Do You See Me?

Hey, how are you? I hope I look okay – I pulled my hair back in a ponytail and washed my face just for you. I have no idea if I got the toothpaste off, but I didn’t taste anything when I licked my lips so I have to hope I did. I’m hoping I’m not wearing too many varying shades of dark clothes, but if I am, know I tried. I hope I didn’t dribble coffee or anything down my front, but I’m sure you’d let me know if I had.

I can feel my wrinkles – you don’t get to be, er, 40-something without them. Do I look in my 40s? Or did you think I was 50+? I still see the 30-something I was the last time I could clearly see myself. I cover the grey hair when the kids tell me to, but I have to trust that I got it all covered, that it’s not a horrible colour they picked out for me, that they read the instructions to me properly and I didn’t leave it on too long, not long enough, didn’t burn it.

Are you still there? Sorry about the black electrical tape on my stairs. It’s the only way I can see to go down them. Did you know it’s harder to go down the stairs than up? Let me just lock the door – my keys are in order so I know which one is for the front door. Now that we’re out of the house, walk with me. I’ve just been getting new lessons in mobility, complete with new cane and larger roller ball on the end. I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter what the politicians and people who find me annoying say – I should be able to walk to town for a loaf of bread all alone. I struggle with that, you know. I’d fight for anyone else, but have trouble asking for me. Now I’m asking for you to walk a mile in my shoes – rather, beside me in your own shoes – and understand how difficult doing the things most take for granted is for me. My mobility instructor, Laurie, and I went past five houses and stopped at the train tracks. She’ll come back in a couple of weeks and we’ll decide the best route to town. The train tracks and beyond make me so anxious, I stopped trying. Since you’re with me, I’ll do my best to be brave and wander into the murky territory of ‘beyond’. There is a sidewalk from my house to the safe spot for cars to stop when a train is coming. From that point, there is nothing until you reach the safe point to stop for trains on the other side of the tracks. On my left is a huge ditch where animals hit by trains are pitched — I’m not sure if it’s a two-foot ditch or a twenty foot ditch — either way, I really don’t want to find out by falling down into it. Our train tracks have wood instead of pavement between the tracks. Not sure why – even though our road is a dead end at the lake there’s heavy traffic going past my house at all hours. I guess drivers need to do the harbour circle to make sure the lake is still there. If a car crosses the tracks as I’m walking, the wood bounces up to trip me, catch my cane, or just freak me out because I’m vibrating with the thump-thump of tires passing beside me. I hope I’ve stayed to the left enough that cars won’t hit me, but not so far to the left that I’m into the gravel rut that you find between train tracks. Once I cross, I have a huge choice to make. The sidewalk resumes at the same spot cars stop for trains on the opposite side, but it’s across the street. Let’s stand here a second and figure out what to do. Now that I’ve crossed one obstacle, do I brave crossing the street to get to the sidewalk or stick to the side of the road? From experience, I know the sidewalk on that side is treacherous. Let me hold your arm a minute while I let the cars zoom by. I think I feel safer walking on the road than trying to cross the street. You don’t mind, do you? Just reel me in I veer too far into oncoming traffic as we go around the bend, won’t you? If I could hear the quiet cars, I’d try to cross in front of my friend’s house. Laurie says we’ll have to practice – if it takes me seven seconds to cross the road but a car is three seconds away before I hear it, I need to learn to do the math and figure out if I can fly. I’ll stick to the non-sidewalk side of the road, thank you very much. To town, at least. I’ll explain when we come back why I change my path.

Still with me? Please clear your throat or something so I can hear you. I feel so lonely navigating this in silence. Now, keep watching. Chances are I’ll do something to make you laugh. I might trip when my cane catches on uneven ground. I might walk into something – a sign, a parked car – and fall. You can watch for the people who think it’s hilarious to scare me – honking their horn as they pass, revving their engines when they approach, driving close to the shoulder so I get a face full of puddle or sand at best, heart failure when I realize I could reach out and touch them as they pass at worst.

