And a cuddle bug shall lead them all …

Two years ago, I received my eighth Seeing Eye dog, a 50-lb Lab/Golden Retriever mix named Abby. I’ve traveled with dogs at my side for over 30 years, so I was not prepared for how much I still had to gain from the experience.

I met my first pup, a Golden Retriever named Matt, when I was a clueless college student. I didn’t realize what it meant to take responsibility for a furry creature. You have to feed, walk, and pick up after them, even when you are sick, hungover or just don’t want to be bothered.

Blog author Linda Pelfrey with her yellow Lab, Abby

It took a while for Linda and Abby to find their groove, but now, cuddles and hugs are a regular part of their daily routine.

Each subsequent dog taught me life lessons.

  • A tiny Yellow Lab named Rainbow bounced into my world with a personality befitting her name. Her sudden and untimely death was a stark reminder of the heartbreak that is the price we pay for loving another being.
  • My Shepherd mix, Maggie, could work traffic like a dream and find all my favorite restaurants. The day she dropped a friend’s deceased bird at my feet taught me she was first and foremost a dog, and the poor dead bird was my responsibility. Maggie redeemed herself when she got me to a safe place after we were mugged while walking home.
  • My sweet Kallie lived with me till the age of 15, and it was an honor to care for her as her health declined. I held her paw as she left us. She was my “Diva Princess,” and memories of her cause me to smile.

Abby’s predecessor, Layla, is tough and spirited, and working with her was like having the perfect dance partner. She had a confident stride as we walked down the street. Her spunky personality along with just the right touch of attitude made her one of my favorites. When illness caused me to have difficulty with balance,  Layla slowed her pace, and I could lean on her strength literally and figuratively.

She was the dog whose strength of spirit made me just a little braver when I wanted to stay home under the covers. She was named by me for Laila Ali (daughter of the former heavyweight champion of the world and herself a professional boxer) and she lived up to her name. Layla was my warrior princess.

Sadly, Layla experienced a form of post traumatic reaction after being attacked by off-leash dogs in our neighborhood. Her fear of dogs became so severe that it put us both at risk. The school, along with a behavior specialist, gave me tools to help Layla recover. This meant I had to be prepared to manage Layla’s stress reactions whenever she saw or heard another dog.

To her credit, Layla worked despite intense anxiety. I know in retrospect this came at a high cost to her, my warrior princess so named because of her strength of spirit.

The only thing left I had to give was a home with a loving family. I took immense comfort in the assurance that her “forever family” would give her all the love and support she deserved as a retiree. She now has four children to play with and look after.

Saying goodbye was wrenching. When I traveled to meet my next dog, I did so with a grieving heart.

Years of doing life with a dog – one that I am reliant on for my independence and so many times, safety – taught me my relationships with these dogs aren’t sappy Disney gigs. It takes hard work, patience, trust and lots of love.

It isn’t a walk in the park for the pups, either. They must say goodbye to the family who raises them and a trainer with whom they have bonded over a period of months. Then they meet the person they will hopefully guide for many years. They leave the comfort of everything they know to travel to a place where their new handler is now their world.

Each of my pups has been trained at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J.; the staff knows my environment and preferences.

Abby was chosen because of her easy nature and the fact she was not distracted by other dogs. Also, she was selected for training on my right side because of an injury to my left arm. (Typically, dogs work on a person’s left side)

I am a blind chick with more than a touch of snark. However, Abby – described by her trainer as a “cuddle bug” – seemed poorly matched with my edgy temperament. I wanted to run – not walk – back to the airport and go home with no dog.

But there was no back-up dog waiting in the wings. I knew my particular circumstance meant I had two choices: Suck it up and do my best, or run like hell back to Ohio.

I chose the former, took Abby’s leash, and a new chapter began.

The next two weeks in New Jersey were a whirlwind of activity. Our days began at 5:30 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. after our dog’s last constitutional. Every moment is about working and bonding with a new guide.

Abby’s trainer called her the “perfect pup,” because her work was slow and deliberate. Her “paycheck” was all the snuggles and hugs I could manage.

However, what I did not share was how my aversion to touch and Abby’s need for physical contact was pushing me way beyond my typical level of comfort. I considered working to curb Abby’s cuddling behavior. I tried to teach her there is a time and place, but I knew in my soul her desire for physical contact is an integral part of who she is.

