I listened carefully, as I had been taught. Then I followed my white cane off the curb and across Central Avenue. For the first time in my life, I was walking to school alone, with only my cane and my memory to guide me.
For six months I had been trained to swing my cane so that when my right foot stepped forward, the cane was already exploring where my left foot would land on the next step. By the time my left foot went forward, the cane was one step ahead on the right.
The rest of America talked about baseball, listened to the Beatles and worried about Russia. My world was much smaller than that -- the ocean was two blocks behind me. The school was three blocks ahead and one block over.
It was good to be ten years old in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, a town so small that we went home for lunch and returned to school for afternoon sessions.
I didn't realize how my parents struggled to allow their blind son to take risks, fearing that I might fail or fall.
In those days, I didn't realize how my parents struggled to allow their blind son to take risks, fearing that I might fail or fall. They let me explore anyway -- in the yard, behind the garage, down the block. They knew that I needed to become more independent.
"Does he really need to ride a bicycle?" my father asked my mother, Etta. She ran alongside me until I could ride the two-wheeler on the sidewalk, find the corner and turn, and then make the trip back to our driveway.
By the time I turned off LaReine Avenue and headed towards Brinley, my steps were light and confident. Had the chilly day turned warm, or was the warmth coming from inside?
When I reached the cobblestones, I knew I was about to cross Brinley Avenue. My last crossing. Beside me was the playground fence. I just had to follow it to the entrance.
"Hello, Michael." My heart was beating fast, but I had to act cool.
"Hello, Mrs. Levy."
So I hadn't walked to school alone after all. She must be very nearby if Jackie greeted her like that. Behind me, I bet that's where she is. My body turned. My face contorted. "You didn't trust me!!"
When you're ten years old, it's always about you. The only response I got was the hum of my mother's bicycle wheels as she retreated towards home.
Jumping into the Sea
I was too young then to understand that my mother was the hero that day. She had almost succeeded in hiding her anxiety from me. Confident and carefree, and very naive, I tried to convince myself that the trip was just a small adventure. Mom's imagination must have run wild, picturing me getting lost, walking out into traffic, wandering onto the railroad tracks....
Many parents of blind children are over-protective. Like Nachshon who jumped into the Red Sea before it parted for the Israelites, my mother had the courage to do the bold thing despite her doubts and fears.
I don't know how many times she took the part of Nachshon. She had the courage not to interfere when I learned to ride the bus and the train. She didn't stop me from living in a dorm at Columbia University or from traveling around New York City by subway.
Her letters and phone calls were always cheerful during my year in Jerusalem. Yet I knew, through a close friend, that she never stopped worrying. What if someone followed me? What if I became lost, with no one there to guide me?
Walking with Mom
It was summer, more than 40 years after my first solo walk to school. A home health aide was pushing my mother, now in a wheelchair, down the familiar two blocks to the Bradley Beach boardwalk. The smell of French fries, sun lotion and salt water swept me back to my childhood beach days.
Parkinson's disease had robbed Mom of her mobility and was beginning to attack her mind. She didn't want to remain on the boardwalk for more than ten minutes.
I never wanted to leave the beach. I didn't want to leave now, to witness her fading back into the living room where she sat all day. But she wanted to go home.
"I want to go on the sidewalk." We were almost home. My mother was talking to the aide.
"It's bumpy. It's not good for you," the aide soothed Mom with her lilting Caribbean accent.
"Let her go on the sidewalk if that's what she wants!" It was easier for me to yell at the good-hearted aide than it was to acknowledge my own sadness.
My mother went home the rest of the way on the sidewalk. It was the least I could do for her.
On January 20, 2008 I made my last trip to Bradley Beach. After my brother-in-law picked me up from the bus, he told me she was having difficulty getting enough air.
"She stopped breathing two minutes ago," my sister said when I came into the house. "She's gone."
Maybe she didn't want me to hear her last ragged attempts to breathe. But was she really gone?
I didn't see her during that first solo walk to school, and I don't see her now. But I still feel her presence whenever I cross an intersection. But she doesn't interfere.