This morning, one year after delivering his eulogy, I sat at my father’s desk and re-read his obituary:
Christopher Kauders, role model for the sightless and sighted alike, dies at 65.
Below the headline is a photograph I took years ago in Montreal. My father lies, arms outstretched, in a grassy field, a wide grin spread beneath his salt-and-pepper mustache. His left arm cradles the massive head of his Seeing Eye dog, Wally, who rests his chin on my dad’s chest in an expression of bliss or of sleepiness. In the photograph, chosen by an editor at the Boston Globe, my father’s eyes are closed. Above the byline, a quote: “He could see into people’s souls.”
Throughout my father’s life, people often described him as a sage or clairvoyant, a blind man who could see beyond the visual. I was seventeen when I noticed the pattern. When an admissions officer at a small liberal arts college called me in for an interview, she spotted my dad and his dog in the waiting room.
“Have you read The Odyssey?” she asked when he was no longer within earshot. “Do you remember the name of that blind guy?”
I told her it was Tiresias, the seer.
“Tiresias,”she repeated, nodding in approval. A good sign, I thought.
Then she said, “Is your father…wise?”
Since classical antiquity, blindness has been deployed as a symbol for ignorance, insight, and everything in between. Sophocles’ Tiresias in Oedipus Rex—much like Homer’s more minor character of the same name in The Odyssey—is a blind prophet. Tiresias harnesses his powers of augury to glimpse Oedipus’ past and future, warning the king he’s secretly a killer. But Oedipus fails to heed the prophecy. When he famously discovers he killed his father and married his mother, Oedipus gouges out his eyes in the most iconic display of blindness in the Western canon.
Blind characters—or, I should say, blind male characters—have been conferred superhuman wisdom since the Gospels. In the book of John, Jesus restores vision to a man he claims “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And just as blindness stands for godliness and divine wisdom, so, too, does it symbolize ignorance and ineptitude. In Spanish dramaturg Antonio Buero Vallejo’s 1947 play about a school for blind children, blindness is a thinly veiled allegory for the passive acquiescence of certain Spaniards to Franco’s dictatorship. In José Saramago’s Blindness, an epidemic of vision loss likewise signifies a collapse in the social order.
Blindness metaphors don’t just exist in literature; they’re encoded into the language we use every day. When we feign ignorance, we turn a blind eye. We say myopic when we mean short-sighted or lacking insight. See? In English, both wisdom and lack of wisdom are articulated in terms of vision. That’s because the conceptual metaphor seeing is understanding, as cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Metaphors We Live By, is built into our lexicon. A conceptual metaphor is a comparison between two ideas that becomes so deeply encoded into our everyday language, we no longer perceive it as figurative. Is seeing actually the same as understanding? Not any more than love is actually a battlefield. But the parallel feels so natural that most of us don’t even see it.
Even our conversations about actual blindness tend to invoke the metaphorical. Jorge Luis Borges, the celebrated Argentinian writer who lost his vision over many years, euphemistically described his condition as “un eclipse, un lento crepúsculo” (“an eclipse, a slow twilight”). And remember Antonio Buero Vallejo, the Spaniard who wrote about the school for blind children? He titled his play En la ardiente oscuridad, “In the Burning Darkness.”
In my life, blindness is anything but figurative. My dad was born legally blind. So was his older sister, my aunt Dina. They had retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that causes the breakdown of the retina, which communicates visual input from the eye to the brain. Retinitis pigmentosa is hereditary; it lives in my genes. And while it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever lose my vision, my father’s RP means I have the recessive gene and could pass the condition on to a future child. In the parlance of geneticists, I’m a carrier. Here, a conceptual metaphor: the body is a container, or to inherit is to bear.
My father was blind only in the literal sense. He read the New York Times every morning on the telephone, listened to the Red Sox via gravelly radio broadcast, and took notes at work by whispering into a Panasonic microcassette recorder. At night, through the wall that separated my childhood bedroom from his office, I could hear him studying the tapes, sitting alone with his own voice in the dark.
