Month: January 2016


Close up shot of old soccer ball, basketball, baseball, football, bat, hockey stick, baseball glove and cleats



We often played out in front of our home on Falcon Avenue. My father says there was something like sixty kids living on our stretch of the street, a two block long avenue in Heron Park. We played every kind of game there. The Mackey kids two doors down often had a ball hockey game going, something that went on for most months of the year. You could look up the block’s entire stretch from Brookfield to Heron Road some days and see several of those pick-up games going on at various progressions up the street.


Our family members were baseball and football players. Most of us played baseball every summer. I wasn’t very good at it but eventually my sturdy size and quickness allowed me to acquit myself decently in my last year playing Little League baseball for the A&W Cubs. I was an outfielder and could reliably run down a ball about half the time. Not quick minded enough to play in-field, I was happy to become a decent hitter over time. We won our local championship my final year. A win meant coupons to use up at the Bank Street A&W, in an era when gals still rolled out to the cars on roller skates to deliver Teen-burgers and Root Beer on little trays that affixed to the rolled down window of your car. These were innovative times for a kid.


Football was a bigger challenge. Eventually I played for the Merkely Bears around age thirteen and wore the most mud stained uniform of anyone’s in our team picture. An embarrassment then that became a badge of pride later. I think my jersey number was 81 or 82. I was never that good at passing the ball and was sent to the line as meat, sacrificed as protective fodder to at least delay the opposing defense’s attack on our quarterback. Out-sized, I resorted to spearing attacking players in the shins with my helmet; often other team’s whole line was too big for me to put up much opposition. I remember gleefully getting my revenge on some of the bigger boys who were trampling me into the mud that way. And acting innocently afterward despite their protestations to the men in stripes.


Leading up to those experiences were the many hours of practice spent with my brothers Duncan and Stephen tossing baseball and football back and forth on our front lawn. It was the two of them that were mostly responsible for my being able to ever catch anything at all. There was a manhole cover on the road allowance portion of Grandpa Chenier’s lawn next door that we used as a pitching mound. Duncan could throw pretty hard by my estimation, and Stephen was game to catch anything he could muster, often jibing his Irish Twin over form and strength.


It was where we tossed the football about. We had one in our family, a gift from our parents that was part of our communal sports equipment. We always seemed to have the stuff necessary to keep us outside as much as possible. With nine kids, the immediate outside became a necessary house extension, area needed to keep my mother’s sanity.


The football is a diabolical shape if you’re a kid trying to predict where it will go at speed once it hits the ground. It rolls with a randomness that befuddles and ridicules. You go left and it goes right; you reach low and it bounces high, as if purposely put there to reveal your awkwardness. Catching a wobbling ball was just as difficult, so it was the spiral that we sought. There was a way to grip the ball in just such a way that it would sail through the air like a missile, nose first and aerodynamically still, spinning with purposeful physics, so that catching it became just a matter of extending one’s arms to receive the ball in the mid-section. There you could tuck and cradle it against the body securely and run for distance.


We spent a good deal of time kicking that ball too. My hands weren’t big enough to quite get the kind of grip on the ball that would allow a consistent spiral. I dare say if I ever threw a spiral it was by chance. The wobbling ball wouldn’t go very far when I launched it so I preferred to kick the ball. Most of my kicks were end over end affairs. But every once in a few dozen, I’d kick the ball and stand amazed as it sailed through the air in a perfectly spiraled form, gaining more height and distance as a result. These were cause for encouragement and served to keep me in the kicking game. Still, my best kick probably equaled Duncan or Stephen’s regular throw.


One day in particular that I remember, likely around age eight, my father came home just as we were playing outside with the football. I’m pretty sure he was in full naval uniform, the gold brocade and buttons of his dark navy suit and white officer’s hat glistening in the sun. He was quite a sight in those days my father was. He would have disembarked from the Number One Bank and Heron bus near the top of the street on Heron Road and walked casually down our street to his family, passing the assembled kids from home after home, housewives often sitting out on front stoops and steps.


