Friday, January 18, 2013

That Vision Thing

I spent many years of my life squinting, so when I started to go blind, it sort of snuck up on me. Several years ago, though, I began to realize that my eyesight was reaching Mr. Magoo proportions, and I visited an optometrist. It was one of those awful medical visits where what you assume is going to happen (“Everything is fine, you just need a new prescription, nothing to worry about”) instead turns into a series of longer and longer waits, with rooms and equipment that you didn’t even know were there. By the time I made it to the final consulting room and the doctor flipped open a thick file folder, I was ready for the worst.

My optometrist was a cheery sort, though, a firm believer in the “it could be worse” school of medicine. First she told me that I didn’t have a brain tumor or a degenerative disease. By the time she got around to mentioning that I had  advanced cataracts, which would require two spaced surgeries that would pretty take up most of summer, I felt like I had won the lottery. No brain tumor, yippee!

She hustled me out of the office, and I made it to the car before the reality sunk in, but by then I was the surgeon’s problem, not hers. And of course, she was right. It really is great to see, and once I got through the surgery, and the recovery, and that weird six weeks where I had one good eye and one bad eye, and the fact that I couldn’t do yoga for three months, I was happy. 

As my husband said, after mentioning my lifelong reading addiction and childhood fondness for gobbling up the latest Nancy Drew under the covers with a flashlight, I had probably used my eyes well over the average amount for a human, and they just ran out of warranty. Now I have new, artificial equipment, and while it’s not always as good as the original stuff, I’ve tried to cope with the ensuing difficulties.

The complications are like those in a twisted fairy tale, one where I manage just fine in the day, but become an old crone in the darkness. My new reality is that I am struck blind when I move from one extreme of light to the other – from, say, a well-lit hallway to a darkened theater. (That I would prefer to spend most of my life in a darkened theater is an irony that has not been lost to me.) I have already embarrassed myself in the Southwest High School Theater more times than I care to recall, designed as it was by someone who seemed to relish that dramatic switch from high to low light, plus a lot of small, unevenly spaced steps that seem to spring out at odd angles for the fumbling foot. I’m sure many of my fellow parents at school think of me as “that mother of Emma the cellist and Mary the actress, the one who secretly drinks and stumbles quite a lot.”

Another problem I encounter is that I have a very hard time seeing straight down, as when, say, I encounter a flight of steps. I have difficulty making out where the next step separates from the one before, a challenge that I felt very keenly last year during our trip to Beijing, a city which believes that one 20-watt bulb is sufficient to light any stairwell, and which seems to view banisters as a capitalist tool. When I returned from China with both my legs unbroken, I considered it a minor miracle.

As anyone who has any disability can attest, there are great big gaps for learning to grow, in between all those broken places. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that I don’t really have a disability at all, just an inconvenience. I can still drive and read and write and walk the dog and do yoga, and that’s plenty of life for me. I have a deeper sympathy for the elderly and the lame. Whenever the lights go out, I’m one of them.

I do wish that what ails me didn’t feed so directly into my many anxieties, especially my desire to attract as little attention to myself as possible. That back-of-the-class mentality is in direct contrast to the stir I create when I’m creeping down to my seat in the dark, grasping at upholstery and occasionally somersaulting. I tell myself that it’s a great lesson in humility, but I’ve also learned that I generally hate great lessons.

My weakness teaches me plenty about other people, too. One thing I’ve learned is that everyone I know is blind, or deaf, or both. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I try to offhandedly mention, “I might take some time here; I have some trouble with the darkness,” it’s pointless. No one gets it, everyone just sighs, loudly. If I had a crutch or a bandage, maybe that would help. But maybe not.

I worked on a project last year with a customer who had a groovy space downtown, a building with slow elevators and dim stairwells. My client, a wiry and brisk woman, loved to take the stairs two flights up and down to our usual conference room, which would have been fine if I could have seen anything after stepping out of her bright office space, which I couldn’t. My entire experience of the project seems to be tied up in my terror that I would move too slowly and keep her waiting, which she seemed loathe to do.

Mentioning the word “surgery” isn’t much of an option, because I invariably get the “yeah, I had Lasik, too” response. I will confess that I hate to utter the word cataracts, because it sounds like something that an 80-year-old would discuss. Still, I feel like I’m 80, sometimes, and I suppose I’ll be relieved when my body’s chronological age matches that of my eyes, and everyone expects me to dodder.

As the years have passed, I have come to dread my Minnesota winters, with darkness descending at five p.m., and an icy patch for every footfall. This year, though, I have received a winter blessing from an unexpected source – straight from Paris, actually. Our exchange student, Hugo, is, I have mentioned before, a large and sturdy fellow, one who played defensive end for the Lakers this season with a maximum of well, defensiveness. I once described the experience of hugging him as akin to snuggling up to a flying buttress at Notre Dame.

Thanks to Hugo, I’ve been getting through this winter with a little bit more grace. He offers his steady arm to me on every dark journey that we take together, and I’ve learned to cling to him with rare assurance. My family long ago lost patience with me and my snail-like speed. If I ask for an arm to lean on, they generally can’t stop themselves from pulling me along, just a bit. Come on, already, what are you, blind?

Hugo never pulls. He matches his pace to mine, no matter how slowly I need to proceed. Last Sunday, we were going to an AFS Potluck, and he was maneuvering me up a sidewalk that was flanked by incredibly dark and scratchy bushes, creating even more shade. I was worried about a patch of concrete that changed shades too abruptly. I stopped short. “Is that a step?” “No,” he said gently, and stepped ahead, just a bit, to show me. On the way out, after the dinner was over, I found myself stopping at the same place. My eyes would just not let me go forward. Here is what he did not do – sigh, walk away or yank at me. Here is what he did do – show me, once again, that I wasn’t going to fall down if I stepped forward. So I did.

During our Christmas travels, we spent an evening at the house of some college friends of my husband. The evening was more “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” than “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but whatever. (Those board games can get pretty nasty in Oak Park). I was tired when we left, and happy to see that letter jacket of Hugo’s in my peripheral vision. He held out his arm and we stepped onto the porch.

We took one step, and then I stopped, assessing a patch of ice and wondering if my eyes would tell me where my foot should land. I began to wonder if these people were Communists – the steps were as bannister-free and scary as Beijing. The husband of the couple began to heckle me from his spot at the front porch: “What’s the matter with you? What are you, blind? My mother-in-law goes down those stairs faster!”

I looked up at Hugo. Part of me wanted to turn back, to tell this sneering creep that I was, indeed, blind, and also, let’s face it, afraid of the dark. Perhaps I should have asked Hugo to trot back and offer him a Knuckle Sandwich, La Courneuve style.  But I just looked up into Hugo’s eyes, and saw nothing but patience, nothing but care. We could stand there all night on that step, and that man behind us could keep mocking me, but Hugo would not let me go.  And, knowing that, I hugged his arm more tightly, and we made it down the stairs, together.


  1. What a beautiful young man! I hereby vow to become more Hugo-esque with everyone in my long as they're as worthy as you.

  2. Julie --
    Joel's friend, Heidi, here. I've just spent the *most* wonderful couple of hours reading many of your blog posts. What a fine and talented writer you are. Really. Your writings make my heart swell. I want to keep reading and reading, but unfortunately, "I have miles to go before I sleep..."
    Hugz to you...