Running in the Dark Under the Watchful Eye of the Sun

By Laura Edwards

john and LauraMeet my pinch runner for my blindfolded runs – my better half, John. After work tonight, John offered to take me out again – or, as he likes to say, “take his wife for a walk” (on the bungee cord, which does kind of look like a short leash from more than five feet away).

We struck out just a few minutes after 7 p.m., so we had plenty of daylight left. I pulled the blindfold down over my eyes for the 11th time overall, but just the second time before sunset.

Running in the “dark” opened my eyes to a whole new world; in all of my previous training runs, I’ve heard sounds and felt sensations that were always there but drowned out by the wealth of visual information I’m able to take in and process with the 20-20 vision I get from strong contact lenses or glasses. I’ve picked out single notes from cricket symphonies and come to know the touch and feel of warm raindrops on sweat-soaked skin.

I’ve picked out single notes from cricket symphonies and come to know the touch and feel of warm raindrops on sweat-soaked skin.

But running in the dark under the watchful eye of the sun is an entirely different experience. As John led me around our neighborhood to help me train to run a half marathon blindfolded in honor of a girl who’s anything but ordinary, suburban noise – the soundtrack of life as usual – filled my ears. A young boy said goodbye to his grandma; car doors closed. Kids played in a cul-de-sac while their moms stood in a driveway and talked. A dog got away from its owner and ran toward us, so we practiced coming to a stop without adding an unwanted flip and roll. A woman taking a walk said “That’s amazing” when she approached us.

John and I don’t live in a small neighborhood; with 800 houses inhabited by mostly families, we easily have over 3,000 neighbors. But it’s still a small corner of the world when you consider that seven billion people live on this planet. And yet, so much life – so many memories – happened in the short time it took my husband and me to run three blindfolded miles on its streets.  I can’t tell you a single thing about what that boy or his grandma looked like or what game those kids played, what kind of dog came to say hello to us or if the walker had kind eyes. I love my blind runs, but I miss a lot, too.

Batten disease steals so MUCH from my sister. And that’s just the blindness. When I pull that blindfold down over my eyes, I disable my vision, but I don’t give myself seizures or cognitive impairment; I don’t take away my ability to walk – in fact, my legs work just fine (even though my ankles are another story); and when I get a runner’s high, I feel invincible, like maybe I’ll live forever.

But then, the run ends, and I take the blindfold off, and I’m just me again – the sister who got a healthy copy of the Batten disease gene. Taylor didn’t do anything to deserve two bad copies of that gene. It makes me mad as hell that she got them anyway. And I’ll never stop running for her.

But then, the run ends, and I take the blindfold off, and I’m just me again – the sister who got a healthy copy of the Batten disease gene.

I will run the Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded to support gene therapy co-funded by Taylor’s Tale at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center. Donations to this cause are 100 percent tax-deductible. To support my run and our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other genetic diseases, click here.

Join the Taylor’s Tale team at Thunder Road! Click here to register for the marathon, half marathon or 5K. On the second page of registration, under “Event Groups/Teams,” select “Taylor’s Tale” from the list under “Choose an Existing Group.” Run for us to help raise awareness on race day. Stay tuned for more details, including special shirts for team members and an informal post-race event!

Running in the Dark

By Laura Edwards

Two nights ago, I ate an early dinner and waited for several hours to give my grilled cheese, my apple and my neighbors a chance to wind down. Then, I donned a reflective hat, strapped on my Garmin watch and laced up my running shoes. With a bungee cord in hand, I jogged .7 miles under inky, starless skies to the home of my friend, Andrew Swistak, a fellow runner who works at The Fletcher School, where my sister, Taylor, spent six wonderful years.

Just after sunrise on the morning of Nov. 16, I will pull on a blindfold after I lace up my shoes, and Andrew will guide me through the 13.1-mile Thunder Road Half Marathon course on the streets of my hometown of Charlotte. I will attempt to run the entire race without the gift of sight to honor the five-year anniversary of Taylor’s first 5K race, which she ran in conjunction with the 2008 edition of Thunder Road with the help of an older student from Fletcher.

