I’ve lived with a fear of going blind my entire adult life. As a writer and filmmaker, vision has always seemed essential for my career, an important tool in the creation process. But my father lost the majority of his sight, inexplicably and very slowly, as I emerged into adulthood — his retinas detaching in both eyes with doctors unable to either figure out why or stop the process. Just as my identity as an artist and my career aspirations were taking hold, he was pushed into an uneasy acceptance of his fate that left him bitter, angry, and defiant. I watched this, mostly from afar, and never could shake the question of whether the condition would prove hereditary. Then I became a cancer patient and began chemotherapy, knowing full-well that it very likely would affect my eyesight.
Two days ago, I realized that I couldn’t focus with my right eye.
It’s nothing new for me to have a passing problem with my vision. Yes, my prescription had remained the same for over ten years — my glasses gave me better than 20/20 vision and I was content to wear them, never considering surgery to correct my vision. Six years ago, my daughter had inadvertently elbowed me in my left eye, causing the retina to scar and several ophthalmologists had prepared me for the likelihood that the retina would detach at that time. Admittedly, I was freaked out, and over the course of two years, my retina was heavily monitored as doctors prepared a means of preserving my vision in that eye. The scarring was carefully observed and then it did the most unexpected thing: it healed itself. Where there had been fuzzy abnormalities in the center of my vision, one day everything was more or less clear and back to normal. I breathed a sigh of relief and eventually stopped going back to the eye clinic. My prescription remained unaltered.
Chemotherapy changed that. After only a few months of chemo, I began to notice a real difference in how I could focus. I was taking my glasses off more frequently to see up close. My ability to focus far in the distance was suddenly not so good. One visit to the ophthalmologist later and I had resigned myself to progressive lenses. That was two years ago, and it is time again for me to update my prescription. The timing was brought home last week when my frames broke. I realized that they were barely out of warranty, and my prescription had just lapsed — not that it is any good, anymore. Still, I went two full years with the last prescription, which wasn’t so bad. I decided to fix my frames until I could make the time to go get a new exam. and ultimately have had to re-glue them a few times.
The glue didn’t hold all that well the first or even second time. The third time I added some gray string to the mix, to prevent the frames from over-extending at the hinge and that, at least, lasted a few more days. When the string version of my repair no longer was doing the trick, I went hardcore, superglued the frames in place and added an epoxy to harden overnight.
After the last glue attempt, I put them on. Looking through them, it seemed like the right lens had a smudge right across the center. Like a thick fingerprint had been left there. Or a smudge of Vaseline.
Throughout the day, I continued to try cleaning that lens. My right eye was beginning to ache, unable to focus as clearly as my traditionally weaker, left eye. I washed the lenses under warm water, with soap. I sprayed them with glass cleaner. I watched a greasy smear move itself around on the transparent surface, pushed this way and that with my microfiber cloth. With my T-shirt. With my soapy fingers and again the microfiber cloth. Every time I put the glasses back on, that smudge was back.
Or was it?
Silently, panic set in. My eye throbbed, unable to find the edges of text as I was reading, searching through a foggier room than the left eye just to see details on the television. Outside, the world seemed decidedly brighter and clearer over one shoulder than the other.
My glasses went on and off dozens of times. I tried old pairs of glasses that I keep just in case, but their prescriptions are now so out of date that I couldn’t focus well with either eye, at least not enough to tell if I was seeing (or not seeing) what I thought. I stared in the mirror, shining a light into my pupils and trying not to blind myself. Nothing. No visible difference that I could make out. Again with the microfiber cloth, again with the glass cleaner and the warm, soapy water. Again with the rubbing and drying and polishing.
And again with the foggy blur of a smudge.
But it did seem to change. It did seem different when I looked through different parts of the lens. When I found the right angle, just along the top of the frame, I swear I could see clearly. And there was that spot far on the right side, if I looked all the way over, and that was clear, too.
Two days of this. Two days of not saying anything or rushing to the doctor, because my rational mind knew that you don’t simply go from being able to see (relatively) clearly to suddenly having an unrelenting film over your eye unless there was some palpable reason. I had no infection, no pink eye, no conjunctivitis. There had been no blow, no foreign object, not even an eyelash stuck against my cornea. It didn’t make sense, but that did not mean there was no sensible reason. And yet, two days of silent panic. Two days of remembering my father getting cortisone shots in his eye. Two days of listening to him curse incessantly about his vision and doctors and not being able to drive. Two days of figuring out how he faked it for so many years, afraid his clients would walk away if they knew he couldn’t see the jury he was arguing in front of. Two days of wondering if I would have the patience to use a machine like his to magnify type until it was large enough for him to make out using his peripheral vision, since at least he still had that.
Two days of quietly torturing myself, until the obvious dawned on me.
I probably just smeared glue across my lens.
That could be it, after all; just a light smear would be enough to account for the change. It might not explain why my eye began to feel different to me — but the sense of it being different could easily be psychosomatic. If I was convinced, after all, that I suddenly had glaucoma or something, I would be looking for physical signs. Unable to see any, I would, of course, try to feel something. It was natural to do that, just as it was natural to feel that panic.
I was warned about glaucoma when I began treatment. It was mentioned to me on my last two eye exams as something that I would have to “watch” for, that, as is common for many people in their late 40s, there were already early signs of it that might take many years to manifest fully. But the seeds were there, subconsciously, waiting to sprout along with the memories of my father’s visual decline.
And what scared me more, perhaps, was thinking about how my father’s vision declined well beyond his eyesight. He refused to adapt to legal blindness in any way that embraced his condition. He wouldn’t break out of his mold or comfort zone to expand upon his other senses. He beat himself up about his limitations and rained down curses when confronted with them. Instead of finding new paths that he could traverse with the gifts he maintained, he fought to continue on the one direction he knew and begrudged those who were left to guide him or take his wheel and force him into the passenger seat, where he was never comfortable, to begin with.
I loved my father, but I never wanted to be him. His nobler-self was one I admired adamantly, but there were aspects of his personality that, as much as I wanted to understand them, I wanted to keep far from my own. I inherited more from him than I sometimes care to admit, but so far I remain my own man.
No matter what happens along this road I travel, whether I come to a clear fork or get knocked off the pavement entirely by some new and unexpected landslide, I don’t want to lose sight of my destination. Or, rather, I want to keep a clear vision of where my path is taking me, even when there are times the destination may well change along with the route, or the method of travel. We don’t always get to know where we are going or how we are going to get there.
And that is part of what makes our journeys profound and ultimately worthwhile. I may have found a reprieve of sorts for my eyesight fears, but in the end, I am pretty sure I’ll need more than a new set of prescription lenses one day. Akira Kurosawa continued to make his most visually ravishing films even after his eyes failed him. Stevie Wonder never even saw the notes printed on sheets of his music. And my dad, perhaps with a different sort of artistry, managed many years of writing without the need to touch pen to paper. Granted, he dictated everything for years in part because no one could ever really read his handwriting, but his single-minded doggedness to go on doing the one thing he knew how to do for as long as he could, remains an example to me that my words will be able to continue flowing even if I cannot see the screen or find the lines with my pen.
What we see does not always define what we see or how we see it. Losing eyesight does not have to mean losing vision. The former is merely a byproduct of time and physical conditions. The latter, well, that is something else.
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