Sometimes I look back in wonder and appreciation for the people who’ve contributed to who I am today. I owe so much to individuals who’ve come into my life and shared their thoughts and feelings, their experiences and insights.
One of those was Don, a blind man I worked with in my twenties in Montreal. He would come into the office for a few weeks at a time, and I was his assigned ‘temp’. He taught me a lot about blindness, about the world, and about life.
It started with my first ‘duty’. I’d work with him all day. He’d be staying at a nearby hotel, and I had to take him there at the end of the day. When I look back, I realize it was probably more often that he wanted the company than actually needing my help, and I’m grateful for that.
On that first trek, he explained that he would just put his hand on my elbow, and I was to walk as I normally do. He would sense when I stepped up or down, or changed direction. It worked, and after a few such walks I became comfortable with his hand on my arm.
Once we became friendly, he invited me to stay at his hotel room for a drink after work. It soon became obvious that his blindness meant loneliness when he was visiting in Montreal. No doubt this contributed to his apparent heavy drinking. He was married, and not “up to anything”, but it must have been difficult coping with being alone in a hotel room all evening. So I remained, often. And in remaining, I was enriched no end.
I learned that he had become blind at 17 due to a rare illness. Adjusting had to be unimaginably hard. He never really did get over it.
I learned that even late-onset blindness produces sharp hearing and smelling senses. I learned that his sense of touch was exquisite. Despite this, it was very difficult for him to learn braille – just as it would have been for a 17-year-old to learn how to read and write — learning these things late is just harder. I learned that a blind man could type better than most – in fact a blind person could do just about everything, with only a little help.
I learned that most people were uncomfortable with blind people, as I had been before Don, and that was too bad. Because it makes their already challenging lives worse.
He was tremendously knowledgeable, had received a degree – with help. He listened to CBC Radio, which at the time was a great source of knowledge. He had people like myself read to him; he dialed his own phone – today’s push-buttons would be easier – and spoke to countless people every day. He patiently and articulately explained many world and local issues to me — as well as what it was like living blind. His only fear was that one of his flights would crash, because the idea of trying to save himself seemed overwhelming.
My friendship with Don reinforced the fact that when you get to know a person, any physical difference fades into background, and the person himself becomes foreground. As with all relationships.
The arrangement with Don continued for years – though I lost touch with him when I left. I was sad years later to learn he had died of cancer. I had much to thank him for, and many reasons to remember him still.