By David LaBelle
My wife and I were on our way to a favorite coffee shop/bookstore when we spotted a couple shuffling through a small three-way intersection on a narrow cobblestone street in our neighborhood. These ancient streets were most likely created for the feet of Roman horses or wheels of chariots, but are now filled with bicycles, motorcycles, small automobiles and pedestrians trying to navigate quickly without causing harm. The thing about this couple which caught my eye was the man’s stick signaling he was challenged in the area of sight.
I made a couple of quick shots, just shapes on the wet stone street, then noticed they were pulling suitcases on wheels and seemed lost. The common sign of a new arrival.
Getting lost is not unusual here, but this small yet busy street is no place to stand still or become paralyzed with indecision. Being able to leap quickly, like a frightened squirrel crossing a busy highway, is essential for a long life here. When one is blind, as the man appeared to be, peril is compounded. Even with ears and eyes, it is a daring game of dodgeball on most Florentine streets.
I told my wife to go ahead, I would catch up, which is the norm, since we are both photographers and easily distracted by the things we see and people we meet. I felt compelled to assist this couple.
Thankfully, with the aid of another person who spoke some English, were able to get the man and woman to their hotel, which wasn’t far away. But later that night, while walking towards the train station to meet my boys returning from lacrosse practice, I realized I’d neglected to ask their names or even where they were from. I decided to go to the hotel and leave a note with the desk clerk, asking if he would give it to the couple when he saw them. I left my email on the note and hoped the woman leading the blind man would write me. I was curious to know more about them. The helpful young man at the desk, named Andrea (which is what many young men here are named) said he would give the Asian couple my message if he saw them. Later that night, as I was walking home with my sons, the young man excitedly popped out of a coffee shop to excitedly tell me he’d passed along my note.
To my joy, the woman, named Tharinee Totab, responded and explained the man with her was her husband, and he was indeed blind. They were from Bangkok, Thailand, visiting Florence for two days before going to Rome on a brief sightseeing vacation. “His name is Akarin, but now he is called Champ, because he is a champion,” she shared.
Finding fifty euro on the street could not have made me happier than making this connection.
Tharinee, who prefers to be called Tarn, knew Akarin in college, but hadn’t seen or talked to him in 19 years, until Akarin added her as Facebook friend. Both into banking, the couple soon started dating. “I would like to thank Mark Zuckerburg,” Tan says, grinning.
Soon the couple fell in love and planned to marry in May of 2013. But Champ’s parents died, as did Tan’s father. The couple felt getting married the same year as their parent’s deaths would be inappropriate, a dishonor, so they decided to put off the wedding until 2014. Then, in June of 2013, Champ was returning home from work when he was involved in terrible wreck. His face was crushed and he lost his eyes and his sense of smell. His face had to be reconstructed and plastic eyes were set where his real eyes once offered him a window to the world.
“I decided to take care of him and stay beside him,” Tan explains. “We said in our vows, we promised we would love each other no matter what happened. Luckily our family supported our decision, and he became strong after three months of the accident.”
As planned, the couple went ahead and married in 2014.
But the petite, committed 42-year-old admits their marriage has been a lot harder than she ever anticipated.
“Sometimes I am so exhausted, I don’t get much sleep,” she shares. “I go to work early in the dark and travel one hour to my job and come home and take care of him,” she says, sighing, but not complaining.
It was also difficult for Champ in the beginning and he told me he didn’t cope well with his loss of sight. “At first I did not accept it, but she helped me.”
Enter a captionNow, three years later, Champ is at peace with his blindness and doesn’t allow the accident to hold him back.
“He learns to have a normal life from Mahidol University under a free program from our Princess,” Tarn explains. “Currently, he can use a computer – he is previously a programmer/Information technology manager. He knows a lot of news that makes me think, is he really blind?”
“Afterwards, we are strong and ready and back to a journey as our love again.”
Now, three years later, Champ is at peace with his blindness and doesn’t allow the accident to hold him back.
He smiles and shakes his head. “No, I trust her. She leads the way and as long as I can touch her, I am not afraid.”
“I have to be the eyes all of the time,” Tarn explains. “But because he trusts me, there is no problem.”
“I tell him what I see,” Tarn adds, sensing my confusion.
“She is my audio descriptive,” Champ laughs.
His joy and optimism are infectious and humbling.
“I ask Champ if I can take a selfie with him. He agrees. Then he smiles wide and says, let me take a picture of you.”
I smile. I immediately wonder if this is a joke but his wife encourages me to pose with her.
Champ pulls out his cell phone, puts it to his ear, then smiling, aims it accurately in our direction.
“Smile,” he says.
He takes one photo, then asks to take another before handing the phone to his wife so she can share the pictures.
“Unbelievable,” I gasp when I see the well-composed picture he has made. The pictures are perfectly composed.
“Amazing,” I add in disbelief. “How can he do that.”
“It’s an app he says. I went to school to learn.”
I embrace the couple as they are finally ready to board their delayed train. Champ feels the beard on my face and smiles. “Earnest Hemingway,” he laughs. Tarn looks at him puzzled and has no idea who he is talking about. They chatter in their native tongue and he explains to her who Earnest Hemingway was. She lifts her brows and rolls her eyes. “I told you he is very smart. He reads a lot.”
Just when it seems the whole world is complaining and pessimism fills the news, I meet people like Champ and Tarn who remind me what love and optimism really look like.
Though Champ admits it’s still a challenge to live a normal life, he is a picture of thanksgiving, and says he’s especially thankful for the technology which allows him to do so many things and fills his heart with so much hope.
“Someday I hope to see your face,” he says as we say goodbye and the pair shuffle towards the fast red and gray train that will carry them to Rome.
As I stood waiting for a long traffic light one my way home, my eyes filled and I breathed deeply to push down climbing tears of gratitude. What a gift I thought. Is there a better profession in the world, one that allows and encourages me to talk to strangers, ask questions, listen to their stories, and make pictures of them?
ere a better profession in the world, one that allows and encourages me to talk to strangers, ask questions, listen to their stories, and make pictures of them?