While watching one of my sons swim the other day I made a new friend. Of course, I had already judged this father at least twice before actually speaking to him. This is one of those stories -- the kind where we realize we got it wrong and we are filled with regret for our unkind thoughts.
At the first class of the session I had sighed internally as I observed this father watching his swimmer while paying little attention to the younger toddler strapped into a stroller who began periodically and then persistently shrieking. Why not bring something to entertain the little one? How do you expect him to sit there for a thirty minute swim lesson?
During the second lesson I found myself standing next to the man, curious as to what he’d do differently this week and bracing myself for the cries of his child. I tried to focus on the swim lesson in front of me.
“Hard to hear what they’re saying from here,” he said to me, making small talk.
“What’s that?” I turned to focus on him.
“Hard to hear what they’re saying, the instructors,” he gestured out to the classes.
“Oh, true,” I agreed. “It’s so loud in here. Then again, I’m deaf in my left ear right now, so I can’t hear much of anything,” I explained.
“Ah, well, that makes it hard,” he sympathized, before offering, “I’m legally blind.”
That’s usually my line, I thought. After all, when I was in first grade the school nurse called my mother exasperated, asking,
“Did you know your daughter is legally blind?” to which, of course, my mother was mortified and said she would take me to be fitted for glasses.
This man wasn’t wearing glasses though, and I couldn’t tell if he was wearing contacts. I had no idea why he was telling me he was legally blind, but I didn’t want to get into it right then. I just wanted to watch my son swim.
“Makes sense that it would be frustrating not to be able to hear the instructors then if you can’t see them,” I acknowledged.
He nodded. “Is the problem with your ear new?” he asked.
“Yes. My eardrum ruptured from a middle ear infection.”
“How does that happen?”
I described the process as best I could using gestures which I fumbled when I found myself wondering if this man could even see my hands.
“Is that painful?”
“Yes,” I responded, not feeling like going into exactly how painful or how I reacted in those moments when I took it out on my husband.
“Is it going to get better?”
“Oh yes. The eardrum grows back. This has happened to me before, and I think my hearing was back to normal within a couple of months. It’s already come back a bit, so I think it’ll be similar this time.”
The dad nodded, and because this was the vein of small talk we had stepped into, the one in which we exchange comments about our ailments, I asked him about his vision. Figuring this man’s situation was similar to mine, I asked him if his vision was correctable with contact lenses.
“No,” he sighed, “I have a disease where my eyesight is degenerating.”
“Macular degeneration?” I asked, referring to a common eye disease.
“No. I have retinitis pigmentosa.”
“Oh,” I said aloud. I felt that sinking gut feeling that comes when you realize you were a jerk for judging someone. Retinitis pigmentosa… I vaguely remembered the condition from medical school. The sum of my retained knowledge: Prognosis not good.
“It’s where your retina deteriorates. I found out about it a few years ago, but it’s gotten bad recently. I can’t drive. That’s why we moved over here, so we can be close to the bus and get around that way. I’m home with my kids.”
“Gosh, that sounds so hard,” I didn’t know what to say, “I’m home with my kids too.”
“Yeah, it’s genetic. But my boys won’t get it. Apparently it gets passed down through the mom. My mom didn’t have it, but I guess she still passed it along to me.”
Later, I read more about the condition online and learned that there are dozens of types of mutations that can result in retinitis pigmentosa. The X-linked types are more severe, often resulting in complete blindness.
The man added, “The doctors at MGH tell me they’re working on a cure. They said they’ll have one in about ten years.”
I was shocked by the matter of fact tone of his voice. His words weren’t logical. How could doctors know what knowledge they would have in ten years? If they know how to obtain the knowledge, why can’t they have it now? Why can’t they help this man now?
When the toddler in the stroller dropped his sippy cup, his father groped around on the dimly lit floor for it before finally asking me for help.
“Do you see it anywhere?”
“Oh yeah,” I chimed in, retrieving the cup. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” he said as he took it from me and returned it to his son. “The hardest part has been learning to ask for help.”
“I get that,” I replied, because I did. But I didn’t feel like getting into that either, worried that my stories of learning to ask for help when my twins were born might not compare in the right way to his struggles.
After that we “watched” the rest of the swim class. Rather, I watched, and he stared in the direction of his older son.
Since then I have tried to be helpful (by retrieving wet paper towels when his son spilled yogurt all over himself and the dad was caught without wipes) without treating him like a cripple. He’s a man who is taking care of his sons the best he can while dealing with his limitations.
And as parents, doesn’t that description fit us all?
Like a blind man, we too are limited in our sight and understanding of the limitations and struggles that are inevitably present in the lives of those around us. As writer and minister Ian Maclaren first penned, perhaps all we can do is remember to:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.