A diabetic since childhood, in 2018 Conor Lennon suffered an accident which severely impacted his sight. Now legally blind, he tells us how taking up the piano has been his saving grace as he learns to adapt to a new life
When I was a kid, my poor mother was driven demented getting me to piano lessons. After a few weeks, I learned that if I took the €10 for the lessons and went over to the shop, I could load up on Stinger bars and bottles of Cadet orange. It didn’t last long. Mum copped on and that was the end of that enterprise. My days of piano-mitching were over.
Fast forward to the most recent lockdown earlier this year. My fiancée, Aoife, was back in work, my son was in school and, for medical reasons, I was stuck home alone. My uncle offered to drop off a piano. It was an old family piano and needed a bit of tuning. But I said, sure, it would give me something to do. I was hooked, except learning the piano wouldn’t be quite so straightforward this time.
You see, I have had my hurdles. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child. It meant a couple of insulin injections each day and avoiding sugar. Roll on to October 2018. I had just parked in work and, as I was getting out of the car, accidentally hit my head off the door. The blood vessels in my eyes began to bleed and I was experiencing lots of floaters. I was subsequently diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy and from then on it was a constant cycle of laser treatment injections and surgeries to try to retain my sight.
In June of last year, we were enjoying the fine weather and putting together a trampoline. When we were finished, I decided to drive to the shop for some refreshments. Leaving the driveway, I realised I had no idea where I was going. The next day I went to the Mater Hospital to get checked out. It was confirmed. I had now lost most of my sight. The doctors told me I was legally blind and I’d have to make a few changes.
One of those changes was my job as a swimming teacher in Drogheda. Gone. It was obviously no longer a runner because of my sight. I could no longer get behind the wheel of a car. Being the only driver in the house, it made life a lot more complicated. How would we manage school runs or do the shopping? I also now had to rely on a cane to get around town.
With all of this going on, and lockdown leaving me feeling isolated, the arrival of the piano in January was, quite literally, the accompaniment I had been missing. At that point, my right eye had very little vision – imagine looking through a straw – and my left eye had only peripheral vision, but I could still make out most things in front of me under a metre.
Although playing piano is something you do very much by yourself, it connected me with so many people. I quickly got onto YouTube and a few different apps. Within a couple of months, I had learned an array of pieces. At the start, I used to be able to find middle C on the piano because the key had a crack on it. Now, I just find it naturally.
The first full piece I learned was Colorblind by the Counting Crows. Then I moved on to more difficult things like River Flows in You by Yiruma, and All of Me by John Legend. The weather wasn’t great, walking was a difficulty, so piano took as many hours of the day as I could let it. I loved it. Seeing what I could do at the beginning and how quickly I was improving drove me to practice and learn even more complicated things.
The app I found most helpful was HDpiano. Their people were continuously in touch with me, helping and making me better. I use the big screen from the tablet and it made things a lot easier to see. The app has zoom and speed control which gives me the time needed to make adjustments.
My family at home both love it and hate it. They love to hear the finished pieces, but they hate the continuous practice getting there. My mam works in the hospital in Drogheda and her workmates never stop with requests. During summer, I was walking through town with my son, Noah. Next thing, I hear him humming River Flows in You. What six-year-old knows that? The dog on the other hand loves my music. Apart from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. He runs and hides in his den when he hears that.
At the moment, the skill I need most is memory. Every song I have learned has had to be memorised and, because I do not have sheet music, I spend almost an hour every morning making sure I remember notes. I currently have a selection of around 20 songs so, as you can guess, this takes up a chunk of time.
Some people might see this is a chore but I have found it a great coping mechanism. It has kept me active and my boredom at bay, which has really helped me mentally.
Everyone keeps asking why do I do this? Am I going to join a choir, a band, or an orchestra? The truth is I want to be able to sit down at a piano in a pub one night and play. I’d love one of two things to happen.
Either everyone sings or everyone goes quiet. If I can get that response, I know it will have been worth it. Having a visual impairment or being blind comes with many obstacles.
Basic things like walking and cleaning the house all have their challenges. But you adapt and you learn. Little things like plugging in a phone charger or putting toothpaste on a toothbrush are usually the most difficult and I often find you have to be innovative and find your own way of fixing them.
I have recently started work in a local Chinese takeaway. I have most of the menu in my head as to what button is what dish on the till but, when less common orders come in, it can take me a little time to find it. I love when people say to me, “I didn’t know you were blind”. It means I am doing the job without people noticing.
During this time, my fiancée linked up with Fighting Blindness. They were a great help, providing me with counselling and getting me onto courses to help with technology, mobility and job hunting. The technology skills I gained taught me how to use Facebook and Instagram so people can now check out my music online.
My biggest problem at the moment is hearing oncoming traffic. When you have sight loss, you listen out for cars. With electric cars in “silent mode”, it can make life very challenging. Maybe Elon Musk could sort that out!
I’ll admit back in June of last year, all of this was very difficult. I know at one point I didn’t think it would get much better. Now I feel that it doesn’t affect me hugely. There are not many things that I could do before, that I can’t do now. Life is what you make it.
Conor Lennon is an ambassador for Fighting Blindness’ Retina 2021 public engagement day taking place on Saturday November 6. Aimed at people with sight loss and their families, the conference features motivational talks and updates on the latest treatment advances. Registration is free at fightingblindness.ie