Evening walks seem like they should be so relaxing. For our family, they seldom are as peaceful as we expect them to be. Tonight’s walk was no different. Just out of the car, Amber, the dogs, and I walked down a snowy trail into some woods and waited at the bottom of a hill for our son to catch up with his sled. Overly confident, I stood aloof while my son came tearing down the trail screaming, “Woooohhh!“
Amber yelled, “Alden, jump off the sled!”
Still aloof, my subconscious thoughts told me that mom had this one under control.WHAM!!! My shoulder slammed into the ground, then my hips, then my legs. That was when I began to realize what had happened.
Amber yelled, “Alden! Why were you sledding backwards?! You couldn’t even see where you were going!”
My shoulder ached and shot with pain.
Ah yes, another relaxing evening walk with the Bigley family.
On one of the first nice, sunny days of our short Alaska summer, Amber, the kids and I went to a go-kart racetrack. Being the extreme biker and skier that my five-year-old Alden is, I was sure this would be an instant hit. Truth be told, I was pretty psyched for Alden to drive me as his passenger. There aren’t many thrilling activities we can do together. For me, this was sweet since I think that having a blind dad who can’t catch a baseball or ride a bike must be pretty lame sometimes. This was an in. I built it up for weeks while we waited for the park to open for the season. It wasn’t until the morning of that day that the thought crossed my mind: Uh-oh, what if he isn’t tall enough to ride? It saddened me to imagine him crushed by the rejection.
The big day arrived, and so did the unfortunate moment of truth. He wasn’t tall enough. I turned to look at Amber. I couldn’t contain my mischievous grin.
“Well, I’m tall enough!”
She chuckled and rolled with it without hesitation. It felt as though we were pulling a fast one on the poor teenagers who were working what was likely their first jobs. I had no cane or dog to give it away. I was just a guy in dark glasses who didn’t seem to know where he was going. We waited for one of the teens to open the gate.
“I’ll go with Alden and you can go with Acacia,” I said toAmber.
The gate opened, and in we went. Alden, who was guiding me, stalled looking at all the cars.
“C’mon Alden. Just go to the first car and help me get in.”
More stalling. Amber came and quickly led me to a car, which I awkwardly got into. I realized another problem. There was no way Alden could reach the gas pedal or brakes.
Oooohhh. They actually have the height restriction for a reason, I thought. But it was too late, and I wasn’t going to let this or any other detail get in the way. Once Alden climbed in beside me in front of the steering wheel, I fumbled around with our seatbelts trying to figure them out and finally got them fastened.
“OK Alden, you tell me when that light turns green. I’ll work the pedals for gas and the brakes, and you are going to steer. If you want me to speed up or slow down, just say faster or slower. OK?”
“OK… It’s green, Dad.”
I tried going pretty slow, slow enough that others went zooming past us. Alden sat silently steering, providing me with no feedback.
“Do you want me to go faster or slower?” I asked as we snaked around the turns
“Slower!” he gasped as if he’d forgotten that was an option.
This repeated several times until we were going about as slow as possible without stopping altogether. After several minutes I felt him pull off the track into the start-line area.
“Alden, we can keep going. We can just keep going as many times as we want until the light turns red.”
“But DAD, we made it. We are already back.”
“I know, but we don’t have to stop. Don’t you want to keep going?”
“No, Dad! We already made it back.”
At this point I realized that he had been white-knuckling it the whole way, and was super stressed out. He’d pulled off the track at the first possible opportunity and was totally done — and terrified. He hesitantly did the best job he could parking with a blind man controlling the gas and brakes. As stiff as a board, he guided his blind father out of the track area. It wasn’t until we were on the other side of the fence that he loosened up a bit and was able to speak again. At that point, after the fear had subsided and the threat of doing it again had past, he said, “That was cool, Dad!” as if to say, “I’m glad you had fun, Dad. That was insane, and I never want to go driving with you again.”
The vet came to our house Monday night at around 8:30 when it was clear things weren’t good. As they gave her the shot, her head became heavy in my hand as she passed. I put my face against hers and sobbed as I gave her the final kisses. I felt her soulful presence run cold as she passed. Her spirit that lived inside of me also passed, and it left me feeling void of self. For the last 14 years, I have lived with a part of her inside of me. My part of our bond. When she left us, for the first time in 14 years, I felt what it is like to be without her, and I realized how much a part of me she had become. What a hole inside of me.
