but that did not happen. I can share with certainty that she knew the love that each of you shared with her. She believed so much in this board and in the shared community of the National Federation of the Blind. It changed her life, and I am certain that her wish for us is the strength, wisdom, and faith to continue building that community.

Like me, I am sure you feel the big hole this leaves in our Federation family and on this board specifically. I want you to know that I am here for you to lean on, especially since I expect to be leaning on you…. The poem below came to mind when composing this note to you. It is by Rumi, and it expresses the way I knew Jeannie to live.

Guest House—Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

[Audrey continues] I miss my friend every day, and although I no longer have her laughter to guide me through banquet rooms and noisy restaurants, I have the memories we shared, the wisdom I gained from knowing her, and the love of our Federation family to guide me through all the challenges to come. Even now, when I have doubts, I can hear Jeannie saying, “You’ve got this.” Jeannie’s influence as a mentor and friend will be felt in the Federation for years to come, and it was my honor to call her friend.

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