I was seven years old when I got my first pair of glasses. I hated them: I would leave them in my bag at school, not wanting to be ‘four-eyes’. Soon, I had no choice, because I could no longer see the blackboard; even the teacher grew blurry. Without my glasses, things were just pools of colour. The world lost its lines.
When I was upset, I would take my glasses off and disappear. I’d melt in the absence of definition. But with glasses on, letters became sharp again, worlds appeared between the lines on pages and I could read. I could stare out the window for hours. I could jump rope in the playground at school.
Every year I needed a stronger prescription, and the optometrist exclaimed at how rapidly my vision was deteriorating. ‘Soon you’ll be getting her a seeing-eye dog,’ he joked.
‘What do you expect?’ my mother said when I complained, ‘look at your dad and me.’ They both had thick glasses, though my mother wore contact lenses when she could. When I was twelve, I got my first pair of contact lenses, and as soon as I learned to put them in there was no turning back. They were hard (gas permeable) lenses and popped out if I blinked too much or looked sideways fast. I spent years looking for lost contact lenses, my face centimetres from the floor. But no more coke-bottle glasses! Contacts gave me peripheral vision, and freedom from the weight on my face.
Still, I dreaded my annual visit to the optometrist because of the new prescription, the bad jokes, the higher numbers. I hated going to a new optometrist because they’d point me towards the chart and I’d have to convince them no, I could not actually see anything. Not even the giant E at the top. But in my twenties the numbers seemed to plateau. I was considered ‘severely myopic’ with a -12 prescription in my left eye and a -15 in my right. I learned to put my glasses on my bedside table in the same place every night, and to never be without a spare pair of contact lenses. I hid my nearsightedness well. People were surprised when they learned how myopic I was, because I rarely wore my glasses in public. Only my family and closest friends knew.
After having children in my thirties, I visited an ophthalmologist to discuss corrective surgery. My father had Lasik in his early fifties (though he did not have long to appreciate it before he died of cardiac arrest at fifty-five) and my sister, with her astigmatism, had photorefractive keratectomy (PRK). I was hopeful that I might have surgery as well. I was not a candidate for Lasik because I was too myopic, the surgeon said, but I could get ICL – which is an implantable Visian contact lens. The surgeon said it would make my life much easier. He was immaculately dressed, with leather pointy-toed shoes that gleamed in the fluorescent lights of the examination rooms.
‘Imagine not having to deal with contact lenses or glasses,’ he said, ‘It’s a game changer for someone with high myopia.’ No glasses or contacts sounded wonderful. I love backpacking and camping but dealing with contacts in a tent with no running water is tricky. And contacts made swimming difficult, but I could not imagine swimming blind.
After several more visits, and a procedure which fixed the tears in my right retina with laser, I booked in for surgery on both eyes in 2016, the right eye first.
I was frightened, but kept it light by telling people, ‘I’m having surgery next week, I’m getting implants…’ I’d look down at my fairly flat chest, and then after a suitable pause look up, ‘…in my eyes. Implantable Contact Lenses.’ Boom-tish. It worked better when my husband told the joke on building sites. It was more believable among people who had never met me.
The recovery, the surgeon said, was quick: several days with a patch, a few weeks of taking it easy. But the day of the surgery was not what I expected. The anaesthetic is a local – a needle in the eye – and I felt a great deal of discomfort and pain. The surgeon was gruff afterwards; he said I had squirmed too much.
‘That’s because it fucking hurt,’ I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I was hopeful. When the patch came off, things were blurry, but still, better than -15. I could kind of see.
My first appointment post-surgery came, then, as a shock. There were several people who came to look at my eye.
‘Very unusual indeed. I haven’t seen this so quickly.’
‘Your eye hasn’t reacted well to the lens. You’ve developed a cataract.’
It was the last thing I expected. I didn’t know what to ask. The surgeon said eventually I could have cataract surgery, and that this had been a 1% risk, I was just unlucky. The blurriness never cleared, it just gradually got worse.
He still recommended I go ahead with the procedure on my other eye, but I refused, not wanting to risk another cataract. I wear a contact lens in one eye now and have an implanted lens and a cataract in the other. I can no longer wear my glasses, because the human brain can’t make up the difference of -12 between one eye and the other with that space between the eye and the lens. I’m lucky I can wear one contact lens.
Recently, after being overseas for a year, I went back to the eye specialist. My surgeon has since left the practice and I saw another. It’s a vulnerable place for me and I had forgotten – how with all of the tests and then the pupil dilation – it takes hours. I had to take out my one contact lens so by the time I was in with the specialist I could barely see him. I should not have gone alone. He looked at my eyes briefly.
‘I would not have recommended you for the surgery with the depth between your cornea and lens,’ he said.
I told him I was upset that I had been convinced to do it.
The cataract developed so quickly that it was not from the shallowness, he said, but likely the result of trauma during surgery. This was the first time anyone had told me this, and it upset me. I began to cry.
‘That makes me angry at the surgeon,’ I said.
‘He’s a good surgeon,’ he said. ‘These things happen. It’s a risk.’ He might have shrugged, but I could barely see.
My mother is frustrated with me. She says that I should have gotten another opinion before getting the surgery. As mothers often are, she’s right. I should have gone to another ophthalmologist, but it was difficult enough to find time for the long appointments with one, and he was meant to be among the best in the country.
So here I am, at forty-two, with a cataract. I will need cataract surgery in the next few years, because I already have trouble driving at night, and there are glary spots and halos from the sun. This new specialist wants me to wait as long as possible for surgery, to postpone until the cataract is too much to bear. So the blurriness is slowly encroaching on my world.
Every day I look closely – at a green lorikeet landing on the bamboo stalk outside my window, bouncing in the wind; the reddish black of my dog’s coat in the sun. Every day I read many thousands of words. I rely on my eyes for everything, but I know that there are people with low vision who manage to do so much. Who adapt and still have active lives. But I’ve tripped twice this year while running and torn my hamstring – and I am certain it is from the cataract, the way it alters my sight. I know that it takes adjustment, that this is age too, a way of finding a different way in the world, being more careful in it. But still, I am angry.
And I miss my glasses: the balanced weight of them, the smallness of my eyes through the lenses. I wear reading glasses now, but they are not so clear, nothing will clear the fogginess in my right eye.
But the cataract spurs me on too. Notice these things, all of them, because they might be gone one day. Find words for dog fur in the sun, and birds swaying on bamboo. I wonder if this is part of what made me want to write in the first place: the inevitability of loss – the eventual blur.
Quick, come close, I want to see your face. The wrinkles too. It is the detail I will miss. The small things I want to capture.