My father needed help reading his mail, placing an unfamiliar voice, and knowing when his clothes were stained. Not infrequently, he needed help finding where in the yard his Seeing Eye dog had defecated. And because he insisted on performing this retrieval “on his own,” helping him meant calling out directions precise enough to lead him to the turd without him stepping in it. In extreme cases, we’d guide his hand, sheathed in its plastic bag, in the direction of the feces until it established preliminary contact. My father was a breeze to trick on April Fool’s but impossible to beat at hide-and-seek. Try finding a hiding place where a trained German Shepherd can’t find you. I never won a single game.
Many interpreted the surprising ease with which my dad seemed to navigate the world as a sign of his inherent wisdom. In reality, though my father was wise, he managed to survive because he was resilient, tenacious, and smart. He had a place in his wallet for singles and another for twenties. He knew which door belonged to the coffee shop because of a groove in the pavement beneath his feet. He knew which bus was his because he brought the driver chocolates and every time she saw him, she’d pull over and call out his name. My father developed a mental map of greater Boston so detailed that, when I got my driver’s license, I often found myself– a sighted teenager with GPS on my phone– calling upon him to guide me through city traffic.
My father also understood people. He spent his workdays as a mediator, resolving legal disputes between dueling parties. He could make two people who’d despised each other for fifty years laugh in unison at a dumb dog joke. Outside work, he volunteered legal advice to organizations serving blind people. To some, he seemed like a saint. But he was also stubborn, headstrong, so determined to be self-sufficient that for years, he refused to train with a Seeing Eye dog, the tool that would later become so essential to his autonomy. Then one day, he refused help disembarking from a friend’s boat and walked, with the same purpose with which he did everything, off the wrong side of the boat and into the harbor. His sister Dina said: don’t you think you’re running out of luck?
As it did that day when my father found himself floating, fully clothed, in an ice-cold Massachusetts harbor, blindness has a way of bringing a person into deeply material– and often unexpected– contact with the surrounding world. My father did not think of his blindness as mystical or mythical; he knew that to live with a disability is simply a fact of life, often one that makes life more difficult. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 19% of disabled individuals were employed full-time in 2021. Unsurprisingly, employment rates among disabled men are higher than those among women, and employed blind individuals who are white vastly outnumber those who are Black. And while legislation like the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act has been fundamental in ensuring the freedoms of people like my dad, there are still glaring lacunae in protections for disabled people under the law.
This is especially true when it comes to accessibility. Guide dog and wheelchair users are just two of the communities regularly denied service by rideshare companies. In the last year alone, over 7,000 wheelchairs were damaged, some irreparably, by commercial airlines. Mobility devices like wheelchairs are often custom-made and can be costly and slow to repair, creating not only a financial burden, but also health and mobility hazards for the people who rely on them. In 2021, disability advocate Engracia Figueroa died of health complications after United Airlines destroyed her wheelchair.
If we know that blindness is a fact of life and not the stuff of legend, why are we still so tempted to idealize blind people? Why did that well-meaning admissions officer invoke Tiresias, and why did it bother me so much?
To begin with, that others should cast my father as prophetic or supernaturally wise conflicted with my perception of his blindness as perfectly ordinary. The cultural critic M. Leona Godin, who is blind, speaks to this in There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness. In representations of blind people, she writes, “the idea of poetic and prophetic compensation [for a lack of vision] has been translated into the superhero realm.” But when blindness is flagged as other, the “ordinary aspects” of life as a blind person, such as mobility and accessibility barriers, go overlooked. So, too, does the very ordinariness of blindness for the people who live with it.
