A Sight for Sore Eyes
The Lighter Side of Losing My Vision
For those of you meeting me through this blog for the first time, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) overseas for the better part of twenty-five years.
So I traveled. Pretty much every school break.
People called me ‘the travelin’ gal,’ which fit me–like velcro.
The way I slithered in and out of international airports, I could have been a spy for the CIA. When I faced Custom’s officers, they yawned and waved me through. I didn’t stand out in any way.
The first flight I took after I received my white cane was a real eye-opening experience for me!
I started out at a local airport– Erie International Airport. Ha! International only because it has flights to a Canadian destination. But Erie is a commuter airport and has only two gates. Piece of cake, huh?
For the first time, I had an e-ticket. Since my flight to Detroit left early in the morning, I arrived at 5 am. Pulling one small bag behind and my backpack containing my laptop on my shoulder, I guided myself with the white cane from the front. The one thing that slowed me down a little was my shoulder bag, which kept bumping my backpack and slipping down to my elbow. Typical gear for me — but with the addition of my cane, it all felt a little awkward to maneuver. I certainly didn’t zip down the causeway as I normally would.
I reached the one-person computer terminal, which prints out the ticket and checks you in at the same time. Just as as I set my bags down, I heard,
“Hang on just a minute there, missy.”
When I looked up, I found an overzealous, elderly airport employee at my side. “Let me get that for you,” he said.
“Um, well, I was jus…okay.”
He must think I can’t see at all.
I extracted the information regarding my flight from the side pouch of my bag. He ignored my gaping mouth and opened my folder. He s-lo-w-l-y leafed through the papers as he searched for my flight number, seat numbers, and number of bags. Then, with one finger, the man pecked the the code letters from my flight onto the keyboard.
“You know, you have a layover in Philadelphia, don’t you?”
Of course, I knew I had a layover in Philly. It cost more for a direct flight and that was the best I could do. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“Just this one.”
He eyed it, suspiciously, as if I might have one hidden inside. “There you go, missy. Is anyone traveling with you?”
My brother came into the terminal about that time. As I pointed him out, the clerk waved him over. “Good. Reinforcements. Let me write you a special pass to accompany this little lady to her gate.”
The look of confusion on my brother’s face almost made me laugh. “Accompany her? I guess I could.” He’d probably hit me up for more money for parking.
The clerk nodded. “No problem. Happy to oblige.” He scrawled something on a white slip of paper. “Now, missy, will you be needing a wheelchair in Philadelphia?”
A wheelchair? Me? “Nope, I got it covered. Thanks.”
“Keep an eye on her now,” the employee looked over his round glasses at my brother. “We don’t want her to get lost.”
Was I hearing him correctly? I looked around the little rinky-dink airport.
As we headed off, I hissed, “Don’t let me out of your sight.”
I rolled my eyes. “Just kidding.”
And what the heck, he carried my bag and backpack. I only had to worry about maneuvering my cane and keeping the shoulder strap of my purse on my shoulder.
At Security, I took off my shoes and put my computer on the conveyor belt.
“You’re gonna have to turn over your cane,” the guard said sternly, as if my cane were a contraband gun.
“Oh, sure.” I folded it up, pinching my finger as I snapped one section shut. I inspected my red, injured finger. I hate it when that happens.
A female security guard came over and patted me down, then awkwardly led me through the x-ray portal to the other side.
I never felt more fake blind than I did at that moment.
“Mike, I’ll be okay now. Thanks so much for your help. You can go ahead and go. “
When I sat down, I surreptitiously studied the waiting room. I imagined all the people seated were looking at me. Do they think I’m blind, too? What if I take out my book and read it? Or look at my watch? Or punch numbers into my cell phone? What will go through their minds? Should I just sit quietly and stare vacantly ahead of me? Maybe I should put on my sunglasses? For sure, I won’t see anything then and I will really fit the part.They called our flight and I scooted ahead to the exit along with other passenger–except one offered to take my bag.
“Veer to your left,” another passenger warned, as she held me back.
I slowed my pace down to match hers. “Oh, okay.”
This is ridiculous. I can see my own way around. Just speak up. But I remained silent.
On the plane, the stewardess took my hand (not my arm), found my seat number and seated me on the right side of the plane. “I’m going to set your purse down right beside your feet. At three o’clock. Don’t fall over it,” she said. Three o’clock? Oh, that’s the position given to blind people to indicate the position of an object.
“Thanks!” I spoke in an overly-cheerful voice. I gave her my best fake-blind grin.
