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Sharon Randall: My brother Joe is a hero like no other

By Sharon Randall

It’s interesting, isn’t it, what interests us? Of all the people I’ve written about, no one has sparked the curiosity of readers as much as my brother Joe.
Go figure. A middle-aged, unemployed, high-school dropout, who lives alone, walks with a cane and doesn’t drive; whose social life consists mainly of church potlucks and family dinners; and who spends most of his time listening to the radio, singing along, off-key, to gospel music or pulling for Clemson to beat somebody, anybody at all.
In a world that idolizes rock stars and athletes, my brother hardly fits the image of “hero.”
But that is what he is to me — my hero. And not just because he’s blind. His blindness is part of him, like his stubbornness, his contrariness and his insistence on calling me before 6 a.m.
But I don’t admire him for being blind. I admire him for his courage in spite of it, for his ability to see light in darkness, and his determination to find hope in despair.
When he was 6, severely crippled from cerebral palsy, he learned to walk by pushing a tricycle. At 10, he had to leave home to board at the state school for the blind. At 21, he got a job he loved running the snack bar at the courthouse, only to end up being replaced by vending machines. In his 40s, he married a woman who was also blind. They fell in love, he says, “at first sight.” And then, in a few awful years, he lost, one by one, all to cancer, his wife and both of his parents.
More than anything, Joe is a survivor, a person of great faith and, lucky for me, an endless wealth of writing material.
I’ve written about him countless times, and still, I’m always surprised when readers ask about him, as if inquiring after a favorite cousin.
“How’s your brother?” they ask. “How is Joe?”
“Still blind,” I say, “and still stubborn.”
But occasionally someone wants more. Take, for example, a reader in Alabama, who wrote recently with some questions that I asked Joe to answer:
1. When blind people dream, do they see shapes and colors?
First, Joe says, it’s important to remember that blind people are like everybody else — no two experiences are quite the same. He can’t speak for everyone who is blind. But in his experience, he says, having been blind since birth, he has no memory of colors or images. Awake or asleep, he sees only dark and light and shadows. But it never stops him from dreaming.
2. Can you tell by touching someone’s face if they are attractive or not?
Beauty, Joe says, is in the eye of the beholder. To him, his wife was beautiful. And he adds that I’m not bad-looking, either.
3. How do you know what denomination a bill is?
You have to ask, Joe says, and you have to trust people to be honest. To identify bills, he leaves the ones flat and folds the others: Fives once, tens twice and twenties lengthwise.
4. How do you know if you’ve been given correct change?
“I figure it up in my head so I know what I’m due and I ask to have it counted out to me.”
5. Is it difficult/expensive to learn Braille?
“It took me a while,” Joe says, “but it’s not hard once you get the hang of it.” And because he learned it at the state school for the blind, all it cost were the teeth he lost in fights.
6. What else did you learn in school besides Braille?
He laughs. “How to be mean.”
7. Blind people seem to rely on their fingertips to “see” with. What happens if your fingers get cold or calloused?
“Well,” Joe says, “I try not to let mine get cold or calloused.”
8. Is there anything else you can tell us about being blind?
“Yes,” Joe says. “You have to feel your way around with your hands or a cane. If you get lost, you have to ask for directions. But it’s not so different from anybody else. If you keep trying, you’ll get where you’re going.”
• • •
Contact Sharon Randall at www.sharonrandall.com.

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