“It’s a normal process of aging,” the doctor says. I am 29.
My world shrinks, grows more insular: I float within it. There are objects, shapes and colours passing by. Human shapes occasionally stop and talk to me. Others continue past, unheeding. Large mechanical shapes zoom by on the streets; small black and white shapes rub against my ankles in my home and say “miaow.” Occasionally I talk to the small black shape lying on the couch, tell it to scat, cat, shoo, minou, but it doesn’t budge. Then something tickles my toes and I look down and realize I have been talking to a pillow.
4 February 1992
I visited the opthalmologist today. “Look at the eye chart and tell me what you see,” he says. Surprise and shock. Nothing. Not even the E on top is distinguishable. I knew my vision was getting bad, but this bad? “How are you managing?” he asks. I’m managing fine. I always manage fine. The problem? “Cataract,” he says. Ah, those distortions in the lens are actually a cataract. Nuances of vocabulary designed to allay fear. But there is no more room for pretence.
“It’s a normal process of aging,” he says. I am 29. It seems the inflammatory condition, iritis, that has affected my right eye for the past seven years has caused the cataract to form. The prognosis? “It’s a progressive condition. Surgery can be done, but I wouldn’t recommend it until your independence is seriously threatened.” With that I agree; I do not want to risk what vision I have. After all, I am managing fine.
Travelling across the prairies with my parents, I pick up my father’s binoculars and put them to my eyes. A sense of joy, instant and intense, grips me as the shrubs and grasses, houses and fences spring into sight. The clarity of it! The nuances of shading, the subtle hues of greens, yellows and browns that speckle the fields, the coulees, the groves of stubborn trees. And with this joy, a sudden, gut twisting realization of loss. Did I once see so clearly? Was I ever able to make out the lone tree against the far off hillside, the hawk sitting on the fence post? Could I ever distinguish wheat and barley from the window of a passing car? I look through the binoculars for miles, putting them down only to rest my arms or to compare. Vision regained. The world shifted back into focus, returned to wholeness. Then my father asks me a question: see that truck parked beneath the grove of trees on yonder hillside? No, I cannot see it, even with the binoculars. Loss. Complete.
I tend to forget that the world was not always such an uncertain place, that objects did not always come in sevens or vehicles appear out of nowhere a scant 40 paces away. I find it hard to remember the ability to read the number on a bus at two blocks’ distance, difficult to conceive of seeing the colour of a person’s eyes. So gradually have vagueness and shadow become the defining features of the world around me that I am surprised at others’ comments about far off views, distant signs, minute objects.
Occasionally, on ill lit nights or days of glaring sun, the world outside plays tricks on me. A curb comes to life where none existed a moment before, causing me to fall onto or off it as the case might be. Glass doors rise up and block my passage; the ground lifts suddenly beneath my feet and makes me stumble. I move cautiously, hesitantly, slide my foot over shadows and cracks in the pavement, step deliberately over unevenness of snow, ease my way through this world that changes shape at will.
Three or four years old, in the hospital for eye surgery, three or four times. The iritis in my left eye has made the iris stick to the lens; the doctor cuts a new pupil, hopes that the inflammation can be controlled.
My father and mother come to visit me. My brother cannot — children are not allowed to visit. My father brings me wieners, potato chips, cookies. The nurses get mad at him — you’re not supposed to spoil her appetite, they say. My father draws a picture of a wickedly grinning woman with a wart on her nose and a white cap, labels it “Nurse,” tapes it to the bars of my hospital bed. Someone takes a picture.
In another hospital room, a large ward full of a dozen old complaining women, one teenage girl, Maria, I think, in traction, and me. Maria and I play cards together, me sitting on a high stool beside her bed. “Do you know how to play 52 pick up?” she asks. No, I’ve never played it before. She grins, tosses the cards in the air. I’m mad, but pick the cards up anyway since she can’t get out of bed. We play fish on her bedside table and Maria tells me jokes. The old women complain that we make too much noise.
A different room. Only two beds, me and my cousin who has been in a serious car accident. The hospital did not want to put a boy and girl in the same room, but we’re cousins. My mother and father couldn’t come to visit me this day. I’m crying, and Michael comforts me, says don’t worry, they’ll come tomorrow, don’t cry. His parents live far, far away. Later, days or weeks later, we are both asleep when the nurses and doctors burst in and take Michael away. We both cry and call for our parents, but the nurses and doctors don’t listen. They have to move him to another room, they say. Just go to sleep.
