Understanding one another’s disabilities

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I had a blind date Saturday. In fact, about 70 of us gathered at the Chelo’s Banquet Hall were on blind dates. We would be eating our dinner blindfolded.

For an evening where guests would be introduced to the challenges faced by the blind, the room was bright and colorful. At each place setting shot glasses with tiny LED lights and batteries in their base winkled red, white and blue. They were filled with chocolate kisses and at the center of round tables set with white linen were bowls of water with luminaries floating. Bibs hung on the back of chairs and along with black napkins at each setting, was a black mask to be worn as soon as our entrees were served.

The event was planned by Heather Schey, president of the Warwick Greater Lions Club who works in the office adjoining the Beacon at the Ocean State Center for Independent Living. Heather is visually impaired and is regularly accompanied by her companion Asher, a golden Labrador.

The evening was more than an introduction – as brief as it was – to the world of the visually impaired and how they adjust for activities those of such with our sight take for granted. It was also an occasion to recognize four individuals – Lorna Ricci, Paul Isenberg and Ken Barthelemy from the Rhode Island Lions Sight Foundation and Linda Hughes – for their work with the Lions Club and persons with disabilities.

My date for the evening is blind in one eye and has difficultly seeing with the other.

Frances Amico called me soon after reading a story in the Beacon about the event. She wanted to attend. She wanted to support the cause and she called Heather to see if there would be some way of getting to Chelo’s and nearby Greenwood Terrace where she lives. That proved problematic, so she called me.

Frances is no stranger. She phones periodically either to speak with me or my wife, Carol, and every so often we’ll get a note from her in carefully penned script. It’s been that way ever since I attended her 102nd birthday party hosted by her friend Roseanne Andrews at Greenwood Terrace. I bent the house rules on alcoholic beverage and brought along some bubbly.

Frances celebrates her 105th birthday on January 14.

Frances was ready when I arrived outside her door with its admonition to knock loudly as she has difficulty hearing.

“Is that you, John?” came the voice on the other side.

There was a turning of locks and I entered the kitchen to her apartment. On the table was a ball of red and white yarn, a set of crochet needles and the beginning of what appeared to be a hat. I was about to get the first of what I consider Frances’ rules to a long life.

“I love to crochet, but I’m not very good at it,” she said. “Do what you love to do.”

Before getting her coat and walker, Frances wanted to show me pictures of her family and her late husband. They were familiar from prior visits, but that didn’t faze her. I knew I would get at least a partial replay of her life’s story.

Frances is one of eight siblings and the only one still living. She grew up in the coal-mining town of Carbondale, Pa., which she remembers as a small, close-knit community where people knew each other and cared for one another. Her parents both came from Sicily, and Italian was what they spoke at home; it was her first language.

She told me of how she started working at age 15 and didn’t stop until she was 70 and Metropolitan Life demanded she retire. I have the feeling she’d still be there today if they hadn’t insisted it was time to leave.

I reminded her the car was just outside the door and we better get over to Chelo’s. I offered to assist her in getting into the car, but she insisted she could do it herself and, after some maneuvering, swung her legs in. She then announced she is on a diet to lose 9 pounds.

I was awe struck. Since when do women 104 years old worry about their weight? I inquired what was there to be concerned about? I should have known better. Frances is looking out for her health and her weight is all part of that.

The next revelation came as she described the gyrations she goes through to keep medical appointments. Pickups are prompt, but getting a return ride can take forever. This took her to Uber and Lyft and the news that a female Lyft driver was assaulted by a rider.

“What is this world coming to?” she said shaking her head, an apparent commentary on what’s happened to the days of trusting and caring for one another.

Once seated at our table, Frances shared more of her life story. She told of coming from New York to Rhode Island because of the job with Metropolitan and how as she aged she had been persuaded to leave her home for an assisted living facility. She was outraged by the cost and the persistent attention and applied for elderly housing, landing her at Greenwood that she loves.

When guests learned of her age, Frances was a bit of a celebrity and people wanted to meet and have their photo taken with her. This all seemed perfectly natural to her. She mugged for the cell phone shots.

Dining in the dark was yet to come. Heather outlined the rules adding a few pointers including the wearing of bibs, knowing where your drink is and using bread as a pusher.

We all looked at the breadbasket. One roll remained. There was no suggestion that we might want to hold off eating the bread. There were concerned looks. How were we going to handle this?

Frances started laughing. I looked over. She was prepared with another truism. “You have to laugh every day,” she said.

The moment for masking arrived as plates of fish, chicken and pasta were placed in front of us. I selected the pasta figuring I’d have an easier time eating that than trying to cut chicken when finding it on the plate was going to be difficult.

I looked across at Frances who had her mask in place and was stabbing at her chicken. I couldn’t imagine how she would eat the rice. There were laughs from tables around us as well as useful tips like “pick up the beans with your fingers.”

I confess to “cheating” on several occasions to see how people were faring and to take a few photos. I spotted a few cheaters, too. Frances wasn’t one of them although from the appearance of her plate she hadn’t eaten much.

When it was time for dessert, Heather had us take off our masks and went from table to table asking guests to share their experiences. One of the group remarked that the music was too loud and had requested it be turned down when, in fact, the volume hadn’t been changed. Heather picked up on that, saying when one sense is impaired others become more acute.

More than one person talked about a new appreciation of vision impairment while others expressed their clumsiness and apologized for spreading food around the table.

“This isn’t to make a joke of it,” said Heather. “Blind people can do whatever anybody else can do, just a little bit differently.”

That could be Frances’ secret to aging. She doesn’t let it stop her and she counts her blessings.

On the way back to her apartment she asked me about getting a cell phone. Imagine that?

I’ll be getting texts from her next.

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Mark

Delightful!

Saturday, November 16