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“My name is Iris. I was named after this ancient and beautiful Greek goddess representing a rainbow. Like all rainbows, I’m pretty sure I’m gay, though it’s a bit early to tell, says my mother. I am ten.” Or I could say “My name is Iris. I live inside your eye. I can see all you see. I am part goddess and all-powerful.” Or, I could say, “My name is Iris. Like the blue flower of the same name, I bring a message of hope.”

– Mom, which one do you like best?

– What is this for?

– The girl guides.

– Go with the last one.

– It’s kind of lame.

– Which one would you choose?

– The first one.

– Did I ever say it was too early to tell if you were gay?

– Come on, mom, play with me.

– I still vote for the last one. You’re going to creep them out with number 2 and freak them out with number 1.

– But will they remember number 3?

– Sweetie, there is no way anybody can forget you.

Hmm, did I mention I am blind? I usually stand out, even if I wanted to blend in. So, anyway, here we are at my first day of girl guides in this new town. I am wearing my uniform and wielding my cane, feeling confident. Mom drove me and reads in a corner, ready to assist if need be. It’s mostly for the comfort of the lady in charge. You have to take care of the sighted. They tend to be afraid of us blind people.

– Girls, we have a new recruit. Her name is Iris like the Greek goddess of the mythology represented by a rainbow. Iris is also the name of the blue flower we studied this summer. Iris, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself?

Uh oh, she took out #1 and #3. I am forced to go with #2. I take a deep breath, aiming for a creepy voice. “My name is Iris. I am 11. I was born blind and I’m okay with it. I may need a little help at the start, but I adapt pretty well. Could each of you introduce yourself so I can remember your voice? Maybe tell me a little bit about yourself? I am new at girl guides, but I am sure I will like it.” Lame, lame, lame. All my courage left me. Still, I am standing tall and waiting. I feel a little hand settle into mine.

– I am Mindy, says a small voice. I am nine and I’ve never had a blind friend. Welcome to our troupe.

– I am Carol, I’m 11 like you. I’m new in town and hope to make friends. This is my third time with this troupe. They’re okay.

Shouts of protests. “We’re awesome!” I think I’m going to fit in just swell. My smile broadens as I relax.

– I am Jaya. I am named after the Hindu goddess for Victory. Mindy is my sister.

I nod, impressed. These girls rock.

– I am Jackie! I am Robin! Welcome! Welcome!
They are swarming me, in a friendly way. I can feel their smiles and enthusiasm.

– Can you tell us how you use your cane? What is it like to be blind?

They weren’t told what not to ask!

The troupe leader steps in. “Girls! Give her a bit of room!”

They hush, and retreat, except for Mindy, still holding my hand. Here goes with my spiel.

“First, if you see someone with a white cane and cool shades, it’s okay to come to them and introduce yourself. Don’t touch them (I squeeze Mindy’s hand) if you don’t want to startle them. Most blind people see shadows at best. Our eyes are hypersensitive to light. That’s why we wear sunglasses. You may want to help. If that is the case, ask the person if you may help them in some way. “Mindy, you want to try?”

She lets go of my hand and walks a few steps back. “Hello, my name is Mindy. May I help you?”

– Hi Mindy. My name is Iris. I need help crossing this busy street.

The room is silent. I have everybody’s attention.

– Now, let me take your arm and you can walk with me across. I will follow along.

We walk across the make-believe intersection. Mindy is mindful. “Watch your step,” she whispers. I wield my cane in front of me and take an exaggerated step up. We’ve made it to the sidewalk. Applause. We bow.

– Do you want to learn how I use my cane?

I’m on fire. I am surrounded by friendly people and I feel safe.

– Yes, they reply.

– You hold it lightly. The cane is like a divining rod. To find water, yes? Except, in our case, we’re looking for our way around. Then you sweep in front of you, tapping the ground lightly where your foot will land. You’re trying to determine if there is anything on the ground, a hole, a bump, an object. “Mindy, do you want to be the blind person and I will guide you?” Silence. “If you nod, I can’t see you. You have to speak up and say what you want.” “Yes, I would like to try.” I steel myself as I take off my glasses and hand over my cane. I feel naked without my attributes.

