The Drop-Off Lesson

Once I had the street crossing trick under my belt we moved into a busier residential setting. Here I learned to judge and respect traffic. I learned to use my parallel traffic surge as the cue to begin my street crossing. I learned that a light controlled intersection is a much safer proposition than an uncontrolled one. I became savvy to the right turn on red and the danger of an idling car that was just sitting still.

“Okay,” began Jeff, as we moved on to training in a small business district. “This is going to be much more difficult and challenging. There’s going to be a lot more traffic, more noise, and more complicated intersections.”

We were standing at a relatively quiet street corner. I could hear the low rumble of traffic a block or two away. I can remember the excitement of tackling something new. “I’m ready,” I said, “What’s the scoop?”

“At the end of this block we’ll be moving into a business district. Instead of houses there will be stores and other businesses on both sides of the street. The first intersection is a simple light controlled one. I want you to cross it and continue straight to the next intersection. Wait for me when you get there and we’ll talk about the traffic pattern.”

So off I went. The first street crossing was uneventful. I waited for my parallel traffic surge and made my crossing neatly. I was finding it easier to make a straight crossing when I had parallel traffic to help with my orientation. At the next intersection I waited as Jeff had requested.

“Let’s step back a couple of steps and just listen for a minute,” said Jeff, as he approached my right shoulder.

I stepped back and pulled my cane in so that it was vertical and out of the way of passing pedestrians. Then I listened. After two full cycles of traffic I ventured an observation. “Is there a left turn lane for the parallel traffic?”

“Exactly,” Jeff confirmed. “What does that tell you about the timing of your crossing?”

“Well,” I said, thinking through the process. “When I hear the parallel traffic begin to move I need to wait and see if it’s the left turn cycle. Then I need to wait until I hear more of a surge and then I know it’s okay to cross.”

“You got it,” said Jeff. “Now go cross that street.”

So I did. I crossed street after street with Jeff instructing and correcting as we went. At the end of one block Jeff approached me and said, “Do you know what you just did?”

“No,” I replied, “why?”

Jeff laughed. “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t just seen it with my own eyes. A store back there was having a sidewalk sale. There were racks of clothes all over the place on the sidewalk. You walked neatly between the racks without so much as stirring a sleeve.”

Laughing, I said, “Well, heck, I knew you’d find out eventually. I’ve really been faking it all this time. I can see just fine.” As the words left my mouth I realized that this was an extraordinary statement for me to make. A few short months ago the simple thought of being able to see again would have sent me into a complete decline because, of course, my blindness was permanent. When had I started to be able to laugh at my own blindness? I had no idea when it had happened. It felt good though.

At the end of the summer I finished my last class at Samford University. I transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and signed up for three classes which began in September. Coincidental with this change Jeff suggested that I consider working as a volunteer at the blind rehab center at the VA medical center. The University is located adjacent to the medical center district of Birmingham so this combination afforded an opportunity for my training to progress to a complicated urban setting. Once Jeff helped me with an orientation to my classes he took me to the Southeastern Blind Rehab Center where he worked. He introduced me to Gina who helped me get signed up as a volunteer. My class schedule allowed me to attend my classes in the morning and walk over to the VA to do my volunteer work in the afternoon.

It never escaped my notice that my parents took what must have been, for them, a huge leap of faith every time they dropped me off at the University. Looking back I can appreciate the courage of my mother and father. I know that my safety was uppermost in their minds. I knew, too, that they wanted me to be able to develop the skills and attitudes that would lead to an independent life. I can remember my father telling me about one of his friends who had asked how I could possibly cross streets safely and navigate all around the medical district of Birmingham.

“Dr. Brown asked me, last night, how you can cross streets,” my father began.

“What did you tell him?” I responded.

“Oh,” said my father nonchalantly, “I just told him you cross with the light.” I didn’t have to be able to see the mischievous smile I knew my father would be wearing at the moment.