But on this night – National Running Day and my first training run with Andrew – I had no blindfold and, with corrective lenses, perfect vision. Our goal for the evening was to get accustomed to running with the bungee cord.

blindfolded run 1

Early on in our run, though, Andrew took me to the track at the middle school by our neighborhood so we could get used to making turns. And in that protected environment, he asked me if I wanted to give blindness a try, at least for a minute. So I closed my eyes.

Right away, I lost my spatial awareness. The bottom dropped out from under me. My legs turned to Jell-O, and my body felt as though it was not my own. I couldn’t run in a straight line.

But soon, with Andrew’s help, I found my bearings in my dark world. I think we ran five laps around the track. Andrew said that for the most part, I stayed in my lane, even on the turns. I learned to understand the meaning of his tugs on the bungee cord. After a while, we left the track and returned to the neighborhood. I figured out how to make 90-degree turns and 180-degree turns and shift to the side for an oncoming car. At one point, Andrew asked me if my eyes were really closed. And they were.

I thought I’d mastered running blind – albeit much more slowly than I run sighted – until I mistimed a curb jump and twisted my ankle. And in that moment, I remembered that NOTHING about blindness is easy, just as nothing about this race will be easy.

But nothing about Batten disease or rare diseases is easy, and nothing about our fight to save people like Taylor is easy. And a twisted ankle on my first attempt isn’t enough to stop me. An ACE bandage, an ice pack and a couple of days’ rest work wonders for such injuries. And besides, going to work with an ice pack taped to my ankle gave me a natural opening to tell plenty of people about my blindfolded run and the reason behind it, so we spread Taylor’s Tale this week.

And I have a great guide in Andrew Swistak, not to mention a healthy dose of inspiration. There will be no twisted ankles on Nov. 16. We’ll be ready.

I am running the Thunder Road Half Marathon to support gene therapy co-funded by Taylor’s Tale at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center. Donations to this cause are 100 percent tax-deductible. To support my run and our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other genetic diseases, click here.

What’s in a Picture?

By Laura Edwards

My little sister, Taylor, is blind. But her eyes – the color of a Milky Way candy bar and framed by long, feathery lashes – used to work just fine. Taylor, whose sassy but sweet disposition once helped her get the best of people twice her size, could tell you exactly what she wanted without saying a word – just by tilting her head and fixing those eyes on you (sometimes she’d cross her tiny arms across her chest for good measure).

I miss the sassy side of my sister, who these days is 100 percent sweet even though she has every right to be spitting mad at the world. I miss getting “the look.”

I’ll never forget the moment we first noticed something amiss with Taylor’s vision. We used to visit the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh every October. One of the vendors served hush puppies (deep-fried cornmeal dumplings – a Southern favorite) in an old, dimly lit mill house at the fair. As we left the dark mill house licking our fingers in 2005, someone noticed that Taylor couldn’t find the stairs.

And so it began.

It took several years for Batten disease to steal all of the cells in my little sister’s eyes. First, she lost her night vision. Then, she lost her central vision. I still remember how, before Taylor went blind, she tilted her head in the direction of voices and other sounds so that she could see them out of the corner of one eye.

A few years after that day at the fair, we went out for ice cream following a day on the beach. As we walked by a shop that sells Christmas decorations year-round, Taylor made a remark about the Christmas lights in the shop window.

We exchanged anxious glances. My heart leaped into my throat.

Not long after that day, though, Taylor’s lights went out for good.

Eyes are powerful, expressive communication tools. But Taylor lost hers and so much more to Batten disease. My sister hasn’t made eye contact with me in five years. I miss looking into those Milky Way eyes and knowing they’re looking back into mine.