By chance, on this day he stopped and chatted with us a bit. I’m sure my brothers were both there. He told us he used to play football back in his younger days. Of course, if you’ve ever seen black and white photos of teams from the earlier part of the last century, you can imagine what kind of uniform my father would have worn. It would have included very little padding, knee high socks and full cleats. He probably wore one of those all leather headgear hats with no mouth protection. As he spoke, I imagined him right there and then as a gridiron god, playing with the men for real.


Dad explained that he was once a kicker himself. Said he had a knack for it, especially on the third down punt. That’s when the offensive line protects the kicker who receives a long snap from the center ten yards back and kicks the ball as far into enemy territory as possible. It’s a mighty kick, and a last ditch play to gain field position despite running out of downs. Finally, as if to underline what he meant, he asked if he could give it a try.


Surprised, one of my brothers handed him the ball. He became serious. We became hushed, our playful banter silenced in anticipation. He slapped the ball, as if reacquainting himself with its feel, its breadth and weight. He patted and passed it several times between his hands. Everything he did was well above what we’d stumbled upon.


For one thing, he held the ball differently–chest high at first. In this routine, he first received the ball with his two hands and then stepped back on one heel, as if to set up his pattern of execution.


He began to step forward in a rhythm deeply embedded in his memory. As he did this, he transferred the ball over mainly to his left hand while still guiding it with the fingertips of his right hand as he took a couple of deep and wide strides forward. Finally he dropped his right hand by his right side as the left hand placed the ball as a target directly in front of him waist high. With a turn of his hips his right leg came up swiftly and accurately and struck through the ball and kept going until his leg was almost vertical, right in front of his face, his toes higher than his head at finish and pointing skyward. The ball exploded off his foot and rocketed into the air. It was like watching an Ottawa Rough Rider on our front lawn.


Collectively, we kids watched in amazement as the ball rose, in a perfect spiral, higher and higher and further and further. At its apex it seemed to float there for a moment, difficult to see if it was still going up or coming back down, sailing past our property, past the two Chenier houses, and landing several houses up on the street with a loud slam. No one dared try to catch it and when it hit the hard pavement it bounced a dozen or more feet into the air before ambling unpredictably down the street, bouncing to and fro before someone could scramble after it to retrieve it.


I stood there in awe. There were several oohs and aahs and other exclamations of wonder from the others. Dad said something about how he had been glad to quit playing because he feared kicking out some rushing player’s teeth in the process of getting his kick off during games. I understood his concern on the spot. What a humanitarian I thought–not thinking of that word specifically but you know what I mean. There was a higher moral purpose to this man beyond being able to kick the living daylights out of a ball for fun. I accepted that.


But, holy smokes, I thought to myself, did you see that?


With his final comment, he picked up his doffed uniform jacket off the lawn and went into the house for supper. Though, the memory of that kick follows me to this day. Dad was just that kind of guy.

C K Wallace ©2016, all rights reserved

P.S. want me to write a story for you like this one about something in your life? Contact me here.

The Gift of Ishaq Ahmed (part two)

To read The Gift of Ishag Ahmed (Part one) click here

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“Can I tell you something?” he asked her. “Of course,” she says.

“When I dream, I dream all kinds of things in full colour. It’s very real to me and I like it. It’s just that when I wake up, the dream ends and there are no more colours. When I open my eyes, everything is black. It kind of scares me.”

Michelle’s cool reserve crumples. She’s been the problem-solving nurturer thus far but this has left her speechless. “Oh, Ishaq,” she says, remaining stoic for his sake. But perhaps she thinks: dammit, he’s going to wake up every day comfortable if I can help it.


It is late 2015. I’ve kept in touch with Ishaq through the odd phone call and Facebook (where for a while his handle was Dark Kingdom. What a card).

Mel and I had a Christmas party to attend in Toronto one night recently and we would be staying over at her sister’s place near the airport, since it would have been too far from our place in Cobourg to drive home. With our kids in tow, and before driving back, we went to visit Ishaq on a Sunday afternoon.


When we first got to his apartment, there was a pair of Jehovah’s Witness visiting. I teased them about getting extra points for converting a Muslim. I knew Ishaq wasn’t particularly devout. They took my ribbing good-naturedly; indeed, decent guys with seemingly the best of intentions.

They soon excused themselves so we could visit.