“And what did he say,” I asked.

“Nothing at all for a full minute. But then I took pity on him and explained how you can read traffic and all of that business about crossing with the surge of traffic.”

I knew that my father’s nonchalant mention of my street crossing abilities reflected his pride in my accomplishments. Although I was happy to have such discussions relayed to me I knew that the truth was far more complicated. Many were the times that, as I began a street crossing, I felt a swooping sensation somewhere in the middle of my body. I still couldn’t believe that I could do this thing and sometimes felt that I was crazy to try.

One afternoon, as I made my way from my last class to the VA, I was waiting to cross 18th Street. A man beside me told me it was okay to make the crossing. So I did. The trouble started half way across the street. I heard the cars on 18th Street begin their movement. Frightened, I stepped up my pace. The cars were whizzing so close behind me that I was sure I was going to be flattened any moment. With a flood of relief I gained the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.

“You’re not going to believe what just happened,” I began when I found Jeff in his office at the VA. I related the events of crossing 18th Street. Seizing another teachable moment Jeff gave me a good talking to about taking the word of a stranger.

“It’s your life and your safety that’s at stake here,” he began. “There’s only one person who is going to be as cautious about your safety as you are. And that person is you. Doesn’t matter if the Pope tells you it’s okay to cross. You cross only when you know it’s safe.”

Chastened, I resolved to follow Jeff’s instructions.

The day finally came for my “drop off” lesson. Jeff had told me this was coming but I had never been entirely sure that he’d make me do it. It seemed crazier than anything we’d done yet. In a “drop off” lesson, the instructor drops the student off at an unknown location and gives the student instructions about the destination only. There is no information relayed about the student’s current location or any idea of exactly how to get to the destination.

Jeff picked me up on a Saturday morning and we set off in his car. We drove around for a much longer time than usual and I was completely confused by the time Jeff stopped and we got out of his car.

“Are you lost?” Jeff said.

“Well of course I’m lost. We could be in Georgia for all I know,” I glared at him.

“Good,” he said. I glared some more. Completely unmoved by my dirty looks he continued, “Your destination is that restaurant at Brookwood Mall. You know, the one where we had dinner together last winter. Buss number 22 stops at the southwest corner of 22nd Street and 2nd Ave. North at 10:55. That’s the bus you want. Got it?

I may have tried to look disgusted but both Jeff and I knew the truth. I had been looking forward to this lesson since Jeff told me about it two months earlier. “Okay, got it.” And I turned away and started walking. When I reached the first intersection I stopped. “Okay,” I said to myself, “You can do this.” I took a deep breath. The first thing I had to figure out was the cardinal directions. I stood at the intersection and tried to decide where the sun was. I couldn’t feel it at all. I crossed the street and stopped on the other side. And there it was, behind me and to the left. So, I was walking west on the south side of an avenue. I listened to the traffic carefully. My parallel street seemed to be one way coming towards me. That meant it was moving east. For a minute I kind of panicked. What was I doing? What was the layout of the streets in Birmingham again? I couldn’t seem to remember. Taking another deep breath, I had to stop doing that or I’d be hyperventilating next, I tried to summon the map of downtown Birmingham to mind. Not wanting to appear lost I decided to continue walking west while I evaluated the situation. Then I heard the train. I had listened to the trains all my life. Without knowing how I knew, I was positive that this train was a freight train moving through the industrial part of north Birmingham and it was to my right. By the time I reached the next intersection I had decided to hypothesize that I was on 3rd Ave. North. But where on 3rd Ave. North. Listening carefully I decided that there wasn’t enough traffic for me to be in the middle of downtown which included 22nd Street, my destination. I couldn’t be east of 22nd or I’d be slap in the middle of the post office. I had to be west. I turned right around making me, I was sure, look way more lost than I would have if I had just stood still. I didn’t care though. I was on a roll. I had a mission.

