In my life I’ve had three passions: traveling, the law, and writing. The travel bug bit me at 8 years old when I saw a picture of a statue of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Something about that picture haunted me and made me want to go all the way to France to see it in person. All through grade school I’d plan trips around France and the rest of Europe using old atlases and maps. Finally, when I was 17, I made my first trip when I became a foreign exchange student for a year in Denmark (France was not available). I lived with a wonderful Danish family just outside of Copenhagen and had the time of my life. However, my travel bug kept biting.
A few years later, I attended Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service. And this time, I made it to France. I spent my junior year studying at the University in Nice. That was the best year of my life. I learned French, fell in love with France and a young Frenchman. I did very little actual studying, but I did do a lot learning through my travels. That year, I visited Denmark, Italy, North Africa, England and Germany. But my heart belonged to France, and to the Frenchman, so after my year in Nice I returned to DC, completed my degree at Georgetown, and returned for another year to the south of France. That was my year in Marseilles.
My love of travel never left me, but my desire to become a lawyer began to gnaw at me right about this time. So back I went to the US to study law at the American University in DC. After I got my Juris Doctor, I began working with the Federal Government in our nation’s capital, and later transferred to the Chicago Regional office, where I spent over a decade. All in all, it was a great job and a pretty great life. I worked with some extraordinary, bright, dedicated people who believed in public service. So my dream of becoming a lawyer, which I’d had since I was 12, came true, but I still wanted to travel.
During my years in Chicago, I made several trips to Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. Life was pretty good. Then, in November of 1995, my world suddenly and tragically collapsed.
Life Ends and Begins
Living in Chicago was an adventure. It had amazing architecture, fabulous restaurants, cultural diversity, tons of opportunities, and snow. One particularly cold, snowy winter, just before Thanksgiving, I developed a clot in my brain that lead to a stroke which almost killed me.
I fell into a coma and when I awoke several weeks later, everything had changed. The life I had built for myself collapsed around me. I woke up into a solitary existence of nothingness without the ability to see or to move or to hear or to touch the world I called home. It took years of painful rehabilitation to recover some of my abilities, but I was left permanently, totally blind in one eye, and in the other I had a field of vision of less than two degrees with limited acuity and focus.
During this period of rehabilitation, as I struggled to regain the abilities I had lost, I found myself sliding into a deep depression. I felt as ephemeral as a shadow wandering between the memory of a life I once knew and the present existence of a life I couldn’t touch. Everything was so hard. My hearing slowly returned and I gradually regained the use of my body. But, not my vision. I quickly discovered that, apart from my appreciation of the taste of food, there was no part of my life that was unaffected by my blindness. I couldn’t read, watch TV, go for a walk, put on makeup, pick out my clothes, cook, clean, knit, play games, or even find my own front door. I had to learn how to do everything in a very different way.
While I missed seeing my world with all my heart, the worst feeling I had to deal with was my constant state of fear. I was afraid of falling, of getting hit by a car, of getting lost, of being alone, of not finding a way to build a life where I could be happy. And I was afraid that I would never again be able to see and experience the amazing things the world had to offer. The void that was my world and my future terrified me.
The immediacy of my situation dictated my actions and choices. The first order of business was to try to go back to work, after all, I needed to make a living. Travel, I told myself, was no longer to be a part of my world. My employer rigged out my office with all kinds of technical devices, but I was so afraid to leave my apartment that it took all of my strength to muster the courage just to take a cab to the office everyday and my work suffered. Then one day, a colleague told me something that gave me hope.
My colleague, who was almost as blind as I was and partially deaf as well, came to see me. She brought with her her fabulous, black Lab, named Aussi. At one point during our meeting, I asked her if she was ever afraid. She replied that she used to be but she long ago realized that it was exhausting living under a constant cloud of fear. She was right. I had spent too much time and energy fearing what could happen. I knew I had to change. She then suggested that I get a guide dog. I told her that I was too afraid to trust my life to a dog. She then handed me Aussi’s harness and let me experience what it was like to be guided. And though I only walked around the halls at work, it was amazing. Aussi lead me skillfully up and down the halls. That same week, I applied to the guide dog school in New York, and a few short months later I met Honor, my guide, who saved my life and gave me a new beginning.
I met Honor, my Labrador guide dog, on September 9, 1997. She was only 18 months old and she too, was disabled. She was born with a stubby tail. She may not have been able to use her tail as a rudder like other labs, but she could still wag up a storm.
Her other talents more than compensated for her little tail. She was the smartest dog I’d ever met. She was completely serious when in harness and working, and completely silly when out of harness. Honor could make me happy just by her presence. I quickly fell in love with her, but it still took us several months before we developed the trust needed to work together as a team. And on one cold, snowy, winter day, Honor proved herself.
Honor and I were walking together along the street by my office. We were joined by an acquaintance with whom I was soon lost in conversation as we walked. We were so engrossed in our chat that neither of us noticed the signals Honor was giving nor did we see the bus that was bearing down towards us. All at once, I felt Honor jump up against me knocking me backwards away from the front wheels. I heard the honk of a horn and felt the whoosh of air blow across my face from the huge city bus that just barely missed running me over. She saved my life for the first time that day. And that day, I began to build my new life. I realized I now had a constant companion who I could rely on and who would guide me through my new life safely. I was no longer alone. From that day on, the trust we had in one another and our bond grew stronger. I began to feel a newfound confidence and courage. I started going out again, just Honor and me. She gave me back my independence.
