SEEING BLIND: Part I
Bob and I are sitting in the living room, talking about the huge movie poster I got him for Christmas. My husband loves westerns. Nice and clean. Uncomplicated. Revenge: Yes or no? Bob picks yes, like a Clint Eastwood character would. This is 1993. On the poster, two men struggle on horseback, both with guns, and one cowboy is pulling the other backward off his horse as it rears into the air. “Wings of Adventure,” the caption reads. I crave adventure, risk of all kinds. Bob doesn’t care for risks, and he doesn’t look for the same kind of adventure. I’ve had a couple of drinks. Bob has had a couple of drinks, not that you can ever tell. He’s steady and calm, always holding everything together, holding our whole family together. The front window frames the top of the Empire State Building, lit red and white for Valentine’s Day.
Krista gets up from the couch, spreads her arms out to the sides, like a bird, her right eye shut, pretending she’s balancing on the bar at the gym while she walks along a single plank in the oak floor, one foot directly in front of the other. “I guess I was born like this,” Krista says. She’s wearing a white shirt and brightly colored, flowered leggings.
She wants to be an artist, but we don’t think she was born to be an artist. We think she was born a most beautiful baby, the first child to an older mother. A miracle. In her first six years, she’s brought me more delight than I ever dreamed possible. More than I could ever deserve. She’s strong and tall with beautiful, curly blonde hair that she got from her father, just like her shyness.
“Like what?” Bob and I say.
“With only the one eye.” She opens her right eye. It looks blank.
Two weeks before, we’d been sitting at McDonald’s and I noticed Krista twisting her head to look at me across the table, like a bird, her right eye seeming dull and dead. Next day, I took her to the pediatrician. He looked into her eye and said it was fine. But he didn’t test her vision. Not ever. I’d checked from time to time, asking Krista if she could read the sign on the McBurney YMCA across the street. She could. I never thought to ask if she could read it with both eyes, one at a time. But I trusted the pediatrician, a New York doctor with an office in Greenwich Village.
Bob and I exchange a glance. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Kids are funny. They go through phases.”
Don’t worry about it! Worrying is what I do best. I take Krista into the bathroom. “Does it hurt?” I ask her. I pull out a bottle of contact lens solution and set it on the counter.
“Not really.” Now she looks small and scared. She is small and scared.
“Shut your left eye,” I tell her, and she does, putting the palm of her hand over it. I add a box of dental floss and a green Ban roll-on to the items on the counter. I hold up the items, one by one.
“I can’t see anything,” she says.
“Do you see outlines? Smudges?”
“What about light and dark?” I ask her.
With her left eye closed, she can’t tell whether the bathroom light is on or off.
I grab her hand and pull her into the bedroom, pull the door shut, tell her to close her left eye. I turn off the light. What can she see? The light seeping under the door? The giant Maxwell House coffee cup across the Hudson River in New Jersey, pouring out the very last drop? The neon sign on the McBurney Y?
- I shouldn’t have been drinking. I shouldn’t be in my pajamas. Krista waits in the dark bedroom, still covering her left eye. Long blonde hair, wide-set navy blue eyes. I sometimes think she has been created to replace me. To undo all the things I’ve done wrong, to atone for my sins, all the dirty marks I’ve made in this world. Already she’s a better person than I am. She loves the ill and injured and disabled, wants to help them. Most of all, she loves animals. Her heart seems so pure, while I admit, only to myself, that sometimes I wish bad things on people. Thank God for Bob! He never panics. He’s reading a book to Thomas, who is only three and has no idea what’s going on, as I rush around picking things up and setting them back down.
No time for ruminations now. Krista and I bundle up against the freezing night and catch a cab to a nearby emergency room, empty and cold now that it’s the middle of the night, where the doctor who examines her tells me that the good news is that she is not dead. (“Modified bliss,” he calls it, quoting The Mikado.) But perhaps a cancerous growth on her optic nerve? Maybe she played in a dirty Manhattan sandbox and now an invisible worm feeds on her eye. Leukemia? Or a disease-carrying deer tick somewhere in her body? He seems to find it almost amusing, this guessing game.