It turns out in the intervening years Ishaq had lived in Vancouver for a year while studying as an audio engineer. He continued his interest in percussion and had become good at making his own music electronically.

Then, there was three-month trip to Africa to meet the rest of his family.  His mother and father were long divorced, not on good terms. All by himself, he traveled there and back. After some initial reluctance, his maternal grandmother intervened for her grandson to arrange a visit with his father. He showed up one day at her place in Khartoum with several of Ishaq’s half-siblings. They all knew about their blind brother in Canada; he knew nothing of them.

You can imagine living a life of darkness, knowing these visitors are actual blood relatives would be comforting. They represent a connection between the fading memories of his former life and his present existence. His father and siblings are a kind of mental salve for the yearning to recapture stray hints of his sighted life, glimpses he carries with him every day, precariously fading with time.

It’s just that losing his sight at nine years old means that he has scant few years of sight upon which to base mental reconstructions. If our first recall appears at age three or four, he had five or so years to frame everything that followed. His is a life permanently seen through the eyes of a child.

He remembers his father fondly. Once, dad brought his young son a bike that was much too big for him to ride. It was placed in the back shed behind the house until such time as he might grow big enough. He never did get to do that. Mom sold it after the breakup. The thought, the very impossible possibility of riding that bike someday remains with him still.

He misses his father. Though he loves his mother, he yearns for the company and approval of the man who is half his ancestral link. Together, we blamed his father for his absence; and then, for the memory of how he brought him that bike.

We held him responsible for the kindness and love Ishaq felt during some of his fondest years. Smiling, we put the onus squarely on his father for some of Ishaq’s physical characteristics: his long slender fingers and large hands that are seemingly made for drums and keyboard. We chuckled as we faulted him for the long spindly legs that are a constant reminder to his mother that he is his father’s son. Especially, we blamed his father and the serendipitous universe that gave Ishaq life.


Since November, Ishaq is holed up in a little one bedroom at Jane and Sheppard, in a tidy but older building where he lives in the basement. It’s not an ideal place, and it’s not the greatest part of town. When he got here, he moved in temporarily with friends, enrolling in school, taking out loans to attend another radio course at Ryerson College. Eventually, couch surfing wouldn’t do.


He had found living at his mother’s in Calgary constricting. To her, he’d always be her tiny boy, helpless and confined. He needed to stand on his own, as a man, independent and willing to take risks. He decided on the challenge pursuing an education in another city might bring. He had put it all on the line moving here.

Though, at times, I’m sure he’s felt as if he may have bitten off more than he can chew in the pursuit of his freedom. He’s not the kind to dwell on his plight anyway.  My friend Ishaq is no victim.

Besides Witness Victor’s gifted table and four folding chairs, Ishaq’s apartment was devoid of furniture. My kids ran around the empty rooms. It was perfect for them– nothing to break.

A former neighbour had foisted an old TV on him as he was moving out, too lazy to dispose of it himself.  It sat decrepit, covered with decades of filth and useless in the living room. Ishaq thought visitors might watch it when he good naturedly accepted his neighbour’s benevolence. It wouldn’t even turn on.

There were no curtains on the windows and Ishaq expressed concern that people could see in at night when he was alone. I resisted mentioning that no one would be able to see in if the lights weren’t on. The timing wasn’t right; it was his security he was worried about.

He has a tiny kitchen, which I thought was perfect for him, but not much food. You could tell he wasn’t eating much of anything. He could reach from the sink to the fridge and stove and each of his five cupboards, all at arm’s length away. He lacked the variety of the kinds of easily prepared foodstuffs he needed to eat consistently and stay healthy. I tossed a head of rotting romaine lettuce into the garbage.

He couldn’t be more than 120 pounds (later I found out he was 109). Though taller than he was when he first worked for me, he was essentially the same Ishaq, but a cooler kid now. No. A young man, and with an extra sophistication that warmed me. It’s always nice to see how one of my charges has grown many years later.

Eventually, we got him to show us his bedroom. “I was so glad to finally get this mattress, oh boy,” he said. You could tell he had slept on the floor at first. Even blind, the relief on his face was easy to see as he mentioned his bed. It was an air mattress, fully inflated, hard, as they get when fully filled. It was Victor who had brought it recently. However, it had no bedding, blankets, or pillows. Again, the window had no curtains, though there was a curtain rod on the sill awaiting installation.


