When I started high school, my older brother Simon (we call him Sammy) was embarking on his senior year. He drove us to and from school in an old NewYorker, and, because of my disabled parking decal, he was able to park the car in one of the school’s handful of disabled parking spaces. The handicapped parking was incredibly convenient; I always knew where the car would be parked, where I would be dropped off and picked up. If Sammy said, “See you at the car,” I knew where to go.
Each morning, Sammy would pull into the spot, we would exit the car, and he would head off to his locker, calling a goodbye over his shoulder. I later discovered that he was chastised by teachers and fellow students for “abandoning” me at the car.
“I can’t believe you don’t wait for your sister,” the scandalized bystanders would say. “You just…take off. You don’t open doors for her or anything.”
Sammy would reassure them that I preferred this treatment, that I did not want to be placed in a bubble. But it was difficult for the students and teachers to understand my desire for independence. Among the 1600 members of our student body, I was the only one that used a white cane – and there was a period of adjustment for me as well. High school marked a change in my cane use; I began using the cane in every area of life, instead of only using it during my weekly mobility lessons.
Before the cane and I became inseparable, I relied heavily on the use of a sighted guide – taking the elbow of a companion, classmate, or family member and letting the movement of their body alert me to upcoming obstacles. I still enjoy this method when traveling, because it allows me to easily keep pace with someone. Now that I’ve added a cane, the sighted guide primarily functions as a navigator.
Sammy shines in a story from the pre-cane days. He was leading me across a parking lot on our elementary school campus; I was following behind him since both our arms were full and I couldn’t take his elbow. Knowing that our teachers were watching, he decided to have some fun and promptly began to zigzag across the parking lot. Obediently, I followed his wild staggering, trying not to laugh as our elderly, easily-flustered teachers shouted, “Simon! Stop doing that to your sister!” My brother has always been an expert at entertaining or shocking the onlookers.
Traveling with a white cane gets me a lot of stares, and I am literally blind to this visual attention. In one case, my mom, my sister Marie, and I were having lunch out, when Marie leaned toward me and said, “Emily, this woman has been staring at you for the past 20 minutes.” I asked what had gotten the starer’s attention, and Marie replied, “Oh she heard you unfolding your cane. But don’t worry. She stared at you, so I stared at HER!” With fierce protectiveness, she explained to me that, as soon as she had noticed the woman’s stare progressing beyond curiosity into rudeness, she fixed the onlooker with an equally intense gaze. Finally, the woman averted her eyes and Marie was satisfied.
When my brother and I are conscious of an audience – a group of coffee drinkers sitting al fresco or a line of irritable customers at the store – he finds a way to enhance their daily experience. Not content that they should simply behold a blind girl traveling with her brother, he wrenches his arm out of my grasp and says loudly, “Let’s play Marco Polo!” This is my cue to pipe up in (false) frustration, exclaiming, “Sammy, I don’t want to!” He ignores my protest and starts to inch away from me, and I begin calling, “Marco…Marco” in what I hope is a timid, unhappy voice. Eventually, after we’ve heard a few horrified gasps, we reunite, giggling.
In one such case, we were wandering around Wal-Mart playing Marco Polo and laughing hysterically. We must have been a lot more visible and audible than I thought, because, as we were leaving, a greeter standing by the exit approached us. She stepped close to me, a little too close, and peered into my face. She turned to my brother and said, with a very heavy accent and in broken English, “This your sister?”
“Yes,” we both answered.
“She no see well?” she asked, continuing to stare at me.
“No,” he replied, caught off-guard. “She has low vision.”
The woman leaned toward me again, peering into my eyes (I imagine), and stepped back. She patted my shoulder and declared, “You have nice brother.”
She doesn’t know about the lemon rinds, I think to myself. Or how, when I’m searching for the sink in the kitchen, Sammy places my hands under the running water and says in a loud, serious voice a la Annie Sullivan, “Water! Water!”
And then there’s the time we were shopping at Chamblin, famous for its cramped aisles, boxes of books strewn everywhere. I was following Sammy down one aisle during a marathon trip (we both love books) and he alerted me to the boxes all along the aisle by loudly tapping them and saying, “Box!” I asked if he intended to hit every object in the store, so that I’d have a more thorough understanding of my environment, and he proceeded to smack the shelves and say “Shelf!” and wave his hand above his head and shout, “Ceiling!”
With one hand he piles unwanted lemon peels on my plate or takes an unexpected bite of the food I’ve just prepared, but with the other, he offers me tactile explanations, copying the motions of appliances or kitchen tools I want to understand. He affectionately called me a blindie, long before I adopted the term and used it in everyday conversation. When I got my dark sunglasses, he called me Stevie or Ray and teased me about making a holiday album with them – “You could call it The Blindies Do Christmas,” he joked.
Sometimes we enacted elaborate improvisations, where I would test-drive different occupations. My favorite was a scene in which I was a blind radiologist and he was my assistant. I would take the imaginary film and say, “Good heavens, this man’s lung looks terrible! We have to get him into surgery at once!”
Sammy would cough and respond, “Doctor, that’s a leg,” and I would exclaim, “What’s he doing with a lung in his leg?! This is serious!”
These moments remind me of two important lessons: 1) I should not take myself too seriously, and 2) I do have nice brother.