The operations are unsuccessful. There is no iris left to cut. My left eye is left a pale blue grey, sightless, and I commence rounds of physiotherapy for the arthritis of which these eye problems were the initial sign. But, thank God, my right eye remains keen and whole.
December 1984-January 1985
Third year university. Exam time, and after long hours of studying, my vision begins to go blurry, my eye to water, especially in bright light. Fatigue, I think. Too much reading. I wait the holidays out, but the rest makes no difference. Then my parents notice that my right eye is red, advise me to get it checked out. Finally I make an appointment. “Iritis,” the doctor says.
Instant fear. I’m going to lose this eye, too, I’ll be blind in six months. How could this happen? Why now? I spend the weekend at home, mostly in bed, taking the steroid drops he has prescribed on the hour, blinded by the warm compresses applied to my eye. I try knitting, making slow progress on a sweater for a friend, until I make a mistake and cannot correct it by feel. Frustration and fear.
Touch has grown in importance in my small and shrinking world. Objects lose themselves on my desk with frustrating regularity, only to be discovered through the general application of the palm and fingertip test: where did that paperclip go? That pen? My magnifying glass, for heaven’s sake! A few judiciously applied pats of the hand and the offending object springs back into existence.
By the living room window, new seedlings form a soft, fragile carpet under my hesitant fingers careful not to damage the new growth but eager to verify its reality. What do tomato seedlings feel like? How do their texture, shape and structure differ from green pepper seedlings? Eggplant? Basil? Cucumber or corn? Do you know?
The doctor assures me that, with proper treatment, I will not lose my sight. Yet after repeated bouts of inflammation, I notice that my vision is not quite right. The doctor examines my eye. “Slightly shortsighted,” he says, and prescribes glasses. The glasses do not completely correct the focus. I decide to take my own measures, stop using the pupildilating drops whose effects seem to me to be more than temporary. The inflammations are less severe now, anyhow, and a steady application of the steroid drops holds them in check.
This, then, is the first indication that my vision will not be completely unaffected by the recurrence of this disease.
I move to Ottawa, bid good bye to my parents and drive across the country in my newly purchased minivan. I drive long hours, the length of the autumn day, enjoying the shifting colours of afternoon sun on prairie grasses and the golden red poplar and maple forests of the Canadian Shield. As I follow the curves and rises of the highway, I notice that when the sun hits the road the wrong way, when there are mixtures of sun and shadow, I do not see the oncoming traffic until it is nearly upon me unless the cars are using their lights, and highway signs are illegible until close. The black spots in my vision, floaters, the doctor has called them — “a not uncommon side effect” — are an obscuring screen through which the world passes by.
The houses are covered with Christmas lights. Many, many Christmas lights — the bulbs have lost their single outline, are no longer simply fuzzy but have split into three or four overlapping versions. The ophthalmologist calls them distortions in the lens. “You’ve had them for a while,” he says. I walk the winter streets watching triangles of car lights moving up and down the roads.
Watching people talk is interesting, close up. Seated beside me, a person speaks: I see seven fuzzy mouths moving in unison, seven hazy noses forming a triangle with upraised tail, fourteen eyes lost within shadowy sockets. From a slightly greater distance the impression is less clear: seven overlapping heads with indeterminate features sit atop seven vaguely outlined bodies; seven jaws move up and down, forming a single set of words.
Recognition has become a one way street; I turn onto it going the wrong way, hesitantly, producing many a near miss, at best a close encounter. Walking down a hall, a human shape waves at me. I wave back, uncertain. Do I know that shape? I watch it move, watch the way the body holds itself, its gait, its bearing, the colour of its clothes, its hair. Any clue will do. Will the owner of the waving arm please identify itself? Standing in the airport, at a bus stop, in a bank, I notice a human shape staring at me. What is the matter, is my hair green? My fly undone? I glance at the shape once, twice, three times. Finally it steps closer. “Hello…?” Ah, yes, I know that voice! The features spring into place, a name into memory. Please, I was not ignoring you on purpose…
Continued in the Spring 1996 issue.
(Roma Quapp is a freelance writer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.)