A few weeks ago, I was walking with my guide dog Fresco along the streets in our neighborhood when we came upon an outdoor seating area in front of a café. The crowd of people sitting at small tables talking noisily with each other overwhelmed me with their clamor. It was still COVID-19 time, and being close to people felt dangerous. I couldn’t figure out how to walk past the chairs and tables without bumping into them or seeming awkward.
I felt anxious, shocked by the presence of obstacles I could not see, afraid of what had once been a familiar setting. The surroundings hadn’t changed that much, but my eyesight had. My world was darker and blurrier now than it used to be, more foreign-feeling, and when I was outdoors, the scene was overlain with a shimmering glare that made it hard to see external objects.
“Let’s cross,” I said to my attentive yellow Labrador, as if stepping to the other side of the street would solve my problems.
He dutifully took us to the curb, then across to the opposite sidewalk, where I started to head toward the main commercial street. But the prospect of getting there suddenly daunted me. What if I became lost or scared, or was confronted, even more, with my blindness? What if I tripped on a curb or fell?
“Let’s turn back,” I said to Fresco, motioning with the leash.
We turned left in the direction from which we had come. It was a reassuring walk back on a quiet, familiar sidewalk where we had often walked, where I knew every curb, every crack in the concrete, where there were trees to provide shade from the glare, where Fresco and I knew how to proceed, and where I would not be confronted, as often, by my lack of sight.
I was not proud of my cowardice in turning back, or my self-protectiveness. “Next time,” I told myself, “I will be stronger and will continue on. We’ll make it to the commercial street, to the post office, mail a letter, not be afraid of the glare, the people, the strange objects that might be set out on the sidewalks. But I’m not ready for that yet.”
Two weeks later, my partner Hannah, Fresco, and I drove down the coast to a path through the woods in a secluded coastal canyon. Hannah was not feeling up to walking far that day, so she stayed behind while Fresco and I explored further on a path that ran deep into the ravine. As we started out, it felt too dark for me under the trees. I couldn’t see anything well. I was afraid that I’d walk off the edge of one of the wooden-plank bridges that crossed the creeks ahead in the canyon.
As I looked around, the landscape seemed not what it once had been. The brush and trees blurred together and looked hazy, reminding me of the vision that was now fading for me. I saw fuzzy clumps of dark green—irregular shapes that hulked here and there.
At each of the wooden bridges, I paused. Would I make it safely across the worn blanks above the creek sunken far below? Would I stay far enough away from the edge? Fresco was with me, but he was not guiding. I was using my cane, guiding us both, for I feared he might guide me too close to the edge or too quickly.
Though I yearned to go farther into the woods, I soon cut our walk short. I felt discouraged by the degree to which the path was covered with shadows from overhanging Eucalyptus trees. I could not make out the path ahead in many places—where the edges were, where the road turned. It took much concentration to stay on it.
As we approached the second bridge on our return, I saw a woman ahead and thought it was Hannah. I called out to her. Perhaps she could tell me where the wooden planks of the bridge began so I would not trip over them. But it was not Hannah, simply another woman who looked like her.
I was shocked that I could not discern Hannah at a distance. “That’s sad. That’s terrible. Damn my eyesight,” I thought.
When Fresco and I got back to the start of the path, Hannah was waiting for us. I told her about calling to the woman who was not her, feeling disturbed by my mistake.
“You’re blind,” she said, “Of course that happened.”
“But that’s no excuse,” I thought, vowing to figure out how to do things in other ways, how not to turn back, how not to call out to the wrong person, how to brave the bridges, and not succumb to my fears.
I don’t like to fear being unable to appreciate natural landscapes as I once did. But I have to remind myself, “The world is big. Some things are bright, some are not. You are alive.”
Hannah and I have survived, thus far, the ravages of a pandemic virus. There is much joy and pleasure to have, if I can only quell my fears, my sense of loss, the sense of final changes, final losses, of the end of what once was—my abilities, my sight.
“Quell those fears, those deep dreads. Quash them. Bury them,” I tell myself.
The next time Hannah, Fresco, and I returned to the shrubby path through the ravine, as we got out of the car, I was again apprehensive, I was afraid I would again feel my spirits darken as we set out—that the surroundings would look dull, that I would look into the distance and see only a bleak future.
But as we began to walk, I noticed that Fresco was unusually happy, sniffing the edges of the path, raising his nose to take in the scents farther off. “It’s brighter today,” Hannah said cheerfully, as she picked a small yellow flower from the roadside and handed it to me. I held it up to my eyes, and although I saw it poorly, I felt that something was beginning to change within me. Partly, it was the brightness of the day and that my companions were sharing their pleasures, but I also felt determined now not to let the darkness, the fears, the dangers at the bridges discourage me. I wanted to walk into the canyon with joy.