CENTRAL, Ariz. Sixty-seven year old Paris White of the Arizona Pima Stake finds that by using his creative abilities, and sustained by the love of his family, he can face the trials life deals him even if he can't see them.
More than 45 years after losing his first eye in an accident, and ten years after losing his second eye to cancer, Brother White said creating helps him to cope. "[Art] is something I've been doing all of my life, one way or another," he said. "Now I can't see what I'm doing but I can feel it."
Brother White, and his wife of 48 years, Lilly, both grew up in Mesa, Ariz., but have spent the latter part of their lives in Central, a small Gila Valley community in Eastern Arizona.
Early in their marriage, Brother White served in the Air Force, running advanced communications systems, while his hobbies included painting and drawing. Their house is still adorned with beautiful original landscapes.
He painted even after he lost his right eye in Mississippi in 1956 when a propeller for a model airplane shattered and a piece of the wood tore through his eye.
Years later, Brother White retired from the Air Force and started a second career with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, as a specialist in their radio communications system. The Whites settled in Central, near his work in Safford and Mount Graham.
During this time, Brother White began being treated for skin cancer on his head because of years of exposure to the sun and possibly the radiation of the high-powered Air Force communications equipment.
He entered the Tucson Medical Center in August 1991 for what he thought would be minor surgery to remove skin cancer.
When doctors operated, they found that the cancer had spread from the skin to his remaining good eye. Fearing the cancer would continue to spread, they removed the eye.
He woke up in an ambulance, being transferred to another medical facility, and realized the horrifying effects of the surgery he was now permanently blind. Optic nerves had also been severed, leaving him with excruciating pain.
During the following months, Brother White became addicted to morphine and Demerol heavy medication prescribed by doctors to help dull the pain. "We had a real rough time because of the pain," recalled Sister White of her husband's ordeal.
"As bad as I was physically," Brother White said, "It was worse emotionally. I felt like it was the end of the world."
Brother White, whose posterity includes eight children, 30 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren, remembers when he finally reached a point where he had to decide what the future held for him. "I felt like I was not alive," he said. "You lose your life when you're on that kind of medication. That's no way to live."
Depressed and in pain, but clinging to his strong faith and love and support of his family, Brother White decided to take back his life one step at a time; he told the doctors that he was going off the drugs.
"They told me that it would probably kill him," said Sister White, "But he was determined to do it."
"Through prayer and feeling close to the Lord and understanding what life is all about, I realized that I had things that I still needed to do," Brother White said. "We all have trials that come along, but you can't allow them to knock you down and rule your life. Our families need us. I couldn't be a good husband or a grandpa when I was on that kind of medication."
Slowly he began weaning himself off the large dosages of drugs and learned to do for himself what he could without his sight.
He went through a blind rehabilitation program offered through the Veteran's Administration. There he learned to dress himself, eat and use a cane. He was unable to learn Braille because years of handling hot tubes in communications equipment had dulled the feeling in his fingertips. However, he did discover that he could still create things using his fingers and hands.
He took up a new artistic medium that he had not tried before. He attended a sculpting class at nearby Eastern Arizona College. Today, sculpting with clay over wire frames has not only become his work and his passion but also a creative outlet that he considers "therapy."
"If I'm not doing something with my hands I get nervous and my hands move uncontrollably," he said. "When I have something to work on, it calms me down. Touching things is a substitute for seeing things. I can visualize it in my brain; my hands have become my eyes."
The homes of Brother and Sister White and their children are filled with artwork crafted by his hands; images of things he feels instead of sees, and others that he remembers clearly in his mind.
One sculpture, sprayed with a copper-colored finish to look like bronze, is of Brother White's seeing-eye dog an amazing likeness of a dog he's never seen.
His favorite subjects are horses, cowboys and Native Americans; images often inspired by western novels he listens to on tape. "When the book is about horses and I hear the clip, clop it helps me visualize them," he said. He also recalls many of those images from his youth when he spent the summers with his grandfather who was a rancher in Eagar, Ariz.
He also listens to his scriptures, the Ensign magazine and his priesthood lessons on tape. "The Church makes sure I'm not left out because I'm blind," he said. He also taught Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday school for 10 years, teaching even after losing his sight by listening to the lesson several times until he was familiar enough to teach it without notes.
When asked what gives him personal strength, he credits his family and his faith. "My wife and I have a wonderful love for each other," he said. "And my kids are always challenging me and giving me something to do."
"We've always had the Church," said Sister White. "It has given him the willpower and determination to keep going."
Today, Brother White takes minimal pain medication and finds much to be happy about. He said he's still learning to cope and calls it a "progression."
"The main thing is that I want to be as much as I can be, despite my handicap," he said. "I'm still working on it, but I never gave up."