Blind typist turned poet makes violence into verse
"I HEARD the nurse come in and whispered to her to ask her the time; she said 'Why are you whispering, Mr Byrne?
"I said, 'I don't want to wake anybody up'. That's when she realised I didn't know I was blind, that I thought it was night time.”
So began James Byrne's fascinating journey into functioning in a world without sight.
The Rockhampton man developed double vision at 25, and was diagnosed with a brain tumour, effectively ending his work as an engineering draftsman.
His first surgery, six years later, went off without a hitch but, the next time, in 1981, he was warned there was 70 per cent chance he would wake up blind.
"I might have been told while I was still in intensive care but I didn't remember,” he said.
Last week, Mr Byrne published his first book, a collection of the poetry he began writing while enrolled at TAFE.
"Every so often, inspired by a particular subject, I sit down and write a poem so they've extended into quite a few,” he said.
"Hovering Mist was the first I thought of while I was learning to type so that was my practice piece.”
Mr Byrne said he doesn't write to persuade his readers and doesn't necessarily gain any catharsis from events which trouble him.
One of his poems relate the occasion when, aged 12, he was beaten unconscious on a Sydney bus.
"I heard someone talking about police officers getting abused so I sat down and wrote that one,” he said.
"Because the first thing I remember was waking up between the seats on the bus and the police helping me out.”
After he went on from TAFE studies to graduate from CQUniversity in 1992 - its first blind graduate - Mr Byrne began a career in counselling.
He was a disability support officer at University, then worked in both public and private organisations counselling children.
"I was counselling at Berserker School after the murder of Kyra Steinhardt,” he said.
"I was supposed to be quite good at working with children but it's not something I could keep doing, because their stories had me in tears, made me very emotional.
"A psychologist once told me I couldn't 'take it home with me' but I just couldn't forget some of the stories of those beautiful children being abused.
"Unless I develop Alzheimers, I'll take them to my grave with me.”
Until recently, Mr Byrne said, he was living independently at home.
Perhaps a bit too independently.
"I gave up mowing my own lawn the second time I fell off the retaining wall,” he said.
Now he gets Centacare in once a week to do some cleaning and iron his clothes.
In this post-election era, Mr Byrne said he's very concerned about Government policy and resource allocation when it comes to disability support services.
"At my age I'm not eligible for NDIS; even when I went through University there was no legislation to support me,” he said.
"But for people who do get direct funding, I'm worried there'll be no best practice for them if certain NGOs go out of business.
"If these organisations collapse, who will be there to support people with a disability?”
"I think they've thrown the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.”
When it comes to manoeuvring between his home and community involvement - he's on the board of the Capricorn Citizen Advocacy in Rockhampton - Mr Byrne puts his competency down to skills which preceded his blindness.
"As a draftsman, I was very good at drawing and mathematics,” he said.
"When I pay my credit card bill each month, I remember a total of 57 numbers to read to the operator.”
"I don't just walk into a room and reach for a seat; I can picture it in my head.
Mr Byrne admits his one great fear is not hurting himself but damaging another person's property.
"I have this absolute dread I might brush up against something on the wall, something that is not necessarily of monetary value but something which is precious to that person, something sentimental,” he said.
He's off to Sydney this week to make his daughter a TV cabinet.
"I made my own dining suite and outdoor furniture, and I made a couple of cabinets and shelving units for some elderly people,” he said.
And when he's not travelling or making furniture or advocating for people with a disability, Mr Byrne said he's having a go at writing a book about aliens that come to earth.
"The thing about my computer is it reads my writing back to me in a dreadful monotone so I'm not sure whether it's any good,” he said.
"The thing that really messes up a story is a bad reader.
"I had a first go at The Old Man and the Sea on tape and it was terrible; I gave up after a few pages.
"But more recently I heard it read by Charlton Heston and he was brilliant; I couldn't believe the difference.”
Mr Byrne's poetry are classic in structure, with the strict attention to rhythm and end-rhyme he remembers being taught at school.
Like so many of his pieces, Hovering Mist is remarkable for its vivid description of colour and form.
"Because I wasn't born blind, if you talk to me about colours, I understand,” he said.
"I can imagine colours; I can see them in my mind's eye.
"I dream in colour but when I wake up I see nothing.”
Mr Byrne's self-published anthology, Rhyme and Reason, which was printed locally, is available at the Capricorn Citizen Advocacy office at 3/118 George St for $10.