This memoir’s title may be a bit misleading. Erik Weihenmayer doesn’t just talk about his big Grand Canyon adventure but also covers other topics. The book starts with a forward by an American journalist, injured while on assignment overseas, who was inspired by Erik’s work. Erik then touches on his Mount Everest adventure, the subject of a previous book, and how he met his wife and married her on Mount Kilimanjaro. After that, he describes how he led various mountain climbing and river rafting adventures with children and adults who have disabilities. He explains how he formed No Barriers, an organization that empowers people with disabilities through hiking and other activities.
Erik also talks about family struggles: his brother’s battle with alcoholism and subsequent death, the arduous but successful process Erik and his wife went through to adopt a little boy from Nepal, and the child’s struggle to adapt to their way of life, then finding out later his mother was still alive. All this is interspersed with stories of his adventures and finally, how he succeeded in kayaking the Grand Canyon, with its multitude of dangerous rapids. In his epilog, he tells us what became of various children and adults with disabilities whom he helped through his involvement with No Barriers. The recorded version, which I downloaded from the National Library Service’s braille and audio site, and which was produced by McMillon Audio, contains an interview with Erik.
I’m not the adventurous sort, but I always enjoy re-living others’ experiences from the comfort of my recliner, and Erik’s story didn’t disappoint. Members of my regional talking book library’s group chose this book to discuss because they wanted to escape winter and cold weather, but I found myself wrapping my blanket more tightly around me, as I read of Erik and his crew climbing mountains in sub-zero temperatures, so I don’t think this was quite the escape for which they’d hoped. Oh well, sometimes, you don’t really know until you read the book, which has a clear message meant not just for those with disabilities. You should never let barriers, real or imagined, stop you from making dreams come true.
The following short story was published in the fall/ winter 2018-19 issue of Magnets and Ladders. I can think of no better way to commemorate Christmas Day and the 200th anniversary of the creation of “Silent Night” than to include this story along with a recording of me playing and singing the song. Merry Christmas, everyone.
The day before Christmas, my seven-year-old daughter Hannah was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. I opted to spend CHRISTMAS Day with her. My parents, as they’d done every year since the divorce, had invited Hannah and me to their house for Christmas dinner, but I couldn’t leave my little girl alone in the hospital.
Hannah wasn’t on solid food yet, but a nurse offered to bring me a tray, perhaps realizing it would be difficult for me to navigate to the cafeteria with my limited vision. While Hannah slept, I sat by her bed and enjoyed a delicious turkey dinner complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and pumpkin pie. The food was surprisingly good for a hospital.
I said as much to the nurse when she came to collect my tray. “We have a chef now,” she said. “Of course many of our patients are too sick to appreciate it, but it’s certainly better than the fare we used to serve.”
The little girl in the other bed moaned and then started crying in earnest. I looked over and couldn’t see anyone sitting with her. “Oh, that’s Jessica,” said the nurse in a conspiratorial tone. “Poor kid, she fell out of her neighbor’s treehouse yesterday and broke her leg in three places. She’s in a body cast from her chest to her right foot.”
Hannah must have awakened for she said, “Ou, I guess I won’t complain about my tummy anymore. I’m glad I don’t have a treehouse, and I hope Santa didn’t leave me one.”
I marveled at how sensitive my daughter was. As the nurse went to Jessica and tried to comfort her, I said, “How are you feeling, sweetie?”
“I’m okay, but my tummy still hurts.”
“I thought you weren’t gonna complain about your tummy anymore,” I said, as I ruffled her hair.
Hannah giggled, then winced. “Out, Mommy, it hurts more when I laugh.”
“It sounds like you could use some pain medication too,” said the nurse, as she started to leave the room.
“No, it only really hurts when I laugh,” said Hannah.
“Well, in that case, laughter’s the best medicine,” said the nurse. “I’ll be back soon.”
“How old is Jessica?” asked Hannah.
“Oh, I think she’s about your age,” answered the nurse. “I’ll be back in a bit with some medicine for her, and that’ll make her feel better.” With that, she was gone.
Jessica was still sniffling, but it wasn’t as loud as before. “Mommy, you should go sing her a song,” said Hannah. “like you did for me last night when I was really hurting. I’m not hurting as much now, and I think she’s hurting more.”
Years earlier, I’d worked as a registered music therapist. That was before Hannah was born, before I’d started losing my vision, before my world changed. My husband hadn’t wanted a child but was resigned to the idea once he learned I was pregnant. The vision loss after Hannah’s birth was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Fortunately, he paid plenty of child support. That, along with my disability payments, allowed me to be a stay-at-home mom, and once I learned to use a computer with screen reading and magnification software, I brought in a little income from freelance writing.
