A man who had been blind since birth was sitting in the waiting area, listening for the announcement that his flight was ready to pre-board. Unlike those who become blind later in life, he had no visual memories of what an airport looked like nor even how the face behind the woman making announcements might appear. He could “picture” a woman’s face with his hands because he had lovingly traced the features of the woman with whom he had once been married. In fact, he often felt that the world was like a woman who opened her arms, reluctantly or welcomingly, to all who beheld her.
With his ears pealed for the crackle of the overhead loudspeakers and the announcement that his flight was ready for those with special needs to begin boarding, he grasped his carryon bag, leaned forward, and shifted his weight to the balls of his feet.
Abruptly–shocking all his senses–a gasp erupted from all directions around him. He tensed with apprehension as his image of the waiting area leapt vividly to life.
Unlike those who were once able to see, who might have visualized a space full of faces reacting around them, the image that arose in his mind was more like an orchestra bursting forth with the first chord of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as every cello, violin and horn breaks through the gates of breathless silence.
After that initial burst, there followed hushed murmuring. His heightened senses included an acute sense of smell and in those first few minutes, emanations of anxiety began to flow past. He picked up snatches of conversations about a sudden darkness that had fallen over everything. This surprised him. Modern travelers could be expected to take a power outage more casually than the fear he was sensing. Clearly, he wasn’t understanding what had just occurred.
He was deeply interested in this darkness that everyone was talking about. Because, as well as lacking images of the light so valued by others, he didn’t really understand what darkness could be for a sighted person.
A woman who seemed to be a couple of seats to his right exclaimed, in a surprisingly calm voice, “It feels like this is the end of the world”.
He turned in her direction and asked, “Has there been a power failure?”
He heard her dragging her bag in his direction and then settling into the seat beside him.
“If it was a power outage, some kind of emergency lighting would have kicked in,” she responded. “And the planes taxing on the runway and waiting at the gates would still have their lights on. I saw a full moon earlier this evening on my way to the airport, but now the sky is as black as pitch; no moon and no stars. No one’s phones are working! Whenever the lights go out, people’s phones always start moving around like fireflies in a garden after nightfall.”
She stopped speaking for long enough for him to imagine a garden in the late evening with those fabled fireflies illuminating the leaves and branches like staccato bursts of plucked violin strings. Then she was leaning closer and saying, “I noticed you when you came in. You’re blind, aren’t you?”
He nodded and then realized that if she was now effectively blind herself, she wouldn’t be able to see his gesture.
“Yes,” he said out loud, “I was born blind.”
Then, turning in her direction, he asked her, “What can you see? If you hold your hand an inch in front of you, what can you see?”
She must have been doing that, because she didn’t say anything for a full minute or more. Then he heard a match striking and a moment later she exclaimed, “Ouch. That hurt.”
Finally–her voice sober but not panicked–she said, “I guess the whole world has gone blind . . . I don’t imagine anyone will be flying any planes for a while . . . if ever again.”
Then the screaming started, as people started colliding into one another in their desperate attempts to escape.
He knew that he could not have lived this long without the help of people who could drive, run combines, and build braille readers. Now, if this was the new normal, perhaps he could be the one helping. He leaned back in his chair, realizing that, unless the lights came back on, only a tiny fraction of humanity would survive the next few days.
He turned to his new companion and said, “If you’d like, I can share a few of the tricks I’ve learned over the years that have helped me make my way in the darkness.”