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Candy Canes and Other Sticky Things

December 14, 2012

by Mark Dunning

When I think of candy canes, I think of two things. One, they are kind of gross. The plastic wrapping seems to be part of the candy, nearly inseparable and almost as sticky. I remember growing up that I ate as much of the wrapper as I did of the candy. To this day, when I eat a candy cane, my palate expects the taste of plastic and of my fingertips as I scrape said plastic from my tongue. And a candy cane is the only sweet that can be sucked in to weapon form. Ten minutes in your mouth produces a shiv. I can still taste the blood in my mouth from my impaled gums. 

A picture of a cartoon red and white striped candy cane with a red ribbon wrapped around it

But the second thing about candy canes that I think about is, of course, something wonderful. I think of my daughter (my son is too smart to eat candy canes), her hair stuck to her cheek, her hands shiny and gummy, a happy smile on her face. Candy canes remind me of when she was younger and we were both more innocent. Candy canes were a source of joy. They were family and music. They were cold noses and warm fires. They were laughter and screaming and hand shaking, eye bulging, heart racing, can’t-stop-bouncing anticipation. 

This holiday brought a different red and white striped cane in to our home. Bella has gotten her first cane. And, as with candy canes, this one gives me very mixed emotions.

I see that cane and I feel like I am failing her terribly. I promised her I would do everything I could to protect her eyesight. The cane reminds me that we don’t have enough money for research. It reminds me that we know far too little about the disease and have too few treatments in the pipeline. I see that cane and lose my patience with the slow pace of research, with the convoluted politics of governmental funding, with all the people that could do more but don’t. 

I see that cane and I am reminded that my daughter is losing her eyesight and I am still powerless to do anything about it. I wonder if I am deluding myself with the all the e-mails and events and meetings with which I am involved. All are ostensibly aimed at moving us closer to treatments, but they are not saving my daughter. I see that cane and I wonder how long she’ll be able to see that cane. 

But I also see that cane and think of positives. I think of comfort and independence. Bella is now in the eighth grade. She started mobility training last school year. Every Monday afternoon, her mobility trainer, Nan, picks her up from school and they spend an hour or so working on any number of things. They spent quite a bit of time at the beginning of seventh grade just walking around the school, identifying problem areas, and then developing strategies for handling them. Once they got the hang of that, they worked on familiar places but in the dark. Sometimes that meant turning the lights down and sometimes that meant wearing a blindfold. They worked on navigating busy public places and they worked on unfamiliar places. It was all aimed at giving Bella the confidence to go anywhere and do anything.

I also see that cane and think of friendship. Bella really likes Nan. They have developed a nice bond. Bella never complains about having to stay late or practice things the rest of us do without thinking. A lot of it has to do with Nan. It helps that Bella needs to learn how to navigate Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s an opportunity to sit and gossip, then maybe do a little practice at the store next door while they chat about shoes or check out the sales.

And I see that cane and think of confidence. I wrote last year about the struggles Bella had at school. It is not a coincidence that her confidence has improved at the same time she was taking mobility training. This past semester Bella made the honor roll. I don’t think I have ever seen her more proud to report an accomplishment.

When Nan told us she wanted to teach Bella how to use a cane, I didn’t think anything about it. I learned calculus in high school. It doesn’t mean I have ever used it or needed it. The cane was supposed to stay in her bag, ignored and unneeded, much like my calculus text book. She wasn’t really supposed to use it. She wasn’t really supposed to need it. 

So I have mixed emotions about the cane. I’m proud of her for learning it, for embracing it, for having the independence, self-confidence, and smarts not only to recognize that she needs it but also to use it. I may be panicked by it, but Bella sees that cane and shrugs. She likes that she can pull it out and clear a path down a busy hallway. She likes not being afraid of walking in dark areas. She likes being able to take care of herself. 

But mostly, she says, she doesn’t think that much about it.

I wish I could say the same.

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