December 2007

Picture of Bernard dressed as Santa and Cathy as an elf

Bernard and Cathy.

Latest News December 2007

Christmas 2007.

I’ll just say that again.

Christmas 2007.

Frightening really how time has shot past from the early days when we first started talking about the possibility of completing this journey to highlight sight loss.

We have continued trying to attract a high profile supporter for the journey in order to shift and cut through some of the clutter. So it was that we went straight to the top of the tree – so we thought – and emailed David Miliband (The Foreign Secretary) along with Margaret Hodges (The Minister for Culture and Sport). In our thoughts we considered that, perhaps, with some political interest we could break through the barriers to entry into China and Tibet (we still clung to the possibility!) to get to the Paralympics. Alas it was not to be.

The Minister for Culture and SPORT did not think our journey to the Paralympics fell within her remit although we did get a very nice letter wishing us luck. We did email back slightly tongue-in-cheek pointing out that the Paralympics did actually involve something called sport along with disabled people. We think the subtleness may have gone array in translation into political speak!

Meanwhile in another busy office in down-town politics The Foreign Office mailed us back with the observation there are no travel restrictions in China and that it shouldn’t really be a problem. They didn’t seem to understand getting a motorcycle into China is fraught with financial implications involving paying for official ‘minders’ (food, transportation and hotel fees) along a designated route only stopping where, and when, officials decided upon.

The costs of this would have been prohibitive and would have decimated the money from the eventual sale of Bernard’s house (on-going within the world of financial melt-down of credit crunches/fiscal shenanigans of the international money markets). And so we came, in the great scheme of things, nowhere in a race of one!

Picture of Cathy with her hair all sparkly with glitter.

Cathy.

It is still one of life’s little mysteries to us how, with a world’s first by a blind woman, it has proved difficult to get people involved. Lots and lots of promises by lots and lots of people who then fail to deliver.

I remember talking to a large TV documentary maker a while back about a possible TV programme about the journey and his abiding words are burned in my brain.

“Blind people do not make good TV as the eyes are the window to the soul and a TV audience would not be able to connect to Catherine”.

It may be true that some people would not be able to step a little further along on an awareness trail which is what this trip is all about. It is about opening people’s eyes to possibilities. These possibilities exist for sighted people along with blind people.

People are determined by the fabric of their being, the strength of their heart and the value of their intellect. A person is made up of the smiles, laughter, tears, sadness, happiness and time we share with them. They are the memories of a life with other people as we pass through lives and these are as valuable to a blind person as to any other.

To say people cannot connect to a blind person is like saying you should turn the sound off on your television as you can see the images – you do not need to hear their words. Because one thing is missing does not mean the experiences are less valuable. The information is just as important and TV is not just entertainment. It is also to inform and open up areas we have little or no contact with. To discount this information is to devalue not only the purpose of TV but the people whose visual world is different than mine. Perhaps I am wrong in this observation?

Anyway, I suppose the other major news update is that I, along with many other people who now know her, have indeed connected to Catherine.

My own connection to Cathy involves the following piece of news.

Catherine and I became engaged on Christmas day 2007.

For the people out there who like details I will tell you.

Picture of Cathy's engagement ring showing 5 of the 6 diamonds set in a line within white gold..

Cathy's engagement ring.

We sat on the floor by the tree on Christmas Day and I pressed a very small box into her hand and told her that, no matter what, I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her if she would have me (a tarnished, battered around the edges, ageing, bike riding, irritating, moody person who will be a complete pain to live with).

Out of kindness I gave her the option available to contestants of “Who wants to be a Millionaire” the popular game show where contestants can ‘Phone a friend’ or ‘Ask the Audience’. She declined these options and the word ‘Yes’ seemed to occur several times. I cannot remember how many times but it seemed to be a lot. Even Biscuit seemed to join in at one point.

Picture of Cathy dressed as Santa and standing by the Christmas tree.

Cathy and Christmas.

Biscuit eventually got fed up of waiting patiently while we hugged and laughed as we opened other presents one at a time (although she was fine when it came to her own bundle of presents!) One of the presents touched me particularly due to the attached message.

Cathy’s sister Annie sent me a pile of book tokens with the message “Make sure you buy the maps to bring you home”. It was very sweet of her and I’ll certainly try to bring us both home in one piece.