Honor was with me everywhere. I could count on her all the time. When I found myself seized with anxiety in a noisy, dark restaurant where I could neither see in the dim lighting nor hear above the constant din, I would soon feel her cold, wet nose and warm, soft tongue against my leg and a wave of calm would wash over me. When I got lost and couldn’t find exits or elevators or even my own home, she was there and could guide me. She was better than any sighted person-guide I’d ever walked with. She never wavered in her complete concentration on me. She never made me wait. She was my guide. She was my friend.
Honor and I worked together for many years. I felt safe despite the bumps in the road we faced. It was surprising how many people didn’t know, or didn’t care about the laws protecting service animals. Often we were refused entry to restaurants, cabs, etc. Nonetheless, with Honor by my side, I began to rebuild my life and to find the courage I had lost with my eyesight. However, despite my newfound independence, and a considerable amount of accommodation from my employer, I continued to find the practice of law beyond my abilities and rather than fail in my duty to my clients I decided it was time for me to find a new profession. After many tears and a sad farewell to my colleagues at work, I resigned.
I left my job in 2002, and Honor and I moved from cold, windy Chicago to balmy, sunny Los Angeles. I didn’t know a soul in the City of Angels, I chose LA entirely because of the weather: I chose wisely. I ended up buying a little California bungalow with a yard for Honor and a pool for me. It needed a lot of care. I had to redo everything from the foundation to the roof and everything in between. It became a beautiful home with over 35 screaming bright colors both inside and out. I lived in a great neighborhood, and joined a gym and met some wonderful new friends. My life was good, but I missed traveling.
With Honor by my side, I had the confidence to travel, at least within the 50 States. But how could I manage to venture overseas? On the one hand, I was too nervous to travel abroad with Honor: I wasn’t sure how other countries viewed service dogs and I hated making her sit at my feet in the cramped airplanes for hours at a time unable to pee or walk around. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine facing the world without Honor. So I resolved to give up traveling overseas altogether, until one day in 2005.
I hadn’t traveled beyond the borders of the United States in over 10 years, ever since I had my “brain explosion” and lost most of my eyesight. Then, in 2005, my best friend from law school invited me to join her on a vacation to Italy. I said no. I had dozens of reasons: I didn’t want to take Honor on such a long flight and I didn’t want to leave her, I couldn’t get around without my guide dog, I was afraid I’d get lost, or run over or fall down stairs . . .. I had a string of excuses. My friend persisted and promised to be my sighted guide, so in the end, I finally relented and agreed to go.
I was terrified, but I couldn’t resist going either. The reasons I gave my friend for not going were genuine, but they were, after all, just excuses. The real reason I was afraid to go was because I was terrified that my heartwould break in half if I couldn’t see all of those wonderful and amazing things I knew were there. I dreaded standing before Michelangelo’s David and not being able to see his lovely lines, or smelling the light Mediterranean sea breezes without being able to make out the picturesque coastline I remembered so well. I didn’t know if my heart could take it. My friend convinced me, it was worth the risk. So I went.
I fell in love in 2005, with Italy. My heart did, in fact, break when I couldn’t see the statue of David, and I certainly shed more than a few tears at being unable to make out the many other works of art I had seen as a sighted person. But I also made a discovery. I found that I was just fine when trying to see those things with which I was totally unfamiliar. With a little help from my friend and with great pleasure, I got to see and enjoy without tears, the Pitti Palace and the Arno River, the canals of Venice and glassworks of Murano. My friend did an amazing job of describing the beauties of Italy. And, the Italians proved themselves to be a wonderful and warm people, both compassionate and passionate; language didn’t seem to be an issue, nor did my blindness. I loved being there because I didn’t feel so “blind.” In Italy, I stuck out of the crowd as much for being an American as I did for being a blind woman. I loved it. Not that I necessarily like looking so “American,” it’s just that I like being noticed for something other than my blindness. I almost felt as though it didn’t matter.
So, my first trip overseas turned out to be a fabulous success, but I missed Honor and I was happy to see her upon my return.
A couple years later, in 2007, Honor suffered the first of four strokes. During the last few years of her life she lost her eyesight, developed painful arthritis, and finally cancer. She could no longer work with me, so it became my turn to care for her. I became her guide and stayed with her: my newfound freedom to travel would have to wait. After a while, none of the physical therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture and medical treatments helped her. On April 1, 2010, I had to say goodbye to my best friend, she passed away in our home in my arms.
In 2010, I began my move to France which took almost three years to complete. I’m now living my dream: I’m living on the French Riviera and I’m finally pursuing the last of my three lifelong passions, writing.
I hope you will join me as I share other posts and writings and if you’re so inclined, check out my first book, Facets, which you’re welcome to read about under another page in my blog.
And, my adventure continues . . .
2 thoughts on “A Life of Passion”
Hi Julia, just came across your blog and loved reading your summery. Felt like almost chatting to you. Must admit my eyes are moist. Just about to leave Togo and spend 2 months in that corner of the world we both love. Hope to see you soon. Love Philippa
Thank you Philippa, you’re so sweet. I think I will be seeing you on Thursday at the museum/luncheon, I hope! Love, Julia