I’ve heard it said that a man’s dog often takes on characteristics and personality traits of its human counter part. Many, including myself had seen that in Maya. Now I know with certainty that I also became like my dog, and took on part of her personality as my own. Maya was the greatest teacher and friend I’ve ever had. In my relationship with her, was my greatest joy, and my greatest knowing of what is sacred. Thank you Maya. I will always remember you, and love you.
The other day I received an unlikely call to my cell phone at work. I assumed it was my wife. When the man introduced himself as calling on behalf of the UAA Alumni Association, I wondered how he had obtained my cell number, and I was sure he was going to ask for money. I was beside myself when he went on to ask me if I would be willing to attend the homecoming gala and receive the Rising Leader Alumni of Distinction Award. My wife and I will be attending the black tie event on October 1 to receive the award. The following information was excerpted from a press release about the event and award.
University of Alaska Anchorage(UAA) Alumni Association announces 2011 Alumni of Distinction award recipients Eric Wohlforth, Joan Fisher and Dan Bigley to be honored at Green & Gold Gala
ANCHORAGE, AK – The UAA Alumni Association will honor three outstanding Alumni of Distinction at its upcoming Green and Gold Gala in Anchorage Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 at the Hotel Captain Cook. The Green and Gold Gala will bring together alumni, friends and the community in support of UAA.The elegant ‘black tie’ event will help kick off Homecoming Week at UAA and will celebrate achievements of alumni, showcase University success and raise important UAA scholarship support.
UAA Alumni Emerging Leader Award: Dan Bigley, M.S.W. ’09, Director of Therapeutic Foster Care Services, Denali Family Services
Awarded to an alumnus who has made a significant impact in their industry or profession or contributed to the community and has strived to make a difference in the lives of others. The nominee must have received their degree within the past 10 years.
A grizzly bear mauled Dan Bigley in the summer of 2003 on the shores of Alaska’s Russian River and left him for dead. The odds were against him, but Dan survived, and after many surgeries and rehabilitative efforts he was able to pick up where he left off several years ago. With the support of UAA’s Disability Support Services, Dan earned his M.S.W. in ’09 from UAA with a 4.0 GPA. He now works with youth and families facing trauma, sexual abuse, substance abuse, behavioral disorders or mental illnesses. Dan is currently writing a book about the bear that nearly killed him and left him blind. Read Dan’s full story at greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu under “I am UAA.”
Read more on the UAA website UAA Alumni Association announces 2011 Alumni of Distinction award recipients
One night Alden and I were talking as I was putting him to bed, and I asked him mostly joking, “Alden, when I get old, will you take care of me?”
“Yeah. I’m going to be a big firefighter so I can help you because you’re blind. If there is a fire I can save you. Or I can save you if you climb up in a tree and you get stuck because I’m going to be a big firefighter.”
Alden already knows his dad is different. He knows that if dad is coming down the stairs, that he has to say something or make noise so that dad won’t knock him down the steps. (It only took him a few times to learn this.) Alden saw a service animal at an indoor children’s play area, and he said, “That guy has a dog like my dad.”
Alden will help me find things like his sister’s shoes, or the remote control. He already takes care of me. The other day I left the house to find my family at a neighbor’s backyard barbeque, and as I closed the door, I heard Alden yelling from across the cul-de-sac, “Dad! Dad!” He ran over, took my hand and pulled me over to where he was playing with his friends in the neighbor’s yard, knowing that he was guiding me. He sometimes tells his mom, “Look mom, I’m doing Anderson’s job.” He’ll also ask her to set up the TV so he can watch “Toy Story,” and say something like, “You can’t do it because you are blind.”
Alden began asking how I became blind when he was 2 and a half. It was an interesting challenge figuring out just how to explain it to him. He began asking questions about my eyes such as, “Are your eyes broken? Why do you have a scratch on your head?” he asked, perplexed by the patch of forearm skin on my forehead. I guess I figured I’d just be honest about it since I knew he was going to hear about it sooner than later anyway from somewhere. I didn’t want to tell him something and then have him hear people say something different, or worse yet, hear me say something different.
“I got a really big Owie,” I said.
“I was out fishing, and I saw a mama grizzly bear with her cubs, and she was very scared of me. Even though I wasn’t, she thought I was going to hurt her babies, and so she scratched me.” (I couldn’t really say that she had attacked me or had bitten me, because I didn’t want him trying to think of what that might have looked like.) He was silent as he thought about what I had said.
“The bear scratched your eyes? And then poked you because she was very mad?”