As Godin writes, “people impose absurd expectations upon blind people, but what blindness actually constitutes “is no more and no less than a lack of sight.” Indeed, aside from relatively rare instances when my father’s lack of vision came to bear on his physical safety or mobility – like when he and his Seeing Eye dog were denied entry to a public space or refused service by an uninformed worker– his blindness always struck me as relatively mundane. To live without relying on vision seemed so normal that, when I was a child in search of a midnight snack or glass of milk, I rarely turned on a light, preferring to navigate downstairs in the pitch-black, my hand gripping the banister as my father’s did. Once on the ground floor, I’d pad down the front hall to the kitchen, listening to my footsteps resonate against the surrounding walls. Thus I, a child of seven, would find my way as my father and his sister did, echolocating until I found my snack.
Even now, at twenty-nine, I’m not very visual. It’s easier for me to remember the plots of audiobooks than books I read in print. Any given symphony can move me more than any painting ever has. And when I think about my father, I don’t see his smile. I hear his voice, and it’s bright and clear as a bell.
In May of 2020, my father came down with a fever that wouldn’t go away. His primary care doctor guessed he had COVID and encouraged us to stay at home unless he developed respiratory symptoms. Two and half weeks later, the fever remained. My father had lost almost twenty pounds and was only ambulatory for a few hours a day. When we took him to the ER, the radiologist found in his abdomen a tumor “as big as a hamburger.” And then came the diagnosis of lymphoma, and the slew of well-intentioned but predictable encouragements: he’s a fighter, he’s going to beat this! But his cancer spread, the treatments failed, and eventually, his organs ceased to function.
And then, one year ago, I sat by my father’s hospital bed and read him a sonnet by Shakespeare, the one that ends: “this thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong/ To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” My father didn’t lose a battle. Cancer isn’t war any more than vision is understanding. The sonnet ended, he took a massive breath. And then my father died.
Since that day, blindness metaphors sit more uncomfortably with me than ever. Perhaps because my father’s blindness, like all qualities belonging to the dead, has now been subsumed into the realm of the unreal (the remembered, I might say, or the imagined, for every day the distinction feels less discrete). And like this desk where I sit and the obituary from which I read, it’s now only the artifacts of my father and his blindness that survive. Wally, who was once a Seeing Eye dog, is asleep downstairs. His leather harness gathers dust on the hook by the door. Floors beneath where I now sit rests the gargantuan CCTV on which my father used to read, and if I switched it on, it would whir and start as it always did, like an airplane deploying its landing gear in a hurry.
Could my father see into people’s souls? Don’t be ridiculous. No one can see a soul, least of all a person who is blind. But my father understood people, and he understood me. At the start of his treatment for cancer, he listened while I read aloud all 88,000 words of Orlando because he knew it would make me feel better. And whenever I shared some fascinating or poignant detail from the visual world (like the mother bird who swooped down while I shaved my dad’s head in the backyard and then flew a clump of his hair up to her nest to cushion her young), he’d say write that down and then stay silent until it was written, knowing the detail might someday figure into the story I made of my life.
Part of me is touched when people invoke the prophetic when remembering my father. But this kind of talk also makes me uncomfortable. Yes, my dad was blind. And yes, he was wise. But his wisdom wasn’t divinely conferred, nor was it inherent to his blindness. He developed ingenuity and resilience over six decades of navigating an ocularcentric world. To attribute ipso facto wisdom and clairvoyance to my dad isn’t just to other him, to deprive him of his autonomy and individuality. It’s also to overlook the arduous process by which blind people must learn to survive in a world engineered for the sighted. And when we fail to see that process, we fail, too, to recognize that barriers to accessibility are real, and that there is practical work to be done to make our world more hospitable for those who are blind.
Perhaps we can begin by inquiring into our words, training ourselves to see the invisible connections that underlie our language.
For instance: I once was blind, but now I see.
Conceptual metaphor: UNDERSTANDING IS VISION.
For instance: I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.
Conceptual metaphor: MEMORY IS VISION.
For instance: I still see my father.
I see my father everywhere.