By Janell Groskreutz
The year was 1979 and a young girl with blond hair and green eyes was playfully shooting hoops with her dad at their home in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. As they were tossing the ball back and forth, the young girl’s dad kept telling her to “keep your eye on the ball.” The young girl responded, “Dad, I am.” As this bantering went on for a few minutes, the dad had enough foresight to realize something may be wrong with his daughter’s vision, and that is how my life’s journey began.
As this terrifying observation began to unravel, my parents realized life as we all knew it was about to change. My initial visit to the local eye doctor resulted with him telling me I may have to get glasses. I can distinctly remember locking myself in my bedroom, with ridiculous visions of a four-eyed girl everyone would make fun of. The eye doctor visits took me from Chippewa Falls to Eau Claire, then to the University of Wisconsin, and finally to the University of Minnesota. After a myriad of tests, and visiting doctors with practically every combination of acronyms behind their name, I was diagnosed with a juvenile form of macular degeneration. Honestly, I don’t remember much about the specialist’s diagnosis or recommendations, however, the result was still the same ‑ I was slowly going to lose my vision.
At the tender age of 9, I was not privy to most of my parent’s conversations, or to their questions, fear, anger or concerns regarding this curveball that life had just thrown at me, and also to the future for our family. As the realization of my disability set in, we were faced with many options. One was moving to Janesville, so I could attend the school for the blind. My mom, in her very emotional state, was ready to uproot our family that day and relocate to Janesville! She was subsequently forgetting about things such as: where we were going to live, her quitting her teaching job, my dad quitting his counseling job, acquiring new employment, and acclimating my younger sister and I to a new environment. She also wasn’t considering how we were going to pay for the essential things like food, water, shelter, heat, health insurance; none of which were remotely as important as her little girl receiving the best services possible.
My dad, more level-headed, but wanting the same outcome for me, weighed all of our options and decided to stay in Chippewa Falls and face these new challenges in our hometown.
I am, and forever will be, eternally grateful to my parents for pressing on and continuously encouraging every harebrained idea I had. One day, in fourth grade, I had the opportunity to learn how to play the violin. My parents, who have no music ability at all, were quite perplexed as to how I was going to do this. My mom decided she would take the music notes and enlarge them onto bigger paper. Then she hung the papers around the entire kitchen for me to try and see. She was most likely plugging her ears trying to drown out this hideous screeching sound reverberating from the kitchen!
While my mom’s heart was in the right place, the whole endeavor was quite cumbersome, so I decided it was going to be easier for me, and especially my mom, if I learned to play by ear. My first concert was on Christmas of that year at my little neighborhood school. I was the only student who played the violin, so “Jingle Bells” turned into a solo. I had to memorize the timeless Christmas classic and practiced for weeks. I can remember standing alone on that old wooden stage and being nervous, but I am positive I was nowhere near as nervous as my parents. Thankfully, I played my way through the song and hopefully did jolly old Saint Nicklaus proud. I still enjoy playing the violin and the piano.
As I reflect on that fateful day in 1979, I can still see, smell, hear and even tell you what my dad and I were wearing. As I accept the fact that my vision is slowly turning into darkness, it is these vivid memories that will stay in my thoughts forever. I can still hear my dad saying, “Janell, keep your eye on the ball!” and that is exactly what I plan on doing.