If you’re still with me when we pass the museum and jail, I thank you for not hurrying past me and leaving me in the dust. I promise you won’t be disappointed watching me navigate between moving vehicles and parked cars by the skateboard park. The obstacle course on a busy day is a true test of coordination and endurance for the visually impaired. Just a bit further and we’ll be at the stop sign. Laurie asked me what I wanted most, what my goals are. I had to think for a minute about my answer. What did I want? Just this – to get to town alone. Go to the doctor’s outside of the main drag if I need to. Independence. Do I think I’d go to the local grocery store alone every day? Nope, but knowing I could if I want to changes everything. So where to? I suppose the bank first, right? The beauty of the three-way stop for me is this – any cars stopped before I get to the dip in the sidewalk goes first. Any cars approaching the stop sign when I’m ready to cross can wait for me. I’d be here all day if I tried to ascertain who is kind enough to stop and who is ignorant enough to try to go before me. Most of the people are considerate and let me go. It’s township vehicles, utility trucks and vans, and the odd yahoo who like to see me stumble that I have to worry about. I won’t mention the name of the company, but I know there’s one utility vehicle out there that hopefully has a scratch from my cane when they decided their timetable trumped mine and I heard them coming, stopped before I was hit, then “accidentally” hit their truck as they passed.

Most of the people in my town are awesome. The ones that aren’t I’ll call “citiots” (city idiots). Oh look, here comes a citiot now. See how they won’t move over even though I’m already walking precariously close to the edge of the sidewalk? I’m not sure what’s to my left, so I stick to the right even though any of the passengers in the parked cars next to me could open their door and catch me if they don’t see me coming. I’ll just stop here, wait for the citiot to pass. Wait, they’re not moving. I can see their shape, hear their footsteps, but they’re not going around me. Don’t they see me? My heart pounds in terror because I’m not sure where I can go to save myself. Slam – full shoulder check. Stagger, stumble, bounce off the light post. Did he just tell me to watch where I’m going? I smile, wave my white cane, and say “I wish I could.”

I think we’ve passed the driveway that serves as the exit to the bank’s rear parking which means that building should be my bank. I’ll just whip in and go to the teller to get the money I need to buy a loaf of bread. I could use the ATM but I don’t have one of my kids there to read the screen for me. The tellers at my bank are awesome, and I’m sure someone would help me work the ATM if I asked them to, but I’ll just stand in line because we’re not in a hurry, right?

I know I irritated the people behind me while I put my money in one side of my wallet, zipped it, then opened the other side to put my card back, taking care to tuck the card in the right spot before zipping that side up and putting my wallet in my purse. I could’ve shuffled over so the next person in line could go, but I’ve lost money rushing that I’ve only gotten back the few times honest people told me I’d dropped it. Not like that girl at the grocery store on the highway who put her foot down in a hurry as I tried to find my twenty dollar bill. I’m pretty sure she’d covered that bill with her foot because the money wasn’t in my wallet and I had to pay by Interac, but my companion had decided to leave me at the check out alone and I didn’t want to cause a scene by accusing her of stealing. I heard her foot sliding as I walked away, as if dragging the bill as she approached the register, but it’s not like I could see her bend over to pick anything up. I hope she needed the money more than I did. Makes me feel better about losing it if my twenty meant she wouldn’t go hungry for a few days.

Okay, so now the grocery store. What do you think of my town so far? I’m one hundred percent sure that I could get any one of the people you see (besides the citiot that shoulder checked me) to help me cross to the grocery store that is literally across the street, but I already feel like such a burden on society for complaining about the sidewalks, my inability to walk alone, the burden I place on taxpayers by wanting a safe environment to exist in so asking someone to help me cross the street feels like too much. Back down to the stop sign, past the same several stores we just passed. Now we get to cross the street again, won’t this be fun? Step out when the cars that were there ahead of me are gone and the ones who pulled up will just have to wait. Now this curb is a bit trickier because there’s no road here, if you miss the wheelchair ramps you’ll skin your knees tripping on the curb. I speak from experience.

This side of the road has a few obstacles but isn’t so bad. We can get to the grocery store relatively unscathed. Laurie told me that I can call ahead, make arrangements with any store to have my own shopper when I go in, but since you’re with me, we’ll just head over to the bread. Can you check the expiry date? Now we try to find the cash register. Hopefully no one in line behind us minds while I repeat the ritual from the bank, making sure everything is secured in my purse before I grab the bag with the bread.

