Thinking Aloud On the Wrong Day

Blindness.

We were woken unusually early this morning, by someone repeatedly ringing my mobile phone. It is a standing joke that nobody ever rings it, unless they are trying to sell me something, or have the wrong number. It was an unknown caller, and they had left a voicemail message. My first thought was that it must be bad news, to call so early, so I played the message with some trepidation. It was a courier company, trying to collect a box from a Filipino lady called Marina. They needed directions to her house. So, a wrong number.

That had awakened me from a deep sleep, in the middle of an intense dream. I was back working in an ambulance in London, having a conversation with a patient I met a few times over the years. The dream was replaying a conversation I had with that man, and was like watching a video recording of us both, around 1986, as we were travelling to hospital.

We had been called to a man who lived not far from the base. We were given a diagnosis of unstable Diabetes, and told that the caller was a man in his sixties, who felt unwell with low blood sugar. The door was opened with a click by a remote button, and I walked in with my bag of equipment. I found the man dressed and standing, ready to go with us. He knew about his condition, and had already eaten a sugary sweet, hoping to hold off the problem until we got to the casualty department. As he turned, I was startled to see that he had no eyes, just short eyelids half-covering empty sockets. I had heard of this condition of being born without an eye, or eyes, but had never encountered someone it had affected. (it is called Anopthalmia, and is present in just 1 in 100,000 births.)

He put on some sunglasses, and I helped him to the ambulance. I had long been fascinated by the problems of blindness, but especially interested in people who had never seen anything. I wondered how he perceived the world, and whether it was true if other senses developed beyond the normal to compensate in any way. Having been sighted, then going blind later, is one thing. At least memory will supply some details for you to hang on to. But never having seen anything has to be a lot to deal with. As it is usual in an ambulance to discuss things not normally brought up in polite conversation, I asked him about it, and he was happy to talk about it, mainly because most people avoided the subject out of respect.

He was born in the 1920s, to a young single-parent mother. He used the old term ‘Out of wedlock’. Not only was her situation difficult, the appearance of a baby son without eyes was too much for her to cope with. She gave the baby away, and he was brought up in a home for unwanted children, later transferring to a residential facility for the blind, on the outskirts of London. He received a basic education, and was later trained in the use of Braille to read books, and use a specially adapted typewriter. During WW2, at the age of seventeen, he got a job with the Civil Service, as a clerk/typist, and stayed there until he retired, aged sixty. He told me he had never married, and never so much as kissed a girl. His pleasure in life came from reading books in Braille, and listening to the radio. He had never been to the cinema, or owned a television. I was keen to ask him about his perceptions, and also about the daily difficulties he had encountered, and still did.

Transport was an obvious issue. He had been shown how to get around his small flat, which had been provided at low rent, by the City Corporation. Also how to get to the nearest bus stop, so he could get to work. But he had no idea what number bus had arrived, and had to ask others at the stop. If there was nobody around, he would have to shout at the conductor, and ask the bus number. Back then, coins were distinctive, and banknotes issued in different sizes, so he coped alright with money. But he was annoyed that he frequently stepped in dog mess on the pavement, as he couldn’t see it. I had never thought of that. He had obviously adapted well, and as he told me “I didn’t know any different. That is how I live, because I had no option to do otherwise”.

I went on to ask about other senses. He said that his hearing was in the normal range, but his sense of smell was acute. He could recognise people by their individual smell, if he had already met them, and even tell different races, without hearing them talk. He remarked that my colleague was probably West Indian, though he obviously hadn’t seen him, and had heard few words from him. This was accurate, as my crew mate was from Barbados originally, though spoke with a London accent. He could judge someone’s height easily, from the direction of their voice, and whether or not he felt their breath on his face. I asked about if he could picture something in his mind, if it was described to him in detail. He said that the picture in his mind would be very different to what was being described, and it would be almost impossible for him to tell me what he saw in his head. He gave me an example, which I have never forgotten.

