JULY 28, 2006
MR. MONK GOES BLIND
You've probably heard by now about how Monk was temporarily blinded when a guy threw cleaning solvent in his eyes. It's hard enough for Monk to get through life with his obsessive compulsive disorder, but being blind made it nearly impossible.
At the time, we didn't know if his blindness was going to be permanent or temporary, so I took him to a special training center for the blind where he could learn some basic skills for living with his disability.
He didn't want to go, of course. But I dragged him there anyway. I didn't give him a choice.
Monk was one of five other blind people at the class, which was taught by Melinda, a therapist who was also blind.
She started the session by telling the people that they could overcome their disability and go on with their lives.
"Many people believe that the blind live in quiet desperation, incapable of caring for themselves, much less functioning as contributing members of society," she said.
"True," Monk mumbled. "True."
I elbowed him. Luckily, she didn't hear him.
"That is a myth," she said.
"I think not," Monk said.
She heard that.
"Mr. Monk," I said, elbowing him again. If this kept up, he was going to have broken ribs to go along with his blindness.
"It's okay, Miss Teeger," Melinda said. "Everybody has limitations of some kind. Surely, Mr. Monk, you've had some and made adjustments in your life to deal with them."
"Nope," he said. "Not that I can think of."
I gave him an incredulous look which, of course, he couldn't see. I said, "You bring your own silverware and dishes to restaurants."
"What does that have to do with anything?" he said.
"Blind people can do everything the sighted can do, we just have to find alternative techniques," Melinda said. "For instance, pin your socks together before putting them in the wash so you can match them up later."
"I do," Monk said.
"Arrange your clothes in the closet by size and color."
"I do," Monk said.
"Organize your foods in the cabinet by the size, shape and the kind of package or container they come in."
"I do," Monk said.
"Set the table with the main dishes, side dishes and condiments in the same place every time," Melinda said. "Identify your money by how the bills are folded. Count the steps from room to room, from doors to chairs."
"I do. I do. And 24."
"Twenty four?" Melinda asked.
"Steps from the door of this room to my chair."
Melinda was dumbfounded. So was everybody else.
"You've only been blind one day and you already do all that?" she said.
"He's always lived this way," I said.
"I've been preparing to be blind my whole life," Monk said, "And didn't even know it."
"Then perhaps the transition won't be so difficult," Melinda said. "Although you have lost your sight, you can still do all the things you've always done. For example, Denise is an award-winning chef."
The blind woman next to Monk nodded. Her name was Denise.
"I just opened a new restaurant in the Marina," Denise said. "In fact, last Sunday the Chronicle's food critic gave me a rave review."
Everyone clapped and congratulated her, except Monk.
"So you've been told," Monk said. "It could be a lie."
I elbowed him. Hard. He let out a yelp.
"Why...why would anyone do that?" Denise stammered.
"To spare you the pain of a bad review or no review at all," Monk said. "Think about it."
She did and was crestfallen. The blind man next to her gave her a hug. Melinda motioned to Monk's left.
"Mark is a sculptor," she said. "He makes beautiful works of art."
"Uh-huh," Monk said. "Imagine what they really look like."
"I have, Mr. Monk," she said. "I've touched them...and I've seen them in my mind's eye."
"What if it's blind, too?"
I couldn't believe how rude Monk was being. I knew it came from his own insecurity and fear, but I still found it inexcusable. Melinda, however, didn't seem offended at all. She must have been used to reactions like his.
"You will learn, Mr. Monk, to appreciate the beauty of the world around you by relying on your other senses. Like touch and smell."
"I prefer not to touch. Or smell," he said. "What other senses are available?"
Melinda stood up and asked Monk to stand up, too. He did and she handed him a white cane.
"Think of this cane as an extension of your arm," she said. "The first sensory technique I'm going to teach you is the two-point tap and arcó"
"I don't think so," Monk interrupted, handing the cane back to her as if it was radioactive or, worse, covered in germs.
"You're going to need that to get around, to avoid obstacles and other dangers," she said.
"I'll find another way," he said adamantly.
"If you are unwilling to use a cane," she said, "how about a seeing-eye dog?"
"That won't be necessary," he said. "I have Natalie."
"I'm touched," I said.
"That's one of the hazards of being in a room full of blind people," he said. "Let's go before I get touched, too."
When Monk first got blinded, I had a lot of sympathy for his plight. But that sympathy was rapidly turning to anger.
"No, Mr. Monk," I said. "You need to listen to what Melinda is saying. I can't always be there for you, not the way you need me now."
"I don't see why not...and I mean that literally."
"Because I have other responsibilities."
"I beg to differ," he said, almost whimpering. "I really, really beg."
"I'm a single mother. My daughter comes first. You're going to have to learn how to take care of yourself. Starting now."
I held the cane out to him. He hesitated.
"Take it, Mr. Monk," I said firmly.
His hand was shaking but he finally gave in and took the cane.
"Oh God," he said. "I'm blind."
It was a heart-breaking moment for him and for me. Taking the cane forced him to finally confront his situation and it terrified him. Me, too, if you want to know the truth.
Of course, we had no way of knowing then that everything was going to turn out fine. But in some ways, I think it was a turning point for us. For the first time, he was forced to recognize that I had priorities in my life and that he wasn't at the top.
I care deeply for him, and I'm not just saying that because he signs my meager paycheck, but when it comes right down to it, my daughter's needs are always going to come before his with me.
And that was the day, I think, that he realized it.