|Awakening Sight||| Print ||
I did not realize the seriousness of the injury at the time of the accident. In the emergency room, the physician on duty urgently consulted an ophthalmologist. At that point, I understood that my eye had been seriously damaged, and I became terrified of the possible consequences. The doctor emphatically informed me that I needed surgery immediately to see if the eye could be repaired. I implored him to do his absolute best to save my vision—that I was a photographer and needed my eyes. Fears of a completely altered life entered my mind. Would I ever be able to drive again? To photograph? To live a normal life? Would I be disfigured? He then said something that has burned itself into my memory of that day. He said calmly and with great assurance: “You will be as good a photographer with one eye as you were with two.”
After seven or eight hours in surgery—in which the surgeon removed the fragments of wood, repaired my crushed eyeball, tried to repair my massively torn retina, and performed cosmetic surgery to rebuild the lost tissue on the right side of my face—I was sent to the recovery room.
The next week was pure hell. I underwent multiple tests and examinations to determine whether any useful vision could be returned to my eye. I had no light perception whatsoever due to the retinal damage, and was told that I would not see at all with my right eye for the rest of my life. Medical technology was many years away from transplanting a retina, and mine was far too damaged to repair. My doctor explained that the risk of sympathetic ophthalmia, in which the good eye follows suit with its injured neighbor and also loses the ability to see, was far greater than the chance of seeing out of that eye ever again—and that it should be removed.
My darkest hours of self doubt followed upon receiving his diagnosis. Many questions arose for me about the role of fate, or accident, in our lives. Was this event fated? Or was it simply an accident? Could it have been avoided? I recalled an acute memory of a night when I was nineteen years old, contemplating my unknown future and feeling much hope and promise, in which an intuitive feeling persisted—one that I could not shake from my consciousness at the time—that I might someday lose an eye. When I reached my friend and longtime teacher, Nicholas Hlobeczy, he said simply, “Thy will be done.”
My mother, my girlfriend, and a select group of friends gathered at my home prior to the second surgery, with a bottle of excellent Armagnac, to drink a poignant toast to the thirty-three years of vision my eye had faithfully provided me. I did a small series of self portraits of my damaged face and eye, and went to bed wondering if I would—or could—ever again feel like a complete human being.
The very next morning, I checked myself into the hospital to have my eye surgically removed. After settling into my room, several hours before surgery, I was asked if I wanted a sedative. “Not yet,” was my answer. It felt important to experience this moment as fully as possible. My anxiety was mounting. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. I decided to take a walk to the hospital chapel to try to digest the experience. I never knew such depression, fear, and despondency—it was completely paralyzing. I was scared to death of the future—and of the finality of the soon-to-be-performed surgery.
Then, in the chapel, came a moment of realization, in a burst of insight, that changed my attitude toward this event and gave me great strength and an unshakable sense of courage. A question unexpectedly arose in my mind: If I cannot let go of something as relatively insignificant as one eye, one small part of my body, what will happen when I have to completely let go of my entire body, when I die? If I cannot withstand this shock, I will never be able to gracefully and consciously withstand the moment of death. This experience was a kind of test—a foretaste of letting go. From that moment on, my experience of losing my eye changed—and the fear and depression never returned with anywhere near the same intensity.
Quite to the contrary; after the realization in the chapel, the entire experience of having the eye removed, of learning to see again, and going through the inevitable psychic transformation, became my personal creative quest. A quest that, more or less, I welcomed, and of which I tried to make the best possible use. Something had changed in me. I felt less under the dominion of my ego, and more open to life, to people, and to the changes inherent in our lives. I learned much about myself from questioning why such a massive injury had been the necessary catalyst to deliver me to the threshold of this new state of being.
A transformation had occurred on many different levels, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, due to the ongoing effects of the injury. It served to break down many of the unquestioned and crystallized attitudes my psyche had developed as an armor; and provided an opportunity for renewal, for a regathering of my energies under different conditions.
First, I needed to relearn ordinary physical tasks: driving a car, pouring liquids into a glass, avoiding collisions with doorways or people on my right side, safely crossing streets, discovering where I needed to sit at a table or in a restaurant in order to see my companions and not just the wall, and acquiring a different sort of respect for my one and only good eye. It gave me the opportunity to prune my life down to the essentials, and to give up superficial interests and nonessential activities. One central goal was added to my life’s purpose: to die seeing, on both a literal and metaphorical level.
As I learned to face the challenges of living with one eye, I received help from an instructive guidebook: A Singular View: The Art of Seeing with One Eye. Written by Frank Brady, an airline pilot who lost an eye when a large mallard smashed the windshield of his plane, the book is an important reference manual for the newly one-eyed, full of helpful hints and tricks for navigating through the process of learning to see with reduced capabilities. But for any interested reader, it returns the act of seeing to an art, to regarding human vision as an intentional activity, one full of potential and with perceptual possibilities we have long forgotten or glossed over. The imperative of learning to see again is an unusual opportunity for an adult; most of us, though genuinely appreciative of our vision, thoroughly take the act of seeing for granted and are mostly untrained in the banquet of gifts that seeing offers.
Observe carefully a young child in the act of seeing and note the sense of wonder, joy, and curiosity that accompanies this adventure. A child can become completely absorbed in examining the world through vision—through any of the senses, for that matter. Seeing is truly a form of magic, a perceptual pleasure, a source of real learning and questioning, and a doorway to invisible worlds. As adults, we have much to relearn.
I offer here the initial realizations gleaned through the process of recovering my vision in the several years following my accident.
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