“Yeah. I think she was scared of me, even though she didn’t really have to feel scared of me.”
“And that’s how you got blinded?”
I had no idea if this was the right thing to say to a 2 year old. I couldn’t decide if honesty was the best approach in this case, but I went with it. This information has certainly played a role in Alden’s behaviors and thinking since then. One day I was explaining to Alden that he had to stay close to mom and dad in the woods and not wander off too far by himself because in Alaska, we may see a moose or a bear.
“And then the bear might poke you in the eye and then you’ll be blind?” he asked.
He seems to be wary of moose and bear, which is not such a bad thing, but I question the age-appropriateness of his level of concern in this regard. Sometimes I feel that he worries about bears too much for a now 4 year old. Of course, since I work everyday with people who have experienced trauma, I’m keenly aware of various forms of trauma responses. I sometimes wonder if his hyper-vigilance isn’t some sort of response to his experience of vicarious trauma as a result of me sharing my story with him. I have no idea if I did the right thing by telling him so young.
Last year, during one of Alden’s soccer games, Alden was staring out into the woods instead of playing soccer with his team.
“What are you doing Alden?”
“I’m looking for bears.”
He is always talking about how “if you see a bear, that the bear might poke you and make you be blind.” Sometimes at night if he is scared, or just doesn’t want mom or dad to leave him, he’ll say, “There is a bear outside! I heard a bear outside my window, mama!”
Yes. I’m afraid I’ve turned bears into my son’s boogieman. No matter what we tell him now, he’s going to know that a bear is what hurt daddy, and that’s why he is blind.
Maybe I should have told him that daddy lost his eyes in a poker game.
It was just like any other winter day in Alaska. It was cold. I was sitting on the floor near the door of a professional building in Anchorage while waiting for my bus. It was a busy foyer with people coming and going, and getting in and out of the elevators. I had on professional, yet casual clothes, my winter coat, and I had my computer bag strapped over one shoulder. Of course, I had my sunglasses on, and my guide dog, Anderson, at my side.
So this guy got off the elevator talking on his cell phone, and walked toward the door I was sitting next to. I heard him come up to me. I tilted my head up as if to look at the man who was standing over me. Then all I heard was, “Here you go. Why don’t you go and get yourself a burger.”
Totally shocked and unsure how to respond, I extended my arm, opened my hand, and felt the man place a folded bill into it.
“Thanks,” I said as I lowered my arm slowly with his money held awkwardly in my hand.
As the man moved on, he resumed his telephone conversation, and away he went. I sat there baffled, holding the bill in my hand. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Did the man think I was homeless? Did he think I was sitting in this building to get out of the cold because I had nowhere else to go? “Do I look homeless? Do I look hungry?” I wondered. “Had he not noticed my clean clothes, clean dog, or my computer strapped to my shoulder?”
As if momentarily paralyzed, the bill still sat in my hand. I finally slipped it into my pocket. What should I have done? Should I have explained to the man that I wasn’t homeless or hungry? Should I have confronted his assumption that because I am blind, I was in need of his charity? After the moment passed, I laughed out loud.
“At least we are now $5 richer,” I joked with Anderson, who wagged his tail fervently and leaned against me happily looking for opportunities to sneak a lick.
As I thought about this later, it was clear that due to my blindness, this man thought that I was in need of his $5. This led to me reflecting on what our society expects of blind people in general. I wonder if cultural expectations contribute to the 70-80% unemployment rate among blind people. I thought about how blindness makes people eligible for SSDI income as long as they don’t work or exceed the income limits. What if the expectations were different? What if blind people were expected to graduate from college with the rest of their peers and obtain six-digit incomes? Would the outcome for blind people be different?
Reeling in my thought process, I thought of the man who assumed I would need his money in order to eat. I thought of other experiences I’d had wherein, based on the expectations others have of blind people, I’d been robbed of my dignity. It happens all the time. I have learned to be increasingly assertive in many situations to preserve my dignity. I have learned to refuse to sit in the wheelchair when the airline attendant wishes to push me to meet a connecting flight in an airport. I have learned to refuse to allow others to buckle my seat belt for me when riding on public transportation. I have a master’s degree; I am pretty sure I can figure out the seat belt.
However, people still manage to trample my dignity from time to time. Just yesterday a concerned citizen found it necessary to try to help me place the harness on my guide dog because she was sure I wouldn’t figure out that the leash was around his leg. Then, there is my personal favorite. This is when people will speak really loud and slow in order to be sure that I, as a blind person, will understand what they are trying to explain. Often others will not even try communicating with me. Instead, they will ask my wife what I would like to order, or what business I would like to conduct at the bank.