In the corner was a set of drums. These were a far cry from the bongo drums I promised to buy him back in the door to door days. He had to write 30 orders in a week to earn them at the time. The last day he was on track and started to fool around, finishing with just 29. I struggled whether to make an exception and get them for him anyway. In the end, I knew that wasn’t the right thing to do. No drums for you little buddy. Here he was now, with real drums. A man’s drums.

He’d graduated to full-fledged stand up congas, the kind you see professional musicians play all over Latin America and beyond. I asked him to demonstrate what he’d learned. Still standing wobbly on the air mattress, and not even in front of the unit, he immediately launched into a solo session that had both my kids dancing and wiggling their butts.

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Rhythm hasn’t left him a bit. Only, he’s much better. It almost seems to be as if his fingers have gotten longer, the digits like little hammers on bass drum sticks attached to his hands. He can tap out with one hand what I can’t even manage with two, never mind the speed or timing of his beat. He said he hasn’t practiced much lately, with a resigned sound to his words that I noted.


I remember he used to be able to read the Braille writing on our Canadian paper money. I motioned to the missus, the keeper of the purse, to hand me some. Mel hands me a ten. I ask for more. She gives me a twenty. Again, I motion to her. Out comes a hundred. This is uncharacteristic for my gal Mel, though I wasn’t surprised knowing how she felt about Ishaq.

Could he read the Braille on the bill? He’s reluctant so I throw in incentive, so he’ll feel he’s earned it. I tell Ishaq to read that one and I’ll let him keep it. He says it’s a ten. Uh-oh. So I showed him the difference. I pointed out with the benefit of eyesight guiding my expertise, on the hundred the space between the sets of six dots is a couple of inches, on the ten, maybe half an inch.

I stuff it in his pocket anyway, thereby relieving myself of years of guilt over his bongo bonus. I looked at Mel: she didn’t flinch.


To change the subject, I announce that we’re going out to eat. I have forty Big Mac coupons and there’s a restaurant down the street. I get them as part of buying gift cards for my newspaper customers to use as inducements. Off we go to McDonalds to feed our friend. I was thinking if he could get to McDonalds, I could leave him the free coupons and at least he wouldn’t starve for a month or so.

Before we go out, I show him how to turn down the heat on his radiator in the living room by closing the valve: must have been a hundred in there. I take his hand and run it along the rad to the tap handle down by the floor on the left so he’ll know where to find it later. The place had been recently painted and the lingering smell was suffocating in the heat. He kept the windows open, shutting them only when going out for security.  He needs an ozone machine in there to kill the overpowering smell molecules, I think.

At McDonalds, they accepted my coupons but told us they’d only do it this one time. Apparently, I had to use them at a specific location or something. He’d be fed for the day at least. Truth is that the McDonalds is a couple of blocks away on the other side of the highway underpass and on the other side of busy Jane Street to boot. Traveling by cane there every day might have been asking too much.


Next stop: the grocery store. I decided to get him some essentials he can easily fix for himself. Mel and the kids wait in the car while Ishaq and I hunt for stuff in the store. All the sight gag lines return. “You check your side of the aisle for mayonnaise and I’ll check mine,” he says.  At the till, I get the cashier to break Ishaq’s hundred dollar bill into twenties, just in case.

Here’s a kid who doesn’t know anyone in Toronto, all alone and blind in Canada’s largest metropolis. He can’t just walk anywhere; he has to first spend time memorizing any route. Even so, he takes the bus and trains to school every day. There, he’s an exemplary student and passes everything.

The cataract that was just beginning to appear in his left eye back when he first worked for me has expanded to several. I once asked him about wearing sunglasses, Stevie Wonder style, and he refused. I notice that he wears them now, if only so he doesn’t freak people out. He’ll lose that left eye at some point. He talked about putting in a half glass eye as if we were discussing buying a watch.


He needs people. He needs to connect with those in the community who can lend a hand to this proud young man. They say a community is only as good as it takes care of its vulnerable. He’s a sweet and tender soul with the heart of a lion. It was hard to leave him. I could tell he was lonely. I think to myself: no one has Jehovah’s Witnesses into their apartment that easily.

