My Eyes – My Achilles Heel

Everyone has stuff that they deal with – sometimes it is invisible to others and sometimes it is painfully obvious. I’m not sure which is worse.

The image that is the banner for this blog is of my brothers and me in the style of the time, lined up in age order. Today I look at that picture and smile. When I was young I looked at it and cringed. All I could see were my crossed eyes and it felt like a personal failing.

I had my first surgery when I was one. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I had another when I was in kindergarten. I remember waking up from that surgery with the cloying smell of ether still in my nose, the nausea overwhelming. I was released from the hospital wearing an eye patch with hopes that it would force the strengthening of the weaker eye muscle. Perhaps there are children who could pull off wearing an eye patch, making it cool, but I wasn’t one of them. Fortunately I didn’t have to wear it for long.

After that surgery, instead of fixing inward on my nose, my right eye drifted out, especially when I was tired. “You talkin’ to me?” was a question I heard often, long before it was used in a different context in Taxi Driver. Like the movie, though, the question had a very unsettling affect. I would take a deep breath, close my eyes in a kind of prayer, concentrate really hard and hope my eyes would go in the same direction when I opened them. Mostly in that moment I wanted to be swallowed up by the floor.

At least once a year I would go with my mom into Manhattan to see the eye doctor, Dr. Snyder. The trek to ‘the city’ from Canarsie was a long one. A long walk across blustery Seaview Park, a long bus ride to Eastern Parkway and then the 4 or 5 train to the Upper East Side. That trip may be a reason some Canarsiens didn’t bother going into the city.

On the one hand it was special to have my Mom all to myself for the day. We would have lunch out and window-shop. On the other hand, the subway, with its screeching wheels, the smell of metal on metal and the crowds of humanity, filled me with dread. I was terrified of getting separated from her.

Dr. Snyder’s office was just off Park Avenue. The waiting room had red leather chairs and, to my delight, Highlights magazines. I would find the hidden animals in the pictures while we waited to be seen. Dr. Snyder was gentle. There was one part of the exam that confounded me. He showed me a picture of a fly; it was enlarged, the details of the fly in blue against a silver background. He would ask me if it looked raised or flat. I could never decide. I would just pick one and looked at him to see if I got it right, but he never let on one way or another. This went on every year. Turns out I couldn’t see in three dimensions. I used one eye at a time and still do.

I was assigned exercises to strengthen my eye muscles. I was supposed to stare at my index finger as I moved it slowly toward my nose. I’m not sure that we followed the doctor’s directions as faithfully as we should have, but I don’t know that it would have made a difference.

As I got older other problems with my eyes emerged. In graduate school I was having recurring migraines and as part of the work up I had my eyes examined. Unrelated to the migraines the eye doctor found that my retinas had areas of weakness – he called it lattice. He advised against skydiving (no loss for me since as anyone who knows me would agree, I’m no adrenaline junkie!). He said, “Your retinas are your Achilles heel,” and recommended a surgical procedure to freeze them. I had the surgery. (Another story for another blog entry☺)

I think having crossed eyes, and then a lazy eye, and weak retinas shaped me in important ways. It added to feeling like an outsider. I always identified with those who felt different. I was also terribly self-conscious and received more than my share of teasing from other kids, especially in my neighborhood. More than once my brothers were called upon to defend me from bullies.

I can’t help but think that my eyes played an important part in creating the sensitive, introspective and insecure little girl that I was, the girl who sought comfort from Nana.

As my father pointed out, as I got older, some of those same qualities were a blessing, not just a cross to bear. It’s been a journey, but I can smile at that picture today, despite the fact that my eyes are still my Achilles heel.