Half Sight

I never understood my father. But when a condition threatened my eyes, I came a little closer to insight.

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Or, the eye has it.
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Here in the crowded retina clinic, we’re waiting to have pictures taken of our macula with marvelous cameras, the backs of our eyes are about to be zapped with lasers or, like me, our central retinal veins have occluded — fancy term for a blood clot — and the retinas have swollen. The result is blurred and distorted vision. Luckily, only my right eye is afflicted.

I’ve already read the chart — could barely make out the large E at the top — and have had dilating drops put into my eyes, so now I’m waiting for my pupils to become pie tins, big enough for someone to look all the way into my soul.

While I wait, I try not to think of the worst possibility of my condition: The loss of the eye itself. I try not think of the Bunuel film Un Chien Andalou in which a woman, in screen-filling close-up, has her eye slit with a straight razor like a ripe plum. I try not think of one-eyed men or men completely blind — Borges, Milton, Samson — but of course I do. And I can’t help thinking, especially, of my father, who lost an eye to a tumor when he was 17 and who wore a patch the rest of his life to cover the moist vermillion gash where his eye had been.

The patch was flesh-toned and seemed like a crude erasure of his eye done by a child. The thin elastic band grooved his forehead. He did not look rakish, heroic or anything like a pirate. He was a man with a patch, a man with one eye that you could never quite read, mirth and rage and despair all the same in it. He acquired the nickname Jimmy Patches from his fellow inmates in the House of Correction, where he spent a month for petty theft during the last weeks of my mother’s first pregnancy. Often, he was called, simply, Patches.

The patch dominated the rest of his features, his thick nose, angular jaw, thick head of hair, so that when you looked at his face the patch is where your eyes tended to settle. I see that face now above a field of cards as he played solitaire on stifling summer nights at the kitchen table in just his boxer shorts, a sapphire haze of cigarette smoke gathered above his head like bad weather. He had a sinewy body built for stealth and quiet larceny, a coiled power beneath his taut skin. He was as dark as a Sicilian peasant and black hair covered most of his body. He looked then, woolly and shimmering with sweat, like a prehistoric man who lived comfortably in a cave. A spear in his hand would not look unusual.

I can still smell him, and there are times after a day of manual labor where my armpits bloom less with strong scent than with him. The smell of olive oil will sometimes evoke him, too, because once he rubbed it into our hair before we went to visit his mother. We walked down the city street and rode the bus with our heads glistening and smelling like children from the Old Country on Sunday. All we needed was a goat on a rope, fists of garlic in our pockets.

My reflections are interrupted when I’m called back into one of a dozen small examination rooms draped with its posters of the human eye in lurid color, eyes the size of those belonging to dinosaurs, optic nerves as thick as eels. I’m shown profiles of my retina on a computer monitor.

“It’s supposed to be a valley,” the doctor says. “As you can see, yours is Mount Everest. We need to reduce the edema. We do that with an injection into the eye.”

All I heard was injection.

“And we should it do soon.”

“How soon?”

“Now.”

The walls wobble and the lizard that has been in my stomach since I walked into the clinic begins to squirm. “Ok.”

“All you’ll probably feel is a dull poke.”

The doctor leaves the room and a chatty technician has me sit in the chair. All the chair needs are restraining straps to change the context here. She applies drops to my eye to numb it, an antiseptic to prevent infection, and then I’m left alone to wait again while the drops take effect. I do not look at the tray next to me with the syringe on it. I do all I can not to shiver.

My father received injections of insulin into his shoulder every day for the diabetes he developed at 14, which eventually destroyed his kidneys, and so, him. My mother handled the glass syringe or my father administered the dose himself, the actions practiced but never beneath notice. You noticed. Time stopped. Everything stopped and your attention went to him, the swabbing of the alcohol, the withdrawing of the insulin from the vial, the needle going into his flesh — something of a solemn ritual to it. He was, for some long moments, reduced, all the panther in him gone.

But later he might cover his good eye with the patch and come into our room growling, hands now claws, with his demon eye blazing. This was his game of Cyclops and we kids the terrified Greeks. Our shrieks soon made him laugh, and I smile now, recalling how he returned the patch to its customary position, magically became our father again, and talked kindly to us in the voice he used when he told long stories of a time that seemed to us like ancient history, the chronicles of lost tribes. I could have used that voice now, telling me some story or other, distracting me in a way that the inane show on the television near the ceiling could not.

The one eye discouraged my father from working and driving, but not gambling what little money we were given by the federal government or from having seven children by the time he died at the age of 35. I was 10 at the time, nearly 11, and knew little about him beyond his surfaces and behaviors, his aura of power and sometimes menace, nothing of what made him tick.

My father’s half-blindness was always theoretical, or something I had to mimic by closing one of my eyes. But, lately, no longer. The vision in my eye drained steadily away over a period of several weeks, and now it was easy to imagine that the darkness in it would continue to grow until I perceived nothing but shadows and ghosts.

The doctor returns. “Ready?”

I’m anything but ready. I’m not afraid of any pain I might feel, but of failing to overcome a natural impulse to jump from a chair as a man approached with a sharp object that he meant to jab into my eyeball.

He stands beside me. “Look up, please.” He leans in. “Look to the left.”

I want to avert or to close my eyes entirely, but that’s not possible. I do not want to see the syringe coming toward my face, but there’s no avoiding it.

He leans closer. His fingers touch my face, hold down my lower eyelid. I feel the poke. I see silvery ripples as the medication enters my eye, and I hear it, a slight whoosh. Immediately, I feel as though a mouse trap has slammed on my eye and, simultaneously, that I’ve been punched in the forehead. The eye then goes nearly completely black. I mention this with some alarm.

“That’s normal,” the doctor tells me. “The pressure in your eye goes up from the medication. It should clear up in five or ten minutes.”

“There’s a black bubble.”

“That will go away, too, but it could take a day or longer. Sit here and I’ll check on you in a bit.”

Ten minutes later, the blackness that came with the injection has abated, if not the sensation of having been slugged, and I leave the office on rubbery legs.

At home later, with all objects surrounded by an aura from my dilated pupils, I find myself gazing at a picture of my father that was taken shortly before he lost his eye. He’s handsome, smiling, wears a jacket and tie, his eyes bright with self-confidence and expectations of good things to come. Good things did not come, and I’ve often wondered how much his eye loss had to do with the path his life took, if losing his eye, on top of the juvenile diabetes, broke something within him where his ambitions lived.

I had little in common with my father — I went to college, was never out of work, never in trouble with the law, never had children to raise — until I lost sight in my eye. I did not think of him much over the years. He was the great ship that sunk in the middle of the night when I was a boy and soon into oblivion. But he’s visible now, has come flooding back because of my ailing eye, and I think of him all the time, now that we are linked in a direct, deep way, by the clear light of the world entering us in halves.

I cannot know what losing his eye as an adolescent ready to charge into life did to my father. But I knew, looking at the picture of him with my troubled eye closed, aching with fresh grief, that good eyes and bad both shed tears. • 24 October 2014

Albert DiBartolomeo is the author of two novels, several short stories, numerous commentaries for the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications, and has written for Readers Digest, Philadelphia Magazine, Woodwork and Salon. He teaches English and writing at Drexel University.
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