Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Lure of a Promise

My wife and I moved to Blair Plaza Apartments from our Dupont Circle English basement in 1994. Our daughter Rachel was just 20 days old, and our son Will was 10 months old.
We loved living in D.C., but we couldn’t afford the room we needed for two kids. We took a two-bedroom, eighth-floor apartment that looked out over Blair Mill Road and the D.C. line. In winter, we could see the National Cathedral in the distance. In spring, when the windows were open we could hear Metro trains as they clattered by.
Our apartment was in a building right next to the Giant. There were playgrounds nearby, and the public library was just up the road. We thought we had found a great place to raise a family without a car.
My wife and I both worked in Downtown DC and took Metro. Two incomes, two bedrooms, a graceful Ethiopian nanny, living in proximity to all our needs. It seemed dreams were becoming realty.
Not for long.
My eyesight was worsening and I was struggling to figure out how to use visual aids at work. My boss was a jerk and made things even more difficult. Within a year the economy hiccupped and I was promptly laid off.
In turn, we laid-off our nanny and I stayed home with the kids while I looked for work. Things on the job front were bleak. Unemployment insurance paid half of what I was making; we were treading water financially and I had 26 weeks to find a source of income.
I am a Southerner — raised to be self-reliant and invulnerable. I had determined a few years before that I was going to make it on my own for as long as I could. Even though I had received some help from the state of North Carolina to pay for college, I was hesitant to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance.
Then I discovered that I could not apply for help from the Maryland Vocational Rehabilitation Services unless I qualified for SSDI first. It takes six months to qualify for SSDI, so I applied immediately. SSDI paid about half of what I was making, too, so I decided to try and stay home with the kids full time.
I had to get used to the idea of going with the infamous “Plan B.”
If I could manage the bureaucratic nightmare, maybe Vocational Rehab would find me a job later. Then we could get back on track. In the meantime, I busied myself with bottles and diapers.
It took a while to become somewhat comfortable with the moniker “Stay-at-Home Dad,” but I tried to make it work. All it takes is some humility, right?
I knew all along that dealing with macular degeneration and raising two young kids would be tough. Just imagine wrangling toddlers while wearing sunglasses with dimes taped to the center of the lens. Over time I was surprised to find that it also had positive effects on my life. My disability has caused me to make a lot of choices I never would have made otherwise. Some of these choices were good ones.
Moving to the D.C. area is an example, but it goes much deeper back in time.
My blindness took me away from my car in South Carolina and landed me on a sofa in Maryland next to the woman I would eventually fall in love with and marry. Call it fate, but for that reason alone, maybe this blind thing isn’t all bad.
Unfortunately, it took a while to figure that out.
I spent way too much time feeling sorry for myself. Depression is one of the major symptoms of this disease. The frustration of feeling unable to fulfill the destiny that exists in your own mind can be devastating. The feelings of inadequacy that come from not being able to live up to the expectations set by the culture in which I was raised was stifling some days.

I felt dread at going out in public, because someone might see me doing something “blind.” I was afraid to stick my face into an ATM screen or offer an over-enthusiastic greeting to someone I didn’t recognize as a complete stranger.
Asking a stranger for help was humiliating for someone like me. People were supposed to ask me for help. Asking for help is a sign of weakness, and I would not be pitied by anyone. Silver Spring seemed like the kind of place where I could live without having to ask for help all the time.
There is a promise in places like Silver Spring that all kinds of people will have equal access to the many wonderful amenities here. If you believe the press releases, Montgomery County is building a New Urban Paradise in Silver Spring.
In a lot of ways this is true — but not for everyone. Walk a few blocks on these sidewalks, and you will see reality looks much different. From this side of the street, it’s clear this promise is not being kept.
In 1997, we settled into our present house. The kids are almost grown, and we have built a comfortable life for ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder how we got this far.
Then I remember that it was caring, love and patience that made all the difference. Love and caring I have down; it’s my lack of patience that still trips me up.
Being a parent and blind has made me a bit more patient than I used to be. I have learned to step over or around most of the obstacles in my life so far. Thousands of other pedestrians are doing the same every day. We love living in Silver Spring, but the promise of equal access as a pedestrian that brought us here remains unfulfilled.

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