On that Sunday afternoon, I was desperately trying to think of how I could plug him into others, though I live 150 kilometers away. He likely wouldn’t go through all the song and dance of filling out forms, determining eligibility and being put on a waiting list, all to satisfy some helping bureaucracy he’s never relied on before. No. Ishaq would suffer on, rather than go through all that.

Unless he could somehow be discovered by good people who wouldn’t mind visiting, I thought to myself. He needs eyes, the eyes of friendship. Only by creating some kind of network of support would he stand a chance of being able to chase his dreams of living a great adventure in Canada’s largest city.

I wondered if I could find one person to get the ball rolling. I needed someone fast and capable, someone I could trust completely to do right by my friend. I needed someone with empathy, with a heart as big as his. I needed a wonderful giver who has a talent for problem solving.

I called Mel’s sister Michelle on the way home, crossing my fingers.


She lives near the airport and is ten minutes away from Ishaq’s if there’s no traffic. Michelle is the gal I keep advertising on my Facebook wall to eligible bachelors, drawing the ire of feminists in the process. I do it to signal how much she’s appreciated, and she gets a real chuckle out of it.  She can cook a meal just as well as she can swing a hammer. Without hesitation, Michelle agreed to visit Ishaq.

I sent her pictures of his empty place. She arrived the next day much to my relief. She brought friends. Michelle is like that, a natural networker. She can nurture people like they were her own. My kids love her. We all love Michelle.

He now has a big comfy chair with attached ottoman, suitable for taking naps, thanks to Michelle and her co-worker. It was the first soft thing he’d sat on in months. She brought him bedding–he’d been sleeping under his amassed clothing.  They’ve become good friends. He confides to her his challenges. She listens and helps.

She suggested brown as a colour for drapes. He told her he’s trying to remember what brown looks like again. She’s taken him to Value Village to get new used clothes. He’s got a coffee maker now. Michelle loves to shop, especially for a deal. They’re perfectly matched. She visits often, texts even more. He’s her little brother now, and under her protection.


Michelle took Ishaq to Dundas Square for New Year’s Eve music and celebrations. Instead of her hanging on to the arm of a date, Ishaq held her elbow as she guided him through the crowds. They watched and listened to fireworks explode between the twin buildings of our city hall. They took pictures, and selfies.

At the subway returning home, security held everyone back and ensured they embarked first. The white cane has power.

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Michelle has introduced her new friend to others. They’re curious about this blind kid with the great attitude. One evening she and a friend sat in Ishaq’s apartment talking together into the night. They kept the lights off, immersing themselves in his experience.

This same person mentioned his visit to his friends, one of whom suddenly mentioned he had some “extra money,” insisting it go to Ishaq. That paid off Ishaq’s credit card.

Dumbfounded, Ishaq is a bit embarrassed when Michelle’s friends pick him up. He does his best to flirt with the store staff and make everyone laugh. As he accepts his conditions, being relaxed about being blind, those around him accept their own limitations, not as limitations, but as qualities worth sharing. By simply being Ishaq, he teaches self-acceptance.

I remember hearing Candy Palmater on CBC radio one evening. Candy is a famous Canadian Mi’kMaq native and comedian. She was talking about her nervousness at doing stand-up in front of her peers at the Assembly of First Nations. She told of how native elders had told her that if something is your gift, it’s what you owe.

Not yours to exploit, but what you owe. To me, this meant that our lives exist for others even more than they do for ourselves, and that we are obligated to bring our strengths and talents to our community. Call it a pact with the universe.

Though he may feel a bit awkward about how others are so curious about his blindness, something he’s made normal after more than a decade and a half, he’s there to share his life. For absent this purpose is aimlessness, confusion, existential uncertainty and intolerable loneliness.

Every time someone meets this self-effacing blind man, they are struck by his courage and perseverance. He serves as inspiration. Of course, I don’t tell him that quite in those words. Instead, I suggest he’s performing a public service by being an ambassador for the blind.