“Describe snow to me”.
I thought for a moment.
“It falls from the sky..”
He stopped me.
“I have never seen the sky”.
“Its white”.
“What’s white?”
“It has small flakes, like tiny crystals”.
“What are flakes? What are crystals?”
“It is cold”.
“I know that, because I have touched it”.
“It accumulates on the ground, looks like cotton wool”.
“What’s cotton wool?”
He held up a hand to stop the questions. He had made his point, and I understood.
“I can feel the cold, and hear the crunching underfoot. I also feel it’s slippery when I am walking. But I can never picture it in the same way as you. That’s impossible”.
I wanted to ask many more questions, but we had arrived at the hospital. I had an increased respect for blind people, and had enjoyed a fascinating conversation.

I got to meet him a few more times over the years, and the second time I walked into his flat, before I had spoken a word, he smiled and said, “You’re the man who asks the questions”.

I was dreaming about that this morning, and wanted to tell you.

67 thoughts on “Thinking Aloud On the Wrong Day

  1. Wow! What a beautiful post, Pete. I’m sorry I missed this when you put it out a couple of days ago. It brought a tear to my eye…That means I will always remember it. Beautiful writing. Thank you for providing a window into this man’s world…And to yours.
    –Pam

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much, Pam. A few conversations with that man made me understand just how lucky I was. I think the dream was his way of coming back to remind me of that.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  2. You probably wonโ€™t be surprised by this Pete, but one of my biggest fears would be going blind. Not being able to read?๐Ÿ˜ฑ Itโ€™s amazing though how the body makes up for things that are missing. There was a contestant on Dancing With the Stars a couple of years ago who was born blind. He was a beautiful dancer who could feel the vibrations from the music being played. He wound up winning the show that year.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have varifocals for driving, +3 readers for the computer and reading, and cannot really look at anything small without them. But I can see fine for just walking about. The cataracts have slowed down, fortunately, but compared to that patient, I have the vision of Superman. So no complaints. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I have had Galucoma for years, and take eye drops for it. They took the pressure down from 28 in each eye to half that, so they say I am now ‘borderline’. Driving in the dark is out of the question for me now though. ๐Ÿ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed your telling this story Pete as I think all of us with normal sight have wondered what it would be like to be blind. I recently had an eye appointment that caused me to think about it. What if I could no longer see the beauty of the natural world? How would I function in my home, dress, cook? care for pets? Still I knew I would have an advantage over someone born blind. Having ‘seen’ my whole life. I would remember much about my world. I’m glad you were able to ask the questions you did, and that your ‘patient’ was so willing to share with you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What fascinates me is this concept of a blind person “picturing” something in his mind. I have to wonder what the “picture” consists of. I can’t fathom that it consists of the actual visual appearance of anything. Maybe it’s more a conceptual picture comprised of shape (but in terms of the “feel” of that shape, and the space it occupies), weight, hardness, texture, smell, etc. More than abstract, but not precisely visual. It would be interesting to hear about your other conversations.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If you see my reply to Jude below, you can see how he described his impression of a sky with clouds in it. He seemed to have no concept of colour, and whenever he described something as he saw it, it generally related to the senses of smell and touch. I also asked him how he imagined shapes, things like a dog, a bus, or even himself. He spoke of ‘outlines and depth” based on touch, but had little sense of scale. To him, a bus could have been as big as an office block, as he only related to the seat he was sat on.
      I would have liked to have included some of his other observations, but the post would have been too long. Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I find it ironic and interesting that the man had a productive life and contributed to society in spite of his disability while many “normal and healthy” people act like they are disabled and do very little.
    A fine gentleman. You, too, Pete. You were the man who asked the questions, and I’m sure he was glad you did.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. The older I get the more I worry about my sight……I really do not know what I would do without it……hearing iss another sense that I cannot imagine being without….have a good Saturday my friend….chuq