The door opens and something shifts in the room. “Hi Marsha,” comes Jackie’s sunny voice. Nobody else greets her. The troupe leader whispers to her. “We’re getting a lesson from Iris, the new troupe member, on how to properly help a blind person cross a busy intersection. You can introduce yourself after the demonstration.”

Mindy announces she’s ready.

– Before we start, you and I are not the same height, so the cane will not work as well for you. If any of you skis, you’ll know that the salesperson will fit you with poles according to your height. It’s the same idea. Now, close your eyes and spin around. Now, Stop!
I say, loudly, “Hello, my name is Iris. May I help you?”

– Hi, my name is Mindy. I want to go to the pharmacy next to the bank. I’m afraid I got lost.

– She’s facing the wall, shouts Marsha.

Time for a bit of tough love. I open my eyes which show a filmy white, quite repulsive to sighted people, I am told.

– Hey, Marsha. I’m Iris. I’m blind. Your comment doesn’t help. I’m going to tell you guys about echolocation. Please y’all, get up and face a wall. Now, Mindy, say your name out loud.

– Mindy!

– Now do a half-turn so your back is to the wall. Say your name again.

– Mindy!

– Everybody else do the same thing, one by one.

They do. I hear next the now-familiar voices, Jaya, which her slight accent, Jackie, energetic and sunny, Marsha, sulky, Carol, cautious, Robin, playful.

– Did you notice a difference?

Carol volunteers, “The sound is a bit deeper when it bounces off the wall.”

– Yes, exactly, Carol. You can figure out where obstacles are by listening how the sound travels. Research it on YouTube. Now, I will offer my arm to Mindy and we’ll cross the street.

We walk a few meters. I had automatically counted my steps previously, so I call out “curb” at the appropriate time. We step up and “land” on the sidewalk to scattered applause as this is no longer a new event. Mindy hands me back my glasses and cane. It feels warm and a bit moist to the touch. Her vibes are still in it, tentative and light. I feel better.

The troupe leader chimes in. “Thank you, Iris and Mindy. Marsha, do you want to say a few words about yourself?”

– Hi Iris. I’m Marsha. Me and Jackie are the oldest members of the troupe. We go to Sunnyview High. You’re new here?

– Hi Marsha. I’m new at girl guides.

I stop there. She is not my friend and I’m tired of being in the spotlight.

The troupe leader senses the awkwardness and moves right along. “All right, let’s all sing the Guide Marching Song and then one of you can explain to Iris what guiding is about.”

On our way home, I’m quiet. Mom doesn’t press. She knows I will talk when I’m ready. I let her take my hand in hers. It settles me. “She stole your intro. I was shocked when she mentioned the goddess.” Mom chuckles. “I was proud of you. You turned on a dime.”

She does this all the time because she knows I can’t resist. “What does that mean?”

“You turn quickly, as if your foot were on a coin.”

– Ahhhh. I ponder this for a while. “I’ll find a way to use it. Thanks. How is your book?”

– It’s fabulous! We’ve got another victim from a blow to the head. I don’t think a blow to the head would be enough to kill me. I have a thick head.

– The sisters were nice.

– Yes, I liked them both.

– Do you think a blow of the cane to Marsha’s head…

– Don’t go there.

 

Blind

She disagreed that the eyes were the mirror of the soul. Had this been the case, her blind mother’s soul would have a faraway, disinterested feel. No, she knew hands did the trick. The way her mother held her close, gently, lovingly, as though she were an egg – yes, fragile, and full of life. Her mother’s hand unconsciously looked for hers when they went outside. They were attentive, in tune with her changing moods. You could have a conversation with those hands. They were animated and strong. They laughed and sang. My mother was full-blooded Italian. There was nothing shy or retiring about her. She owned her blindness. It did not own her by any stretch of the imagination.

