As a small child I experienced no consternation when getting up in a thicket of darkness to pad across the hall to my parents’ bedroom or the bathroom. Darkness was as comfortable as daylight and I liked its ways. I was good at maneuvering around objects as I made my way through childhood. I was then a happy innocent; it never occurred to me why I was unable to identify whether things were animal, mineral or vegetable farther than a couple of feet away. Everything was marked by a gentle softness; colorful forms melded into a haze of lush beauty. I had very good hearing, taste, touch, smell. Life was good just the way it was coming at me. I enjoyed the bounties of my senses every day like any healthy child.
One weekday morning in my seventh year my mother and I were walking along the sidewalk, soon to meet up with my best friend (also my first crush), Bruce H. I always met him to walk the half dozen blocks to school. I looked forward to it; we often held hands and chattered away and made plans to play after school.
“Oh, there he is! Hi there, Bruce, you’re early!” She waved at him and hurried me up.
I looked across the street. I saw the towering evergreens that partly lined his big yard–it took up a big chunk of the block. I saw cars whizzing by and heard the familiar voices of other children congregating outside their homes, getting ready to walk to our elementary school. But I didn’t see Bruce.
“Where? Oh, yeah, there he is!”
I had noticed Mom and others saw some things that I did not. Or perhaps not quite in the same ways. In fact, I had noticed this at school as well, only a little. And it bothered me, though I was not about to mention it. I just saw things a little differently, was all.
Mom bent down to look at me more closely. “You can’t actually see him, can you?…You’re squinting– again. And you hold your books up too close to your face when reading. Your teacher says you asked to be in the front row. I think you have trouble seeing–you need a vision test. I’m going to call and make an appointment for you today.”
“Well, he was so far away! I see him now–hi, Bruce!” I waved wildly, tried to shake off her hand.
Mom made that face that said her mind was firm on this and the gig was up–I should not try to fool her again. But to be honest, I didn’t know I was trying to do that. I had simply thought my eyes were a little fuzzy and there seemed little harm in that, overall.
That walk to school was filled with quiet worry. The eye doctor was special; seeing him was not like the usual doctor visit for sore throats. I was going to have to be tested? What if I didn’t pass? Did that mean I’d have to change things, even get glasses like my father and my brother? I shuddered at the thought. I liked to race other kids, play Kick the Can and Red Rover and a bunch of other outdoor games–and go swimming and bike riding and I wanted to learn how to water and snow ski some day. What if not seeing right interfered with those? And what would I look like if I had to wear the awful things….? It ruined the day just thinking about it all.
Dr. Cummings was a patient man; he had lots of experience with families, with kids like me. He examined my eyes every which way as he explained what he was doing. You’d think we were having a friendly chat on a sunny patio but I didn’t like it. That bright light he kept holding up to my eyes, the eye drops he squirted in, those letters on the far wall–it was so disorienting. I strained to read each letter, felt a bit dizzy and nauseous at the effort of getting them right. It was a very hard test and I was certain I wasn’t doing very well. Why couldn’t we have left things as they were? I was just fine with soft edges to things, to my life. And I could still read fine, no matter what anyone said.
Finally I hopped down from the big chair; we got my mother and met in his office. Diagnosis: myopia. nearsightedness. Not just a little bit, a lot. “Significant amount,” Mom murmured. So I needed glasses. Wait–it was true that things far away were not clear–okay, even identifiable–but so what? This was my immediate reaction plus a desire to run off, though I’d never have said it aloud to two grown-ups, important people. I meekly followed them to a wall of frames, picked out pale blue ones that looked a bite fancier. But I was not happy, not at all. When I finally returned for the fitting, I wore the homely things out of Dr. Cummings office, filled with an odd relief as well as grave uncertainty.
Yes, I could see. Really see like other kids must see! It was peculiar seeing like that–everything was in extreme detail, full spectrum color, like it was with a hand magnifier. Unless I glanced out each side. Then all went back to fuzzy mode, the familiar one. Distracting. Forward, clarity; side, fuzzy. But it was far better than before.