When we arrived home, Abby’s work was excellent. She accompanied me to my job, to the food pantry where we volunteer, and to several concerts and festivals. As long as I rocked her to sleep before bed and gave her lots of cuddly toys, we were all good.

She is my “pack and go” pup because I can take her anywhere as long as she is back home and in bed by 9 p.m.  Definitely not a party animal!

I think God has a twisted sense of humor and is laughing uproariously at snarky me being matched with “cuddle bug” Abby.

Months passed, and one day I realized the warmth of a dog on my shoulder no longer caused anxiety. In fact, I was beginning to find comfort through connection with a pup that possesses a gentle spirit and loving heart.

As I look back on a journey I would not have taken if I was asked, I know that sometimes we get what we need rather than what we want.

There is no “fixing” Abby, or me either. We aren’t broken.  She is still a cuddle-bug, and I’m still the snarky blind chick who is perhaps a little softer these days. There is the diligent worker in harness and the Abby whose hugs bring comfort to someone who is having a difficult time.

I now have eight sets of paw prints on my heart. If I drew them, each would be unique.

Abby’s exudes love, acceptance and the healing power of connection.

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On seeing the differences in blindness

Linda is a blind woman wearing peach sweater and gray pants; she is standing near church altar with her service dog, Abby, a yellow Lab.

Linda and Abby at church. Blind since birth, Linda has nonetheless had to navigate what being blind means in her life.

My brother Jim and I have been blind since birth. However, while journaling recently, I realized that there was a time I didn’t fully comprehend what it means to be totally blind.

Much of the progress on my journey toward knowing I am blind comes from family anecdotes, along with pieces of memory that have come to the forefront of my consciousness through the process of writing.

My first clear recollection: I was in kindergarten. Someone asked, “Can she see at all?”  My teacher replied, “No,” to which I said, “Yes I can.”  I didn’t have a clue what “see” meant, but telling me I couldn’t do something was completely unacceptable!

In retrospect, the silence that followed was either because my pronouncement fell on ears that did not hear … or because the teachers were left speechless by my naive belief that I could see.

Then there was the time (during one of those sibling arguments) that I screamed at my little brother, “You’re blind!” and laughed.

He started crying, until my mother reminded me, “So are you.”

I didn’t know what “blind” meant, but I had a good time making my little brother cry. The fact I used this as a bullying tactic tells me even then I knew “blind” wasn’t something anyone was champing at the bit to experience.

Lack of physical sight made no sense because I didn’t know what I didn’t have.

I cannot pinpoint the precise moment when the light came on, and I got it: Blind means you have eyes but they don’t work.

All this sad…angry…scared…but not from me.  I loved my new Braille books, and gobbled them up like the best holiday dinner ever. The feel of a puppy’s soft fur made me giggle uncontrollably. Listening to records that played music and some that read me stories sent my imagination into faraway places of beauty and adventure.

This realization was a gradual process. I put the reality of my world together like trying to make pieces fit into a particularly challenging puzzle. Some of those pieces looked like this:

• Saying the word “blind” made Mama cry and Daddy get real serious, and told me to always talk to him (before Mama) about “being blind” (whatever that was).

• I read with my fingers, while other children did not. The books others read were funny because they didn’t have bumps. How did anybody know what was on the page if you couldn’t “feel” the words?

• I held Mama’s hand at all times while walking; not so with other kiddos. Why couldn’t I run and play without people getting all scared and upset?

• Mama got angry because “people are staring at my kid.” (What is staring?)

• Dancing in the living-room was way fun until someone told me to stop.

• “Bear” was my best friend because I could hug him real tight.  (I still don’t know why I tore his eyes out.)

• Running through the gym was freeing, until I busted my front teeth slamming full force into a wall that didn’t move.

• Proudly drawing a dog the way I saw him was super cool, until no one else knew he was a dog.

Eventually, I got it. My little brother and I were not like the rest of our family; we were blind. I now understood the defiant little girl who stomped her foot, declaring “yes, I can see” had been mistaken. Still, I held on to her because she was all spirit and fire.

I know the adults in my life did the best they could with limited resources.  My parents were in their early twenties, and definitely weren’t anticipating having two blind children. In a way, we all grew up together in a time when there were few resources for parents of blind children.

With age came knowledge, and I now knew the word that made people sad or angry simply meant I didn’t have the ability to see with my eyes. What I “saw” was what sighted folk called “dark.” (another super-scary word).