After the great unwrapping Biscuit let it be known it was time to go out for a walk in the way that dogs do; by leaping up and down in front of the door and doing back-flips across the room like an Olympic gymnast. So off we went to traverse the paths and footways along the canals of Warrington while excited children rode their new bikes past us.

Picture of Cathy stood beside a sign board on the canal

Location Warrington

In our wanderings we came across a homeless man sat on a bench with whom we spent some time talking before coming away thinking to ourselves “There but for the grace of God go I” as people often do when they slow their life down enough to talk to somebody.

It was cold and he was wrapped up in many layers and waiting for the night shelter to open at 6.30pm for his Christmas dinner. The only thing we could offer him was some company in his wait as we had nothing with us of any value.

For a little while he existed and mattered as we talked of the everyday things of our lives. All too often people avert their gaze away from the non-existent person sat in the doorway or on the park bench. So it is we reinforce the belief of another human being not mattering because they are off our own radar of experiences. Sometimes we even blame them for their own misfortune whereas the truth can be very different if we only get to hear it.

Eventually we said our farewells before walking on and – like many people – realising how lucky we were to have each other, a roof over our heads and food in the cupboard. Small things, taken for granted in our daily lives but fundamental to our existence. When you have lost everything of importance in your life you treasure most things; even a smile from a stranger and a few shared words (as he told us).

And so it came to pass that Catherine walked on Christmas day 2007 wearing a ring which now says she was no longer on her own. She now wears something which tells her she is valuable, cared for and loved by another human being. It is a small thing but absolutely fundamental for us all. We have to feel wanted and needed for what we are and not what we should be in another’s eyes. She now knows she matters. There is nothing more precious to people to know that they matter – even for a few short minutes in a day. It is something we all forget to do at times; to spare a few seconds for those around us.

We work with people and forget to tell them they matter because we’re busy.

We live with people and forget to tell them they matter because we assume they know.

We forget to thank people for small acts of kindness as we rush from one part of the day to another.

In this feeling of mattering Cathy and I both both know what it means. We have both experienced times where we have felt we have not mattered. This is as good place to start for anybody in a new relationship. If you realise this, then you will always be able to do something about it from that point onwards.

Cathy sees me more clearly than anybody with sight as she pays attention to everything I miss in my frantic world. She picks up nuances and messages I do not even realise I am sending out. She seems tuned into ‘me’ and I matter to her as much as she does to me. She is frighteningly perceptive and she needs no eyes to see.

I have never personally believed a person’s soul or being is determined by whether their eyes work or not. To reduce a whole person simply down to their eyes cannot, and should not, be the truth of the person nor their defining characteristic. This thinking is the reason why so many blind people live their lives on benefits as employers adopt the same approach. It is very much like the documentary maker saying “Because your eyes do not work there is nothing you say worth listening to.”

This thinking is the reason the Disability Discrimination Act was introduced as people are made up of more than a set of eyes, legs, or ears. You cannot reduce people down to a disability. Nor should you even try to.

All people are a bundle of aspirations, wishes and dreams. It is a universal truth that spans countries, cultures and peoples. Everybody’s dreams are different but touchingly the same in many areas. We all have these dreams and they exist in our private mental world which, occasionally, we let other people into so they can see what we are.

Cathy’s dream is no bigger nor better than yours, it is just coloured by seeing it in a different way at times. Fundamentally she wants the same as everyone else. To matter. Now she does and she wears it with pride on her left hand. Her hand now feels a little bit heavier and that little bit better.

Petra – Cathy’s first Guide Dog

picture of petra hanging onto a big stick.

Petra - Cathy's first Guide Dog

Along with these events we also had a lovely day visiting Cathy’s previous Guide Dog who resides in Blackpool under the care of a Guide Dog’s appointed person.

Petra is now 12 years old and a very grand old lady. We try not to visit too much as, to us, it feels like we are ‘interfering’ in her adoptive home although it is very hard to limit the visits. We would love to bring her ‘home’ for weekends with visitation rights like some divorced couple fighting over the kids but it has not proved to be possible for various reasons. Petra was Cathy’s first Guide Dog (Biscuit being the second) and there is a real emotional link between them.

It is a difficult time in many ways when we drive up towards Blackpool; an emotional day is in front of us with roller-coaster feelings for Cathy. In many ways we dread leaving before we have even arrived. Invariably tears will be involved and a great sadness will envelop the both of us.

