Column: Seeing Things as I Never Have Before

Montpelier

It happened over 70 years ago, but I shan’t ever forget it. My father and I walked out of the optician’s office down by Green Street in lower Albany. I was wearing my first pair of glasses, a steel-rimmed set of frames with owly round lenses; and as I looked around us in the street, I was amazed to see that the long, fuzzy rectangles over the store fronts had words on them. My mother had long complained that I always had my nose in a book. Now she knew why.

It takes a while for most active kids to learn to protect their specs from harm. Almost anything will do to wreck them — a door swinging too close to the head; a spill from a sled, wagon, bike or skis; stepping on them in the dark. In a classic scene from the old days, a kid about to get into a fight says to a friend, “Here, hold my glasses.” Then there was the additional disagreeable possibility of being called “Four-Eyes.” That went away for me shortly after middle-school graduation, but I wonder if the sense of being less than OK lingers long afterward for some bespectacled kids.

Once I got used to my old specs, they were less noticeable. They were occasionally a pain in hot weather, when sweat ran down from my forehead, but a bandanna more or less fixed that. In cold weather, they sometimes fogged up during heavy exercise. At the Canadian Ski Marathon, in the record-cold year of 1979, I kept wiping away the frost forming over them. During the first 5 miles, rubbing them with my mittened thumbs, I snapped both pairs I had with me. I spent the rest of the day skiing the next 45 miles almost blind— “on all fours,” as my journal records it.

The first sign of aging occurred only three years later, when I was 47, again at the Canadian marathon. Peering at a map in a darkened car, I realized I couldn’t read it unless I took my specs off and held it very close. Time for bifocals. That’s when the fun began. As a carpenter, I was doing a lot of fairly-up-close work that hewed to tiny marks on pieces of wood. With bifocals, I spent a lot of time with my head tipped back, rather like a drinking bird’s, so that I could see. Some carpenters, the optician informed me, got upside-down bifocals so they could easily work above their heads. Instead, I got a pair of up-close glasses that I used for work, and switched to the bifocals for everything else. When I finally got a computer, in 1985, I discovered the screen was sort of halfway between up close and far away. That called for a third set of specs. Sigh.

There followed about 25 years of relative stability. I got contact lenses for cross-country skiing, but never mastered the ease with which I watched others pop theirs in. My spectacle styles changed with the times; no more horn rims anymore. But then I began to notice difficulty with night driving, and remembered that the great race car driver A.J. Foyt had quit night racing at the age of 50 because he couldn’t see as well as he had. And in the last couple of years, increasingly blinded by the lights of oncoming cars, I found myself aiming just to the right of them and trusting there’d be a road there once they went by. I became a reverse troll. Trolls have to be home by morning or they turn to stone; I had to be home by dark or risk hitting something. The optometrist diagnosed budding cataracts and gave me yearly updates on the need for removal.

Finally, it was time to do it. Feeling very much the Canadian (which is easy to do when you’re over 65 in the United States and enjoying socialized medicine), I showed up at the ophthalmology desk at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock clinic. Everybody was so pleasant, I felt like an Irish emigrant who’s made his fortune in America and come back to Dingle for a visit. The doc took some measurements and chatted about the options. Medicare covers replacement of what you’ve lost; for an extra charge, you can get back some of what you’ve never had. So I figured a new lens implantation was the next new thing and went for it.

The day of the procedure at the outpatient clinic, Mother came along to drive me home. A well-oiled machine: remove only shirt, watch and neck chain; saline drip in the back of the hand for anesthesia; reassuring visit from the doc; and off we went. I felt nothing as the doc opened the little sac holding the cloudy lens, wrecked it with a laser, sucked it out, and slid in the new one. I lay very still; a nurse held my hand so I could squeeze hers if I felt a cough or a sneeze coming on. Next thing I remember, I was getting dressed and listening to instructions about eye drops, showers and various temporary prohibitions.

Next day the eye shield came off, and I was seeing things as I never had before. I could count shingles high up on steeples, read small signs a quarter-mile away, and in church appreciate for the first time the mythical beasts associated with the four gospelers in the stained glass window.

The only drawback so far has been that I can now read the small scoreboard at the top of the television screen for NFL games, and I made the mistake of watching the Patriots play the Broncos. That was not a happy sight.

Willem Lange’s column appears here every Wednesday. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.