This morning, the seventh day, I opened both eyes –the right, cautiously — and felt again the miracle of binocular vision. Not what it was, and not yet comfortable, but still: two functioning eyes.
A week ago, I suffered a dressing injury, the kind of humiliating and dire accident that embodies the absurdity of being human. I had barely stirred from my bed and was donning a hooded sweatshirt when, while sweeping back the hood, I poked my thumb squarely into my right eye.
In the last seven years, I have twice previously scratched a cornea, both times while doing yard work for which I should have been wearing eye protection. In other words, my own carelessness was to blame. One does not generally require eye protection while dressing, so after this last incident I can only conclude that I am a master of corneal abrasion. I plan, hereafter, to spend every moment, waking or sleeping, in protective eyewear, because this is an experience eminently worth avoiding.
A scratched cornea evokes the kind of pain that sends you lurching around whatever space you are occupying, now darkly, hands belatedly shielding the injured eye, which weeps copiously while the functioning eye tries vainly to gets its bearing. You wonder if you have blinded yourself; you think of Helen Keller and seeing-eye dogs. This continues for hours, or until you can get to the emergency room or an ophthalmologist, who will confirm the damage, perhaps bandage the cornea with a soft contact lens, and prescribe eye drops to prevent infection and aid healing.
While most abrasions heal superficially in a few days, they are a few days for which you do not want to be alive. In the manner of all injured animals, you are acutely aware of your vulnerability; in the manner of all injured humans, you worry also about the future. It is impossible to know with any certainty what scarring may occur, in what exact form your cornea — and vision — will be restored.
My ophthalmologist had not been encouraging. “Wow,” he said, his voice infused with the kind of awe you don’t want to hear in such circumstances. “It’s big. And just where you don’t want it, right in the center. It looks like you got in there with a little shovel.”
Had I been in less pain, I would have punched him. But the way things were going, I would likely have hit the heavy examining scope and broken my hand. Besides, I was grateful for the numbing drops. So I fumbled my way home, and the vigil commenced.
In the days following a corneal abrasion, it is best to keep the injured eye closed. It’s easier to close both, if you are able, to spare your good eye and your confused brain the strain of monocular vision. So there you sit, or lie, functionally blind. No TV. No computer. No books.
You wait, and wonder, and listen. In my case, to psychologist Wayne Dyer’s audio reflection on the Tao Te Ching:
I thought then, of the rigidity of my ego, of my tendency to impose my will on people and situations; I thought of what I have gained — and lost — in so living. Sitting in my easy chair, stilled and humbled, I considered the wisdom of fluidity and the serenity in surrender.
I turned then to Orson Welles, whose Mercury Theatre on the Air was a miracle of radio’s golden age in the late 1930s. Today I can stream it, and so I listened to many episodes, including Hell on Ice, Welles’ recreation of the ill-fated 1879 North Pole expedition of the naval exploration vessel Jeannette.
Likely arrogant and certainly unlucky, the ship’s crew was icebound and drifting for nearly two years before their vessel was released, then recaptured and crushed by the ice. They faced, then, a brittle 90-mile march across the harsh Arctic landscape:
There followed a similarly lengthy passage through frigid, storm-tossed seas in three small boats. Most of the crew perished:
Talk about pain.
So the days passed, and I listened, eyes closed, to the wisdom and folly of the ages. Considered the same in my own life — always, it seems, more of the latter and less of the former. Breathed deeply and wondered how I might reverse that calculus. Ate and slept and kept still, while my injured eye, gritty beneath the closed eyelid, alternately rolled and rested. And healed.
“There’s just a little spot still left at the center,” the ophthalmologist said as he peeled the protective contact lens off my cornea yesterday. “But you’re seeing better than I thought you would at this point, so I’m going to release you. Keep the eye closed for the rest of the day if you can. Keep up with the drops. And maybe think about wearing mittens.”
I awoke this morning to a foot of new-fallen snow, a wintry wallop that surprised me, blind as I have been to online forecasts. I thought of life before meteorology, of the sun and rain and snow and cold we humans once could anticipate only to the limits of our animal senses, of weather we knew with certainty only when it arrived.
And again of the 2,500-year-old wisdom of Laozi, who wrote the Tao Te Ching. And of the folly and suffering of the Jeannette‘s crew. And, too, of the fiery brilliance of Orson Welles, who captivated our hearing decades before modern technology — image after rapid-fire image — dazzled and wearied our vision.
And looked out at my snow-whitened world with two good eyes, and the gratitude we feel when a treasure is lost, and then — after a time, and through some mysterious grace — restored.