Growing up, my brother and I adjusted just fine to a lack of physical sight.  What came later was an awareness of the straight-up terror that the word “blind” evoked in others.

As a teen, my father pointed out that I was a very angry young woman. He believed I was angry at him and my mom because I was blind. He was correct about the anger, but completely wrong about its cause.

When I look back on how I came to understand the word “blind,” I do so through the lens of a much-older woman.  So yeah, I get being sad, angry, and scared, which I felt when around adults who knew this world is difficult for anyone. If you are blind, well, “it must be one hell of a rough ride.”

As for my mom and dad: Being a parent of a kid with a disability is probably much harder than being that kid.

“People might say our parents gave us ‘tough love,’” my brother Jim shared. “What they provided was, sometimes life isn’t fair. Yes, people will discriminate against you. If you come home drunk, you will get a butt whipping, and yes, you fail algebra, there are consequences.

“My dad asked me, ‘would you rather not be born?’” he continued. “Sorry, world, you got me on Sept. 25, 1963. I am so blessed that people love Linda, and I, and think we are so damn funny.”

What kind of insight has blindness given me? The same inclinations as everyone else. I’m gonna go draw a dog, dance in my living room, and pet a puppy.

Are you there, God? It’s me, Linda

For those waxing sentimental about blind folks not seeing color, thus never having to examine their own attitudes about race, read on.

Three years ago, I began experiencing a transformation with regards to how I perceive racism, poverty and more. At the time, I shared my thoughts with trusted mentors. On one hand, my heart was opening, which was freeing and exhilarating. But I would also experience paralyzing anxiety.

Reviewing films for a radio broadcast was (in part) a catalyst for placing me on the path that turned my comfortable world upside down.

For reasons I didn’t understand, matters of race were showing up in ways that pulled me out of my carefully constructed comfort zone. And I discovered a journey of transformation carries joy, pain and fear. There is no growth without stumbling.

I flat out panicked when attempting to write about glaring racial themes in film. It was like almost touching a flame and then pulling back my hand so I wouldn’t get burned.

Linda and her service dog, Abby.

People who are blind do, indeed, “see” color. In this blog, Linda gets real about her fears, her talks with God, and how she’s rededicated herself to keep learning and advocating, even through the uncomfortable conversations around race.

As a blind woman, I am more than up to the task of exploring disability as it’s portrayed in film. I can speak to the struggles and challenges of living In a sighted world. As a white woman, however, I cannot speak meaningfully to the experience of a person of color who endures the effects of systemic racism while navigating daily life.

I focused on characters with disabilities. As I researched and collaborated, it was impossible to disregard intersections between disability, poverty, invisibility and race. What I saw wasn’t new—I was connecting with what had always spoken to my spirit.

Seeds had been firmly planted; this tumultuous yet freeing path served to bring me full circle to the person I believed had ceased to exist.

Still, how could I tell a story that doesn’t belong to me? The potential for missteps and just plain screwing up caused me to falter.

Unrelenting nudges guided me to a place of thoughtful listening and contemplation. I stopped scrolling by the Facebook posts reminding me that black lives matter as much as white ones. I no longer ignored articles that spoke of loss, anger and frustration experienced by persons of color.

In a moment of “seriously, you want me to do what?” I asked God why He had called me to this path.

“You opened my heart to the narratives of people who put their lives on the line to obtain the most basic of rights,” I said. “You showed me that although these struggles remain in shadow—they still exist. So why would you let me see, and then leave me powerless to change anything? Surely in this moment, no person of color wants to hear my voice, and who the hell can blame them? As for white people – most do not want to hear my voice, either.

What is it you want from me? What can I say that will make a difference? I don’t wish to offend or speak to a narrative which belongs to another.”

If one is bold enough to ask God a question—be prepared. The answer went something like this:

“How long have you walked on this earth with the eyes of your spirit closed to what frightens you?

I gave you a heart for peace and love, and I also gave you the strength to speak hard truths when needed.

When you sat in silence while others made racist comments, you were complicit in their behavior.

When you walked down a street, moving faster and clutching your bag when you heard the voice of what you perceive to be a person of color, you were engaged in a subtle yet harmful act of racism.

When you wished a conversation about what it feels like to be a black male pulled over by police wasn’t happening around you, you were not staying present in that moment.

