When I was seven or eight years old, my mother took me to the eye doctor. I’m not sure who figured out the necessity; probably a teacher realizing I couldn’t read the blackboard even from the front row of chairs. (That will tell you how long ago 7 or 8 was; it was an actual blackboard. There were actual chairs and desks, in actual rows.)
Mom took me to see the doctor she and Dad had been going to; Dr. Frugé. I was aware of the accent, and the effect it had on the word that was his name; curious and word-loving child, I had asked why it wasn’t pronounced “froodge” but was instead “froojay.” It’s a French name, came the reply. Like ballet. (As if that explained anything.) I was already learning that words didn’t always follow the rules or make sense; it was part of their charm.
But I digress. The visit to the eye doctor was thrilling; mystery on mystery. Dr. Frugé was kind, although I was surprised that he was Nordically tall, blond and blue-eyed, wearing gold aviator-framed lenses, rather than Frenchly short and dark with rimless pince nez glasses. (Bookish child. Can you tell?) I was nervous when he swung a big bug-faced machine in front of my face. “What’s that?” I asked, backing away.
“A phoropter,” he said. “It will tell me what your eyes are doing.” He made the exam like a game. “How about this?” he’d say. “One or two? Two or three? Three or four?” I’d get confused and start guessing, and he could always tell. “No right answer,” he’d say. “Just good or better … better? or better yet …”
We came back a week later, and the serious little-girl frames I’d picked out had lenses in them. Dr. Frugé dipped the earpieces in a small vat of what looked like glass beads, stirring them around and warming them. When he pulled them out, he bent the earpieces, putting a slight curve in them, and then placed them on my face, his fingers cool behind my ears as he tucked the still-warm earpices into place.
He looked at me intently; I looked back. He took the glasses off and informed me with a small grin that I had my ears on crooked. After a minute I grinned back. Finally, the glasses were fitted and I was up and out the door.
Which is when the miracle happened. As I walked into the waiting room, I noticed its enormous light-flooded picture window — how had I missed it before? — and the oak tree across the street, framed perfectly in the window’s mullions.
“Mom!” I exclaimed. “What?” came the exasperated reply. I wasn’t supposed to yell in public.
“That tree! I can see every leaf!”
“Yeah …” came the reply, in the tone mothers use to acknowledge the obvious. But I was stunned. Transfixed. Trees had been green blobs, except when I climbed them. Now there was more to them than I could even take in. I wandered outside.
It was a whole new world, one that was renewed every year, on the anniversary of those first glasses, because every year my vision worsened. Most years, I’d outgrown my frames, too, if they lasted that long. I was rough on them. My school pictures evidence the changing styles and thickening lenses.
When I turned 13, Mom surprised me by asking if I wanted to try contact lenses. “You’re going to start basketball; it’ll be easier than worrying about your glasses coming off or sliding down your nose or getting broken.” I was nervous and excited all over again. Back to Dr. Frugé’s wonderlab, and I came out that same day with contacts that I was allowed to wear for an hour. Then two the next day, and so on. Of course, I overdid it; who wouldn’t? Peripheral vision! No limits! No blur!
And so it has gone, for 40 years. From glasses to hard lenses to soft lenses to gas permeable lenses back to soft lenses, to monovision (one lens for up close, one for far away) and finally to toric lenses tuned to deal with my astigmatism, and to give me sharp distance vision, with reading glasses for up close.
But then last year, a new wrinkle. Cataracts, in both eyes. And so, this year, surgery, first on the left eye, and then on the right, to remove the cataract and implant permanent replacement lenses.
In the weeks between surgeries, I had to do some hard thinking. The vision in the left eye was good — indeed, had tested as 20/25 the day after surgery — but not “better yet” than the right eye with its contact lens. That eye was super sharp — corrected. Of course, the more accurate comparison was without the contact lens in, when it was blurry in the extreme. But I couldn’t help comparing the cataract-less eye with the contact lens eye, and scaring myself. In accepting the lens implants, was I condemning myself to less-than-perfect vision?
It’s all in how you look at it, I told myself. Are your cataracts gone? Yes. Can you open your eyes in the morning and see? Yes. Can you hope that over time your brain will learn to interpret the data streaming in and “see” better? Yes. Are you going to preach and teach without reading glasses, and climb out of a swimming pool and onto a bike later this year in your first triathlon? God willing, yes.
Perfectly sharp vision was mine for a time, and it came with a cost, one that I had become accustomed to, and was privileged to be able to pay. Less-than-perfect vision is mine now, but it is vision; I can see. And I can hope that with time this vision will actually improve, which never happened before in my life.
This less-than-immediate, less-than-perfect miracle is bringing gifts: I am forced not only to look, and look again, but to think, and think again. The only thing stopping me from being more loving, more patient, more compassionate is me. I am already free to be more of what God would like me to be, to do more of what needs doing in the world. That’s easy to see. What I need, like the blind man at Bethsaida, is Jesus’ second touch, which for me would be a healing that spurs me to do all that I can already do, love everyone God has already put in my path.
I think often these days of Georgia O’Keefe’s words on this topic, written in a letter to a friend: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
Perhaps I am slowed down, in my vision and in my life. But down is where the flowers are, along with everything else that I can reach to love. Let me see slowly, then, and learn to give and receive the gifts of this sight.
What comes next will come, in its own time. I can see that, clearly enough.