My first glasses in second grade brought everything into such vivid focus that it was like learning to live two different lives. One more rounded and out of focus, a lovely impressionistic view, less than practical or safe, but what I knew best. The other was clear, sharp, crammed full of faces, objects and movement that was glorious but also difficult to absorb, even harsh to body and mind. Incredibly tiny things I’d never even noticed unless I put my eyes up very, very close to them now popped out. I was astonished. It was as if I had not had real three-dimensional understanding all that time; now the world was full of corners and curbs, tiny seeds and leaves and faces with distinct features. Everything moved and changed or stayed completely perfect and still and I noted it all. Well, life suddenly had a literal perspective to appreciate, one that made things seem jumped out at me and into my new vision field. But it was beautiful to learn, satisfying to fully realize what before I had only guessed at.
But this was a given: I got teased at school. I was called “four eyes”, ridiculed by a few in my class but more by the meanest older kids about having “pop bottle bottoms” upon my face because the lenses were quite thick. I realized people were calling me by other names accidentally, as if for once no one knew who I was from a good distance. I was not the same Cynthia, apparently, and I was embarrassed, mad and disappointed that being able to see well somehow created bouts of ridicule. Bruce, loyal friend that he was, just smiled and shrugged; we got on as before. My good friends got used to them faster than did I. And since I was much better at seeing, also better at playing games– a partner or foe to be reckoned with– among other good things.
Yet I also found them a hindrance when engaged in physical activities. When I sweated in gym or on the playground, they slipped down my nose and sometimes fell off. If something–a ball, usually– hit my face, it hurt and the glasses came off. I quickly checked to make sure they weren’t bent or broken. I began to shield my eyes instinctively. When it was cold and I went into a warmer environment, they fogged up. This was a nuisance when ice skating, as I was in and out–and the snow made it hard to see, and they sometimes flew off when executing a spin or jump. Rain was always a bother. When sunny, there were no good sunglasses to plop on–my parents wore the flip-up kind and I wasn’t going to do that. In any sort of weather, they were not the accouterments I wanted to wear.
I sometimes went home, took them off, put them in their case and sat on my bed bothered and fussy, but more at ease with them off and in my room. I read my books lying on my belly and propped up on elbows, hands holding up my head, face just a couple of inches from the page. And felt relief as the words came into focus, took me away with stories. Later when I went to bed my eyes roamed the darkness and I felt at peace. I knew exactly where things were in my house. I could, I believed, find my way in the darkest of places anywhere. My normal semi-blindness felt a familiar comfort in a more vibrant, confusing, cacophonous world.
But each morning I put on the glasses. My eyes adjusted a tad more. I got used to seeing them appear smaller behind two oval lenses. The frames redefined space around my features, as if a pricey plastic and glass magnifying device was facial jewelry of a peculiar sort. And I got used to the strangeness and wonder of remediated sight. I took them off, put them on again and just like that, so much changed. Thus, I had both the obscured but comforting vision of myopia plus intense clarity of corrected vision. I would learn how to navigate better wearing glasses with practice and time. Apparently many before me had, as I was not the only one in the world who needed them. They managed as if nothing was amiss, as per my study of my parents and brother and others indicated.
After a few weeks, no one said anything more. It turned out my mother’s advice to ignore the foolish schoolmates worked its magic. The improved vision made a real difference in the classroom or when reading music, when looking for friends, when crossing the street alone, and when trying to identify someone’s facial expressions, hence, feelings. The “positives” list kept growing. But I still was jolted when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.
At fourteen Dr. Cummings suggested I switch to contact lenses. The idea thrilled me but my parents weren’t convinced until he stated such lenses were thought to help improve myopia over time. I had also become more active as a figure skater and these made any sport easier. It was 1964; they weren’t very popular in my town even then. Although in 1508, Leonardo da Vinci first imagined something similar, it took research, trial and error for the next five centuries. In 1949 the first truly wearable corneal lenses were developed. In the sixties they were yet being refined and were also expensive. I couldn’t believe it when the parents agreed to the plan.
The first time I got them in, right onto my eyes (with much aid and cheering on from Dr. C.) I found them uncomfortable: irritating, almost gritty and it felt as if my eyes wanted them out. I blinked, wiped away the streaming tears, glanced about. Gradually my vision cleared; I could see most everything in the rooms quite well. Even my own unadorned face which looked once again different, quite unexpected. Added to this was the excitement, for the first time ever, of enjoying full peripheral vision.