Now, I looked over at the little girl in the other bed. My specialty as a music therapist had been with elderly nursing home residents, not hospitalized children. I hadn’t even done a clinical practicum with that population. I remembered bed-ridden residents who smiled and relaxed when I sat by their beds, held their hands, and sang. I even performed at some of their funerals. The fact that my singing in the emergency room the night before had calmed Hannah made me think that perhaps I hadn’t lost my touch. I rose and pulled my chair next to the other bed, where I sat and took the child’s hand that lay on top of the white sheet covering her.
“Hi Jessica,” I said. “I’m Joan. My little girl Hannah is in the other bed. What’s wrong?”
“My leg really hurts,” she answered. “I’ll never play in that stupid treehouse again.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, stroking her hair. “Would you like to sing a song with me?”
“Will that make the pain go away?” she asked.
“It’ll take your mind off of it. What’s your favorite Christmas song?”
She was quiet for a minute, then said, “I like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
“All right, let’s sing it together, shall we?”
I started, and soon, she joined in, followed by Hannah. When we finished that song, Jessica suggested “Jingle Bells,” then “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The nurse appeared and said, “What lovely singing. Jessica, I have some medicine that will make you feel better. I’m going to put it in your IV now.”
As she started to do this, I said, “Why don’t we sing one more song?”
“I want to hear you sing something by yourself,” said Jessica. “You have a pretty voice, and so did my mommy. She used to sing to me at night before I went to sleep.” A wistful look crossed her face.
“Why doesn’t she sing to you anymore?” I asked.
“She was killed in a car accident a few months ago,” she answered. A tear rolled down her cheek.
“Oh honey, I’m sorry,” I said, as I stroked her hair. Tears welled in my own eyes.
Holding them back, I said, “What song did your mom like to sing to you this time of year?”
“‘Silent Night,'” she answered.
“Yeah, sing that one, Mom,” said Hannah.
I took a deep breath and began. To my surprise, the nurse joined in, singing alto. Our two voices blending together in harmony was almost too much, but I managed to continue.
As we started the second verse, I sensed a presence at my side and turned to see a man standing there. “Daddy!” Jessica said, her eyes wide with delight.
“Hey princess,” he said, reaching over me and ruffling her hair. Then he said, “oh, don’t stop singing on my account. It’s beautiful.”
His voice broke, and it was all I could do to keep from losing it. We started the song where we’d left off and finished the second verse. To break the spell, I turned to the nurse and said, “You and I need to talk. I sing in a women’s group that could use an extra voice.”
“Wow, that sounds interesting,” she said. “You also have a nice voice. I need to see to other patients, but I’ll come back later after my shift, and you can tell me more about it.” She turned and started to leave the room.
Jessica’s father put a hand on my shoulder and said, “You and I also need to talk. It’s only been two months since I lost my wife, and I never dreamed I’d say this to another woman, but could I buy you a cup of coffee, maybe in the cafeteria?”
From the doorway, the nurse said, “Our coffee here isn’t as good as the food. Why don’t you two go across the street to Starbuck’s?”
We hesitated. “Your kids will be fine,” she said. “They’re both out of the woods. I have your cell numbers in their charts. If anything drastic happens, I’ll call you. Joan, you’ve been here all day. You need a break. Go!” With that, she was gone.
I looked at this stranger, not knowing what to think. Finally, I said, “I’ve been divorced for about six years. I’m losing my vision, and I never imagined another man would ask me out for coffee.”
I expected him to back away, but instead, he said, “Any man not interested in you is a fool. You’re a beautiful woman. You’re good with kids, and you have a lovely voice.”
Flabbergasted, I said, “You just got here. Don’t you want to spend some time with Jessica?”
Jessica said, “I’m okay. My leg doesn’t hurt so much now that the nurse gave me some medicine in my IV. Daddy, Joan could make you happy like Mommy did.”
“Yeah,” said Hannah. “Mom, I think this guy could make you happy like Daddy did.”
Jessica’s father laughed and said, “I think these two, along with that nurse, are trying to play matchmaker.” He extended his hand. “By the way, I’m Don Gray.”
“Joan Clark,” I said, taking his hand and shaking it.
Still uncertain, I turned to Hannah and said, “Honey, don’t you remember what I’ve told you about not going off with a stranger?”
“Yeah, but he’s not a stranger. He’s Jessica’s dad.”
