Seven Lessons on Coping with Blindness: A Father's Day Reflection

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Portrait of Holly Bonner's Father, Pop

My parents just sold my childhood home. We shared the house with my maternal grandparents, who I affectionately referred to as “nana and pop.” They occupied the first floor, while our apartment was upstairs. Although by the amount of time I spent with my grandparents, you would have easily been convinced I was actually a downstairs resident.

Pop was not an educated man. He never even graduated middle school. Despite his lack of academic credentials, my grandfather was well-versed in the ways of the world. I distinctly remember him sitting at his kitchen table every morning and reading any newspaper he could get his hands on. Pop was both highly intelligent and street wise.

My grandfather had a bad heart and his condition worsened after the passing of his son, my uncle, when I was six years old. He took the death so hard that he inevitably suffered a stroke. Having had previous open heart surgery and a history of macular degeneration, the stroke took a toll on his eyesight. Eventually, he was declared legally blind.

As a little girl, I wasn’t sure what was happening to Pop. I saw him stop reading the newspapers he had once so enjoyed. I watched him revert to isolation and take up residency in a reclining chair in the living room. The only place he would attempt to go alone was the deli that was directly across the street from our house. He would walk to the corner of our block and attempt to lightly jog to the opposite corner. He didn’t wait for the light, because he couldn’t see it. On one of the busiest streets in our small town, he dodged cars like a character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. A few times he wasn’t so lucky, and he would fall in the street, being cursed at by drivers until someone picked him up and walked him back home.

Pop never talked about his blindness. He would not accept help or services from any blind organizations. He would not consider using a cane or getting a guide dog. He lived out his life as an isolated introvert. His resentment to his condition was obvious and he perceived his blindness to be a life sentence with misery.

Despite his cranky ways, I continued to cherish our times together. I would sit with him in his living room and listen to old stories about fights he had gotten into, jobs he’d had, and dances he’d attended with my grandmother. His was the opinion I valued most, and when he died in 2006, I was utterly heartbroken. He had been more than just my grandfather; he had been another “father.”

After losing my eyesight in 2012 and being declared legally blind, Pop was the first person I thought of. Trying to adjust to my visual impairment was terrifying. As much I had adored my grandfather, I knew I “did not” want to live with my disability as he had. Grandpa had taught me 7 valuable lessons about blindness.

  • Get Help: After losing my eyesight, I was determined to find the right resources to get the help I needed. I spoke with my eye doctor, contacted my state’s Commission for the Blind and arranged a meeting with a case worker. Unlike my grandfather, I wanted to be aware of all the services and options that were available to me to help make my life as independent as possible.
  • Be Willing to Learn: Once my grandfather lost his eyesight, he refused to let anyone (family included) teach him anything to help him cope with his vision loss. In many ways, blindness is a humbling experience. There were many times I felt absolutely ridiculous when my service instructors would request me to perform a task that would be relatively easy for any sighted person. I needed to be patient with myself and the process of adapting to vision loss. Even as an educated adult, I had to be willing to not only “listen” but actually “hear” what my instructors were teaching me in an effort to maintain my personal safety and develop new skills.
  • Talk About It: I still remember being a little girl and walking on egg shells about Pop’s blindness. The subject was not to be discussed in our home and my grandfather remained very guarded in public about his disability. Since the beginning, I have been very proactive in discussing my vision loss with family, friends and my community. I’m not ashamed of being legally blind and I believe the only way to help others understand my disability is to talk about it.
  • Mobility Matters: Learning how to travel safely through orientation and mobility training is the key to gaining independence as a blind person. I began mobility training only a few weeks after losing my eyesight. Within six months, I was taught how to use a white cane, cross streets and board buses. The learning process is challenging and being forced to rely on your other senses can at times be a frightening proposition. However, once you’ve gone through the process of learning how to navigate your own community, it’s like you’ve been given a new lease on life. You’re able to get back out into the world and you feel like you’re an active part of it.

    My grandfather chose to spend close to the last twenty years of his life sitting in the same recliner, never taking advantage of any mobility training opportunities. He risked his life several times attempting to cross the busy street by our home, unaided. Had he chosen to learn to utilize a cane or a guide dog, he would have found a greater sense of freedom and perhaps would have been less socially isolated from his peers.

  • Utilize Technology: Technology while growing up in the 1980’s was much different than it is today. Back then, there were no cell phones and computers were only just becoming more prevalent in homes. Being visually impaired in 2016, I take advantage of any and all technology products. I utilize apps on my cell phone to help me send and receive email. I can make phone calls using my voice. The Commission for the Blind provided me with both a portable and stationary Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) to help me read large print. Technology is constantly changing and as a blind person, you can’t be afraid to change with it.
  • Don't Blame the People Who Love You: My grandmother embodied the role of both wife and caregiver after Pop lost his eyesight. My own parents drove him to appointments and made many attempts to get him out of the house so he could occasionally feel like he was part of the world around him. So many times, my grandfather’s anger was misplaced. By nature, he wasn’t a mean man. He was just genuinely upset about his vision loss and overall failing health.

    After losing my eye sight, I knew I never wanted to show anger towards the people I loved. I sought counseling and psychological help to assist me in coping with my disability. I keep an open line of communication with all my doctors and especially with my husband. I grieved the lost of my vision and on days when that loss brings up feelings of anxiety or anger, I turn to the people I trust most to talk about it.

  • Life Still Has Meaning: Blindness is not a death sentence. There’s no law that states once you lose your vision you must commit to a life of solitude, free from any joy or social interaction. Life with a visual impairment has meaning. Your life maintains it’s value. I knew that even after I had lost my eyesight, I was going to continue leaving my mark on this world through my career and now as a mother. I wish my grandfather could have understood that despite his blindness, his life still had so much meaning.

As we approach Father’s Day, I often think of my grandpa. Never once during our talks in his living room did I ever think I would one day share his journey of vision loss. Unbeknownst to us both, blindness is just another small facet of the unbreakable bond between us.

He may not have realized it back then, but my grandfather gave me the the greatest gift possible with respect to my own vision loss. Watching him taught me what “not” to do, when I myself became blind. I learned from his mistakes and in the process, I’ve created a happy, fulfilling life for myself, my husband and my children - his two great granddaughters.

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