    Liked by 1 person

  7. To be born without eyes. Unthinkable. Unbearable. But he obviously made some sort of life for himself, whether a happy one or not. I can’t imagine never knowing what the sky looks like. Things you can hold I guess you can build up a picture, but you can’t hold the sky or a sunset.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He didn’t seem too concerned, Jude. I suppose you don’t miss what you have never had. But I liked some of his answers. When I asked him what he thought the sky might be like, with clouds, he answered “like the smell and feel of fresh sheets on the bed”. ๐Ÿ™‚
      Best wishes, Pete. x

      Liked by 2 people

  8. A most interesting post, Pete… To have been born without eyes, and never been able to see sounds tragic…but humans do have ways of coping, and this man clearly did.
    I have always said that I dread going blind, and still do…but I think most would still retain some vestige of sight, so you wouldn’t be in a totally dark world.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Sue. That man had never seen light nor dark, and didn’t comprehend the difference. It was fascinating to talk to him.
      As my own sight deteriorates, I get frustrated at times. But compared to him, I have no problems at all.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Blindness is a serious issue indeed but I have long wondered what it would be like if a person were to lose all their senses insomuch that they could not hear anything, smell anything, see anything, feel anything or say anything. They would be alive but they would have no sense mechanisms at all. I have long wondered if that has ever happened and what it would be like.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Fascinating, Pete. I have friends who have lost ther sight but never met ayone who has never been able to see. I’m very glad you were thinking aloud on the wrong day as I’m off on holiday today and would probably have missed your Sunday musings!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Pete, I’m back! ๐Ÿ™‚

    A touching story. Healthy people really do not care about life and their difficulties of people with disabilities.
    Some dreams feel so real. And if they then give a lived history again, it is certainly double intensive. I can not remember ever having something to dream about later. That’s very exciting!

    I wish you a very nice weekend. We have sunshine here today. Greetings from Germany, Irene

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to see you back, Irene. I am happy that you have chosen to visit me again. ๐Ÿ™‚
      We have bright sun today too, though it is not very warm.
      Thanks for reading, and leaving your comment.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Like

  12. A great story, Pete.
    It reminded me when I visited my Gran whoโ€™d been profoundly deaf from a very young age. Sheโ€™d bought me a record for my birthday and then asked me what music was like. I mean, where do you start with that one?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have known quite a few profoundly deaf people. One man I knew used to put his hand on the speaker of the stereo, and nod to the beat as he ‘felt’ it. The way people adapt is very humbling. I once asked him why he always tried to talk, (sadly unintelligibly) when he had never heard speech.
      He shut me up by writing down ‘Why not?’
      Thanks, BF.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. That man’s life will stay with me. Despite years of listening to Peter White on Radio 4 it is still hard to imagine not knowing what it is to see. Anyone would be devastated to lose their sight, but we would still be able to picture the world – except for those people who do not have a mind’s eye – something else for you to think about in the middle of the night! In the ‘good old days’ I think people could just dump their babies in ‘homes’ if there was something seriously wrong. Out of sight, out of mind to the rest of the population.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, TS. In 22 years, he was the only person with that condition that I ever encountered. I was able to ask him lots more questions; things about cooking, food, and everyday very basic stuff we take for granted. But I never forgot that first conversation.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow, what an incredible story this was. I have always felt it amazing that people who are blind are able to cope with their circumstances. I could not even imagine the horror of losing my sight. I love to watch movies, anime, read books and comics. To lose that…I donโ€™t know if I would be able to find the strength to even remotely go on. I would rather lose my sense of hearing than my sight. Hearing such a story though was really moving. Itโ€™s amazing to me that someone can still find joy in his life even when one of the most important senses is completely lost. Iโ€™m glad that you were able to ask these questions….and I want to thank you for sharing this heartfelt post. Truly moving, and not to mention inspirting.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks, Michel. Like you, I would hate to go blind. But I think that’s mainly because we already know what we would be missing.
      He was indeed an inspiring man, without a single trace of bitterness.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 3 people

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