In Memory of My Friend

The soul of service, making a difference one life at a time

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Last month I lost a friend. She was 94 and enjoyed a long, colorful, active life. 

She spoke several languages, traveled the world, was a translator, an author and playwright of comedies. She had been interviewed once by Charlie Rose. She was gracious, loved conversation and laughing, and was curious about everything. I always looked forward to our conversations.

I met her as part of a volunteer program and visited her on Sunday afternoons for several years. She was seeking company and conversation while she was navigating aging and illness. We hit it off. I learned that she was courageously wrestling with cancer, a weakening heart, and in her 90’s, impaired vision from macular degeneration. She could see only a little. For example, she could see people but only as blurry shapes. Unlocking her front door with her keys would take patience and several tries. She remained determined to live independently, and did, but so many everyday tasks became challenging. Of course there were bad days.

She lived life on her terms. 

She volunteered on weekends teaching teach French at the local library. She was active in a bridge club, a walking club, and she kept busy with friends, her church community, and family.  She used public transportation to go to embassy events, author talks, and the symphony. If she needed directions, she would ask a bystander within earshot. On one of my last visits with her, she was dressed to the nines to go sailing with a friend.

Her goal was to live independently and be out and about. She fearlessly tried new things, and fully embraced technology. For example, when she began losing her sight, she had no way to know what the time of day was. She occasionally would knock on a neighbor’s door to ask the time, but that wasn’t ideal. Her daughter bought her a voice-activated device with Alexa, so that she could ask the time and it would answer. Problem solved. Her daughter discovered that she could remotely program her mother’s daily appointments into Alexa, which would announce reminders throughout the day, “Your visit with Leah Kral at 2pm is in 15 minutes.” Clever!

She did her own grocery shopping and cooking. She was always stylishly put together and I’ll never know how she managed it, but she always wore perfectly applied lipstick. When at restaurants where she couldn’t read the menu, she would jovially ask, “What looks good, what are you having?” And just order the same thing. What was important to her was to be out, having conversation and fun. When she could no longer read books and the news, which she loved, she found devices at the local library that would provide audio readings.

None of this was easy. But she found ways of managing with the help of organizations like The National Federation of the Blind. As their website states,

“You can live the life you want… blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams.” 

A Whole New World

Because of our friendship, I began paying more attention to the vision impaired community. A girlfriend told me about the phone app Be My Eyes, where a person can use a smartphone to request video support, any time, day or night. For example, you can point the phone camera at your cupboard to get help finding the canned tomatoes. The app connects you with a volunteer, or you can take a picture and AI can describe it. Amazing! Given how rapidly technology is evolving, I wonder what innovations will exist five years from now?

And one day, on my lunch hour walk, I noticed a volunteer training a service dog, perhaps with Guide Dogs for the Blind. The trainer walked toward a low hanging tree branch and when the dog didn’t stop her, I watched her point to the branch and train the dog to stop her the next time.

Then I ran across the story of Andreas Heinecke, a German journalist. Heinecke was asked by his employer to provide workplace orientation for a new hire who was blind. The experience transformed all previous assumptions he had about loss of sight. He found the experience profound. He asked himself, how might others gain this type of experience? By exploring this question, he founded Dialogue in the Dark Foundation, a nonprofit designed to break down barriers between those who are blind and those who are not. Blind guides lead visitors in small groups through different settings in absolute darkness. Visitors learn how to interact without sight by using their other senses, and experience what it is like to be blind.*

These Sunday visits with my dear friend over these last few years opened whole new worlds to me.  She wowed and inspired me, and I learned more about the soul of service and how much it means to an individual’s quality of everyday life. I am certain that she would like us to honor and thank those who care for loved ones and who volunteer.  In lieu of flowers, her family suggested that her friends donate to organizations that ceaselessly innovate to help people to live with dignity and independence.

On Valentine’s Day, as I write this on a day that celebrates love, I honor her memory, and I celebrate her courage, strength, and spirit. Bravo, my friend, you will be missed.

*Hal B. Gregersen, Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life (Harper Business 2018).

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