He is in his late eighties, I estimate. He sits ramrod straight. He walks with a cane, but still erect. A white-haired man who projects an air of self-assurance. He is always well shaved and nattily dressed, as if he is going for a date. Once, when I tell him this, he laughs and says, “Indeed I have a date. I have a date with the world.”
For me, he is a surprise. And I have told him why.
When I was a young boy in Kolkata, I used to see every morning a youth guiding an old man across the street and seating him on the curb near a market corner. Next to him was placed a metal bowl where passers-by dropped a coin or two. The old man would sit there until dusk, hoping for alms, and occasionally muttering a plea for pedestrians. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew it was an abject plea, asking for pity and help from people who passed. Most ignored him, treating him as an easily disregarded apparition, but a few gave him small change. That was my first experience with a blind person.
When I grew up and went to work in a large factory, I met a blind man who worked close to me in the cycle tire shop. At the start of the shift, a young woman would bring him to the factory workplace and seat him down next to the machine where he worked and hand him the small packet that contained his lunch. It was considered very progressive of the company to have hired a blind man and made a minor adjustment to the supply line so that he could work there safely. I got to speak with him and he told me he had lost his eyes in an accident in the small car repair shop he had worked earlier without protective goggles. He felt grateful that the tire factory had hired him and paid him a decent wage. He was neatly dressed, very polite, agreeable to talk to, and fully reconciled to his present life. I found him a decent man but at the back of my mind was a murmur of discomfort. An educated man, doing a humdrum, repetitive job for seven years and set to do it seven years more perhaps, solely to earn a living. It seemed less than ideal. He might have been content, but I could not imagine him happy.
Mr. Blanchard, whom I met in my Washington apartment building, is a stunning contrast. He is neither pitiable nor content. He is a vibrant man, seemingly set to live a significant and happy life. I met him when my life was a bit of a mess; to talk to him, I felt, was a lesson in how to live such a radiant life.
First two eye doctors and then a famous specialist. The specialist read the reports, examined him for a long time and then, gently but firmly, dropped the hammer.
“I was to lose my sight,” explains Mr. Blanchard. “Something to do with my nerves. There was no remedy. I had four months, at most six, of quickly declining vision. Nothing after that.
“It was like a thunderclap. I could only think of my future days with anxiety and fear. I could not think straight. It was a week of sheer agony. Perhaps it was that which brought a slow measure of clarity. I was to lose vision, not my life. I did not want to forfeit my whole life because I couldn’t see any more.
“I set myself to learn braille. I took advice and filled my home with equipment that helps sightless people, speakers and scanners and sound recorders. I bought a more powerful computer and added the right software. I subscribed to audio programs and records.
“I also joined a group, of people who had lost vision fairly recently. I heard their stories and drew support from their survival stories. Hearing them, I had the idea of going back to copywriting. I had the advantage that I could visualize the graphics and provide sketches of the design that could go with the copy. I created a new part-time career.
Mr. Blanchard laughs and adds, “It was the last thing I did that turned out to be the most sustaining. If I had only a few more months to see, I wanted to see the most – the things I most cared for and with the most care. I got up early to see the sun rise and watched the sunset the way I had never done before. The park in the corner I reconnoitered as if it was to disappear the next day. My apartment I looked at every nook and cranny. My son and his children, every friend, I peered at their faces as if my life depended on it.”
He laughs again, “Indeed my life now relies on the most wonderful set of memories. I can clearly see the things I loved and wanted to see. I took the trouble to hold on to the sights and sounds and memories that other let go by. Perhaps a little too carelessly.”
I look at his gentle, smiling face, and sit wondering. Then I hear these astounding words, “You think I don’t have a picture of you. I have met you recently, but we have spoken from the heart. And, my friend, I have a most beautiful picture of you.”