He stood alone amongst the throngs of people congregating at the crowded bar. My friends and I had stopped into Austin's original Ginger Man pub to commence our evening of festivities. As a fresh 21 year old learning the art of nabbing a bartender’s attention I was relishing in the frenzy of the foray. I thought I was pretty cool sporting my fresh off the press legal-to-drink ID and hanging at a pub where the name reminded me of tasty Christmas cookies. In retrospect, the name probably more likely stood for the founder’s hair color or preference for his lady’s locks.
As I tapped my foot impatiently, exasperated I wasn’t being waited and doted upon immediately (yes, yes, I believed I was a princess back then as well), I canvassed the bustling bar. People flooded in and out like salmon fighting upstream. Guffaws of gregarious groups and giggles of gorgeous girls made the air buzz with an anticipation of the night’s possibilities.
That’s when I noticed him, standing there, all alone.
It was strange, being he was only within a few feet of me, staring straight at me but right through me. People whizzed between us at breakneck New York pedestrian speeds. I looked him right in the eye, this man of maybe only 29 standing there so stoically. He looked the part of any typical late twenty something Austinite. Thick framed glasses, long hair that tickled the tops of his ears, worn in faded denim jeans, and a son-of-a-lumberjack’s button up pearl snap shirt. He wasn’t particularly handsome, at least not in my opinion. But his woodsman looking ways did trigger something in me to devise a scheme to extort a hard pear cider from another striving sir. As I was quickly calculating his possible bartender nabbing aptitude, I noticed he was clasping something close to his side. Was it a pool stick? A tree branch to widdle as he waited for his turn at the bar (he did look the part of a lumberjack’s son through and through)? What was he doing just staring at me so blankly? Doesn’t he see I’m kind of cute and he’s missing out on the opportunity to get this princess plastered? And that’s when it hit me. He was blind.
I blinked in surprise as I stared straight back into his sightless eyes. My first thought was, “How brave. I could never navigate a bar by myself blindly.” and my second thought was, “How long has he been standing there alone pressed against that wooden column?” Without hesitation I left my primo drink ordering spot and was standing within inches of him.
“Hey,” I asked a bit sheepishly, “Can you see?” I blurted out.
“No, I can’t…” he replied curtly.
“Do you want to get to the bar?” I didn’t know how else to ask or what reaction he might have towards my forwardness. After his aloof answer I half expected him to whack me with his cane.
“Yes! I’ve been trying to make it over there for about thirty minutes now.” His tone went from gruff to grateful.
For a split second I was taken aback and appalled by my realization of how long he had been standing there all alone without anyone noticing. People could be so self involved! And then, embarrassed of myself and a bit ashamed, I realized I was one of those people. How long had it taken ME to notice him standing there by himself, all alone.
“Alright well let’s go!” I insisted as I grasped his hand stepping into the mass of people pushing and shoving their way around the cramped drinkery. The bar top was only a few steps from us but we were bounced back and forth like two pinballs as we inched closer to our destination.
We spent at least an hour talking before the party I had arrived with announced we were moving to an even classier joint (The Aquarium… yeah, for all of you dirty 6th party animals. I know you’ve been there and still have your “I survived 21 shots and my 21st at Aquarium” souvenir birthday shirt).
I learned he had been diagnosed with Macular Degeneration only a year earlier. The year prior he had been able to see perfectly. That evening was his first night out on the town by himself. Over no drinks at all, just each other’s company, he shared all he had been through. What it was like to learn to live without sight. The sensation of his other senses becoming stronger. The things he no longer took for granted. I remember thinking how I could never cope with losing my sight. I was getting ready to graduate with my bachelor’s in art and lived for painting. The idea of going blind was, at the time, something I would have considered a deal ender for me. That night I went to bed feeling humbled, introspective, and a bit tipsy on how life’s little encounters can bring big realizations.
Throughout the years I’ve thought about the lumberjack’s son’s situation and wondered how he is faring. Now, with my doctor confirming earlier this week I am beginning to go blind, I wish I could remember his name for the life of me. If I could reach out to him today I would let him know what an impact his story has made on my own acceptance and embracing of this new development in my life.
I have been diagnosed with Non-Proliferative Retinopathy. NPR is a complication of T1D. It causes the blood vessels in the eyes to bleed out, destroying the retinas, eventually leading to blindness. There is no cure. However, there are ways to stop the progression of the disease. These days the technology used to treat NPR is incredibly advanced. If caught early, blindness can be prevented and even reversed in some cases.
I have been misdiagnosed for the last year by my former Ophthalmologist. Even though I attended my eye appointments regularly and complained of hazy, foggy vision, he insisted there was nothing wrong with my eyes. By a fluke mistake made by my wheelchair medical transport service, I was taken to the wrong doctor’s office for my eye appointment I had been eagerly anticipating. I pleaded with the front desk to please squeeze me in. I put on my best Puss in Boots face and promised baked goods the next time I was to see the receptionist. I demonstrated theatrically how I manage my mornings when my vision is so poor I cannot read which type of tea bag to steep or see my blinking cursor on my computer screen. Dr. Boyer, one of the leading Retina Specialists in the world, was the man who saved the day. After examining me for just three minutes he knew exactly what was going on. My eyes are hemorrhaging blood pretty much all over the place. This is the reason my vision is similar to what I assume all of the characters in Twilight experience when they go on a human hunting binge.
I left his office elated. I have been diagnosed with so many complications due to this disease that now when I hear “bad” news I tell myself “Ali, this is just another storm coming to pass, so let’s get ready to dance in the rain.” (and yes, talk to yourself in third person. It makes you feel like you have an old friend cheering you on who knows all of your faults, all of your shortcomings, and still believes you can do it!) Because chin up princesses and princes, or your crowns will slip.
Later today I will be transported to one of the best Retinopathy treatment centers in the country. I will be undergoing extensive laser surgery. I will be summoning my inner lumberjack son’s strength as I receive injections in my right eyeball and the patience to sit for hours as stiff as a board. It is not the same as Lasic as it is targeting the back of the eye rather than the lens. I’ve heard mixed reviews. Everything from it’s a breeze to it is one of the most excruciating, painful experiences. I’m going in with no expectations, just gratefulness that the universe decided to send me clear across town to the wrong doctor yesterday, so my sight could be saved today.
There were plenty of moments I could have said, “Oh this is such a headache. Please just take me home and I’ll reschedule my eye appointment for another day.” But, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And I believe there is something to be gained in every "mistake" made. Life presents us with opportunities to either give up, or give in. “Giving in” to life’s conditions has given me the greatest sense of peace and the ability to live more in the moment. Trying to control our every circumstance is like trying to grab on tightly and wrestle the waves of the sea into submission. And we all know the harder you fight the rip current the more likely it is you will drown. Our lives find a natural balance and flow when we allow ourselves to give in, to ride the wave of life. Each of our stories are individual waves in the sea of the universe. When we give into the power and ocean’s will, only then can we move and flow in harmony with the world around us and the world within ourselves.
So thank you, lumberjack’s son. Thank you for being there for me that night at the Ginger Man so I could learn a few tips on just how to ride my wave. I promise to give it my all and get back up on my surfboard no matter how many times I fall. I will try again and again until I find my balance in the barrel roll. I promise to be aware of my fellow surfers, to not let my own wild wave block me from seeing theirs. Since meeting you that night my awareness of other’s treading water amidst seething seas has been lit, like a lighthouse. I promise to always shine out into the fog helping those in need of a guiding light (as dim as mine may be at times. I will still always leave the light on). Thank you for having the courage to keep living your life that night. You have given me the courage to continue stepping (or I should say rolling) into mine.