Now all I have to remind me of those moments is pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

Taylor in the snow

Things I’m Thankful For, Part I

By Laura Edwards

In honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve decided to pen a new entry on each of the next four days, with each post dedicated to something for which I’m thankful.

Tonight, I’m thankful for my ability to see. I’m blessed to possess two eyes that, with the assistance of contact lenses or thick glasses, receive reflected light and usher it through first the cornea, then the pupil, then the lens, and then the retina, where, finally, it is converted into electrical impulses and sent to my brain, where an image is produced. This is an amazing process that took nearly three full lines to describe but that in reality happens instantaneously and without requiring any thought or effort on my part. Since I was 9 years old, I’ve had a hard time climbing out of bed in the morning without first putting my glasses on, but once I do that, the world is crystal-clear.

I’m thankful for all of the visual memories that will forever remain preserved in my heart. This very instant, I can see the way the sunlight trickled through the leaves of a certain tree whose canopy watches over a sidewalk that runs alongside the Undergraduate Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina. I used to take that sidewalk to South Campus just so I could walk through that dappled light. Now, I can see the fountain at SouthPark Mall in my hometown, as well as the thousands of pennies slumbering under the water’s surface, and my dad’s face as he tells me, his only child, a story, and the scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream perched atop a sugar cone from the Baskin Robbins, the closing of which left me in tears. (I immortalized that particular memory in the novel I never finished once the doctors discovered the terrible truth about my sister’s genes.) Now, I can see my great-grandmother’s laugh – because she laughed with her eyes – as she watches a funny movie with me in her basement, an ice-cold can of “Co-cola” in her hand and an unfinished game of Chinese checkers on the coffee table. Now, I can see my husband’s face as he asks me to marry him on the sidewalk in front of my grandparents’ house in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where we spent our first wonderful long weekend together as best friends just three days before he asked me out (not the first time he asked, but the first time I said “yes”) during the first semester of our senior year of high school. Now, I can see my little sister’s beautiful, working eyes focus on me as she runs to give me a hug.

I graduated from college in the spring of 2004, and that tree beside the library is no longer a regular part of my life. The SouthPark Baskin Robbins is so long-gone that most people living in Charlotte these days probably don’t even know that it ever existed. My great-grandmother passed away a few years ago, and I never got to tell her goodbye. My husband and I are still as in love as we were on our wedding day, but my grandmother is very sick, and the house where John asked me to marry him was sold two months ago. And my sister has not made eye contact with me in a very long time, because Batten disease came along and decided that she doesn’t deserve to see. So I cherish photos I took of her more than a few years ago – the ones in which she is looking at the camera. And more than ever, I cherish each and every moment spent with my blind sister. I cherish the miracle that is her presence in my life, and I hate the disease that wags its finger at me every day, tells me to stop fighting back, and tells me I should be satisfied with the memories I already have and stop dreaming of making more.

T’s Angel

By Laura Edwards

My seven-year-old cousin, Morgan, is making her second appearance on my blog tonight. After a weekend at my aunt and uncle’s lake house in July, I posted the following:

And later, after we’d climbed the 90 steps from the dock back to the house for the evening, I watched as our cousin, Morgan, played the role of T’s angel. Morgan celebrated her seventh birthday on Sunday and is nearly four years T’s junior but was as good with T as any adult I’ve ever seen. Not once did she ever seem to be phased by my sister’s blindness. Her compassion and acceptance were gifts of the greatest value.
Tonight, my aunt Holly told me a story that gave me goose bumps. Morgan and her younger sister, Madi, have never heard of Batten disease. They only know that their cousin, Taylor, is blind.
Morgan’s second grade teacher called Holly this afternoon. All of the kids posted their “wish” for 2010 on the school’s second grade hallway. The teacher explained that while 75 percent of the kids wished for a new dog, or a new Wii game, etc., Morgan wished for her cousin Taylor to see again.
No words of mine could top that.