By Theresa Sweeney-Smith
In 1972, I was a 16-year-old girl with an eye problem. After visiting several optometrists and focusing on “the green bead” in the middle of the string for a whole summer, my Mom and Dad determined that I should see an ophthalmologist. They made an appointment for me with my favorite aunt’s vision doctor.
There I was in his chair, staring at a light, with him trying to actually touch my eye with some odd-shaped instrument! I know I was nervous and I must have been giggling because I remember him saying,”Theresa, stop that giggling! There is nothing to laugh about!” He finally got the reading and my pressure was 40 in my left eye and 42 in my right eye. As he took the reading, he shook his head and said, “This is terrible, just terrible!” Apparently your pressure should never, and I mean never, exceed 25, and here I sat at 40 and 42!
I began to tear up. I was unsure of what this meant and I heard him say to my Dad, “John, you need to have your pressure checked as well.”
Wouldn’t you know that my dad’s pressure was 28 and 29 in his right and left eyes respectively. The doctor said aloud, “Well, it is hereditary and here lies the problem.”My dad was crushed. He and I were always very close and here the doctor is telling him that it is his “fault” so to speak. We had a silent car ride to the pharmacy where I picked up my first eye drop prescription. I put it in my eyes and oh did it burn! It made my pupils look like the head of a pin, and it took a long time for my eyes to adjust as they were very blurry.
My dad sat in the living room. No TV, no radio, no talking, no anything. I knew he felt badly, but what could I say to ease his troubled heart? I finally told him I was going for a run. It was my passion, and I ran about 5 miles every day.
I knew it was a terrible time to run as the heat of that Michigan afternoon in August was merciless, but the option of looking at my dad’s blurry, sad face was enough to keep one foot ahead of the other.
As time went on, my eyes got worse. I went from a runner to a jogger to a speed walker and then to a walker.
I love to be outside. There is something about the elements, the traffic, and the neighbors you talk to that has always excited me.
Now, my vision only allows me to see about three feet in front of me, so my walks are typically with my husband. I hold his arm or his hand and he has learned to signal me about curbs, pedestrians, dogs and other things that just might freak me out.
In May 2012, my husband Gary and I purchased a house in Sun City Grand, located in Surprise, Arizona. We have family in both the Phoenix area and in Milwaukee, from whence we originate.
In spring 2013, we were going to stay in our new little house for seven weeks. I was elated! Warm weather, my husband’s children and grandchildren, cousins… what more could I ask for? My boss was even so kind as to allow me to work on projects three days a week from Arizona! It was fabulous!
About three weeks into our stay, my husband’s back began to bother him. He treated it with chiropractics and ice packs. Really what he needed, however, was rest. As the kids and grandchildren were busy with their own lives, I was home with my hubby for days!
Did I mention that I really love him? Well I do. Nonetheless, we had run out of things to say. I could not listen to one more minute of Fox News, CNN or American Pickers! I needed to go for a walk and feel the sun on my face. I needed to talk to someone else and hear something new. I needed exercise and for some reason, I needed it right now!
As blind as I am with only minimal vision in my left eye and my white cane at my side, I was going for a walk and he was not going with me! I was going to come home with something new to tell him, even if it was just that I made it!
I walked down our court that has access to a main street. My heart was pounding, but why? I made it a half block! This should not have been such a big deal, but I realized I never go anywhere alone anymore, and my heart was pounding with a slight bit of fear and apprehension.
No turning back now, so I turned right as I memorized the route he and I took a few weeks earlier. What I did not realize when holding on to the arm of my sighted sweetie is that there are cactus with their branches extended just saying to me in the voice of the Wicked Witch of the West, “Come over here, my pretty, so I can tickle you!” Now I am a humorist with a weapon! I used my cane to stay right in the middle of the sidewalk. I was not going to get stuck by those thorns. Not only would it hurt physically, but my husband would feel terrible and never want me to walk alone again.
Unbeknownst to me, coming toward me is a bike rider with his helmet on, ear buds in, and not paying attention to what is in front of him. He rides about 15 feet in front of me and I jump and freeze as I hear the bike approaching. He rings his bell, like that is going to tell me what I should do. He slams on his brakes. I scream. He screams and stops the bike in the gravel. I cannot tell if he is on a cactus bush so I ask, “Are you okay?” He replies, “Yes. Are you out here walking alone with a cane?” I reply, “Yes.” He asks, “Why?” I reply with a smile, “I needed an adventure and a story to tell my husband!” He answers with a smiling voice, “Well I guess you have that and I have a story to tell my wife!” We parted on the sidewalk and it seemed that neither of us was any worse for the wear, so he went on in his direction and I in mine.
I continue my walk. I turn the corner, and boy is the sidewalk hard to follow. I guess the white concrete sidewalks and the white gravel and branch extended cactus plants are artistic for most people. I will have to take the time to appreciate it when I am with a sighted person so I don’t fall off the sidewalk.
I get to the first street where I know I have to go to the right. I turn and follow the winding sidewalk as carefully as I can. I finally determine that I am not where I should be at all. What are my options? Do I turn around and go back? The idea of making my way back to the winding sidewalk, down the main street with the Wicked Witch Cactus and possibly revisiting the bike rider on his return trip make me decide to find another option!
I hear a car approaching and know the road I want to be on. I hold up my white cane and my hand out flat in a “stop” motion. A very nice lady practically does a hockey stop with her SUV and comes around the side to help me. “How can I help you?” I reply, “”Where is North Rim from here?” The nice lady grabbed me by the arm and took me across the street and said, “When you get to the stop sign, you are standing in front of North Rim”. “Are you sure I cannot give you a lift?” I replied, “I think you just did!” I turn to the right at North Rim and walk down to my street. I get home and tell my husband about my big adventure. He is jovial, but not nearly as impressed with me as I am with myself!
Two nights later, feeling ever so confident as I walked by myself and made it home, I went for a walk again. This time, it would be another route and wouldn’t you know, I was uncertain again about a turn I had made.
I thought to myself, “No worries. I just need to listen for a voice, footsteps or a car and I will try to stop someone.” A lady was approaching. I said, “Excuse me,” and the lady replied, “Oh! You are looking for North Rim. I met you two days ago.”
I began to laugh. What luck and how embarrassing! The same lady from the SUV! We introduced ourselves. Her name was Karen. She and I began to laugh about the coincidence. She had decided to go for a walk alone because her husband was watching TV. She thought as I did that maybe she would find an adventure. Who knew her adventure would be me?
Karen and I have become walking buddies. We get together two or three evenings a week to walk around our subdivision. My adventure has brought me a new friend and the ability to have a little time with someone other than my husband!
Losing our vision does not change who we are. It just changes how we do things. Sometimes, we need to get beyond the fear that blindness brings. Sometimes we just need to put one foot in front of the other and move past the fear to get to the other side where we can feel exhilaration, accomplishment and a sense of pride in ourselves.
Theresa Sweeney-Smith lives in Wind Lake, Wisconsin.