Life Is To Live
By Ernest Jones
“You are legally blind. Your days of driving your car, your days working as a nurse are over. You won’t be able to operate your garden tiller, mow the lawn or use any power tools,” the ophthalmologist said as I sat in stunned silence.
I was only 46 years old with a wife and a three-year-old daughter. I had struggled to earn my RN degree and for the past eight years enjoyed my work as the first male nurse in this rural hospital. I worked hard so the administration would never regret hiring me and was respected by my co-workers, doctors and other hospital staff.
I started wearing glasses—ugly, thick glass lenses—before I started first grade but had progressed to contact lenses when I turned 21.
After working as an orderly in the local hospital for several years, I landed a job with the Washington State Department in Olympia, Washington, working in the emerging computer field where it took a large room to house one computer and its brains and drives.
At age 37, with a gentle prodding from my employer, I returned to college in Longview, Washington to earn my RN license and was hired by a rural hospital in northeast Washington one week before graduating.
For years I refused to admit I might go blind. With contacts, no one knew I had any trouble with my eyes. In fact, I also forgot there was a problem since my straight-ahead eyesight was so clear.
But after not seeing a person only a few feet away from my line of vision, and one time running into another nurse while walking down the hall, I made the appointment for a thorough eye test. My life changed forever.
“But doctor, what am I to do? How do we live with no income? I’m too young to retire.”
“Sign up for Social Security,” he replied. “I am sorry but the tunnel vision has progressed too much—your peripheral vision is reduced to only five percent of what it should be. People are legally blind when the peripheral vision has decreased to 15 percent—you are at only five percent.”
“But, I can easily read the lines on the syringe when I draw up medication, I know I am safe. I am the one often called upon to read a doctor’s difficult handwriting. I enjoy this work.”
“The tunnel vision has progressed slow enough for you to adapt to the loss. I am sure you are safe,” his voice faltered. “You have really no other choice, I’m sorry.”
Back home I began to stress out—blackness loomed over the horizon. Was I to give up everything I enjoyed in life? Was I supposed to just sit on my rump and have people feel sorry for me?
Early afternoon the next day, I told my wife I was going for a walk. It was a beautiful mid-October day and the air was warm as I set off.
Crossing the gravel country road, I crawled through an old barbed wire fence and started the climb—there wasn’t a trail but this was not a problem. In some places I used my hands to pull myself up the steep hillside or to spread aside some brush to get through. I climbed around large Douglas firs, Ponderosa Pine trees, and giant outcroppings of rock.
Ducking under more tree limbs, I emerged into sunlight and stood on the top—I had found my granite slab.
I walked to a stunted pine tree that struggling to hold on to life as it grew out of a four-inch crack in the slab. Sitting next to the pine tree, I surveyed the valley below. There was the town and the hospital where I should have been working instead of sitting on this rock.
I bowed my head, refusing to allow any tears to fall but still having a “poor me” pity party. But after maybe five minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I stood up and took another look around at the hillside stretching far beyond and marveled at the glorious beauty. The Tamarack, or otherwise known as Western Larch, stood in their royal golden autumn robes interspersed with the dark green fir and pine trees. Below me stood the maple, and aspen in hues of yellow to crimson—mixed in were green cedar trees growing near the stream.
I breathed in the fresh air, free from any city smog as I stared at the beautiful land I loved.
Turning, I looked at the struggling pine tree. Though probably 15 years old, it only reached six feet into the air. Its spring growth was stunted by its struggle to gain nourishment and water in that narrow crack in the granite slab.
“If you can do it, so can I,” I shouted to the tree. “We will both survive what is thrown at us—we won’t give up.”
Suddenly, life looked good. Maybe the doctor was wrong and my eyesight would not shrink into blackness. I knew then, even if he was right, that I wouldn’t be a couch potato.
Other than short periods of feeling sorry for myself, my pity party was over. I had a life to live with or without eyesight. Thus began my life as a blind man.
The first thing I did was ignore the doctor’s words regarding my activity. I stopped driving the car, and I was out of work, but I continued using the lawnmower, the garden rototiller, skill saw, and even my chainsaw.
I spent hours that first autumn of retirement roaming the hillsides, storing up memories that could not be taken away from me. I watched the Tamarack change from their beautiful golds to be stripped of their glory and stand naked through the cold winter months.
Winter’s heavy snow and bitter cold kept me near our homestead, but once early spring growth started, I was out again climbing the hills, always searching for new sights.
No longer being allowed to drive our family pickup, I stopped wearing the contact lens in my right eye.
I was walking up one of the old, overgrown, abandoned logging roads one afternoon when I rammed my head into a fallen tree lying across the road. Though it hurt, I noted no bleeding so I ducked under the slender trunk and continued on.
I walked maybe another 300 feet when the thought hit me, what if I lost my contact lens? I was walking through a forest of small alder trees that continually slapped at me. What would I do if one of these branches wiped my left contact out of my eye? How would I find my way back to the gravel country road, let alone clear home? My wife had no idea where I was, only that I was out walking.
I turned around and retraced my steps when, with a hard blow, I cracked my head into that same fallen tree. This time I felt sticky fluid running down my forehead and knew I had cut myself, but I was sure it was not serious and continued on home.
My wife really let me know how she felt about my walks when she took one look at me. “Look at you,” she scolded. “You are hurt, just look at that blood.”
“I can’t look at it,” I quipped as we walked into the bathroom where she gently washed my face.
For me, hiking through the woods or up abandoned logging roads was a lot better than sitting on my bottom and feeling sorry for myself—what better way was there to free myself from the stress of a changing life?
Today, I no longer have any eyesight, not even a hint of light. Still, I am doing what others tell me I have no business doing, like cutting away tree limbs from off our porch roof, or using my small electric chainsaw to remove some older trunks in my filbert shrubs.
I still have a large garden, mostly in long raised beds, in which I grow produce not only for fresh eating but also to fill canning jars and the freezer with food for the winter. I do the planting, weeding, watering, and most of the harvesting with my wife’s help in picking such produce as tomatoes. I even surprise people when I show my peanut plants or the harvested peanuts at the close of the growing season.
I have had a monthly column in our local newspaper for over 12 years in which I offer encouragement to other blind people while trying to show the sighted world that blindness doesn’t make us any different. We are still like them, only we can’t see.
I have taken long walks with my guide dog, walking where my sighted family felt I needed help, but my guide dog and I walked with no difficulty.
Life has too much to offer then for me to just sit on my bottom and make the world feel sorry for me. Life is to live, and I intend to live it the best I can.
Ernest Jones worked as a hospital orderly in Washington state for sixteen years before returning to college to earn his registered nursing degree. Unfortunately, Ernie’s nursing career was cut short by fading eyesight. For the past 12 years, he has had a monthly newspaper column in which he encourages those losing their eyesight to persevere and teaches the sighted that blindness is not the end to a good life. He has been a contributing author for Christian Record Services, the Dialogue magazine, Consumer, among others. Ernie has authored one book Onesimus the Run Away Slave, available through Authorhouse publishers and as an e-book through Amazon.