In Philadelphia, a steward assigned to giving out gate numbers at the incoming terminal, pulled me aside. “Wait here. I’ll get a wheelchair for you. We didn’t know in advance…”
“That’s all right. If you can just point…”
He nodded even as he barked some orders into his cell phone. “Someone will be with you shortly. Have a seat right here.” The man plunked me into a seat to wait.
I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
I didn’t want to be rude after the man went to all that trouble. I could be at my gate right now. I don’t want to miss my flight.
A woman arrived with a wheelchair.
Be assertive. “Thank you so much, ma’am. I don’t need a wheelchair. I can see some things.” Some things? You can see a lot.
The woman shook a finger at me. “This is a very busy, confusing airport. It’s best I help you.”
“Well, maybe.” I thought of the airports in London, Paris, Munich, Dubai. “I can probably take your arm.”
I hadn’t had much training in using a human guide and a cane at the same time so we proceeded slowly, bumping into each other when we moved side-by-side or as I tried to lead myself with my cane.
“Uhm, just a sec.” I folded up my cane and adjusted my bags.
She placed my arm on her shoulder. As I trailed behind her, I could feel the heat on my face as I imagined everyone staring as we jostled through the crowd.
Finally, we arrived at the correct gate. I sank into a seat.
When they called for my flight, the attendant came over to pre-board me.
Oh! That’s a nice perk!
In Detroit, I had to wait for another person to “fetch me.”
Again, I waited. And waited.
Finally, a man driving an airport vehicle stopped next to me. He and beeped his horn and pointed to his florescent orange vest, which read in capital letters, “SERVICE” “I’m here to take you meet your party at the baggage claim.”
Why is he pointing? I wouldn’t be able to see that if I were really blind.
I smiled and let him help me aboard.
Our conversation turned to those he helped. “I do like my job, ma’am. ‘N’ I do it pretty well if I say so myself. I like helping those more disadvantaged, you know, folk like you… If I can make the airport a better place, then sho’nuff I will.”
Am I disadvantaged? I’m educated with a Master’s degree, wise about the world and its politics, have lots of friends. In what way am I disadvantaged?
Again, I smiled politely. Just then I spotted my friend. “You can drop me off here,” I exclaimed.
The driver said to the grinning man waiting for me, “I am happy to deposit this young lady into the safety of your hands,” as he slowed down, idled the cart and helped me down. I watched the man and vehicle until he was just a speck in the airport, then turned to my friend.
If ever there was a sight for sore eyes, it was this man, right now.
He embraced me.
How good it felt to be in his arms at long last. I lay my head on his shoulder. Just as quickly, I whipped it up again and said with feeling, “I will never travel again with my cane!”
“You were slumped over like a little old lady.” My friend covered his mouth to hide his laughter. “What gives?”
I recoiled.”Oh no. Really?”
“Yeah, like a frail, ninety-year old woman.”
“Don’t look at me that way,” he said, “it’s no big deal. Come here, grandma.” He pulled me close and kissed me.
We walked quietly for a couple of minutes before I answered him.
The truth of what happened hit me. “I think … it’s easy to become who others think you are when they see your, I mean, my, well–any–cane.”
He gave me a little shake. “Don’t let anyone change who you are–a strong, independent woman who laughs fear in the face. Remember you cooked tempura blindfolded at that sight center. You are awesome.”
I blushed at his compliment. I hope I won't change. I have to become assertive and stop being so polite to strangers.
He continued to make his point. “Don’t play into other people’s ideas of what a blind person can do.You are too smart for that. Challenge their belief system. That’s what you always say you’re going to do.”
“Okay.” I looked away. Anyway. I. Can. See. Just. Fine.
He took my hand and said, “Besides, you should be grateful you don’t have to walk like the rest of us. What I wouldn’t give to sit back and relax while someone else drives me to my gate. No stress. No pressure.”
“I hate it.”
“It’s their job, Amy. If you didn’t let them work they’d get laid-off. You’re a people-person, right? You’re keeping people off the unemployment line as we speak just like the kind, loving person I know you to be.”
I slipped my folded cane in my bag and fished out my sunglasses. I put them on in the already dark airport and hooked my arm through his. “Okay. Let me hire you. You’re the only human guide I need.” I squeezed his hand. “After you…”
This dear man leaned into me and nudged me with his leg.“Does it really matter who follows who…or who leads?”
As we walked beside each other, I felt my heart lift and I moved with more assurance. Detroit might not be London but once again, I found myself in another city at the start of another exciting holiday.
We exited the airport and I felt the sunshine on my face. I let go of his hand and set my computer down. Then I threw my arms up in the air. “Just call me ‘the travelin’ gal.”