Dear Kind Gentleman I Met in Grand Central Station on January 15, 2014 at 8:56 a.m.,
I was definitely in a rush when I got to Grand Central at 8:56 in the morning. An hour and fifteen minutes before, I had boarded the D train in Brooklyn, then transferred to the Manhattan-bound express train at Atlantic Avenue. I finally alighted underneath Grand Central with just five minutes to spare.
I had just decided to start heading to the information counter in the middle of the concourse when a kind gentleman asked me if I could use some assistance. I don't know if you've ever imagined walking with a white cane through the middle of Grand Central station, but as you can guess, it is a little tricky.
So I said: "Absolutely, that would be wonderful."
He proffered his elbow and I took hold. As we made our way to my train, this gentleman asked me if I had been blind all my life. Now, the question itself is not a novel one, but I was pleasantly surprised by the directness (most people perform feats of verbal acrobatics to avoid even mentioning anything that they think would be upsetting to me).
"I lost most of my vision at the age of 10. Why do you ask?"
He explained that his 4-year-old son was born with a condition identical to my own.
"That's what I have!" I said to him with a little too much excitement in my voice. It's like when you meet someone who broke their leg in the same place you did. It's not that you're happy that they broke their leg; it's just nice to find someone who can commiserate with you.
"That's what I was afraid of," he said. Realizing his thought process, I shook my head. "No, no, it wasn't the condition that caused most of my vision loss. In fact, everything was pretty stable beforehand. There was just a freak accident."
He and I both knew the degenerative nature of his son's eye condition, so I couldn't lie to him, but I did try my best to comfort him by saying: "I'm sure that if he receives the right medical treatment, your son has many years of perfectly useable vision ahead of him."
By this point, we were at my train. For some reason, I didn't think to give him my card. It just didn't feel like the right moment to introduce myself as a singer/songwriter and ask him to go and buy my songs on iTunes. All I could think to do was shake his hand and say with as much sincerity as I could muster: "Your son will be OK. Everything is going to be fine." He thanked me and I boarded the train.
As the train pulled away, my mind began to overflow with everything I wish I could have told him. I'm sure my parents wished someone had told them about what it would be like to have a child who is a little different from what they planned on.
So, to the gentleman from Grand Central, and to any other parent who should find this helpful, here are a few things I've learned in my life that may help you put things in perspective:
1. Give your child reservoirs of confidence and self-esteem.
As a child, long before I realized I was "different," I would have been shocked if you told me that in fact I was not the center of the universe. I would have been shocked to discover the sun and moon did not rise and fall directly behind me, and the stars did not twinkle for me alone. Such was the amount of love and affection that my family bestowed upon me. The theory is this: The world will have the rest of your child's life to chip away at his or her confidence and self-esteem. So while you have them all to yourself, why not give your children the gift of an endless supply of both? Now, don't confuse this with a child that grows into an arrogant/entitled adult. Arrogance is masked insecurity; what I am referring to is a genuine sense of self-worth that will never fail your child. I can't emphasize enough how important this was for me throughout adolescence, when insecurity seems to be a plague that everyone catches.
2. Show tough love.
My uncle used to say to me, "Blessing, you're blind. You may have to work twice as hard to get where everybody else is, and three times as hard to surpass them, so always work four times as hard."
It's inevitable that your child will start asking questions. "Why me? How is this fair?" These are perfectly normal questions. Don't avoid them, and don't sugar-coat them. Sometimes things are hard. Sometimes things aren't fair. But life is hard and it's definitely not fair for everyone. And it will be OK if your child has to work four times harder than any other child. Embrace the challenge. For me, the deeper explanation came from church. My faith explained a lot to me and brought me a lot of peace. I will leave it up to you as the parent how to handle that aspect. But I can tell you, should your child start asking these questions early, they will need bigger answers than just the practical. And if they start asking these questions early, you're going to have a very mature, individuated adult trapped in the body of a young person. Encourage the maturity, but don't let your child forget how old he or she actually is. I've always felt older than my years, precisely because I had to ask these questions so early. A firm sense of identity is one of the most important things that you could ever encourage your child to cultivate. You don't want them to be blown off course by every gust of wind or change of current.
3. Open the cocoon.
It's only natural for you to want to protect your child from every little thing. Those are good instincts at first, but can become more detrimental if not carefully managed. In middle school when I wanted to walk to school myself, my family freaked out a little. I was 13 years old, brimming with teenage bravado and ready to take on the world, so why shouldn't I walk to school? This was a new paradigm that my family had to adjust to. I wasn't going to be a stay-at-home blind person, like perhaps they thought they would be more comfortable with. In fact, they wouldn't have been satisfied with that at all. I think they like me much more as I am: living in New York City, totally independent, able to handle any circumstance... you know, an adult. As scary as it is, if you want your child to become an adult, you're going to have to let him or her learn to cross streets, get lost and fight giants on his or her own. Please don't alter your expectations for this child. Instead, you may have to find different ways to achieve them. I do know that my uncle trailed quietly behind me those first few times that I walked to school. Eventually, he realized that it just wasn't necessary and after a while I began to take the bus because I didn't want to get up early and walk. I had proved my point and that's all that mattered.
4. Own yourself
This is more for the kids, rather than the parents. A million people will tell you a million different things; everyone has an opinion, and that's OK. At the end of the day, the most important message is the one you give to yourself. I encourage you to embrace, accept and celebrate whatever mountain you have to daily turn into a molehill, because it will be a daily process. Some days will have you asking, "why me?" louder than ever, while other days will have you happier than you know what to do with because you will see your friends struggling with questions that you already asked yourself years ago. Everybody is going through the same thing in his or her own way. "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle," said Plato.
The older I get, the more I find this to be true.
Avoid bitterness. Let go of the things that people say or do out of ignorance. You would probably do the same thing if you didn't know better. And for the days that your molehill does look more like a mountain, climb that mountain with as much style and grace as you can muster. Make people jealous of your mountain; make them wish they could be on your mountain with you. And before you know it, it will be a molehill again. And then one day, you might find yourself in Grand Central station rushing for a train with minutes to spare, and a really nice guy will ask if he can help you, and he will feel comfortable enough to share with you that his child has what you have. And you will be able to reassure him from a deep reservoir of confidence and self-esteem that everything will in fact be OK. And then you will be kicking yourself for not remembering that you are a singer/songwriter with business cards!
So to the gentleman from Grand Central, if you happen to be reading this, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. It would have been worth missing that train if I could have just stayed to talk with you for a few more minutes!