I walked three blocks before I found anything to help me confirm or revise my hypothesis. As I made my fourth crossing I encountered an island half way across the street. Aha, I thought, 20th Street, Birmingham Green. Now, if the next street was one way north I’d, at least, have one part of my location figured out. I proceeded. Yes, the next street had one way traffic and it was moving north. I went ahead and crossed 21st and arrived at 22nd. If my hypothesis was correct I had to turn right and travel one block south, cross the street and that would be the bus stop. Arriving at, what I thought, was my destination I stopped. I looked at my watch. Thirty minutes to spare. I smiled. Then I started thinking. What if this was 4th instead of 2nd? Running through what I had done so far and what I knew about the layout of the streets I suddenly realized that I could, in fact, actually be on either one of these streets. What to do? Picturing the street grid I realized that if I went one more block south that would tell me definitely where I was. If I was on 4th the next street south would be one way west. If that street, instead, carried two way traffic it would be 1st Ave.

The next street ended up being one way west. Thankful that I had thought to double check myself I crossed 3rd and arrived, for sure, at the intersection of 22nd Street and 2nd Ave., North. I waited, thinking carefully about the mistake I had almost made. A car pulled up into the bus stop and a man emerged. I paid no attention until he spoke to me for the second time. “Are you waiting for a bus?” he asked.

“Yes, bus 22,” I replied.

“That bus doesn’t run on Saturday.” He got in his car and left. “Oh great, what to do now?” I thought. I stood there leaning on my cane and thinking vaguely of calling a cab. Then I heard a familiar voice in my ear.

“He didn’t know what he was talking about,” said Jeff. And then he vanished.

I continued to wait and the bus came. Hugely relieved I boarded and paid my fare. Then I confirmed that this was the bus to Brookwood Mall. Sitting down I sighed. Okay, one part done. I followed the movement of the bus carefully. We went to the top of the hill on 22nd, turned right on Highland and then left onto the Red Mountain Expressway. We then went straight through Homewood and took the looping exit onto Lakeshore. We turned onto Lakeshore heading east and then into Brookwood Mall. But which intrance? I questioned the driver before exiting the bus. After it pulled away I immediately realized that I hadn’t understood his description. The traffic on Lakeshore was behind me. I had thought the driver told me I was in front of Rich’s but this didn’t jive with what I heard. Making another hypothesis I decided that I was on the long side of the mall instead of at the end, where the main entrance to Rich’s was located. I gritted my teeth. I would have to cross this access street with no traffic control. I waited and waited. Finally I felt it was as good as I was going to get and crossed the street, almost running. Okay, now what? The only entrances to the mall on this side of the building led into parking decks. Pretending more bravery than I felt I walked ahead. I was walking up a ramp. That was the best I could have hoped for. There was only one deck that had a ramp up. With the end of this adventure in sight I hoofed it around the periphery of the deck, located the stairs and entered the mall right at the restaurant. I stood still for a moment.

“Super job!” said Jeff, at my right elbow. I hugged him and we both laughed joyfully. We entered the restaurant and had a celebratory lunch.

My formal rehabilitation training was drawing to an end. As Vera had done last June Jeff assured me that he would always be available if something came up with which I needed his help. As the one year anniversary of my vision loss approached I reflected on the past year. I had gone from despair to triumph in just twelve months. I thought back to Father Carroll and his concept of letting go of life as a sighted person in order to embrace it as a blind person. I never had gotten around to reading his book. Yet his concept of death and rebirth seemed to have carried me forward in a way that I could not have imagined. Jeff and Vera had taught me many skills. They had also done something for me which was quite intangible. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what this intangible thing was. It was attitude, certainly. But it was more than that. Perhaps I had been thinking of myself as a damaged version of my old self. Somewhere along the line that concept didn’t fit anymore. I realized, quite clearly, that blindness had become, as Vera and Jeff had told me it would, just a part of who I was. It wasn’t the most important part anymore. I had somehow become a whole and complete person who just happened to be blind.