Brian Doyle 2015-03-11 08:32:45
March 12 last year was a Tuesday. A lovely late-winter day on the high plains of Alberta. “You could see the snowcapped mountains to the west, and hear birds singing,” says Mel Foat, a 63-year-old farmer. “Chilly day, but clear, and you could smell spring in the air, you know? You could feel it coming.” He climbed into his pickup truck after breakfast and headed into Calgary to the hospital—routine eye surgery, for the removal of a cataract. He remembers that he saw cattle, of course, and deer, perhaps a magpie. Those were the last things he saw of his beloved high plains. Something went wrong in surgery; his left eye began to hemorrhage; a quiescent virus in his optic nerve awoke; and soon his left eye had to be removed. The virus somehow slid into his right eye, too, and so a few weeks after Foat had driven humming into the city for routine eye surgery, he had lost one eye and was almost completely blind in the other. The chances of such an outcome after such a routine surgery are infinitesimal. But it happened to Foat. He finally went home. His wife, Gwen, and their two children and four grandchildren were waiting for him. The grandchildren were scared and rattled by Poppa’s blindness. He had to walk into and around his house by memory for the first time in his life. He learned to count steps, to figure distances. He learned to depend on his ears thrice as much as before. He learned to use a stick for balance and exploration. But he refused to be bitter or dark about his sudden blindness: “I realized I could either pity myself or take the high road, and I’ve always liked to try the high road.” He refused to be housebound; his first great adventure was walking down the road to a Tim Hortons doughnut shop— “exactly 3,070 steps,” he says cheerfully; perhaps a quarter of a mile. Was he scared, walking down the road blind, with cars and trucks whizzing by? “Terrified,” he says. Did he ever think, “Why me? This is so unfair!” Did he have dark hours and long nights of despair? “I tried to think of it as just a frost boil in the road,” says Foat gently. “I tried to remember how lucky I am to have such love in my life, to have so liked farming, to have such friends. I tried to laugh about how now I wouldn’t have to pick rocks on the farm, or build any more fences. When I did have dark moments I tried to remember that I have an endless supply of sweet moments. There were hard moments, sure. There still are. Farmers have dirt running through their veins instead of blood and there are times every season when I want to see that startle of new greenery in a field, see the ripple of wheat in the wind. But I can still smell, and my wife Gwen understands me very well indeed, and she’ll take me out in the fall to smell the fresh-mown hay. I miss seeing the land and the crops the most. The dirt in my veins, you know… .” Foat had been president of the Chestermere Lions Club in Alberta, and no one knew better the extraordinary work that Lions clubs do all over the world to fight blindness, and work with the blind. Now that darkness had descended on Foat, he turned to his brothers and sisters in the Lions for help. The Lions helped him acquire technology, a program called ZoomTech, by which he can read, slowly. Lions gave him a speech-to-text program called Dragon to enable him to write. But best of all was their assistance in allowing him to soon become the best of friends with a Labrador dog named Walker, who can be found, when not working, sprawled on Foat’s feet, or within reach of his left hand, or wriggling between him and Gwen on the couch. “Why I was chosen for this … journey, I don’t know,” says Foat in his forthright fashion. “But I figure stuff happens, and when darkness comes you work harder for light. I am a lucky man—I love being a farmer, I have a glorious family, and I am more thankful than ever before for the way so very many people are so kind. The Lions, my neighbors, my family—so many people are so quickly and easily and thoroughly kind, and we don’t celebrate that enough. “Being bitter just takes too much time, I suppose, and I don’t have the time for it. I help out where and when I can on the farm. We have 320 acres in wheat, canola and hay. That’s 14,000 bushels of wheat, 6,000 bushels of canola, and 480 tons of hay every year. I’ve turned the farm over to my son and daughter, but I keep an eye, so to speak, on grain prices and markets for them, and I can do a lot of little things here and there, sure I can. And I try to maintain a sense of humor about it all. For example, my left eye is a prosthetic, you know, and I wanted to put a John Deere advertisement in it somehow. I have a lot of respect for John Deere products. I have to take that eye into Calgary once a year to get it cleaned and refitted, and I discovered this year that the same woman who worked on my eye worked on my father’s prosthetic eye! He’d lost an eye while cutting cable.” “My faith helps enormously, too,” he concludes. (He’s an evangelical Christian.) “But I suppose the best I can explain my attitude is to say that I have always tried to walk on the high road, and if ever there was a time to make that effort, this would be the one. And maybe I would never have known, like I do now, how wonderfully kind and helpful and generous people are, if you pay close attention. So much of what we talk about in public is awful, but so much of who we really are as people is gentle and wonderful. That’s something I see more clearly now than I did before. That’s something I hope to talk about more in public.” Is Foat just putting on a brave front? You can’t fool those close to you. The two women in this world who know Foat best—his wife and his daughter Karalee—both say, with something like awe, that they are startled and moved to find an even deeper grace in the man they love. “It’s not what we would have chosen,” says Gwen, “but it’s turning out to be a beautiful journey. My husband of 40 years, whom I thought I knew so well, has shown me an even deeper aspect of himself. Such courage and strength, such faith—he’s an even better man than he was before! He inspires so many people now—his family, his doctors and nurses, neighbors, friends—not a day goes by that he doesn’t meet someone inspired by his grace and openness. This isn’t what we envisioned for our later years, but through it I think we are a stronger and closer family, and even a closer community. And not a day goes by now that we are not thankful for the beautiful life we share. We treasure every day.” “My dad was always a gracious and compassionate man,” says Karalee, “but his dignity and gentle humor through all of this is just astonishing. He exudes grace. Not once has he ever complained, although he surely has dark days. And he’s a master of the wry remark. He always wanted a dog, and during all this he said gently one day, ‘I guess I can get a dog now,’ which sent us into hysterics. I am amazed by him every day. “Here’s a recent moment: We drove him through the fields, my mom talking the farm to him, in a manner of speaking—telling him where we were, and what was growing, what she saw. To see the look on his face, as he saw it all in his memory.” So try to not to focus on the blindness, but the man, as Foat does with his own life. Picture him grinning as he drifts through the scents of the farm he loves, in company with the people he loves. Here is grace under duress, defiant courage against all evidence and sense, and smiling tenderness rising up through distress like a vibrant, green shoot forcing its way through an adamant pavement. This is the best of who we are, and what Lions strive to be, and here for us is a positive life force that can elevate and heal the bruised, blessed world. Brian Doyle is the author of many books of essays and fiction, most recently “Children & Other Wild Animals.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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