One of my most vivid memories of my early teens was driving home from the optometrist with my mom and oldest brother, marveling at the leaves on the trees, leaves I had never before seen. I think my mom felt like a bit of a failure for not noticing that Scott and I needed glasses – he was 16 and I was almost 13 when we finally got them. It wasn’t her fault. I hadn’t noticed either. It’s amazing how much of life you can go through without realizing you can’t really see anything.
Ten years have slipped by since the last time I went a day without contacts or glasses (the contact lenses are a horror story for another day). You can imagine my despair and the Mary-esque fit that was thrown when I realized, after tossing out my last set of contacts, that I had lost my prescription (which the eye-doctor had handed to me and said, “Now remember, don’t lose this”). To further excruciate the problem, my glasses, after four years of faithful service, split down the middle.
I pondered the level of humiliation I would face if I returned, prescription-less, to the eye-guy (a son of a colleague at school) as I taped my glasses together on my bedroom floor amid the scrapbooks, borrowed novels, colored markers, sticker pads and empty soda bottles that decorate the carpeting of my bachelorette pad. I gave myself a tentative glance in the dusty mirror propped against my wardrobe (because I can’t figure out how to hang it on the wall). The Harry Potter look de-aged me by about eight years (though the floppy shoes and cardigan probably don’t help my desperate attempts to look old enough to teach middle schoolers).
Unfortunately, the tape only worked for about six hours, after which point I resigned myself to squinting and walking as nonchalantly as possible with one hand slightly extended.
How bad is your eyesight anyway?
I’m not blind. Though now I have a better understanding of what exactly that might mean. I can see just fine till about the tips of my fingers, and then things begin to get fuzzy. A few feet and I can’t see the whites of people’s eyes. A few yards and their outlines become blurry. Much past that, especially if the lighting is bad, everyone looks like colorful, faceless ghosts. Reading street signs, tram numbers, or just about anything else is impossible, which makes public transportation a bit of a nightmare.
Thankfully, my first afternoon as a vision-impaired individual was spent with a friend. She’s fifteen and as clever and opinionated as she is wispy and fay-like. I was taking her out for her birthday to the only Frozen Yogurt place in Prague. I almost didn’t notice that I couldn’t see in the shopping mall. We stayed focused on things directly in front of us – shoes, clothes, jewelry, flowers.
It wasn’t until we said our goodbyes at the train station and I waited for my bus in the dimming evening that I remembered how disadvantaged I was. I squinted at each approaching bus to check the line number and rocked impatiently on my heels under the immense sensation that everyone could tell I was uncomfortable and unable to see squat.
The following day was perhaps the true test of my sightless nerves. I went to a doctor’s appointment by myself, which is a scary thing in itself. Czech hospitals are not like American ones which are equipped with cozy waiting rooms, magazines, and an easily-accessible receptionist to answer all of your questions.
Our doctor is Zbraslav is a general practitioner. You show up at the clinic and wait in the hallway outside her office in the queue of people that informally (yet very insistently) keeps track of who’s next. The receptionist is on the other side of a door that only opens from the inside.
I was supposed to have an appointment but didn’t know how to tell her. I waited in the hallway and the queue’d patients included me into their number. My name was never called. My appointment time came and went. I could feel my palms sweating.
I don’t think having functioning glasses at this point would have helped me in any way, but the fact that I knew I couldn’t see anything had already done a number on my emotional stamina. And anyone who knows me, knows I have the emotional stability of an ice cube.
In Czech, I let the woman across from me know that I had an appointment but wasn’t sure what to do. I was so nervous I could hardly think and spitting out those three-ish sentences was the hardest foreign language experience I have had to date. I’m not sure she fully understood me, but she told me to just wait with the rest of the queue.
Did you ever get lost as a kid? You’re terrified but you stand perfectly still like your parents always told you to – don’t move, they’ll find you. They always do. And as you’re standing there in this stream of people and life that is rushing by, desperately holding on to the promise that your parents will find you, you feel like the whole world knows that you’re lost. You can feel the tears coming, despite how hard you try to reason them away. It’ll be fine. I’m fine. Everything’s okay.
