learning to see

My grandparents, both blind, and I went on a road trip the summer after I got my drivers’ license. Grandma was going to be staying in Boise to train on a machine that could “read” the mail for her. We loaded up the beast and drove, with only one glitch along the way: we blew a tire as we took the final exit. Sure I was to blame, the shuddering, jolting car scared me to death. Like a handler taming a colt, Grandpa calmly taught me how to put on the spare, then helped me find my way through the city’s maze of one-way streets – he was the original GPS with a catalog of in-head maps – to a tire store.

The next day, he and I started the trek back home. The car might have been ugly and big, but it sailed like a yacht on balmy seas. We cruised steadily along as he regaled me with stories. One of my favorites was from his college days when a friend allowed him to drive his car around campus. They piled in and drove all over, Grandpa at the wheel while his friend hovered close, giving instructions. He laughed as he recounted the reaction they got, shaking his head at the memory.

“Let me know if there’s anything you want to stop and look at,” he casually mentioned, about an hour into the drive.

“Really?” I said, thinking to myself, “Yeah, right…”

It had never occurred to me that we could leave our set path. Testing the waters, I mentioned a sign we had just passed announcing a historical site. “It’s about 10 miles out of our way,” I told him, sure he’d tell me to keep driving.

“Let’s go!” he said instead.

It was a beautiful day, sun shining.

We walked the trail, me leading the way as he walked steadily behind me, hand attached to my shoulder, to look at Register Rock, a huge boulder etched with names by pioneers who’d passed through on the Oregon Trail. I read him the historical markers, and then we spent a few minutes resting at a picnic table, enjoying the slight breeze.

There he shared a story with me about his grandfather, normally a hard man, but one who’d shown a soft spot with his young grandson.

“When it became clear that I was going completely blind, he gave me a real treasure: some 8-power binoculars that I could look at things with, encouraging me to appreciate it all. Oh, I carried them with me everywhere, studying everything. When I finally lost my sight, grandfather, ever practical, took them back. Sad as I was to lose them, I was so grateful for the gift that he’d given me, the gift of seeing.”

Summarizing all the things Grandpa taught me is impossible: tips on driving through the winter snow, lessons on ancient Roman engineering, and how to re-cover piano keys (a tedious job but one which taught me to pay attention to detail), among a thousand others.

A timid girl, Grandpa taught me to live and see life as the gift it is: to sing just for the enjoyment it brings (no matter how terrible I am), to let down my guard, to act silly and, most importantly, to treat myself with kindness. More than that, he showed me what unconditional love looks like and that I was, indeed, worthy of it.

To the casual observer watching us walk together it would appear that I was leading a blind man, but in truth, he was the one leading me.

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