24 October 2012
LESSONS OF BLINDNESS
One day in 1980, when my son was 3 years old and I was 33, he and I were wrestling and tickling on the bed. At one point amid our laughter, his arm arced up and across, just as my face came down toward him. By the sheerest chance, one of his fingernails grazed my left eye while it was wide open ~ the eye in which my vision is best.
Instant, blinding pain seared into my brain, and I fell back in agony. I've worked in hospitals and on ambulances, but this was a new experience. The injury was invisible to my then-wife, and I could not judge how serious it was. We lived in the country, a 30 minute drive over rough gravel roads to the nearest ophthamologist, and being poor besides, I was reluctant to make the trip. But as time passed, the pain worsened. It felt like sandpaper rubbing against my eyeball.
Finally I knew something had to be done. Even as a passenger, that rough drive was endless. Every rock, bump, or dip brought me near to screaming. The eye doctor examined me and reported that my left cornea had been lacerated. He gave me an antibiotic ointment to apply daily, and instructed me to keep both eyes covered for the next 30 days. (If I had only covered one eye, the remaining eye would automatically track movement or objects, and the injured eye would mimic the motion, delaying healing.)
So for that month I was effectively blind. I've always been visually aware of my surroundings, so navigating around the house was feasible, slowly and with the aid of a cane. But imagine for a moment all the things you do in a day's time, for which vision is taken for granted ~ walking about, reading, eating a meal, feeding pets, using one's hands, interacting with others. Removing eyesight creates an entirely new and strange world.
Thankfully our work as caretakers of a nature preserve meant that we didn't have to leave home to earn a living, at least for that period of healing. I soon discovered the truth in what many of us have heard ~ when one sense is disabled, our brains compensate by becoming more sharply attuned to the remaining senses. My hearing and sense of touch were acutely enhanced ~ smell and taste noticeably so as well. I knew where in the house my wife, son, two dogs and two cats were at any given moment, and what they were doing.
Being a lifelong avid reader, I deeply missed being able to see the written word. I missed colors, visual textures, and of course watching the wildlife where we lived. And I gained a new perspective on the lives of those who have no sight, an understanding which would have been otherwise impossible except on an intellectual level.
The most challenging moments were when we made trips to town for supplies or errands. Then I was totally dependent on the guidance of my partner, and at the same time my other senses were assailed by disorienting sounds, bumping into things. The familiarity and predictability of home were a welcome respite.
At last the day came when I removed my bandages for the last time. The world was glaringly bright for a time, but I adjusted. Ever since, I'm paranoid about objects coming close to my eyes. And art, the colors of nature, architecture, reading, all things visual are even more precious. I can see!