So, here is a helpful hint when it comes to most blind people I know. We would rather trample our own dignity by walking into a wall, or fumble trying to fit the key into the lock, than allow others to trample our dignity by assuming that we are not fit to get the job done. I realize that it can be difficult for others to watch a person who is disabled struggle to do something. But I can assure you that as a blind person, I’m very used to these struggles, and they don’t bother me the way they seem to bother those watching.
So, the next time you see a blind person, please ponder what you expect of him or her. Please do not assume the person is lost, even if it appears that way. Please do not assume that a blind person is unemployed, homeless, or hungry. Please do not assume that the blind person lives in a cardboard box or needs a push in a wheelchair. Please do not assume that a blind person needs help with a seat belt. Instead, think of how every human being has various abilities, regardless of a person’s disabilities.
I’ll never forget the first time someone told me that I was an inspiration.
It was a couple of months after being attacked. I was still in bad shape. I was living in a hotel room in Anchorage with my parents, brother, and dog. I had nurses visiting daily, treating wounds, administering IV antibiotics, and caring for my tracheotomy site. I still had stubborn, open wounds in the middle of my forehead, between my displaced eye sockets, that wouldn’t stay closed no matter how many times they were stitched. I was doing daily trips to the hyperbaric oxygen chamber to breathe pure oxygen through my tracheotomy while lounging with my brother in a large metal cylinder pressurized to three times atmospheric pressure. This was to promote healing and ward off further infection since I had already contracted MRSA, a form of resilient staph infection on the titanium plates in my head.
I was still trying to comprehend what had happened, but mostly I was still in survival mode, and just trying to make it through what each day required of me. So, when this nice lady told me I was an inspiration, I was caught off guard. Then, I began having an emotional reaction.
“I’m so glad that my misfortune is such an inspiration for you,” I thought to myself.
“I’m so happy that my pain and suffering and the loss of my vision is such a great thing for you.” Her perspective really angered me. I wasn’t ready in any way to see my attack as a positive thing. The idea that this was a positive for someone else made my stomach turn with disgust.
However, even though I never saw or spoke with this lady again, she became a teacher of mine. She became an integral part of my healing journey. Her words stuck with me intensely for several days. After my initial reaction, I began to think about what she really meant.
“Why am I an inspiration?” I wondered. It was hard to think of myself as an inspiration, or as anything great at all. “I’m the same person I was just two months ago when I wasn’t an inspiration to anyone.” What is it about being blinded and nearly killed by a bear that makes a person inspiring?
“Is this some kind of irrational social phenomena?” I thought. The idea that all a person must do to achieve greatness is to be tragically injured seemed ridiculous and way too easy. All I was doing was lying in bed every day. My life consisted of moving from one medical procedure and surgery to the next. I had no control over anything. I had to surrender my dignity, and allow the nurses and doctors complete access to every part of my body at any time of the day or night. One common procedure would cause me to vomit into my mouth, which was wired shut leaving no way to evacuate the putrid mess. Even though the procedures were invasive, and often caused incredible pain and discomfort, I knew it was in my best interest to surrender myself into the hands of those who were caring for me.
I was certain I was not an inspiration. However, I began thinking about how people were going to have their own thoughts about what happened to me. People will have their versions of the facts, and their perspectives about me and about how I deal with this turn of events in my life. I realized that I had no control over this either. I had no control over much of anything. So, I learned to surrender to this as well. I began practicing acceptance. As a survival strategy, acceptance is a powerful tool. I had to accept that there were those who felt they knew what I was going through, even when their words made it clear they didn’t. I had to accept that people were saying and reporting in the news that I had thrown beer cans at the bear, or that somehow I deserved or could have prevented getting attacked. I had to accept that I was now blind even though I didn’t really know what that meant for my future. Once I had that perspective, being called an inspiration didn’t seem so bad.
Over the years I have healed inside and out, mentally and physically. I can chuckle at my initial reaction to this lady who told me I was inspiring.
I now see that turning something that is perceived to be “bad,” into something “good” is a great strength and skill to possess. Indeed, it’s the power of the fabled alchemist who had the ability to turn lead into gold. After surviving, and then healing, I continued to work on accepting the life that I’ve been gifted. Then, after accepting, I began to be able to look at how I could turn this attack into something positive for me and for others. The idea of being an inspiration no longer felt insulting, but rather something that is worth cultivating. The more inspiration the merrier. The more good in the world the better.