I am not condemning your fear, discomfort and aversion to confrontation of any kind, but please do not stay there. Remember your bad-ass mama and all the strong women whose blood you carry.

Look into your heart and stay on the path; that is my gift to you.

Will you meet with anger from white people (some you count as friends and family) who cannot or will not hear your voice?

Will people of color wish for you to ‘stay in your own lane?’

Yes to both—so be authentic, speaking and acting in love. And when you consider going back to sleep, realize that such a choice is yours because of your skin color. I will always be beside you, and I’ll send good people to help you along the way. Keep moving forward with my love forever guiding you.”

Today, I push forward because this is no time for fragility and remaining in a place of overwhelm. This path has never been about what I will or won’t write. It was and continues to be about seeing and never again looking away.

There is a line from Children of Eden: “Once eyes are opened, must those eyes harden?”

For me, I pray the answer is – and will always be – an unflinching “No!”

As Seen on the Big Screen

My brother Jim and I are met with raised eyebrows when people learn we have our own radio program that examines movies and their accompanying themes from our unique perspective.

Two blind folks chatting for a solid hour about what is considered by most a primarily visual form of entertainment? Really?

Reel-y.

Opening credits

As children, we were no strangers to TV and film.

Our parents took us to “see” movies, and we followed the storyline by listening to dialog and filling in the blanks with our imaginations.

As a kid with a bit of an attitude, I cringed at the portrayal of blind people in film. I was particularly mortified by depictions of blind women as angelic to a fault; nonsexual beings, forever in need of rescuing. These characters represented everything I was striving not to be.

Hence, I ran the other way when someone insisted on discussing a one-dimensional blind character they saw on TV or in a movie.

In retrospect, I understand these annoyingly stereotypical characters served as vehicles for asking questions about my blindness. People were seeking connection and knowledge about disability. I would inevitably be asked if I wanted to feel their face (this was common trope in the ‘70s). No, I most certainly did not.

At the time, though, I resented being compared to onscreen blind women; I found the portrayal of “people like me” unrealistic and insulting. I endured comparisons to nauseatingly sweet-as-honey blind females. For years, I refused to watch any film with a blind character. I didn’t know how to process the anger and frustration I felt, so I avoided the experience altogether.

Then one day, just for the hell of it, I watched A Patch of Blue, a movie that features a victimized blind girl. For the first time, I found myself able to perceive the movie’s main character, Selina (played by Elizabeth Hartman), through a lens of compassion rather than disdain.

Elizabeth Hartman and Sidney Poitier in the movie "A Patch of Blue"

Through Selina (Elizabeth Hartman, shown here with Sidney Poitier), I was finally able to relate to a blind character on film.

In part, my perceptual shift was assisted by accompanying audio description. There is much silence in the film, and the narrative description illuminated the character in such a way that I began to feel empathy for her.

Through Selina, I experienced the beauty of connection and the courage it takes to step forward when life has dealt you a shitty hand.

Realizing I have the capacity to see this blind character as a woman who possesses strength of spirit in the face of mistreatment became the catalyst for my journey into how film speaks to our own humanity – or, sometimes, lack of it.

That random choice to watch one of these cringeworthy films began a personal journey which ultimately led to the creation of this show.

I enjoy researching and writing, while Jim brings a professional radio voice to the project. Together, we banter as only brother and sister can.

We consider the role disability plays in film, accounting for historical context and other factors. The process is like opening gifts: We uncover a myriad of themes as we “unwrap” each film. A Patch of Blue and To Kill a Mockingbird opened our eyes to themes of racism, poverty and the “invisibility” of marginalized persons.

Each of us has been enriched in unexpected ways by our efforts. We have gained an appreciation for the role of media in shaping attitudes about disability and other social concerns.

Take two … or more

This is a project of collaboration. Simply put, the program would not exist without the diverse perspectives that have made it what it is today.

We are analyzing themes in film, while engaging in real-life conversations with people who are willing to share their thoughts.

Although many of our shows deal with serious issues, we manage to be just a bit silly on air. Jim says his favorite part about broadcasting is that it’s a vehicle to make fun of his older sister. As for me, I am in my zone when watching, writing about, and discussing film.

Currently, our program is broadcast on a closed-circuit radio station. We endeavor to have a podcast that can someday reach anyone who wishes to listen.

In the meantime, you can read our thoughts on film right here.