In 2015 Robert told me of a place in North Vancouver that was a reminder of how dangerous being sight-challenged could be in a city. I wrote about his return visit to that site in a 2016 blog published on a previous version of my website.
Revisiting a Vancouver site brings insight and closure
Photo and story by Faye Bayko
When Robert and I moved to Vancouver from Calgary in 2012, Robert knew he was going to have to face ghosts from his previous residency in the city. Still, it took over three years to revisit the site of the ghost with the biggest howl.
This particular ghost had been created from years of fear and eventually manifested on a small triangle of land under a north shore bridge.
Deny, deny, deny
Prior to meeting me, Robert had felt insecure about disclosing the extent of his shortsightedness. He hid the fact he only had 10 per cent of his sight, and all that entailed, behind a stubborn independence. He refused to use a cane and his physical appearance, other than a wandering eye, did not offer any enlightenment to workmates or friends.
This meant that Robert had spent most of his adult life denying who and what he was.
While he had no choice in grade school, once he reached high school, he refused to be separated from the main stream of students any longer. So, while fellow sight-challenged students were funneled off to attend a special school for the blind, Robert chose to stumble amongst the sighted unaided. He followed; watching where and how they walked in order to determine the safety of the terrain and route. He waited to cross streets until there were others who needed to cross. When he did travel alone, it was usually along routes he had been on with others, or, he would slow his pace to allow his brain time to interpret what little information his eyes were giving it.
The first time he lived in Vancouver it was for approximately 20 years, mainly on the north shore, so he knew the area well, or so he had thought.
During our recent revisit to the site, he told me of the experience that had haunted him for many years. It had happened on a beautiful Saturday morning, he said, after a walk from his home in North Vancouver to Park Royal Shopping Centre in West Vancouver.
Trapped on an island
“There was a grocery store and liquor store I liked (at the mall),” he explained. The date of the original visit has been lost in time. “I can’t recall the exact date, or the time of the year, but it was late enough in the year for it to be sunny.”
He had no trouble following the sidewalk along the north side of Marine Drive to the shopping centre. It was during his return trip that he ran into problems. “I decided to mix (the walk) up a bit and return home by the south side of Marine Drive,” he explained.
He crossed with the pedestrian light outside the mall, then turned left to take the sidewalk running along the south side of the busy road. When he came to where he would have to cross the traffic accessing Lions Gate Bridge, cars were traveling slow enough, and their flow was spaced enough to allow him to do so successfully. It was the next crossing that gave him problems.
“I thought I could cut across and just keep going,” he said. “But I walk under the bridge (crossing Marine Drive) and come out the other side and that’s when I realize I’m in trouble.”
The traffic coming off the bridge and making the right-hand turn onto Marine Drive was heavy and fast. He was unable to see far enough to be able to judge when best to try crossing and the drivers were unaware of his sight problem so did not stop.
“I figured I’d better go back and cross back where the traffic was slower, then walk back to Park Royal where there were traffic lights.” He would then be in a position to cross Marine Drive and return home the way he had come or catch a bus. But when he reached the access road to the bridge the traffic flow had increased, and he was unable to recross. Again, because of his sight, he was unable to judge when it was safe to cross and, because he didn’t use a cane, the drivers had no idea he was blind.
Robert stepped back from the curb.
“I was kind of stuck,” he said.
He sat down on the concrete slabs lining the slope under the bridge and realized just how vulnerable he was. He was stuck in an area where it would be very difficult for anyone, friend or taxi, to park safely long enough for him to get in the vehicle.
After some thought he felt his only option was to call the West Vancouver police as they would be able to use their flashers to warn on-coming traffic that they were parked in the shadow of the bridge. “When I spoke with the dispatcher, the dispatcher said to me, ‘Oh, you’re the guy that’s standing there. One of our cars just went by there and they were wondering what you were doing.’” Robert was told to hang tight. It was shift change so it’d be about 15 minutes before an officer would be free to pick him up.
“When the police officer pulled up in a cruiser, I went to get in the front seat and he said, ‘No,’ then got out and opened the back door,” Robert said. “I was very relieved to see him, but he seemed very cautious, and unsure of the situation.”
The backseat area was very tight, and Robert felt a bit claustrophobic. “They’ve got it built so that a person can’t really move. Luckily it was a short drive.”
The officer drove Robert the two blocks to the bus stop at the edge of the Staples parking lot. Robert then caught the city bus the remainder of the way home, but the experience left its mark.
“That kind of scared the hell out of me,” he said, the emotion still raw in his voice 20 years afterward. “I didn’t walk over to Park Royal again for quite a while! And, even when I did, I’d take the bus back.”
Looking back now Robert can see how foolish he had allowed his pride to make him. “I realize I’d been stupid. It was dumb to put myself in that situation.”
Years of pretending he was sighted, when he was not, had given him a false sense of security. “If I had accepted who I was I would not have thought I was invincible and gone there.”
But even after the reality-check of becoming trapped under the bridge it still took years before he understood the true lesson behind the event. It was not that he should avoid risky situations, it was that he should go into them prepared.
“I should’ve let people know about my vision,” he said as he stood looking back at the bridge. “And part of that means walking with a white cane.”
His embarrassment of his lack of vision combined with his resentment that people couldn’t tell he was blind placed him in the position of being his own worst enemy.
“What came from this was that I was causing myself to be less independent. I was causing my problems because I wasn’t letting people know I needed their help.”
Opening up and being vulnerable in front of others, is a new challenge for Robert. “It’s scary letting people know all these things and it’s not always the easiest thing to do.”
But he recognizes that by doing so he’s gaining true independence.
“One of the things I have to step up to and become comfortable with is the use of a cane as one of the ways of communicating to others that I may not be able to see them. It’s taking what haunted me about that situation and using it to move forward.”