The other thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be mauled by a grizzly bear to be great, or to be an inspiration. If you practice acceptance of all things in your life, whether they are perceived to be “good” or “bad” then you will awe and inspire others. I’ve learned that things are not always what they seem. For example, getting mauled by grizzly= bad. However, 8 years after my attack, I often review the facts.
My vagabond life of music, road-tripping, back packing, skiing, and fishing was quite good. However, I question how good this would be if I were still doing the same thing today, which is likely where I’d be had the old grizzly sow not intervened. Both Amber and I doubt that we would’ve been able to work things out as I was scared of committing to anything that would have interfered with my next fishing or skiing adventure. Graduate school, pursuing a career, marriage, and having kids were still, like the horizon, off in the distance.
Getting mauled and blinded lit a fire under my seat. I was forced in the most fundamental way to consider where my life was headed and what I wanted my life to be. At one point in the hospital I had the realization that I’d almost died without having children, which hit me pretty hard. The rest is now history. I’ve pursued my dream of a higher education to become a helping professional. I’ve found genuine love and the best friend I could ever ask for in my wife Amber. I have two wonderful children who love every game or song we make up together. In my therapeutic journey, I healed old wounds from childhood, and have learned healthier ways of relating to others. I have rebuilt a relationship with a father I had felt alienated from for most of my life. The list of good things that have come from this misfortune goes on and on. Perhaps the most unforeseen gift is that I have learned to accept what life offers, and I’ve discovered that a giant misfortune can lead to many fortunate things, and can change the direction of our lives in unforeseeable ways. I believe these lessons have helped me find some truth about my human nature, my spirit, and how to live my life during my time here. I find joy and purpose in talking about these personal truths, and sharing these personal lessons with others who are interested. It is through these exchanges wherein we inspire, challenge, and encourage one another; when we reflect on realities beyond our material lives; when we reflect on who we want to be, and the footprints that we want to leave in the sand, that help me find meaning. It is through these exchanges that I have found what I could not see at the beginning of this story. Inspiration.
As a blind guy, it’s hard to pull off a surprise for my wife, Amber. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that far too often she has both purchased and wrapped her own gifts for Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. I often think of a great gift idea, and imagine the look of excitement and surprise when she unwraps it. The reality, however, seldom plays out in quite the same way as it did in my mind.
As the occasion approaches, I grow increasingly anxious about how and when I’m going to shop. I feel kind of bad asking my guy friends for help, but I still do sometimes. I’ve even dragged them into a women’s boutique loaded with ladies lingerie to seek out exotic Italian fragrances for Amber. The more I hesitate to ask, the gift anxiety builds like a flame from a fanned ember. The anxiety leads to avoidance, and I’ll put the whole thing out of mind for a while.
Then, when the occasion is around the corner, panic begins to set in. “I have a really good idea for your gift this year,” I’ll tell her. Lucky for me, Amber is absolutely terrible about waiting for surprises. “What is it?” she’ll ask. “Do you really want to know?” I’ll say, feigning surprise. Then, out comes the cat from the bag. I reveal my excellent idea, and add, “Only, I haven’t bought it yet.” Next comes my backward, yet brilliant, set up: “Well, since you already know what it is, can you help me buy it?” My gift anxiety is cured, and my loving and understanding wife appears tickled pink. From her perspective, the bonus is that, in addition to the gift, she gets to go shopping. “I’ll stay home with the kids,” I generously offer. This is like two gifts in one. Win, win, win. Well….maybe not entirely.
I really do love to surprise her. It’s just not easy, and it takes a lot of creativity. Here is a story of a time I actually managed to pull it off.
One of my initial tasks in my new position directing a foster care program is to improve morale and build an environment of collaboration. In some reading, I came across an idea that sounded fun. I recruited someone from my department to go to the store to buy a dozen roses and little glass vases. We then attached a note to each one that read, “A little something to brighten your day, keep me for two hours then give me away.” The roses were circulated throughout the agency. It did brighten an otherwise ordinary day in the office. At the end of the day, I made sure that I had one of the roses to bring home for Amber. The fact that I was giving her a rose that had already been given away four or five times didn’t take away from the fact that I had surprised her with a symbol of my love and affection. Amber was delighted, and you know how the old saying goes: “Happy wife, happy life.”