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The spots first showed up when I was twenty-five. I began to notice dark patches in my vision and a lot of blurriness. "You have retinopathy," the eye specialist told me. Laser treatments and eye surgeries didn't help. A year later, I was blind.
After three months at a residential facility where newly blind adults learn daily living skills, I was able to go home for the holidays. Christmas of 1985 marked my blind debut to my six older siblings.
Until then, holiday conversation had focused on my latest adventures—my honeymoon to Scotland or the latest piece I was writing. I knew that this year, things would be different.
I remember one hard moment in particular. We had a tradition of drawing names from a hat and making gifts for the family member whose name we drew. Despite my hospitalizations and ongoing rehab, I was not exempt from this ritual. When it was my turn to give my present on Christmas Day, I proudly held out the gift I’d made and wrapped myself: a wooden box designed and assembled in my home maintenance class at the residential facility. I was proud of the box and eager to talk about how I’d made it on my own.
One of my brothers-in-law asked, “Someone else cut the wood for you, right?” I replied with an indignant “No!” But he persisted: “Really? How did you measure the wood? How did you cut it? You didn’t use a saw, I know that!” I started explaining how a Braille ruler works. But at that point I’d already lost my audience to another conversation. I ended up feeling rejected and misunderstood.
But for the most part, the day felt like any other Christmas. My blindness took a backseat to the usual Christmas chaos. Following dinner, I spent the rest of the evening as I always had: camped at the dining room table drinking coffee and laughing with my sisters.
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In a way, the fact that my family ignored my blindness and treated me more or less like they had before helped me believe that’s who I still was.
My husband, Mike, asked if it bothered me that no one in my family checked in on how I felt. But my family has always focused more on practicalities. We don’t get into the emotional stuff. Aside from my brother-in-law’s disbelief at my ability to use a saw, my blindness and my feelings were not a focus. In a way, the fact that my family ignored my blindness and treated me more or less like they had before helped me believe that’s who I still was.
As time has passed, I’ve learned more about what that Christmas was like for my family. My brother Doug told me recently that he had been afraid to talk to me. He was worried about saying the wrong thing. In the din of Christmas cheer that day, I never noticed his silence. He’s a professional jazz musician, and he later wrote me a song. My blindness is mentioned once in the song, but my favorite line is the one repeated in the refrain where he calls me “charmingly annoying.”
Beth Finke took up knitting after her first blind Christmas. Until last year, the lucky relative she chose in the Christmas lottery received a handmade knitted hat. But this Christmas will be different. She picked her niece, who will receive a copy of Aunt Beth's third book, "Writing Out Loud,” published earlier this year.
Beth now has steady work moderating a national blog for Easterseals National; she leads four memoir-writing classes for older adults in Chicago every week; her essays have aired on National Public Radio and Chicago Public Radio WBEZ; and she is the recipient of a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Image credit: Elisha Knight