When he’s finished, he sends Krista back to the waiting room. I sit in the chair in front of a desk across from the doctor. He is bald with wire-rimmed glasses and a plaid flannel shirt under his white lab coat. I’m a nervous wreck and I have all the symptoms to prove it: my heart is banging out of my chest and I’m beginning to sweat and feel a little hung over and I do not see myself as a decent person.
“Let’s sit tight and wait for the other shoe to drop,” the doctor suggests, adding that a mysterious eye problem like this is often the herald of some serious illness. We just don’t know what it is yet.
I open the doctor’s office door and see Krista sitting there all by herself, looking scared and vulnerable, exactly what she is. I don’t cry. I will be brave. I will be calm.
“Do you want to get something to eat?” I say to her.
“Mom, it’s two o’clock in the morning. What are you talking about?”
Krista and I go home, sleep a little, then begin making the rounds of pediatric ophthalmologists in Manhatten. It goes like this: The doctor examines Krista. Tsk-tsks. Taps his foot. Krista goes back to the waiting room. The doctor and I talk.
“Can’t say,” one Asian doctor tells me, an observation that will be repeated by doctor after doctor.
“You can’t say anything? What do you mean you can’t say?”
“Will she ever be able to use that eye again? Will it become lazy and wander around in its socket? Will she need a glass eye? Will the disease affect the other eye? Will she be paralyzed?”
He can’t say.
“Will she die?”
He really can’t say. Not even modified bliss.
Krista and I take a cab to the next doctor, a summer-on-Nantucket type, probably named Biff or Whit, navy polo shirt, khaki pants, Docksiders. A springer spaniel sporting a red neckerchief and drinking out of the bathroom toilet in the examination room.
“I’d be willing to try surgery,” the doctor says.
“What would you cut?”
He couldn’t say. Couldn’t say the surgery would make any difference either. Although he might remove the lens in her right eye to see if that cleared things up.
Let It Be Me
I can’t understand why Krista deserves this, except that I haven’t been to church in years, except for my demons. What is it the Bible says? The sins of the father will be visited on the children? On the road to Damascus, God knocked Paul off the horse and blinded him because he was persecuting Christians. Paul, who was a rabbi, needed a lesson about his religious practices so God knocked Paul off his horse and blinded him so that he would wise up. That’s what they taught us in Sunday school in northern Minnesota. If you’re not a devout Christian, like my mom, you need to get knocked off the horse. If you don’t pray or go to church, you need to get knocked off the horse. So here’s the answer: Krista is suffering because I need to be knocked off my horse. I get knocked off the horse. She gets blinded. Is becoming a devout Christian the only way to heal her?
I am starting to see that this is my fault. I shouldn’t have passed my demons on to the children. I shouldn’t have had children. I had nothing to teach them. I didn’t want them to be raised in a stifling, joyless religion the way I was, and I didn’t want to raise them to be like me, having faith in nothing. I didn’t have the demons when I was six years old, like Krista. Maybe they started in high school, in college for sure, when I stopped going to church and reading the Bible, when I began getting angry with Mom for not telling me the truth about God.
I should mention that I believe in messages, interior voices that tell me what to do and how to be bad or good but never how to get whole. One part of me is bad. Perhaps one part of me is good? I am split in two and that’s what’s driving me crazy. Where do the voices come from? The demons? Mom? Jesus? Maybe they don’t want me to become whole because then I could throw them out. Is this a message?
Anxiety and fear overwhelm me and my life twists apart like a tube filled with shards of mirrors and colored glass that move around and around, sometimes in beautiful patterns that last only a moment, patterns I can’t hang on to, can’t hold.
I begin to pray.