Contact lens wearing was a magnificent hit. At first this was only allowed for a few hours daily as eyes adjusted to alterations, until both corneas accepted the plastic and glass amalgamation floating about on them. Oddly enough, it didn’t take more than a week or two before I could manage it all day ’til bedtime. It wasn’t too easy to put them in or take them out and I was always fearful of losing one (which happened innumerable times over decades, causing panic until I got a back up set) but overall I adapted well. My life became considerably enlarged simply by being able to see–from all angles at any time. Not many weather issues (though windiness can be a trial), no perspiration problems; no blindness peripherally, anymore; and no glasses to often clean or repair when dropped or keep track of and just put up with. It was a whole new world. I felt older somehow. More confident.
The first time I went to a youth dance at our large, busy community center, I was nervous. It had been only a few weeks since I had gotten the contacts. My eyes still teared a bit; I worried it might look like I was weeping. In eighth grade and in the throes of adolescence, any change a young teen undergoes is fast news at school.
I’d had plenty of reactions as I walked about in my junior high, participated as usual in classes, acted in theater and musically performed, chatted with friends–who still stared at my face. I was a cheerleader for our sports teams (“Go Cavaliers!”), as well. And reactions were pleasant if it seemed like I was now perceived differently; that was weird. Even though I had plenty of friends (and didn’t often physically “less than”) who cheered me regardless, I was taken aback by the extra attention this garnered. Flattery generally embarrassed me, put me into a near-frozen state only to be saved by very well-trained manners of a passable smile and a “Thank you.”
But I also was teased for these things: my so blue eyes had to be fake blue, were too big, really “bug-eyed” (large blue eyes: family traits), I was “getting stuck up now that you don’t have glasses”, I was “not really pretty just cute” and so on. It was way too big a deal, not appearing for years as I had behind glasses. I nearly wished I’d never gotten the contact lenses, despite being happy otherwise with their performance.
How could I be someone else, anyway? And maybe this person was who I more truly was, anyway–or becoming. It was confounding. I tried to ignore the fuss.
Then, when walking down the school hallway a handful of boys were hanging out, lined up in what we girls archly called “eyeball alley.” I fast thought of how I could avoid it, walking there alone of all things, but it was too late. It felt like passing through the gauntlet as they taunted me: “Make way for Queen Cynthia! We will let Her Highness pass this time!” They laughed and whistled and hooted and clapped.
What?! It deeply frightened me. Because I had changed one thing? I had also grown up some over the summer and returned with more curves, and now everything was more out of whack by being glasses-free. It was a horror getting through that day. I felt vulnerable in a way I had not with glasses and when a bit younger. I found myself protectively turning inward more after that. Inside that shiny, bouncy, performing teenager was a girl also wounded by life, given to creative endeavors and way too much thinking.
So I had more than a usual mix of feelings on the way to that Saturday afternoon dance. It was the first time I had been allowed to go, and with my girlfriends. We wore skirts and blouses with matching Capezio flats. We felt grown up even while preparing for such an event and when we entered that darkened basketball court, heard the pounding music, saw the mass of kids moving about and laughing, we stepped into an unknown territory. I love to dance and did, then, so as the records were played I “Twisted” and “Watusied” away with my gal pals and then, bit by bit, the boys began to ask me for a dance and we worked it out there on the floor. The Monkey, the Mashed Potato, the Pony, the Hully Gully and the Freddie”–it got fast and frenzied and was more fun as we all had in a long time. But when people gathered around and called out and clapped, I finally stopped, walked away, faded into the edges of the swaying, packed crowd. I just wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not to get whistles though I was having a blast. My eyes were starting to smart and tear more, my feet were tired, and it was suddenly such loud music and such a crowded space. I wanted out and to f ind a cold pop. A couple of other friends agreed and we trickled out, laughing and gabbing as we reentered the blinding afternoon light.