“She’s got a point,” said Don.
“My dad told me not to go off with a stranger too,” said Jessica. “but he’s okay. He’s been really sad since Mom died.”
I could feel my heart melting as more tears threatened. “Jessica and I could sing another song,” said Hannah. “How about 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall?”
“Yeah,” said Jessica. She started the song, and Hannah joined in. Laughing, we both made our way out the door.
“Do you need to take my arm?” Don asked.
“Yes, please,” I answered, realizing I’d left my cane in the room. As I grasped his muscular arm and walked with him down the hall, I had a good feeling about this.
Here it is December already, and the start of the holiday shopping season. This would be a great time for you to buy my latest book, My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds. This would make a great gift for someone on your list who is caring for a loved one, but even those who aren’t family caregivers should enjoy my story. It’s about how I met and married my late husband Bill, who was totally blind, then cared for him after he suffered two strokes that partially paralyzed him.
Below is an excerpt which I hope will whet your appetite. This scene took place during the annual Range Writers Christmas party that we hosted a couple of months after Bill was discharged from the nursing home.
One side effect of a stroke is that the person has little control over emotions. Often while listening to a talking book or email message, Bill would start bawling because the material moved him. When I sat next to him, even in public, he frequently put his arm around me and told me he loved me. As we all sat in the living room, laughing and chatting, Bill extended his hand to the woman sitting on the couch next to his recliner, thinking it was me. “I love you, honey,” he said.
From across the room, I heard and saw everything. “Oh, sweetie, that’s Mary,” I said.
Embarrassed, Mary rose and offered to trade places with me. As I sat down next to Bill and took his hand, I said, “I turn my back for ten seconds, and you’re hitting on another woman.” He laughed, and so did everyone else.
After that, I always made sure I sat next to him at parties, and if that wasn’t possible, he always knew where I was.
Well, I hope you enjoyed that little anecdote. Now, I’ll leave you with a recording of me singing a fun Christmas party song and the hope that your significant other doesn’t hit on another during your holiday festivities this year.
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. What’s that, you might ask. Well, I don’t remember.
I actually tried out for a part in this musical when I was a freshman in high school. If I’d been lucky, I would have been a courtesan about to be sold to a wealthy captain as a wife. I didn’t get the part, though, and the school board canceled the musical because they thought it inappropriate.
That was a rocky start to my haphazard career as an actress. I so wanted to be like my parents, who’d been involved for years in community theater. However, very few directors wanted to cast someone with a visual impairment.
So I joined the speech team, where I won a few awards for dramatic interpretation. A couple of years later, I got the courage to try out for another production, this time a musical for children about a tiger who escapes from a circus and wanders into a hospital children’s ward. This time, the director, who also coached the speech team, was familiar with my acting abilities, despite the fact I couldn’t see very well, and cast me as a little patient with a bandage on her arm. Broadway, here I come, or so I thought.
During my freshman and sophomore years at the local college, my mother was directing plays there, so I was lucky enough to pick up some more crucial roles: Genevieve in The Long Christmas Dinner, Peggy in The Children’s Hour, the narrator in The Reluctant Dragon, and a lady in waiting in Princess on a Pea.
When I transferred to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, where I majored in music, and later Montana State University, also in Billings, where I studied music therapy, I lost interest in acting, although for a while, I participated in the speech team. Now, long story short, I’m a writer with four published books and a fifth on the way. Because of my writing and other obligations I’ve neither the time nor inclination to act, but I still have the memories.
What about you? Have you ever been bitten by the acting bug, so to speak? I’d love to read about your experiences, either on your own blog or in the comment field below. If you decide to write about your theatrical experiences on your own blog, please link to this post so I’ll be sure to read about them. You know, even if you haven’t done any acting, all the world’s a stage, or so they say.
Deon Lyons is a poet living in Maine who is totally blind. The poems in this collection are divided into four sections: blindness, nature, memories, and holidays. The author writes about losing his vision in 2010, spending time with his grandchildren, and other topics. Each section begins with narrative describing the poems in that particular section. At the end of the book, there’s another narrative passage in which the author talks about his writing and his hopes for the future.
I met Deon several years ago through Behind Our Eyes, an organization of disabled writers to which we belong. Having worked with senior citizens for fifteen years, some of whom, like Deon, lost their vision later in life, I marvel at how positive Deon is in his poetry, despite frustration and depression that accompanies loss of independence. I also enjoyed reading about his childhood memories. Ready, Set, Poetry, is Deon’s second book, and I would like to read more by him.