He admits it feels good to be useful. Instead of being cooped up in his tiny apartment, he’s sharing, and allowing others to share with him. This opens the door to more sharing.  In my heart I hope he’s ricocheting through an ever expanding network of people in one of the greatest cities on earth. Toronto the good, it’s sometimes called.

Ishaq’s special talent is that he gives permission to those who encounter him to share their gifts. You are compelled to feel an overwhelming gratitude once the magnitude of his challenges is understood. He reminds us of how much we need each other, and how easy it can be to give a helping hand to another.

One single person can make all the difference. One act of kindness by someone like Michelle can reveal a whole new world to a blind kid living alone on the edge of Toronto’s ghetto. Like a web of goodness, that influence has spread beyond and continues to expand, tying its members together in mutual empowerment.

Most of all, Ishaq’s hopefulness has given way to possibility. Without hope, life stops in place. Without hope the idea of confidence becomes an insurmountable obstacle to living a life of possibility. Thoughts remain thoughts, never approaching execution. Hope is contagious. That’s the gift of Ishaq Ahmed.

“Perfumes are my thing,” he says. “I can take a smell and make dreams with it.”

Forever hopeful.



Ishaq at his table


© C K Wallace 2016



The Gift of Ishaq Ahmed (part one)




If you work with people, especially those striving to become something better, whether purposefully or by default, you can’t help but witness some of the magic of what it is to be human. I’ve been lucky this way. I’m one of the “by default” types, committed to growth for self-preservation reasons, and having come from such faulted beginnings that I marvel at myself and my fellow travelers. I’ve also been around long enough to know that there are some things for which words alone won’t do justice. There are miracles, and there miraculous people.

From 2004 to 2009, I ran a door-to-door sales crew in Calgary Alberta. I’d hire and train an almost continuous number of young reps, usually teens and young adults. Over the years, I went through hundreds of people, never knowing who would work out and who wouldn’t, but willing to give anyone a shot at better than average money, and in some cases, exceptional money.

With every prospect, I went through my usual pitch: the job was getting new subscribers for the Calgary Herald; we pick you up at home and drop you off; it pays decent commission every Saturday and we train you to do door to door on a team of like-minded reps. “You can do that right?” “Yes,” this particular prospect replied compliantly.

So I made arrangements to pick him up, taking his name and address, discussing our shift expectations, dress code, preparation, etc. At the very end, just as we were about to hang up, he says there is “just one thing.”

“I’m blind,” he mentions.

“You’re blind?”

“Yeah. I’m blind.”

“So how do you think you can go door to door in neighbourhoods you’re not familiar with and write orders?”

“I can do it,” he says. “It’s no problem.”

“What? Do you have a cane?” I ask.

“Yup, I’m really good with it. I need a job and I can do this.”

Boom. So… how do I say no to that?  He fits the criteria for my typical rep in every way: lot’s of free time, no extra-curricular activities that will interfere with the job, mom’s OK with him working. Kid needed money: he lived in one of the few low-rent buildings around–subsidized housing they call it–and right along my route.

In fact, I’d hired a young gal out of that same building a year or two before. I ended up giving her a place to stay when her mother couldn’t pay her hydro bill and she complained about having to come home to a pitch-dark apartment every night. Later, I trained her as my office manager, a job she did really well for a number of years.  I couldn’t help thinking: at least with this kid darkness wouldn’t matter. And you can’t put the want in someone’s belly. If it’s there, go with it.

I also realized on the spot that what he wants to hear is that he’s accepted. It’s a bluff, I tell myself:  likely some way for him to gain leverage with his mother. He’ll probably never show up. Or if he does, it’s going to be a novelty effort at best.

After all, I once had a deaf girl work for us. She didn’t work out because her lip reading sucked. She kept thinking others were saying stuff about her and ended up getting physical with other reps. Big girl from the Forest Lawn area, tough as nails.

But a blind kid? How’s he going to smack anyone? The cane maybe?

Anyway, it’s my inclination to call bullshit as I see it. So I act as if it’s no big deal. “I could care less if you’re blind, deaf and dumb as dumb,” I tell him, “as long as you can walk, talk and carry a binder, you’re hired.”  Now I’m curious; I want him to come in.

