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Tombeau de Jean Jacques Rousseau au panthéon d...

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Eyeing the Alternatives

by

Diana Anhalt

“Provided man is not mad, he can be cured of every folly but vanity,” Rousseau

            No one agrees on what happened next, but apparently two armed men approached the van.  One wore a baseball cap, the other a sombrero. As the first brandished his weapon at the driver, the second made his way around the vehicle and pointed his gun at the woman and two men in the backseat.   Just then, a man leaped out of the front of the van, another emerged from the rear.  Both carried rifles. I was seated in the back of our car between my children, aged nine and ten, when I heard someone scream and pushed both kids off the seat and onto the floor. Roberto placed the car in reverse and stealthily backed away from the holdup, while his aunt Rita reminded him that he’d been driving above the speed limit.

            Although I was there, I’ll never know for sure what really happened because I was groping around in the bottom of my straw bag for my glasses.  By the time I’d found them, the assault victims had seized the two out-laws, thrust them face first into the side of the van and were roughing them up as they frisked them for additional weapons, oblivious to the get-away car which had slid off the soft shoulder and disappeared around a curve abandoning the out-laws.  I now believe, thanks to intuitive reasoning and an over-active imagination, that the people in the van were probably delivering a payroll to the Tenancingo bank, but well prepared for any eventuality, had been able to counter the attack. I also realized that despite my front-row seat, my poor eyesight had deprived me—once again —of the opportunity to witness a singular event.

            Up until then, I’d become reconciled to peering out at the world with eyes more decorative than functional.  I assumed that as with fingerprints, naturally curly hair, and an allergy to strawberries, my borderline vision was something I’d carry to my grave.   But the “payroll bandits” episode was an epiphany of sorts: To continue peering out at the world with the eyes I had was tantamount to living an existence strained through cheese-cloth.  I would have to find a solution. I did. 

It was approximately twenty-five years in coming and, by that time, I was in far greater need of it than I had previously been. My solution arrived smack in the middle of what I now think of as the  “Age of Impossibilities.”

            In much the same way history records a Golden Age, an Age of Reason, and the Age of Invention, we live in an era when much of we had been taught to believe was contrary to the laws of nature no longer is. Today many former impossibilities have become realities: You can colonize outer space, communicate through cyberspace, alter and duplicate genetic structure, cross the Atlantic Ocean in four hours, bake a potato in 6 minutes and, as I was to learn, acquire a new set of eyes. 

            I first realized that my dream of recuperating my eyesight was no longer wishful thinking after reading about transplanting corneas in order to restore vision. That information inspired me. I wrote a poem:

               “After I die give my eyes away,” I tell you

               and envision the surgeon screwing them,

               like two blue light bulbs,

               into some child’s blind sockets.

            But having written the first stanza, I recognized I would never make a model donor, nor for that matter a recipient, and I wrote:

               Who’d want them?” you ask,

               reminding me of  progressive myopia,

               chronic conjunctivitis,

               childhood sties.

               (I remember stumbling across a room,

               head thrown back,

               damp tea bags balanced on my lids,

               two glorious peepers painted on my knees…)

               “Do it anyway,” I tell you.

               Give my eyes, snapped shut like Venus fly-traps,

               around my memory of your outstretched hand

               bearing an opaque sky afloat in a glass of milk.

            No. I would never make a model donor, but at least I’d gotten a poem out of it. However, the second alternative, that of becoming a recipient, appealed to me, so for a short time, I played around with the idea that, along with a stranger’s eyes, I could inherit his or her understanding, experiences and memories.  In much the same way, if I could be a donor, I could pass on my own store of erudition. This fantasy did not last long.  It was unsound, impracticable and, in any case, I was not blind enough to become a candidate for corneal transplants. 

            Soon afterward, I was puffing up the tree-flanked path skirting Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma, with the eighty-three year-old man I jog with most Sunday mornings. He told me that after sixty years of myopia he’d thrown away his glasses.  He also expounded at great length on what, in those days, was a recently developed procedure for restoring eyesight, laser surgery: After the surgeon cuts a semicircular flap into the eye’s outer layer he directs a beam of light so intense toward the now exposed cornea it is capable of slicing away a diminutive tissue fragment thereby eliminating the deformity responsible for faulty vision. His grisly description was enough to curb my enthusiasm––for a while anyway.

            Naturally, I still yearned to see everything. But I had mellowed considerably in the years following the highway robbery, having––or so I liked to believe–– developed that wisdom and judgment which, we are told, compensates for the loss of other faculties. I was nearing sixty by then and, though I expected to live another three decades, I could also recognize that, along with its disadvantages, partial vision has its benefits as well.  “Think of it this way,” a friend wrote.  “Perhaps nature arranged for couples to blur precisely in proportion to the onset of wrinkles, age spots, and thinning hair. That way, blinded by both love and fading vision, they can blissfully carry through life the image of their mate in younger days, bright of eye, springy of step, glossy of hair….”

