Love IS blind: After John tragically lost his sight, he was distraught to find he could no longer picture his wife's face. Far from being torn apart, their bond became even MORE profound
23:21 GMT, 16 October 2012
For many years, Professor John Hull kept a photograph on his office desk. An image of his wife Marilyn taken shortly after they met, it shows her aged 22, fresh-faced and clear-eyed. Undeniably, she is beautiful.
This was the image that, for many years, John would remember her by; an image he fixed onto his heart when his sight slipped away just a year after they married.
He swore he would never forget it, but as the years passed and blindness exerted its dark grip, he found that he could no longer bring it to mind, and was devastated. Marilyn became instead a voice, a presence, a collection of memories.
Devoted: Marilyn and John Hull on their wedding day in 1979. For 32 years of their union, John has been blind
The transformation presented him with the most profound challenge. Yet today, as the couple approach their 33rd wedding anniversary next month, John reveals how letting go of those early visual memories proved the key to finding renewed happiness in their marriage.
‘I told myself I would never forget that face, but remorselessly time went by and I could feel it slipping away,’ he says. ‘There is a passage in a tape-recorded diary I kept at the time where I talk about the faces of the people I love disappearing across a dark flowing stream that is getting more difficult to cross.
‘There was this great abyss between me and the world — a growing sense of desperation that the world was slipping away and it was irretrievable, there was no going back.’
John, 77, a professor of theology at Birmingham’s Queen’s Foundation, and Marilyn, a retired primary school head teacher, have four grown-up children whose faces John has never seen. (He also has a daughter from his first marriage.)
Meeting the couple at their comfortable home in the Birmingham suburbs is to encounter a pair who share the characteristics of any other happy, long-term partnership. They trade banter and finish each other’s sentences. Theirs is the easy intimacy and familiarity of two lives long entwined.
Yet for 32 years of their long union John has been blind, and the way they have faced that challenge tells us much about the transformative power of love.
The couple met in the early Seventies when Marilyn was a young student, newly enrolled on a teacher training course at the University of Birmingham. John, 17 years her senior, was her tutor.
Back then, thoughts of romance were far from their mind. John was still married to his first wife, while Marilyn was engaged.
They stayed in touch, however, and by the mid-Seventies, when John’s marriage had foundered and Marilyn’s engagement had been broken off, romance blossomed.
Loving: Marilyn and John together today. The couple are preparing to celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary next month
John, by then in his early 40s, had already undergone repeated treatments to correct his failing sight. Totally blind in one eye since the age of 17, he had retained relatively good sight in his right eye until the late Sixties, when he underwent a series of operations for cataracts and a detached retina.
‘When I met Marilyn, I was managing reasonably well,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t able to drive, but when we started dating I could go to the cinema and read to her aloud. But by the time we married in November 1979, my sight had got much worse.’
At no point, though, did he seriously believe that he might lose his sight altogether, and neither did his wife.
‘I went into the marriage knowing there was a possibility John might lose his sight altogether, but I didn’t really think it would happen,’ says Marilyn. ‘Neither of us did. We were, are, optimists.’
They were to be proved horribly wrong, and quickly — within just a year of marrying — John’s sight had deteriorated catastrophically.
With poignantly grim timing, John required further surgery nine months after their wedding, and six days before the birth of the couple’s first child.
‘I went in hoping for the best, and came out registered blind,’ he says. ‘When my son was born a few days later, I could not see his face.’
He retained a mere glimmer of sight. He was able to make out pinpricks of light and, on occasion, outlines, but that was all.
‘If Thomas was wearing a yellow romper suit, I could see him, but not his expression,’ he says.
You can only imagine the crisis this precipitated. Even though the loss of vision had not come about suddenly, the disorientation was total.
‘It was shattering for me,’ he says. And for his wife, who could only look on, helpless, as her husband tried to navigate this new, dark and claustrophobic world.
‘Sometimes it was unbearably poignant,’ she says. ‘In the evenings I would frequently find him playing with Thomas, then later the other children, in a darkened room. Being blind, he didn’t know whether the light was on or not.
‘Yet there was something magical in it for the children. They thought their daddy didn’t need light — that he had a superhuman power.’
They smile as they recollect how, in order for John to experience hands-on parenting, they would attach their infant children to long pieces of string while they played on the beach or in meadows.
‘He would reel them in like fish,’ Marilyn recalls with a laugh.
Yet there is no doubt that the adjustment was an enormous struggle for both. /10/17/article-2218812-158987BC000005DC-680_634x346.jpg” width=”634″ height=”346″ alt=”Academic: John, 77, is a professor of theology at Birmingham's Queen's Foundation” class=”blkBorder” />
Academic: John Hull, 77, is a professor of theology at Birmingham's Queen's Foundation
Her despair was so great, she says, that at times she wished she, too, could go blind so she could share the torment John was experiencing.
‘It sounds absurd — I wasn’t going to do anything silly, I was a mother — but I so desperately wanted to be able to reach out to him,’ she says. ‘We had a number of terribly deep conversations about it.’
Yet over the months, even years, John gradually learned to let go. ‘I decided to live not in memories but in the present — to let go of nostalgia and replace it with reality. There are still visual memories. I can remember the Moon, and landscapes, what it was like to have a horizon.
‘They are still there, in the background, but I made a decision not to dwell in those memories because it is no longer my world.’
Marilyn, who had to deal with John’s despair on top of juggling work and raising small children, was delighted that her husband had decided to come back to her.
‘There had been some dark times for
both of us, when I felt as if he was slipping away, beyond my reach,’
she says. ‘It was wonderful to see him starting to approach life with a
new sense of purpose.’
This shift marked a renewed time of contentment in their marriage.
realised that, in a way, we had everything going for us,’ says John.
‘We had a wonderful family, I was still able to work, which gave me huge
satisfaction, and we had each other. Many people are not half
were, of course, further hurdles — though, as Marilyn points out, what
marriage doesn’t face those John recalls the occasion when, several
years into their marriage, a chance remark by his wife triggered a
renewed process of soul-searching.
day she said: “You realise that the problem is not that you are blind,
but that I am invisible.” And that stunned me. Because suddenly I saw
things from her point of view.
'I felt he was slipping into another world'
thought: “What must it be like for her” She can’t display her beauty
to me because I can’t see it. I can’t see if she has styled her hair a
particular way or whether she has bought a new dress. I realised what a
loss this invisibility was to her.’
Marilyn smiles and points out that
this is not an entirely bad thing if you turn the idea on its head. ‘It
does mean I can slob around in sweatpants and he is none the wiser,’ she
there were the social occasions where the two of them had to navigate
dinner parties and drinks gatherings without the benefit of body
language — the unspoken signals by which so many couples relate to each
‘We’d be sat opposite each other among a sea of other couples and we would feel so alienated,’ says Marilyn. ‘So much of communication takes places visually — the raised eyebrow, a hidden smile, body language. We couldn’t share any of that.
‘For John to understand me, he has to hear me.’
What they have shared instead, of course, month by month and year by year, are the experiences and memories of a life lived together; the simple interactions of husband and wife that are familiar to any happy partnership.
Marilyn, for one, bats away any idea that their long love affair is in any way extraordinary. ‘It’s really very simple,’ she says. ‘I fell in love absolutely and completely. And that’s never really changed.’
Her husband puts it this way: ‘When you’re holding the one you love at night, it doesn’t matter that you can’t see.’