Back home, I took out my contact lenses, put on my old glasses. It felt so good to be free of those small concave pieces of plastic that hovered over my eyes. I scrubbed my face, got my notebook and pen, began to write. Light beamed through the white curtains as they lifted, billowed, fell and shimmied in the silken breeze. I thought about the boys with their good scents and big smiles, the freeing music, the great fun of dancing and laughing. And about the ways everything was changing fast, like a rapidly turning rainbow of lights on the dance floor, and how to navigate the bends in the roads and where I was going. And then I put pen to paper and was pulled into a poem’s reflective depths and all once more made more sense, filled me up, was on its way to being righted.
I have worn contact lenses for 42 years now. To encourage more oxygen to my corneas, I have tried soft lenses and couldn’t manage to get them in for anything, finally bursting into humiliating tears from the sheer frustration of it. I tried gas permeable lenses and had an allergic reaction of serious inflammation, so I have stuck with the rigid lenses I have worn successfully.
A few years ago an optometrist told me he could hardly believe I’d worn them so easily for that long without one problem, and that most people got Lasik surgery after such length of time as this made it possible to see perfectly without more assistance, even in older years. But my eye health was honestly very good.
“They must have extra money to toss around that I don’t have, to get Lasik,” I said. “Besides, I’m happy with things as they are.”
“Your time in these is going to come to an end, you know, maybe even five or ten years,” he said frankly, “so you better get used to wearing glasses more often again. The adjustment will be trying since there are significant corneal changes with contact lens wearers. And use moisturizing eye drops a couple of times a day, at least, especially since you stare at a computer so long.”
“I know–for a while it was like looking out of a fish bowl. I could barely make my way across a room, it can be so dizzying. So I’ve been working on wearing them more. I’ll up the number of daily hours.”
Even with contacts lenses, I have had to wear reading glasses to see up closer since my fifties. And the trifocals I had to get four years ago, the kind with gradual and invisible division lines supposedly mimic more natural vision, are pretty good. They look nice with a simple blue wire frame; they feel much better now that I’m getting used to them. So around nine each night I remove my contacts and put my glasses on to give my eyes a well deserved rest. I feel the same relief I’ve felt every night I’ve removed contacts even though I have enjoyed them. They changed my life in some fundamental way. Freed it up, allowed me to be more vigorously active and gave me a deeper, brighter view of everything I have perceived. And of course, they did nicely alter my appearance, as those with serious myopia can appreciate.
But I’ll get used to these glasses, my before-bed eyes, before my real night eyes. It occurs to me it has all nearly come full circle. I never have lost my sense of security in the dark, even if there are “bumps in the night.” I’m the one in the house who gets up and investigates as my philosophy tends to the “far better to turn on the light and see what’s to see” sort. Except I don’t really have to fully see. I have smell, hear, touch, taste and also just plain sense things with Mother Wit. So, a tiny bit like a cat or an owl, I make my way in darkness better than many. I am not afraid. It may well be that because I never saw well–not even one’s fully delineated face just from mine, not even a book that wasn’t nearly at my nose–that it was how I was born into world, I just knew no differently. We’re made to adapt, to compensate for characteristics that are weaker or some we may even be missing. Besides, the whole truth of the world does not depend entirely on what our bodies tell us. Sweeping portions of life as I experience it happen in mind and soul–and during exchanges of feeling and information with others.
My oldest sister got the Lasik surgery done when she was in her sixties–she didn’t have poor vision and only got what I considered weak “pretend” glasses in her forties–and extolled its wonders. She kept telling me what a miracle it was to once more awaken and see the world whole and clearly in all its colors and design. And to not have to fool with those danged glasses. I’m so glad she had that pleasure before she passed away; it seemed quite important. And I cannot imagine it. I still see very little when I awaken, mostly varying degrees of light and shadowy shapes tinged gently with a few hues and tones.
But I don’t regret that this is it, contacts by day and glasses by night or whenever I want. I have more worlds to enjoy–without corrective lenses of any kind; with contacts (two kinds as I have a pair for long distance if desired), additional reading glasses as needed and then the trifocals. I don’t mind how the trifocals look, at all, on me. Funny how one’s self perception and needs change.
I’ll do whatever is required to preserve this sight, to see a bit more normally. And when I cannot any longer do so it will be a sad day, I am certain. But remember, I can maneuver my way through blurry realms of sunlight as well as deeply enveloping dark. This earth is a mysterious and remarkable place to live, any which way we can look at it. And I am looking and looking; I am seeing all that I possibly can.