A Calling

IMG_2314You’ve heard of a pastor or priest claiming he was called by God to serve in the ministry. I’ve had strong pulls to do this or that, but I wouldn’t ever call it a calling. But a few weeks ago, when I heard the sadness in my friend’s voice as she told me about her incredible medical woes, I definitely heard a whisper in my ear. “Go to her,” it said. “She needs someone desperately, and that someone should be you.” Deborah had had cancer in her left leg, a hip replacement in both legs, another surgery on her left leg, and then a dramatic fall due to a sudden breaking of her left femur. Three surgeries later, she found herself in rehab in St. Petersberg, facing the next 12 weeks in a wheelchair at home, when she was alone, with limited help from her family, no friends nearby, and oh yes, total blindness. The blindness she had dealt with all her life, quite admirably. She is a well known and respected writer, speaker, and teacher, in addition to being an active advocate for people with all disabilities. After five weeks, with another seven to go in a wheelchair, with the occasional use of a walker to aid in hopping on one foot to get to places where the wheelchair wouldn’t fit, the doctors agreed to let her go home, only if she had help. When she knew that I was on my way, she assured the doctors that her friend was coming to be with her, and they were satisfied. She did not mention, however, that her friend was also totally blind. Had they known, they surely would have said no way. But Deborah and I have been friends for over 30 years, and we had every confidence that we could manage on our own. So I bought a plane ticket, left Dora with my wonderful friend Eve, was met at the airport, was given a brief orientation to my room and to her condo, and rolled up my sleeves. My first duty was to pull off the compression stockings that Deborah was required to wear. That was a cinch, compared to the next morning’s battle with them as I struggled to pull them on. They went to the middle of her thigh, and they, being compression stockings, were very tight and unbelievably complicated to put on properly. She couldn’t help with this process, because she wasn’t allowed to bend over, but once I got them up over her knees, she could finish the job. The first day, I got it done with a minimum of sweat, and I joyfully thought I had found a new calling in life, but as the week went on, I had a little more trouble, and it was frustrating for us both. I was busy all day, but it wasn’t all picking up dropped objects, reaching glasses from a high cupboard, preparing, serving, and cleaning up after meals, assisting with laundry, fetching the ice pack, or struggling with attaching the leg support on her wheelchair. We had hours of pure pleasure sitting out on her lanai, listening to the fountain in a pond nearby, and talking about things that matter. There were no outtings, no shopping, swimming in the pool, or walks around the pond. But I was unexpectedly content to stay in the house or the lanai.

Over the span of the week, Deborah became stronger and more confident in doing for herself. At the beginning of the week, she was happy to let me go get her coffee, but by the end of the week, she said she’d get it herself. Gradually, she was regaining her independence, even in a wheelchair. People say I’m amazing, but they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Imagine a totally blind woman wheeling around her condo with her left leg sticking out, ready to be caught on a corner and then correcting her direction and continuing on her way.

Each night, after helping her get ready for bed, I would check the locks on the door, refill the water in the Keurig, write in my journal, thank God for helping us get through the day and whisper a good night to my dear Dora who was so far away. The picture shown here is Dora looking up at Eve, saying, “Isn’t it time to play ball again?” I missed her terribly, but I felt useful, and that felt good.

Helping Hands

You know how I constantly preach, “Don’t talk to the dog. Talk to me.” You wouldn’t think this would be an issue. Of course you would talk to me, except when you are saying, “I know I’m not supposed to talk to you, and I’m not petting you, but you are just so pretty and such a good girl.” No, you don’t do that because you know better. But here’s a funny situation I had never encountered until I went to get bloodwork done the other day. If it weren’t so funny, I’d be irritated, but here’s what happened.

The blood technician led me to a room and correctly told me to go into the room on the right, or maybe she said “turn right here,” but I heard how her voice was directed to the right. Upon entering the room, I had no idea where I was supposed to sit, since I go into a different room each time.

“Sit in this chair,” she said.

“I am blind,” I replied, “so I don’t know where you are pointing.”

