Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan For the past 24 years Fiona Page of Cumming has been blind. In 1987 an emergency surgery lead to the loss of her eyesight. Page, 68, a former teacher at Duluth Middle School is now a motivational speaker and author. "I miss my freedom," Page said.
Fiona Page has a knack for finding the humor and the heart in every story.
The skills began in childhood and grew through her love of theater in college.
After she began her career as a teacher in Gwinnett County public schools, she began volunteering at the local library, reading books and telling stories to youngsters.
But Page never imagined that the story she was meant to tell was her own.
"I believe God wanted me to be here to talk to people and inspire them," Page said, finding the only explanation for her miraculous recovery from a botched minor surgery in 1987 that caused her to lose seven pints of blood and very nearly her life. "In my opinion, it was divine intervention."
The next day, though, Page woke up blind.
"I look at you, and I see a gray, pebbly black," Page said. "But I have a good imagination."
Doctors have little explanation for the phenomena.
Just like there was no reason Page should have woken up at all, there are few clues as to why her vision has not returned.
It was hard to accept and hard to adjust.
But the bold teacher, who was recently divorced, found a way to carry on.
The night before the surgery, she told her then 19-year-old son he had to move out, a push from a mama cub to get him serious about the future. And Page wouldn't take that decision back, even though it left her without a live-in caretaker when she came home.
And while in the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act Page couldn't return to her job in the classroom, she found another miracle in the storytelling career she was forging.
Just a month before the life-changing event, she received the Christa McAuliffe Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education, a grant that allowed her to share the storytelling curriculum for drama she wrote for Gwinnett County with the rest of the state.
"I sat at home and dreamed of going back to Duluth Middle. ... (But) you couldn't go into a class blind and teach," she said. "After this happened to me, I said, 'God had been preparing me for this.'"
The fellowship provided an income. All Page needed was a driver.
"I knew I could go and speak and talk to other educators about how they could do this in their school," she said. "It was my lifesaver."
Of course, it also provided a few good stories -- like the times when teachers would slip into the back of her classroom late and get annoyed that she wouldn't call on them when they raised their hands.
Life without vision took more than a bit of adjustment.
Four months to the day after she lost her sight, Page started classes at the school for the blind, a step that normally takes people more than two years to take because they can't accept their situation.
But Page wanted independence. She wanted to cook and to clean, to put on her own make-up and to go out shopping with a friend.
She learned she needed some tips on her very first outing -- when she unzipped a purse, stuck her hand inside and pulled out a set of car keys. She thought the handbag was on the rack, not someone's shoulder, and was amazed and horrified that the lady never said a word.
"We ran out, and blind people don't run safely," Page said, laughing at the memory. "I was really crying inside. But what was wrong with that woman?"
Page's friend told her the woman couldn't tell she was blind.
"I have to get on with my life," she thought. "I can't be sticking my hand in ladies' purses."
To avoid her early mistakes of lining her eyes with lip pencil and her lips with eye pencil, she learned the basics of Braille, to label her make-up.
She doesn't know enough of the characters to read an entire book. Instead, she listens to books on CD, a hobby that still sometimes keeps her up all night, enraptured in a story.
The cane, though, took a while to accept.
"Why can't blind people dance?" Page wondered months after she lost her sight.
A divorcee who loved to frequent single dances, Page quickly headed back, promising to pay a friend's entrance fee if she would drive.
"The hard thing is 85 percent of life today and communication is body language," she said. "People don't pay attention to words. ... You don't know it until you live without it."
Months before the operation, Page met Jerry Hobbs on the dance floor. The two were in love, but Page's desire for independence got in the way. She didn't want a man to care for her. She didn't want him to sacrifice his life to be her driver.
While Hobbs was willing to care for her, the romance -- which resulted in a brief marriage -- has been rocky over the past two decades.
Still, in her single days, Page didn't want to give up her love of the dance floor.
And she didn't see why she couldn't participate in lady's choice.
Her friend pointed toward a nice prospect, and Page set out to ask for a dance, explaining quickly that she was blind but would love to dance if he would lead her to the dance floor.
Thinking he was tall, she went to grab his arm. "I reached up and slapped him in the face," she said, mortified.
But the two enjoyed their turn on the dance floor, and in the end, they realized they didn't know where her friend was sitting and had to search for a way back.
Page wasn't much of an adventurer before her nightlife began.
But since then, she has tried parasailing ("My friends tricked me," she said. "Then I was the only who did it."), snow skiing, water skiing ("That came naturally") and even white water rafting.
The hard things, though, were the every day things: caring for her grandson when he was just an infant, cooking up something that actually tastes good, enjoying a date to the movies.
But she has learned, persevered.
In 2004, Page won the Ms. Senior Georgia competition and took first runner up in the national contest.
And her work writing books and telling stories to any group that will listen has not only brought her a livelihood but a purpose.
"The first 10 years I was blind, I struggled a lot, and I had some dismal times," Page said. "It was very difficult. But the longer I've been blind, I think I've truly become my own person, who I am."
She remembers a conversation with her doctor during one of those hard times.
"You are an independent woman in a dependent body," he told her. "You can't see the forest for the trees."
"I couldn't see the big picture. I couldn't see it was going to get better but it has," she said. "Now that I've been blind 24 years ... I miss the freedom to go anywhere I want to go, but I like who I am. I have loved so much. I've learned to listen."
There is a story that Page loved to tell, back when she began her storytelling career at Duluth Middle.
It was the story of the split-tail dog, which echoed in the hearts of young teenagers who just wanted to fit in.
Now, she realizes, it is a story about a disability and the good that can come from it.
Thinking back, she realized her mother's example should have taught her the way to deal with a handicap. A double amputee who was the first woman to walk on artificial legs, the woman never acted disabled and never felt embarrassed, an emotion that it took her daughter years to get over.
But now, decades after losing her sight, Page said she sees her life and her mission even clearer.
She is sad to have never seen her grandchildrens' faces, but she is glad that at least she never had to see the earring in her grandson's ear.
"I miss (seeing) my grandchildren. I miss the freedom to go anywhere I want to go, but I like who I am," Page said. "No matter what tragedy befalls you, there is a hope, and there is a life."