We got out of the store in record time, don’t you think? I have no idea what the stores are between here and the drug store at the end, so let me know if there’s anywhere you would like to stop. Would be nice if you told me what we’re passing even if you don’t want to go in. It’s been awhile since I’ve done this and things change.

This is the other bank, which means we have to decide if we’re going to walk back on the sidewalk or brave the traffic at our backs and walk the way we came. I prefer to take the sidewalk route for the return journey because I don’t want to end up as roadkill if I veer off course. This side of the street is houses now that we’ve crossed the side road and passed the two restaurants – can you smell them? That’s how I know if the pizza place has their door open or not. The people who live along here that I know are super friendly. Wave if you see anyone, but usually they’ll call out a greeting as I pass because they know I can’t see them.

Now we’re at a conundrum. The street here is difficult to cross. I could cross over to my friend’s house and brave the cars at my back the rest of the way, but I still have to cross the busy road. People here don’t watch for on-cming cars, let alone blind women carrying a loaf of bread. They pull up past the stop sign before stopping, blocking the path for me to cross – sometimes. Some drivers forget that while the stretch to their left leads to a dead end, it’s a very busy area anyhow. I get so nervous here, the number of near misses I’ve had always replay in my mind while I try to cross. Traffic turning left onto this road don’t have to stop unless a car is coming from the other direction, so I have to hope they see me if I didn’t hear them. I remember one time that I strained to hear a car and there was nothing. I stepped onto the street at the same instance I heard an engine revving, approaching me. He had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting me, and I stood there, shaking, with his bumper touching my thigh. Not sure which of us was more freaked out.

Now — to navigate the muddy sidewalk. I haven’t fallen here – yet. Laurie suggested I invest in a baseball cap or something with a brim so when I’m walking past the next house, the overhanging trees won’t take out an eyeball. Take a peek – is there a scar where I got cut the last time I walked through here?

We made it! Here’s the pickle we’re in now – like when we headed out, we’ve reached the spot where the train tracks are. Do I cross the tracks, then the road? I think I’ll cross the road first as the sidewalk kind of turns and ends at the road. Listen – do you hear that car? Is it on our street, or at the next street? Let’s just stand here until we don’t hear any, or until a train comes. If a train comes, it’s a safe bet the cars will have to stop and we can get around them. Now, remember – the ditch on the right. It’s deeper and scarier on the other side of the tracks, so stay close.

Whew, we’re back on the sidewalk. We’re nearly home. Now we have to navigate the hugely overgrown hedges where even a small child has trouble passing without brushing up against the branches. Cover your eyes, there are stray branches sticking out of the hedge. If I call the township to complain, I’m a lousy neighbour. Besides, it’s not like the township isn’t aware – every winter the sidewalk dude plows a path on the grass because the hedges overhang so much.

Warms my heart that people who walked down to the lake call out a greeting as they step around me to pass. I smile, no clue if I know them or not, but it doesn’t matter because they saw me, saw my cane, and stepped aside, so they must be local. See over there? In the field somewhere? Can you see a paved path? They call that the Lion’s Loop. My next goal is to go over there with Laurie, find the path, and walk it. Two laps is a mile – imagine that, being able to walk a mile alone! No cars to worry about, no trains, no ditches.

Did you feel my anxiety? My despair? My thrill at doing for myself, by myself? Do you see me smiling, taking back a bit of independence? Walking to the store is something so small, so trivial for most, but is a huge victory for me. If you weren’t walking with me, if I were going to the doctor on the outskirts of all the subdivisions and I got lost, scared, I could ask Siri on my phone to tell me where I am. Did you know that? I have goals. To go out on my own and do things for myself. I might have to wear bright colours so the people around me see me, I might look silly and feel self conscious, but I hope I can get past all that and do stuff on my own again.

Thanks for the company. Sharing the trip with someone else takes the worry and fear down a notch. I’ll never be able to leave my house without some trepidation, but if the sighted world walks with me, it’s not as lonely. Say hello when you see a blind person – tells them you’re there, for one thing, and reminds them that the world sees them even if they can’t see themselves. Safe travels.