“Right over here,” she said. So far, this is a very common scenario, the dreaded “right over here.”

“Right over here isn’t very helpful to me,” I said, in my gentlest non irritated voice.

“But I was talking to the dog,” she said.

I mean she was actually pointing to the chair for my dog to follow. So now my dog is my care-taker and dragging me around like an unthinking mass on legs. I gently told her that it really works better if she talks to me. I’m the human. I give the dog directions by using words like right and left. It’s so tragic that medical people who deal with people all day can’t think to say, “Please have a seat in this chair to your left.”

And speaking of forgetting how to use words, once again, last Sunday at church, when I was trying to find the comfortable chair I always sit in for Sunday school, a very kind woman tried to assist by putting both hands on my shoulders and turning me. She actually thought I needed to be placed so that all I had to do was bend over and sit. “Please don’t turn me,” I said, “I like to put my hand on the seat, so I know where it is, and then I can sit down all by myself. I am not a doll that you put on a chair. I am a thinking human being. Please don’t handle me. No, I didn’t say this to her. After all, she was only trying to help. But it’s just another of a thousand ways I have to educate people every single day of my life. When do I get to retire from this job?

It’s all about the Guides

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Once again, I have returned from a magical week of cross country skiing in Colorado called Ski for Light. If you are interested in my other experiences at Ski for Light, SFL, you can do a search and find about 5 other stories. When I told my local granddaughters that I would be skiing the next week, the 16-year-old asked if I would be snow-boarding. Well, I might be a pretty hip Grandma, but that’s a little too wild for even me. In fact, I tried downhill skiing once and successfully got to the bottom of the bunny hill, still vertical, and still breathing, but that was enough terror to last me a lifetime. Cross country skiing is work, which is the reason a lot of people don’t like it, but I love the feeling of gliding over the trails, pushing myself to get to the top of a rise, and then hearing my skis sing as I accelerate going down the other side. No, that’s a lie. Going downhill still scares me, but when I have a competent guide by my side, encouraging me with affirmations that I’m doing fine and keeping me informed about how much curve there is to come and how much farther to the bottom, and when we’ve come to the flat, and then when we are starting up again, it’s actually fun.

I’ve been to SFL almost every year since 1986, and I’ve had some pretty terrific guides, and John, pictured here with me, is one of my favorites. When I’m just about to run out of gas toward the top of a hill, John tells me jokes and sings silly songs to keep me going, although sometimes it’s hard to laugh and ski at the same time. John also has a talent for making sure I’m still in the tracks and prepared for turns while describing some interesting sights along the way. On one trail, he told me about 2 trees that had separate trunks, then grew together and then apart again. It would have been a great photo op, but I’m afraid all we have today is a picture of 2 happy skiers. John and I were guide trainers together for 9 years, teaching new guides how to guide blind skiers. Over the years, we have developed a vocabulary that makes our skiing together smooth and efficient. If the curve in the tracks is a gradual one, he’ll say “long right” or if the tracks turn sharply to the left, he’ll say “sharp left, starting now.” When he says, “half track right,” I know to sidestep once, and I’ll be back in my tracks. It saves a lot of words, so there’s more time to ski.

This year’s skiing was a little more challenging than in other years, because of strong winds and blowing snow, not to mention altitude issues and the old sciatica returning. But sharing stories over dinner with another 100 visually impaired skiers and 100 guides makes us forget about the huffing and puffing up the hills. We greet old friends, make new ones, and share in the glow of overcoming the challenges we met that day. As the SFL motto goes, “If I Can Do This, I Can Do Anything.” But I’m not quite ready for the snowboard.

Face Lift

My house has just received a face lift. When we as middle-class home-owners think of all the appliances and gadgets we take for granted, we wonder how we ever got along without them. Take doorbells for instance. I have never lived in a house without one. Garbage disposals, dishwashers, laundry appliances right in our homes, screens on our windows, sump pumps, and air conditioning are just a few to mention. But did you ever think about your garage door opener?