Next day, we’re outside his building waiting. It takes fifteen minutes for him to get downstairs.  It’s a bit of an ordeal. I’ll get better at it, he says. There are some challenges, namely, he’s got to learn the pitch.  It’s ten-fifteen lines by memory. We rehearse like heck in the van, and finally decide to just get him to invite the customers to read his pitch off his binder.

One of our best ambassadors for the job took him out first night. After a year or two working with me, Matt House doesn’t see difficulty, just solutions. Ishaq couldn’t have had a better guy to show him around. Matt nicknames him Ishdog.

He’s got the pitch printed out in Braille on the second day and he’s memorizing it all the way out to work. I send him out with our best female trainer, Melisa Davey, who trains him and watches a customer fall in love with this blind kid and sign up. He gets her approval. We knew he’d be fine working with someone but how about by himself?

Now it’s time to go out on his own so I explain what his block looks like. I find him one with a sidewalk that has cement walkways that bisect the lawns going up to each house’s entrance. I describe it for him, like a coach giving out a new pattern to his players on the field.

Off he goes, no questions, tapping his cane along the sidewalk and then the lawn and back again. When he double taps cement he knows it’s a walkway. He veers right and taps up the walkway, once on the cement, once on the lawn, moving quickly, doggedly, like any impatient teenager. When he gets to the stairs, he slows, feeling with his cane, and then steps up without hesitation. On the stoop, he moves forward using the cane to sweep the porch widely and find the door. Feeling the doorway, he looks, but with long slender fingers, searching the frame on each side for a doorbell.

I’m parked up the street, watching in amazement at his progress. I want to go door to door myself and say, “Did you see that? There’s a blind kid working your block! Pay attention!”  But, instead, I sit there watching in disbelief.

He went through ten or fifteen houses and suddenly stopped. Turning away from the houses, this time he approached the street and waited there, motionless, his head cocked a bit. Wondering what’s up, I pull up along side him.

He says,”Do you think I don’t know you’re there watching me? I heard you stop and shut off your engine. I know you’re there. It’s making me nervous. I’m not a little kid, and I’ve been blind for a while. I don’t need you to baby me.”

What the…? “Oh really? Ok bud. You’re on your own. Have a customer call me if you need me for anything.” I drove away, with nothing but admiration for his guts.

And that was it. Little guy, just fourteen-fifteen at the time, skinny as a rake, not even a hundred pounds, went about his business learning the new job in a way that was really not much different from any other kid. It took time before he got better; he made the same mistakes as anyone else. He never became my best seller, but he competed against himself everyday.

He also had a sense of humour. When you got in the van, he’d tell you how good you looked. He’d remark on the scenery, picking up the tiniest clue from the conversations around him and joining in by making something up. There were no off-limit jokes, and he answered each new rep’s questions about his blindness matter-of-factly and without self-pity. It was just his life.

With all the good-natured ball busting that goes on in a close-quartered sales team, Ishaq held his own. If he got too mouthy, I’d threaten to put him on blocks with construction sites on them. Those big mounds of excavated dirt were really confusing to tap with a cane. Another time, when he wanted a new cane, he stuck his out as I pulled up to get him on the last drop. The next day, we picked him up from the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) building near his home. He had a brand new model. He gave me the old one, and still bugs me about running over a blind man’s cane.

Or, I’d drop him at the top of a street and drive to the end of the block on the way to drop someone else. I might notice that there was a park on the last two lots, with an asphalt walkway veering off from the sidewalk into the playground. If I didn’t hustle back in time, I’d find Ishaq there in the middle of the park, head cocked, cane swinging to and fro trying to figure out where the darned houses went.

Another time, I circled his block over and over looking for him to no avail. Finally, I realized he might have tapped his way up the back lane where all the garages were. Sure enough, just as I pulled up to the lane to go look for him, out he comes from someone’s backyard from halfway down the block, tapping away furiously towards me to get back to the sidewalk and the other half of the block. Turns out, he tapped up the lane a little confused and heard voices. He ended up pitching a couple of men barbecuing in a backyard and wrote two orders

He had blind-sense too. Remnant cells in his eyes wired to a different, more primitive part of his brain that was left undamaged by his accident. It meant he could sense when there was something in his way. All the kids marveled at how he’d suddenly stop in front of a parked car, and tap around it. Reps who worked with him on occasion would test him, walking down the road or sidewalk beside him and purposefully not telling him of an obstacle approaching. Ishaq would stop and say, “there’s something there, isn’t there?” He became a bit of a legend; mysterious magus who could somehow see in another dimension, though his eyes could not.