If you have read any of the biographical information on Cathy’s homepage you will know there is a very special place in her heart for Petra.

Besides being her first Guide Dog, it had not been very long after Petra arrived when Cathy’s husband took ill. Thus Petra is intimately linked and entwined with that distressing and painful period of her life. The two sets of events of Guide Dog arrival and illness cannot be separated even by a wafer thin piece of paper.

It was Petra who took her backwards and forwards to the hospital where the medical treatments eventually proved unsuccessful and Peter lost his battle against Leukaemia (in 1999). It was Petra who gave her a focus and a purpose to get out of the bed during the long dark time which followed. Beside Cathy Petra stood as she fought through this period to start college and collect an armful of certificates on a wide range of courses. It was Petra who took her across the stage to collect her Teacher’s Certificate to a thousand hands clapping and a clamour of voices cheering from the darkness.

In many ways I also have a lot to thank Petra for myself.

Without Petra and Guide Dogs, Cathy would have been unable to reinvent herself and become the person I was lucky to meet at Liverpool Community College. Years passed by and she developed a self-confidence with Petra’s help that was hard for her to imagine during her darkest days. She became the person to whom I am now lucky enough to be engaged to. Petra played a part in it all.

I must also admit the tears and misty eyes are not confined to Cathy when we arrive and when we depart. You see I knew Petra from the time before Biscuit. I too share her feelings in many ways but in a different way. It’s a form of amplified empathy for where she found herself in the past.

I can picture the absolute despair of that period of time and the true meaning of Petra within her life. We have talked about this period and the utter desolation that it brought for a long, long time. I do my man thing however when my emotions start to rise up and my voice drops a couple of octaves. Growling in a very man-like way I nearly cover up my feelings – at least I like to think so. It is probably not true but Cathy is too polite to mention it.

Picture of Cathy with Petra (left) and Biscuit (right)

Petra, Cathy, and Biscuit.

So we visited Blackpool and my eyes misted up when they greeted each other inside Petra’s home. I misted while they played, stroked and nuzzled each other and I growled man-like when it was time to leave; all the time wishing we could bring her back with us. We are both out at work all day and that alone would make it wrong for Petra. She has never been on her own for the whole of her life.

You see, Petra was inseparable from Cathy for nearly nine years and if Cathy moved she would watch. On free runs she would keep returning to check Cathy was fine then off she would go again. She would prance and turn full circles in her excitement when they were getting ready to leave the house or the classroom. She had a confidence for a guide dog which was staggering. Decisive, caring and yet strong willed, independent and dominant (as other dogs found out to their cost at times!) A truly exceptional guide dog in many ways. They developed a bond of trust and love between them which cannot be broken by distance nor time. It will exist forever.

We talked for hours and hours about what to do for the whole time Cathy was on the waiting list for another dog (over 12 months). We continued talking all through her training with Biscuit when Petra came to stay with me. We agonised over what to do and Cathy had endless sleepless nights as she wrestled with the decision. So it is that Cathy decided it would not be right for Petra to be alone for chunks of time when she retired. She was not reared nor brought up to be alone. She was not used to it.

If you understand this then you will know that Cathy placed Petra’s needs above her own in this matter although it broke her heart to let her go. It was Cathy’s thought that Petra needed to be with someone who could love her and could give her the time, love and company she had always had and was always used to. So it ended up with them separating in terms of physical presence but not in terms of emotional connections. This is unshakable and for life. If you are a Guide Dog owner you will intimately know this to be true. You will also understand the turmoil of emotions she went through (which continue to this day) at the separation.

Even though distance separates them Petra is still a part of the fabric of her life. She is engrained in her mind and is written into her heart as deeply as her husband Peter. The two are forever linked and entwined and cannot be separated. Petra is her connection to the past as much as she turned out to be her route to the future. No finer tribute could be paid to her than the fact that she enabled Cathy to survive and overcome a crushing blow to become the person she is today.

And so Petra now lives with ‘Elizabeth’ who is free to spend time with her and who has another dog Honey. So it is that Petra has human and doggie company which is a good thing. In the end Petra matters, is loved and cared for.

There is nothing more fundamental than this for people nor animals.

Happy Christmas and the very best to you for the New Year.

If anybody would like to become involved in the sponsorship of the journey please email for details.

Watch this space for further news.

 

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