Harper needs a break. So do we.
Friends have offered Harper a week of peace and quiet at their house in the suburbs, and while he’s Safe & Sound for a week or so in Wheaton, we’re heading…where else? The south of France!
Here’s the story. A hundred years ago (well, really, more like 30 years ago) I was the Assistant Director of the Study Abroad Office at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. When I lost my sight, I lost my job. That was way back in 1985, before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.
During my tenure I met a lot of foreign students, and two of them are dear friends to this day. Jim Neill lives in London and owns Top Sun, a company renting holiday properties in great locations Normandy, Brittany, the Mediterranean, and the south of France.
Sheelagh Livingston lives in Portaferry, Northern Ireland with her partner Beni (they were recently married in Northern Ireland). Sheelagh was an exchange student from Belfast in 1986, the year Gus was born. She’d
signed up for volunteer work at the University of Illinois to “meet people from the community” and I can still hear the stammer in her voice the first time she phoned. “So are ya still needing a reader, then?” The answer was a definitive yes. Sheelagh started coming once a week to read to me, and in exchange we fed her dinner.
Turned out Sheelagh liked to go for long walks, too. She’d escape her dormitory room and come to our house three, sometimes four, times a week and walk Gus and me to the grocery store, accompany me to Gus’ medical appointments, or just sit at a coffee shop with us over a cup of hot tea.
When Sheelagh reported news of her volunteer work to her mother in Belfast, Mrs. Livingston was horrified. “Sheelagh!” she warned, “You don’t know a thing about wee babies!” Sheelagh had done volunteer work in Cornwall at a camp for adults with physical and mental disabilities. She had pushed heavy wheelchairs over hills, through woods and even to the oceanfront, and now she squeezed Gus’ pram through tight spaces I never thought possible. If Sheelagh’s mother had seen her stopping in the middle of busy streets to swear at the bloody cars who wouldn’t stop for us, Mrs. Livingston would have hopped on the next plane to physically stop her daughter from doing more “harm.”
Sheelagh was a terror on our bicycle built for two as well. With Gus on back in a bike seat, it was actually a bicycle for three. Sheelagh often forgot that we were longer than the usual bike, and Gus got more joy rides than he bargained for.
Mike got more than he bargained for with Sheelagh as well. He fretted when he found out I’d made plans to have Sheelagh go out with me one night to hear some live music. She’d be the first new friend to take me out without Mike coming along. Sure, I had gone places on my own with old friends, and my sisters had taken me out now and then. But these were people Mike knew well, and they’d learned “Sighted guide techniques” slowly and carefully as I gradually lost my sight. But Sheelagh! Could she be trusted?
Mike stood at the doorway and strained to watch Sheelagh and me depart down the driveway into darkness. “Bye, bye Mike!” Sheelagh kept repeating.” Don’t worry!” she’d say, waving his way and laughing with joy. “I promise I’ll have her back home.” Mike watched us from the front porch until he couldn’t see — or hear — Sheelagh and me anymore. Then he hoped for the best.
Nature’s Table was packed when Sheelagh and I arrived. Who would have thought so many people were interested in Irish music? My new friend barreled through the crowd with me on her arm — much as she did with Gus in the pram. She pressed my palm onto an empty barstool, stood on her tiptoes to get near my ear and shouted, “What will you take to drink?”
“A Guinness!” I yelled back. Sheelagh ordered a pint for herself as well and held it up for a “Cheers!”
That was the extent of our conversation that night. Sheelagh jiggled my thigh every once in a while to let me know she was still there ,having a good time. I sat back, sipped, and enjoyed the music. When the night was over, Sheelagh, of course, got me home safely. Mike, of course, was waiting up for us. A good thing, because I was eager to tell him all about the big night.
That night, rather than struggling to recreate something I used to enjoy when I could see, I was doing something completely different, and with a new friend, who seemed to like me even
though I couldn’t see her.
Sheelagh and I have kept up ever since by sending cassette tapes back and forth, and I met up with her twice while she was living in Berlin, twice in Italy twice in Northern Ireland and once in Poland. She’s come back to the US to visit Mike and me in Urbana, in the Chicago suburbs, in North Carolina and here in Chicago, too. Last year around this time she sent a cassette with news I didn’t want to hear. Sheelagh has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I wanted to drop everything and come see her right away, but she urged me to wait. She already had lot of people coming to see her, and she wanst sure how the chemo treatments would go. “Besides, my dear,” she assured me. “I’m going to be around a long, long time.”
When Jim heard the news about Sheelagh, he generously offered a couple of the “luxury mobile homes” he rents in Argelès-sur-Mer to us for free. And so, tomorrow Mike and I take off for France to meet up with Jim, Sheelagh and Beni in the south of France. I won’t be typing out any blog posts until we return to Chicago at the end of September — my hands will be occupied buttering croissants, slicing French cheeses, lifting glasses of red wine and, especially, hugging Sheelagh. As she would say, it will be “luvly.”