Yesterday, I received a Christmas present from a very generous and dear friend. He installed my very first garage door opener, and I’ve lived here since 1971. When someone would come over to ride my tandem or do some work on the house, he’d say, “Where’s your garage door opener?” then I’d oh so cleverly reply, “At the end of your arm. Ha ha”

A friend asked me, “Why would you want one? You don’t have a car.” But once a week, I struggle with lifting that door to set out my garbage and recycling, then use my whole body weight to throw the metal bar across to lock it, and then go through the same thing the next day to put the bins away. Whenever my cycling friend would put the bike back in its place, I’d have to ask him or her to pull down the garage door, because I’m not tall enough to reach it.

Now, with this wonderful equalizing appliance, I can feel the power of the average homeowner. I bet I was the only person in my neighborhood, maybe my whole city, who used her hand to open and close her garage instead of a handy button outside her kitchen door. It was such fun that I wanted to raise it and lower it just for the fun of exercising my newfound strength.

Will anyone notice? Of course not. It’s so much a part of middle-class living, that it would be like expecting people to notice that my grass has been cut.

Now, my dear cycling buddies, you will notice, and rejoice! Well rejoice may be a bit of a hyperbole, but for me, and I know you’ll think this is crazy, it’s one of the best Christmas presents ever.

Thank you Dear Friend.

The Silent Treatment

For my recent trip to my daughter’s for Christmas, I had to take 4 planes, making connections in Philadelphia, going and coming home. For 3 of those flights, I had a seatmate, but not one word was spoken between us. I always reserve a window seat, so I don’t have the awkward situation of sitting in an aisle seat and then have my seatmate appear and then stand there staring at me and wondering why I don’t get up to let him in. I don’t stand up, because I can’t see him, and it is completely unrealistic to expect him to say something like, “Excuse me. I need to get into this row.” No, we don’t talk to strangers on airplanes. You might be trapped in an annoying conversation, especially when your seatmate is an older woman. She is bound to ask you where you are going and then whip out pictures of her grandchildren. Then she will talk the whole way about those grandchildren and about her aches and pains. Best to exhibit your ear pods with extravagance or immediately put your nose in a book. Pardon my sarcasm. Well maybe you’ve had this experience, but it never happens to me. People are so paranoid about it that they don’t even say hello as they take their seat 5 inches away from me. I think it’s only polite to acknowledge one another, since we’re going to be breathing the same air and possibly touching elbows as we vie for the armrest, but far be it from me to put terror into the hearts of fellow passengers.

On the first leg, I think someone sat Next to me, but since I was given the silent treatment, I held up my end of the silence and never knew whether this passenger was male or female, young or old, going home or going to visit a daughter like me. Not that I needed to know, but it just seems awkward to pretend that the other person doesn’t exist, as if we were on an elevator. Ever notice how nobody speaks on an elevator, except when you’re at a convention?

On the second leg, I knew that my seatmate was a man, because I heard him complain to the flight attendant that he had no leg room, on account of my dog. Even though we were in bulkhead seats, Dora’s size precludes any footroom, even for me. I had to sit with one leg propped against the side wall and the other foot over Dora’s body against the bulkhead. He had a reasonable complaint. the flight attendant resolved the problem by asking a small woman, sitting in the last row to come and trade places with him. She, on the other hand, was not afraid to speak to me, so we exchanged a few pleasantries and then kept to ourselves for the rest of the journey. See? It can be done. For the trip home, the first leg was like the first, silence between my seatmate and me. But the last leg was wonderful. The best was saved for the last. I had no seatmate, and there was plenty of room for Dora and for my feet and even my back pack. What a joy. It’s hard enough to be packed in like sardines, but really people, can’t we at least be friendly? I promise not to show you pictures or talk about my grandchildren. But if you want to know about Seeing Eye ® dogs, well, that’s a whole other story.

