Early in my education I learned about Helen Keller, the deaf and blind girl from Alabama who was fortunate enough to cross paths with Anne Sullivan.
I remember, in about the fourth or fifth grade, traveling with my classmates to a movie theater in Raleigh to see the 1962 movie “The Miracle Worker” starring Ann Bancroft and a young Patty Duke.
The real life Helen Keller had the benefit of being born into a family of means. Her father was able to provide for a teacher (Sullivan) to work with his daughter one on one.
The relationship between Sullivan and the headstrong young Helen Keller grew into a lifetime friendship and the bonds they formed allowed Keller to accept the teaching she was receiving. Keller, of course, went on to become a lifelong advocate for the deaf and blind.
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She remains, to this day, the greatest American example of overcoming disabilities, that I can think of.
One of my sisters has had to deal most of her life with a profound hearing loss.
Like Helen Keller, I suppose, our parents were able to provide her with access to resources and she has always worked – and continues to work – to overcome the challenges her deafness presents.
She really is one of the real success stories of our family. It is striking to me, that she works now as a teacher of hearing-impaired students.
Those lessons from so long ago have come home to me in recent weeks as we begin to deal with my father-in-law’s worsening eyesight.
Over Thanksgiving, we sat around the table at his home outside South Hill, Va. and, on the table, tucked between the ham and mashed potatoes and turkey, was a very bright desklamp with the light directed over his plate.
Mr. Howbert has given up driving, even in broad daylight and my wife and her sister do their best to stay with him as much as possible.
Losing his sight has robbed him of some of his great pleasures including solving crossword puzzles and watching Andy Griffith reruns. Thankfully, he still has some peripheral vision and he can see enough to do a few things outside. And he can still tell people what to do to fix one of the half-dozen or so lawnmowers people bring to his house for him to fix.
Though he can still do some things, his increasing blindness is robbing him of his independence, something he’s enjoyed since he moved out of his parents home at the age of 18.
Mr. Howbert’s 87 now, and so it comes as surprise to no one, really, that he experiences his share of health issues. Blindness, though, isn’t one I typically associate with old age.
Unlike my sister and Helen Keller, Mr. Howbert’s situation isn’t a lifelong – or near-lifelong – circumstance. He won’t have a long lifetime to overcome his blindness. He’ll spend what he has left of his life accomodating this shortcoming and making do.
I am impressed with the matter-of-fact way he’s approached things. He’s become more accepting of help, something he wouldn’t have done just a few years ago. He’s ceded decision-making authority to his daughters on many – though not all – fronts. And he’s just so darn graceful about it all. I’m not sure I could be that graceful. In fact, I know darn well I couldn’t.
As a young adult, I joined the local Lions Club in the Virginia town where I met and married Mr. Howbert’s daughter. Lions International, if you don’t know it, has long sought to serve the visually impaired and blind.
Our club – like every other Lions Club – carried out what was called a White Cane fundraiser. I suppose those fundraisers take place in many different ways, but the club I joined was allowed to stand with buckets at key road intersections and other high-traffic locations all over town for several hours at a time collecting donations from passersby.
I was assigned to stand at the end of the drive-through lane at the local bank on payday. I wore my Lions Club apron and carried my white cane and my bucket and I hit up every bank patron who completed their transaction at the two-lane drive through.
At the time, it seemed like little more than a really fun way to raise money.
It seems like so much more than that now.