We asked him about the stereotype of other senses becoming more enhanced. And they were. He sees with his hands, the subject of many flirtatious comments from the gals in the van. He was also a percussionist in his high school band. Boy, could he hit the drums. He’d tap out a rhythm on anything you put near him. Gifted and getting better, he was devoted to sound. He was also lucky that the digital age was upon us and could more easily pursue music as an important part of his life.

I remember picking up the last few reps on a darkened street corner one evening when suddenly a red mustang convertible swerved in front of my fifteen passenger van, cutting us off and preventing me from driving off. The odd time a rep crossed the line with a customer I’d have to intervene and smooth things over. I prepared for the worst as I got out to meet the person and deal with the situation.

Turns out the guy had been looking for us for 20 minutes. His upset wasn’t from anything we did, but something else entirely. Ishaq had been at his door that evening at a time in his life when the client was facing some big challenges, unsure if he could meet them.

Seeing this young blind kid pitch on a cool night, after dark, and go about gratefully doing his job with earnest enthusiasm, made him stop and think. He was overcome with how ridiculous his problems were when compared to not being able to see. The way Ishaq persevered without any hint of feeling sorry for himself inspired in this customer a deep sense of respect and gratitude. If a young blind kid could go sell newspaper trials door to door, he could do anything. The customers was teary-eyed as he recounted how affected he was, asking if there was something more he could do. “Can I give him money, or contribute to his education?”

One thing about Ishaq is that he’s not inclined to use his blindness to advantage; refusing pity like it’s bad karma. It’s just not in his nature and he won’t ask for help if it can at all be avoided. I finally had to agree to let the customer call the newspaper the next day and tell them how he felt about Ishaq. This kind of thing occurred often once Ishaq became more comfortable at doors, though I’d rarely make a big deal of it.  He was truly amazing (but don’t tell him I said that).

You’d think he’d sell more orders than anyone too, but the truth was many customers didn’t fully realize he was blind. His eyes were still pretty good looking back then–the cataracts were just starting–and he acted deceptively normal once trained. He’d rarely look you in the eye if that’s what you expected. If they spotted the white cane they might think they were being scammed, unless they took the time to talk with him. You know how people are. In a sense, he had to overcome that detriment to his sales.

However, it was the lessons he taught all of us that mattered most. His life was one big display of courage, of determination, of confronting fear, of telling himself he could do anything anyone else could do.  He just never said no to anything. He agreed to do his best and figured out how to make it work later. Also, if outsold by the blind man, you could expect to feel embarrassed on the ride home. It would be Ishaq who did the ribbing.

For a full season, from spring to late fall, until the cold and icy streets forced him indoors, we were inspired by this skinny kid with the big smile who laughed so easily.  He affected all those who came into contact with him, each feeling privileged to be around his indomitable spirit. He was a sweet guy, tender even, and he cared about the people around him. He sees the world through his heart, something more of us wish we could do better.

Born in Libya during the Gaddafi years, he was raised partly in Egypt and partly in Sudan. His father was an Egyptian farmer contracted to open up lands along the Nile River for agriculture near Dongola, Sudan. His family followed. Mom’s Sudanese.

At nine years old, Ishaq had fallen backwards off a simple plastic chair, the flimsy mass-produced kind you might find lying around your own backyard. Hitting the back of his head on a rock, he was hurt. Then, the whites of his eyes turned blood-red within a few days after the fall. Doctors told his mother that he had perhaps a two-week window to get the kind of medical attention he needed.

By the time his family could both afford it and manage the distance to care, it was too late. The swelling damaged his visual cortex. Over the course of the following year, his vision slowly shrank from the periphery in, until the tunnel through which he desperately tried to remember his life with sight, finally went completely dark.


For the Gift of Ishaq Ahmed part two click here

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C K Wallace © 2016