            I am happily married, so my friend’s observation could not be taken lightly.  I recognized that giving up one pair of eyes for another was a trade and a risky one at that. How could I help feeling like Faust making a pact with the devil? Who knows?  I might lose something essential in return—my perception of reality for example.  And for what? Twenty/Twenty vision? In a literary turn of mind, I recalled the Nathaniel Hawthorne tale of a woman whose physical beauty was unsurpassed; her only flaw a tiny hand-shaped mole upon her cheek. Such was her husband’s desire for absolute perfection that, in his attempt to remove the mole, he destroyed her soul.

In the end, I feared I might regret my choice.  After all, the way we see things helps define who we are.  An eye change, like a sex change, could permanently transform me, and not only might I regret my choice, I might end up hating the “me” I had become.  Such a loss would be greater than the gain.

            That’s precisely what had happened to my mother. Following surgery to correct her partial deafness, she claimed the world was far noisier than she remembered.  In time, the effects of her operation wore off. We pleaded with her to return for a second intervention, but turning a deaf ear—so to speak— she refused, preferring the drone of silence to the roar of reality. I wrote a poem about that too:

I shouted to be heard.

“Why  do you whisper? Speak up, speak up,” cried my mother.

“Don’t you know nothing is lonelier than silence?”

But our exchanges blurred, tenuous as  organza,

yesterday’s promises, 

smoke.

After her operation

my mother expected sounds she hadn’t heard in years:

clatter of typewriter keys, kind words, heavy breathing—

 to enter  her ears politely,

like reception-line guests

or nuns on their way to mass

She got barbarians instead,

operatic thunder, firing squads, climatic changes, revolutions.

“Stop shouting at me! Stop pounding on my door!”

Today, occasional stray truths slither through

or gnat-like, circle her head.  “Give me back my silence please,” she sobs.

“I need to think.” 

            I sometimes wonder: Did she believe there just wasn’t enough room in her head for all those sounds? (I could understand that.)  When I remembered the scores of things I could no longer see without glasses–– the casual gesture, the difference between grainy and smooth, raindrops cupped by leaves, spiders’ webs, my own shadow, tears–– I was afraid I too might end up with the visual equivalent, discovering I had far more to look at than two small eyes could conceivably take in. No wonder the metaphysical concept of the “third eye,” is central to Hindu, Buddhist and some Rosicrucian teachings.  (Think of how much you could see if you could ‘grow’ one.)

While myopia remained a convenient excuse for not being able to see, another possibility did occur to me: Maybe I didn’t want to. I remembered a school counselor describing the response of a group of upper middle-class children who had spent the morning walking through an impoverished Mexican neighborhood.  “When I asked them what they had seen,” the counselor said, “they remembered very little.  By the time they’re six or seven they’ve learned to screen out ugliness and squalor.” Quite possibly I had done the same decades ago: I had deafened my sight as my mother had blinded her                                    ears. Maybe I unconsciously censored the things that offended me and preferred my amorphous images floating fish-like behind glass to a world as unforgivably incised as an Edward Munch etching. (Of course, if that were the case, laser surgery probably wouldn’t make much difference.)

            By now, I’d accumulated a lengthy litany of excuses for continuing to live out my dim-sighted existence in a perpetual squint.  But, while well worth considering, my deliberations were not all that was holding me back. Terror was. Why submit two perfectly healthy eyes, the only ones I had, to a laser beam as capable of inducing eternal blindness as to my restoring my eyesight?

            In the end, following years of vacillation, I reached a decision. How much longer could I squander scores of visual experiences? The sun glistening off a seal’s back as it leaped to seize a flung fish, a blimp floating outside the window of a friend’s apartment,  faces in the subway,  Rudolph Nureyev bounding across the stage in Swan Lake the night I lost my glasses, and the bandits on the road to Tenancingo.

So when my daughter-in-law told me she was pregnant I decided I was not going to stand around and allow my first grandchild to crawl, ride a bicycle or graduate from high school without being able to witness it properly. And, though I hesitate to admit it, unless I had that operation performed, my grandchild would never know what I looked like without glasses. (In the end vanity got the best of me.) “Provided man is not mad, he can be cured of every folly but vanity,” Rousseau wrote.  (He was right.)

Eyeing the Alternatives,  When Last on the Mountain ed. By Vicky Leffmann and Carol Roan, Holy Cow Press, Duluth, MN, Spring 2010

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