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.