I recently learned, though, that Deon is battling a life-threatening form of cancer. He is currently in a rehabilitation facility, where he is receiving chemo and physical therapy in the hope that he will have at least two good years with his family. You can click here to learn more. If you believe in the power of prayer, I suggest you include him. I hope that despite his illness, Deon and his family have a lot to be thankful for on this day.
Now here’s a rare treat, a sample poem from Deon’s book. This was recorded by fellow blogger Lynda McKinney Lambert, another member of Behind Our Eyes who also knows Deon. Because there’s no easy way to translate a Kindle file into braille, I was unable to record myself reading this or any of Deon’s other poems. When Lynda sent me this recording so I could share it with his family, I thought this would be a fitting ending to my review. I hope you think so too.
In 2011, Patty Fletcher, a totally blind single mother, acquired Campbell, a black Labrador seeing eye dog, from the facility in Morristown, New Jersey, and brought him home to Kingsport, Tennessee. She first explains how a friend with a guide dog and an incident in a shopping mall inspired her to apply for a dog of her own. She then talks about her boyfriend’s initial reaction, a good foreshadowing of what’s to come. She goes on to describe, in great detail, the trip to New Jersey and the rigorous training process, made more difficult by her fibromyalgia and side effects from her medications. She discusses how one particular trainer influenced her during her training and afterward.
After describing the arduous trip home, she gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to acclimate a new guide dog to new surroundings. She details her disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend, including some instances of abuse, and touches on how that and her bipolar disorder affected her relationships with family and friends. The book has a positive ending.
Once I got into Campbell’s Rambles, I couldn’t put it down. Many anecdotes about her training experiences made me laugh, and I felt her frustration and depression when she messed up. Close to the end of the book, I was virtually on the edge of my seat.
Patty is a remarkable woman. I’ve known her for years, after first meeting her through Behind Our Eyes, an organization of writers with disabilities to which I belong. After acquiring Campbell and her experiences with domestic violence and bipolar disorder and other medical issues, she now runs Tell It to the World Marketing, promoting writers and other entrepreneurs. She has a blog, Campbell’s World, and other social media pages where her clients’ writing can be found. She’s written a second book, Bubba Tails from the Puppy Nursery at The Seeing Eye, and is working on a third.
She’s a survivor. If you take anything at all away from Campbell’s Rambles, it’s this piece of advice her dog trainer at The Seeing Eye repeatedly gave her. “Take a chance. There’s a fifty percent chance you’ll be right.” This applies to all aspects of life, not just the use of a guide dog.
On Monday morning after we moved off daylight savings time, my smart speaker woke me as usual at six thirty by playing a local public radio station. A minute later, I was horrified when the announcer said it was 7:31 a.m. I asked my smart speaker for the time, and she assured me it was only 6:31 a.m. Apparently, someone at the radio station had forgotten to set the clocks back an hour. I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that the radio wasn’t my only source for the time.
This reminded me of a time that I talk about in My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds. Below is an excerpt. My late husband and I traveled from our home in Sheridan, Wyoming, about five hundred miles to Fowler, Colorado, to visit Bill’s sister. In our haste to catch a bus at three in the morning, I forgot to put on my watch after showering and didn’t realize it until we arrived at the bus station. For the next two weeks, I had to rely on Bill and other sources for the time.
One morning, soon after we arrived in Fowler, Bill shook me awake and told me it was seven o’clock. Shirley’s cleaning lady was due at eight, and I didn’t want her to catch us in bed. At a quarter to eight, after having showered and dressed, I settled in a recliner in the living room with my radio and headphones.
Shirley wasn’t up yet, and this seemed odd. I also noticed that it didn’t appear to be getting any lighter. I tuned in a public radio station out of Pueblo, and after fifteen minutes of national news, a local announcer said, “Good morning. It’s six a.m.”
Barely able to contain my anger, I stomped into the bedroom where Bill was dressing. I didn’t want to yell for fear of waking Shirley. “You idiot! It’s only six o’clock.”
Bill laughed. “I thought my watch said it was seven.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, as I sat on the bed and took off my shoes. “That’s why I don’t use a Braille watch anymore.”
“Well, let’s go out to breakfast.”
“You go out to breakfast,” I said, as I lay on the bed and covered myself with the blanket. “I’m going back to sleep.”
I turned on my side and closed my eyes. I heard him leave and knew he was mad, but I didn’t care. As I drifted back to sleep, I vowed never to forget my watch again. Little did I know that this was the last trip Bill and I would take together.