98: You Are Only Blind If You Refuse to See

98: You Are Only Blind If You Refuse to See

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

You Are Only Blind If You Refuse to See

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

~Marcel Proust

“Miss Flora,” I said one day in my calmest voice as a rat meandered past the table. “Did you know you have rats?”

“Darn! I thought so. I’ll get me some poison and put it down,” she said. Subject closed; no big deal.

When I moved to Florida, I had no idea how different my life would be. I had been excited about relocating but did not anticipate feeling like such a stranger in a strange land. As a home health nurse, I quickly found myself looking at life from the other side as I leapt feet first into my new job.

Miss Flora was an elderly diabetic whom I visited daily for insulin injections. Every day, as I administered her medication, she gave me a good dose of reality in return. Having been blind for a number of years and living with a sister who was also blind, her reality was fixed in her memory. It fell to me to tread that fine line between how things really were and how she remembered them to be.

She spoke with fondness of the house she lived in, hand-built by her daddy, but unknown to her, in a sad state of disrepair. She did not see the fine piles of sawdust under each table leg where termites slowly had their way, the regular parade of cockroaches, or the road map of cracks in the plaster.

“Miss Flora,” I said, when I arrived a few days later. “There’s a dead rat on your floor.”

“Okay, baby,” she said, calm as ever. “Just put a paper towel in my hand and guide it down to it so I can pick it up.”

Now, I am not a fan of rodents, dead or alive, but what kind of person lets a little, elderly blind lady pick up a dead rat?

“Don’t worry,” I said. I put a glove on and picked it up myself. The tail felt weird and rubbery as I held it at arm’s length, and I prayed that it was truly dead. Gingerly holding that nasty rat the size of a small cat, I gratefully dropped it into the trash. It was a job I repeated several more times over the ensuing weeks.

“Where do you live?” she asked me one day. When I told her, she replied matter-of-factly, “When I was young and living here, colored people weren’t allowed in that neighborhood after the sun went down.”

“Excuse me?” I said, at a loss for words.

“Sure,” she said. “We had a lot of rules about where we could go, where we had to live. We even had our own beach over on the bay. Never did see the ocean.”

“You live five miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and you’ve never seen it?” I asked, stunned.

“No colored people allowed,” she repeated. I was speechless. Now of course, she was unable to see anything, so the experience of seeing the ocean was an opportunity lost forever. I began to see Miss Flora with new eyes.

Over time, I learned a number of things about her. She was once a prize-winning Lindy dancer and lived in New York City during the days of the Cotton Club. She knew important people in the early days of NBC. She had a wicked sense of humor. She lived large during a time when many people tended to be quite small-minded. This blind lady truly opened my eyes.

Just before my first baby was born, Miss Flora presented me with a small package in a mailing wrapper. “Got something for that baby of yours,” she said shyly.

I was caught completely unaware, both touched and dismayed, as I knew a gift for me was something she could ill afford. Hesitant to rob her of the joy of the moment, I did not voice my concern for the cost. While she waited expectantly, I tore open the package. I pulled out two tiny sleepers, one pink, one purple, and turned to her in gratitude. I wondered how she had managed to make a phone call all alone and place an order. I marveled at how a woman who grew up in a rigidly segregated society could find herself giving a gift to a white baby she would never see. I thought about what a miracle it was that a blind woman who had seen so much ugliness could have such generosity in her heart.

I said, “Thank you. It’s exactly what I needed.” She smiled broadly.

When my son was born, he wore that pink sleeper right along with the purple one, and when he outgrew it, I stored it away with all the other outfits that had special meaning to me.

Miss Flora’s funeral took place at a small Baptist church in a neighborhood where few people ventured alone. I took both children, my daughter just an infant, my son a toddler, to witness the going home of a very fine lady.

Recently, my twenty-year-old son asked, “Hey Mom, remember when we went to Miss Flora’s funeral? I think about her sometimes, don’t you?”

He couldn’t have been more than three at the time. “Yes,” I said. “I think about her a lot.

Though she was blind, she taught us to see that we find special people in all sorts of places, often where we least expect it.”

~Sharon Stoika-Smay

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