Written for the WDC Quotation Inspiration contest, April 2020.
"Walking with a friend in the dark
is better than walking alone in the light."
-- Helen Keller
I've never really had friends; not one. I have to admit that it is partly my fault, because I'm just so socially awkward. While others seem to be quite comfortable to gather together, to laugh and to chat, I've always kept to the sidelines, secretly terrified that I would say the wrong thing and instead have been seen as stuck up and standoffish.
Then there's the matter of eye contact. I've never been capable of looking someone, anyone, in the eye for more than a split second. Maybe I'm wrong, but I am terrified they would see my struggle, would know how near I am, every second of every day, to quite literally falling apart. And then, of course, I can't interpret what their own eyes are saying. Is it happiness in their eyes or laughter? Maybe even scorn?
For years I tried to master the technique of looking just slightly off to the side, hoping that it hadn't been noticed. Then I heard a programme on the television where it talked about guilt, and how lack of eye contact was often a subconscious give-away. I've never done anything wrong; in fact I've become more and more withdrawn just in case I inadvertently do something that causes pain to another. Was that how people saw me? Guilty?
After that, I invested in several pairs of shades, the darker the better. This is fine to do in the summer, but when it's dull, cold or just plain dark, my wearing of them seemed to attract even more curiosity, more stares. Maybe a friend would have told me to take them off at certain times, but remember, I did not have anyone, and by myself I was clueless.
Even when able to seek refuge behind the darkened lenses I was excruciatingly uncomfortable. Resigning myself to being alone for the rest of my life, I went out into the world less and less frequently.
Was it some kind of twisted fate that put me outside at that specific time? I guess I'll never know the answer to that. In fact, I cannot now recall what it was that put me out on the street and in the path of that truck. I saw it too late to completely avoid it - the accident.
I was unconscious for a long time, and even when I regained consciousness I did not know I had, for my world was completely dark. The voices were all that told me that I was alive, but even so, I did not know if they were real or if I was dreaming them. I didn't have the strength to question what was happening before I drifted away again.
This was a situation that continued on and off for the next few days. Each time I thought I was awake I found myself in more and more pain, but I had no idea where I was, no recollection of how I had got there. All I knew was that where I was lacked any form of light, and that I hurt.
"Melanie, are you awake?"
The voice was irritating. I wanted it to stop talking at me, to let me go back to a state of nothingness where at least I no longer felt pain. It didn't, though. The woman kept asking over and over again until I finally managed to open my mouth and make a sound that perhaps sounded vaguely like 'Yes'.
"Melanie, you have been in an accident. Is there anyone we should call?"
Accident? I could vaguely remember the truck as it sped towards me but that was all. There was no one to call, for my parents had died years ago, and if I had any other living relatives I didn't know about them. And as for friends, forget it.
"No," I mumbled, before I managed to drift off to relative peace.
"Melanie?" That same voice again. "We're just going to remove the bandages."
I had felt the hands lift my head, and a could feel the pressure being relieved from across my eyes. A voice inside my head had said: 'That's why you could not see.' But that voice was wrong, for even when the pressure was completely removed, there was not even a chink of light. I didn't even need to be told that, whatever else the truck had damaged, the accident had left me blind.
The one thing that kept on going through my mind, at least at first, was that now I had a good excuse to wear the shades. It wouldn't make any difference if it was light or dark; no one would think I was wrong to do so. But then the reality sunk in. I honestly did not know if my sightless eyes could cry until I felt the tears running down my cheeks, and once they started it seemed that they were never going to stop.
I was moved from the intensive care unit to a rehabilitation one. There, I was not allowed to sink into the apathy of self-pity, but was forced to get up onto my feet, to take a few tentative steps. My body became stronger but my will to recover just was not there.
All the time my mind would keep on asking what was the point in it when I was simply going to be alone in darkness. It would be better to give up. And that was what I believed until one morning when I made a new friend.
I didn't see him, of course, but I heard his padding footsteps, smelled his doggy scent. It didn't register that he was coming to me until a voice said: "Melanie, I'd like you to meet Casper. Hold out your hand, that's right...Casper, this is Melanie."
The dog had put his wet nose into my hand, and then I felt his tongue give a tentative lick. It brought tears flooding from my eyes. "Can I... can I hug him?" I'd asked, already reaching down to put my arms around his neck. He did not pull away, even when my tears made his fur wet.
"Casper is a German Shepherd dog. He is nearly three years old and has been trained to be a companion dog for someone like you."
"Blind, you mean," I said, and for once there had been no bitterness to my tone.
"Well, partly. He is certainly capable of guiding you. But Casper is more than a guide dog. He has been trained as a companion dog, so that he can help keep someone... alone from becoming too lonely and isolated. If, and this is a big if, you are prepared to work with him, and with us, he could be yours!"
I had shaken my head, unable to take in the possibility of having companionship. He wouldn't like me, wouldn't trust me, simply would not be able to understand my idiosyncratic behavior. This had to be some kind of cruel joke. These were the kinds of thoughts that had flooded their way through my mind.
There followed days of frustration as I tried to learn, attempted to claw back some sort of life for myself. If it had not been for the dog's patience, I know that I would have given up. Instead, he would push his nose into my hand, press his body against my legs; and the feel of his tail wagging with some type of pleasure gave me enough strength to carry on.
I could not return to my former home. It was too cramped and up too many steps to be practical. The staff, who I had slowly learned to trust, sorted things out for me, and found me a place to live where there would be help on hand if I needed it, but where I would be able to be alone too. Casper came with me.
I love Casper and he seems to love me back. I still don't have friends, but with Casper's help I have begun to go out and to mix with the other residents. I don't get involved in long conversations but I have learned a few names to put with the voices, and will happily say hello while my dog stands against me and provides me support.
My life might now be forever in darkness, but Casper has brought me a lightness of feeling unlike any I have ever known before. For the first time in ages, I know that I am not alone.