My mom’s best friend was uncle Thomas, her baby brother, always at her side. He was sighted and took care of her. Mom said that she didn’t do much before he came along but when he did, they became inseparable. They climbed trees together, way high. She was not afraid of heights and she was uncannily good at finding foot- and handholds. He loved heights and was a daredevil. He pushed her out of her comfort zone yet was also fiercely protective of her. They made a good pair. When they were teenagers, she learned to apply makeup using him as a mirror. He was her confidante. She was strikingly beautiful with long black hair and dark eyebrows. She had many friends, but no boyfriend. They lived in a small community. Thomas would accompany her to the dance hall even though he was underage. He would get a Coke for himself, and a rum and coke for her. He was a good talker and a good dancer. They would meet up with her friends — he was never short of female attention. Still, he kept an eye on her while having a good time. One evening, she whispered to him “Thomas, who is the tall man?” He looked around. Sure enough, there was a tall man he didn’t know. “Do you want me to find out and invite him over?” “Yes. Don’t tell him I’m blind,” she added urgently. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied lightly.

He thought she must have heard something special in his voice. This was an unusual request. She never mentioned she was blind. It was as though it never occurred to her. But of course it did; she just didn’t make a fuss about it. Chastened, he headed over to the stranger who was talking with Charlie and Bruce. They greeted him and introduced him to Peter, Bruce’s cousin. “Good thing you came over, Tom. Peter was looking for a way to go talk to your sister. He’s a bit shy for a city slicker. You mind taking him over?” Tom looked at Peter. He looked friendly enough, did not flinch upon his gaze, did not look away. There was something frank and open about him that Tom liked. He didn’t grill him much, did not want to make him squirm. He also did not want to keep his sister waiting. He was curious. He tried to hit upon things they might both like to make the introduction easier. “Do you play any musical instrument?” he asked. We always marvelled at that when we heard the story. “How did you think to ask, uncle Tom?” “I must have been divinely inspired,” he would always reply. “I sing,” he replied. Well, that was unusual for a man to admit. “What do you sing?” asked Tom. “Operas, mostly.” “Would you like to meet my sister Bianca? She loves music.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

Our house was always full of drama – between an opera singer and an Italian mother, there was passion and laughter, screams of delight and fury. Sparks, they called it. “It won’t start a fire, darling, don’t worry,” they would reassure me. Dad took uncle Tom’s place. Uncle Tom was his best man, and he was uncle Tom’s when the time came. The two families were close, blindness a side story, like a woman who was a bad cook or a man who loved to dress up as a woman. Something odd that you might mention when whiling away the time, but not scandalous in our little community. The fact is, mama was a beauty and all the men were jealous of papa.

Even in old age, her hands were still beautiful, having mellowed with time, the age spots like wrinkles at the crease of her eyes. Her long pale fingers read the faces of her grandchildren as a smile spread about her face. In her melodious voice, she told fabulous stories of all she had seen. The kids were puzzled: “How did you see?” She would gently tell them to close their eyes and listen. “Let’s go for a ride,” she would say. They would push her wheelchair about, “No peeking!”, and listen with her to the sounds all around. “I bet that’s Mrs Wilson. Hear how she shuffles her feet just so? And the birds stopped singing – I bet Dr Darcy’s cat is lying in wait.” They would open their eyes then. Sure enough, there was Mrs Wilson, and in the tall grass, tail awhippin’ was the calico cat, ready to pounce. “What else did you see?” they would ask, again and again, pushing her among the rosebushes of the cemetery. It was handy to stroll in the graveyard. No fast cars, gentle slopes, and greenery all around. They would always end up at papa’s grave. She would get up and put her hand on the headstone, trace the writing with her finger. On the return trip, she would be lost in thought.

Papa was her only blind spot. Even when I would point out his obvious faults, reminding her of their epic fights, there was no convincing her. She would say, pensively, “Funny, I always thought you were his favourite.” The fault was never his, her faith in him unwavering.