Bathing a Big Dog

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A soaking wet golden retriever looks like a pathetic drowned rat, but I suspect she enjoys the attention. Does being a water-loving dog include a bath at a pet store? I’m sure she’d rather frolic around in a dirty creek, but this lucky girl gets a shampoo and set about twice a year.

Some guide dog users I know never bathe their dogs, which might seem shocking. But they groom them every day, combing out loose hair and dirt, thus preventing that doggy smell. Another one uses a mobile dog groomer who comes to her house once a month for an outrageous price and bathes her dog in a decked out van for this purpose.

I prefer to bathe my own dog, especially after a couple of bad experiences at a dog-groomer’s shop. Once, Dora came out with a bleeding toenail, and I was furious. I had not told them to trim her nails, but they did anyway. She gets them filed down by walking miles on concrete sidewalks. Another time, she came out with little sores all over her body, which I did not notice until they scabbed over, and I was appalled and sad for her pain. I suspect they used one of those sharp instruments called a furminator, which again, I had not asked for, and they pressed down too hard. It’s a wonderful tool for removing the undercoat, but it costs extra to have them use it, and if it’s not used properly, it can cause cuts in the skin.

When I had Pippen, I just got in the shower with her at home, because she was a little squirt, but Dora is too big for my little bathtub.

Last week, I took her to Mutts and Co, where I was given a huge rubber apron, shampoo for sensitive skin, a special elevated tub, a hose for dispensing the shampoo and warm water, and another one for the dryer. With my friend Kathy’s help, we spent what seemed like hours getting her dry, but it was a frigid day, and I wanted her to not go out wet. Best of all, I had been told by someone that they gave discounts for service dogs, but the gal at the checkout didn’t know how much to discount, so she said it was free and handed me a coupon for the next bath.

Now my precious girl is clean as a whistle and ready for Christmas. She even gets to wear a Christmas bandana, which makes her feel even more special than she already is.

Woman in the Hot tub

The jets of water massaging my back were my reward for an hour and a half of working out with weights and swimming at the Y. I looked forward to it as I lifted, strained, crunched, and finally stroked my way back and forth, back and forth through the cool refreshing water of the lap pool. Dora had waited for me, first by my side in the gym and then tethered to a bench by the pool, never taking her eyes away from me. At last, it was time for me to haul myself out of the pool and let Dora guide me to the hot tub. “Hot tub,” I commanded, and in a minute or so, she’d be tethered once again to the railing of the tub, while I slipped down into the hot roiling water. Sometimes, if I knew I was alone, I would stretch out so my toes touched the seat opposite me, so my upper back and neck could be massaged by the water too.

Then in the midst of my pure and hedonistic joy, I heard a woman’s voice asking me, “How many steps are there?” She was grasping the railing and taking her first tentative step into the water. “Um, I don’t know,” was my unhelpful reply. I had never counted them. I just took one step, and then another, until I reached the bottom, and then turned to one side or another and sank down onto the bench, submerging my tired and grateful body. But this woman was afraid to step down into the water, because she could not see the next step. It did not occur to her to feel for the edge of the step with her foot and then step down. How could she be afraid she would drown or something, when I was sitting right there, not 3 feet from her? The roiling waters made it impossible to see past the first step, so she asked me, a blind woman how many steps she should expect. I never count steps. I step down until I can’t step down anymore, and that’s it.

It was in that moment that I imagined what it would be like to suddenly be blinded, say, overnight, or from a tragic accident. All at once, every step is a threat of a fall or worse. I lost my vision over about 40 years, so the natural progression of my eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, made the progression of finding new ways of handling every situation in life just as natural. For those first few moments, that woman was experiencing blindness, and it was frightening. So I tried to be a little more helpful. “Maybe 3 or 4? I’m not sure.” As I climbed out of the hot tub, using the railing as my guide and stability, I made a point of counting the steps. I was tempted to tell her, “there are 4,” but maybe she figured out that all she had to do was follow the railing, or follow the woman who had been lounging in the water and now was collecting her Seeing Eye ® dog, walking down the 2 steps away from the hot tub area, and marching off to the locker room.