Sometimes you get found and you brush the fear off your face with the back of your hand. And sometimes you have the meltdown before your parents can retrace your steps. They find you sobbing like a two year old as some kind stranger attempts to comfort you, even though it’s just making life more embarrassing and miserable.
That’s how I felt.
Finally, a woman with an actual appointment showed up (right before I was supposed to go in), knocked on the door and told the receptionist she was there. Then she waited in the hall.
That’s what I should have done… I kicked myself mentally, feeling the tears rushing through my skull to the front of my eyes.
My turn in the queue came but the receptionist called the woman’s name and she got up to go in front of me. I was worried I’d missed my chance completely. My appointment had been an hour ago. What if I’d really blown it?
I quickly walked to the door where the last patient, receptionist, and the lady with the appointment were all convening.
For a moment, I tried to explain in Czech that I had been waiting, I tried to focus on eyes that I couldn’t really see, I tried… And then the moment was gone – as was my ability to speak in any language – and I just stood in the doorway sobbing. It was a meltdown of epic proportions, my friends. Just me, crying for no apparent reason in front of three perfect strangers who have managed to keep their lives together. I was so at the end of my rope, I wasn’t even as embarrassed as I should have been.
Everyone was taken aback (‘cause, duh) and they let me slip in before the woman with the appointment. After explaining what was wrong with my foot (and taking several minutes to regain my speech) the doctor looked at my sympathetically.
“I’ll take a look at your foot. It should be okay. But, why were you crying?”
Why were you crying?
I was overwhelmed? I was nervous? I’m coming off a messy couple of weeks? I can’t see anything? I haven’t learned how to be an adult yet? Pick one. None of them are great.
I walked back home in the sunshine and the fuzzy world about me became clear in a different way.
Sights melted away into sounds and smells. The feel of the brick sidewalk beneath my feet became visible for the first time and I finally saw how the orchards smell in early spring.
Why was I crying? What is wrong with being a little blind?
I spent the next 48 hours stumbling through a whole new Prague. It’s a Prague that has whispering friends around corners that you hear before you see and laughing families in restaurants behind curtained windows. Birds sing. Music plays. And where all these things come from, I’m not even sure. But they’re there, and they’re gorgeous.
I can’t make out shapes well without glasses, but colors stand out even more. The city looked like a watercolor painting, every shade dripping into the one below it, washed over by a blue river and a golden sky.
And when the light began to fade, I was the first to notice, because everything went from gold to grey and the lights turned on.
I can see lights. They look like fairies. Lampposts, bus numbers, headlights, apartment windows – they all look like bubbles of light floating in a darkness that grows deeper and deeper. The rest of the world fades away into indistinguishable shades of grey and black, but the lights get brighter, surrounding me like a grand, starry host. Even the moon was a fairy that night.
It was with some trepidation that I finally found myself back at the eye doctor, taking a new exam, getting a new set of sample contact lenses. I met up with a friend for a bite and put the contacts in at our table.
The world jumped back into view, just like it had never left, or I had never been gone. The feeling that I was a ghost like the ones I’ve been seeing, that I’m slightly invisible, vanished in a blink. And in it’s place sat the usual comfortableness of being able to see the strangers I look at, the places I go, the book titles sitting on shelves in the store.
Zbraslav from my window that night looked itself again. I could clearly make out the houses and the streetlights and the river that wound through the darkness, running its tireless course to Prague and beyond. What a gift our sight is.
And what a gift it is to lose it.
I hope I never judge someone who cries in public or has a meltdown – even adults can feel like lost little children sometimes. But I also hope that they take comfort knowing they will be found again, and will appreciate the sight of safety so much more for it.
I hope I never lose my sight again, just because it’s kind of a hassle and my mental health is already working overtime. But I also hope I don’t forget to focus on the beautiful things right in front of me that I can see, rather than worry about the dizzying world in the far-off, unclear future. I hope I never forget what it is to live in a world with light and darkness. And that for those who don’t have the proper lens, the darkness can be overwhelming and the light, a savior.
I hope I never lose sight of my Savior. When I feel myself becoming a ghost, lost in an indiscernible dance of shadows, when the tears start to brim and I stand paralyzed in fear, rooted in hope, I know my Savior will come for me. Because he always has.
“For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water,’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”