SEEING IS BELIEVING
By Sue Smaltz Burrus
When I was a child I believed that leaves existed in soft, fluffy, green masses in the tops of trees. An occasional red flash in the green indicated that a cardinal might be nesting somewhere close by. In September or October, those clouds of green leafy fluff transformed into vibrant orange, red, and yellow individual shapes that drifted down to the ground to be kicked along the sidewalk, or raked into piles to be jumped in. How a person could possibly hit a baseball, or even a big softball, was beyond me. The ball didn’t appear until it was two feet from my face. That was what I saw, and I believed it. That belief was shattered in small steps beginning on the day my mother and I were packing away summer clothes in my room.
“Bring me that apple box,” she said.
“Which one?” I replied looking in the direction her finger pointed.
“You are in 4th grade,” she snapped back. “You can read the word apple!”
I walked across the room (and it wasn’t a large room). “Oh, this one,” I said carrying it back to her.
“Wait a minute.” She looked at me with her eyebrows furrowed. “Stand here. Look at the other boxes over there.” She gave me a quick eye test. Which letters could I read at what distances? An appointment with the local optometrist was the next item on the agenda.
I had no idea that distant edges could be so sharp and clear until I got that first pair of glasses — bifocals with clear glass in the bottom half and magic in the top. Looking out my bedroom window, I was amazed to see tiny birds, brown ones, hopping around individual leaves in the tree nearby. It was a whole new world! I realized that the teacher actually wrote assignments on the blackboard and I could take my time writing them down instead of scribbling madly in my notebook as she said the words in unison with squeaking chalk. Amazing!
Gradually I learned to use both ways of seeing. When I was happy to focus on color and general shapes, the glasses came off. If I wanted things sharp and clear, glasses went on. Usually, I put them on first thing in the morning and didn’t take them off until just before I closed my eyes at night — sometimes after. Exceptions included reading books, threading needles, and hand sewing. As the nearsightedness progressed, my range of clear sight shortened and distances became even more soft and blurry. When I got to college art classes, I could start with no glasses — find broad shapes and colors, then put the glasses on to fill in the detail. In painting class, when other students would need to walk across the room to look at their paintings from a distance, I could step back a step and take off the glasses. Contact lenses took away that option. Glasses suited me just fine. I understood the impressionist painters’ focus on color!
When I studied Natural Science Illustration, however, details were crucial. I kept the subject of the illustration and the paper at close range. Glasses stayed on, with supplemental magnifying lenses. Although by then, my vision had gotten to the point that if I really needed to see every individual grain of sand or tiny vein, the glasses came off and my nose nearly interfered with getting close enough to really see.
Seeing might be believing, but I also knew by then that what I saw totally depended on what lenses I was looking through and the distance between my eyes and the subject of my inquiry. I became accustomed to testing if the lenses were adequate, looking for individual leaves in the tops of trees; at what distance street signs were readable; and how close the music needed to be when playing my harp at the local hospice center. When I noticed that the world was fading into fuzziness, I would go to the eye doctor, get new glasses, and the world would come into focus again.
During the pandemic, my world closed in. I had several risk factors related to Covid and was exposed to the virus on February 28, 2020. I went into quarantine, staying in my room 24/7 for fourteen days. I had no symptoms, but by then end of that two weeks, my grandchildren’s schools had shut down. My oldest granddaughter had come home from her freshman year of college for what she thought would be spring break. My other granddaughter’s high school classes were suddenly all on-line. My grandson, in 4th grade, came home happily announcing that he didn’t need to take a PE test tomorrow because school was closed for a few days. None of us knew that those few days would stretch into almost two years. Because the other adults in the household were working from home upstairs, my grandson set up his computer in my art studio and it became his classroom. I worked on small projects and monitored the internet connection. Soccer practice paused. Volunteers weren’t allowed at the hospice center. My daughter ventured out to shop for groceries at odd hours. I didn’t drive anywhere. There was no need to see anything farther away than across the room. I started making tiny dolls, two to three inches tall, complete with little embroidered shirts. It was quiet work that didn’t interfere with 4th or 5th grade on-line classes and fit quite nicely on my desk. I didn’t need glasses to see any of it.
Gradually as vaccines became available and things began to open up again, I noticed that new glasses might be in order. When I ventured back out in the car, street signs were blurry. I went back to volunteering at the local hospice center and needed to pull the music stand closer as I played my harp. I bought a little reading light so I could see the music more clearly, even when the room wasn’t totally dark. At home, I needed to lean into my computer to read what had previously been an easily readable font. I went to the optometrist. She did the regular eye exam and then announced, “I can’t give you new glasses.”
My face must have communicated my questions. “Why?” I asked.
“New glasses won’t help,” she continued. “You know how an old barn sometimes has windows that haven’t been washed in years… they are so gunked up with dirt and hay caked on them that you can’t really see through them?”
I was not thrilled that she was comparing me to an old barn. “Yes?” I replied.
“Well, if I put a clean pane of glass in front of one of those gunky windows, you still wouldn’t be able to see out of them. You have cataracts that are clouding your vision. You need surgery to remove the cataracts — wash the windows with new lenses— and then we can talk about new glasses.”
“OK?” I said.
She turned to her computer. “The next available appointment with the eye surgeon is in a month. You can ask her all of your questions.”
I walked out of that appointment in a bit of a shock. Seeing, or rather not seeing, had to be believed. I thought about all the old paintings of women sitting near a window sewing or reading. If I didn’t have the surgery, that would be my world too. I wasn’t ready to give up driving, or looking for birds in the trees, or relying on music to play my harp. Gradually I accepted the fact that my reality had shifted again. I went to the next appointment and, given the choice, decided to maintain my near vision and keep glasses for distances. Seeing clearly at a distance without glasses was not really believable. The first surgery was scheduled in two months. By then, I was definitely realizing how much I couldn’t see. I took the slow route driving to familiar places so I wouldn’t need to read street signs. I went through my harp music and wrote the chords in black sharpie for the songs I could play by ear. Sight reading on the fly was no longer possible. I had taken up wooden puppet carving and that didn’t require quite so much fine line work. I increased the font size on the computer.
So, when surgery day arrived I was ready! The surgery went smoothly. Right eye done! After a couple of days when the pupil contracted to its normal size I began to compare what I could see with each eye. The color I had been labeling “white” had obviously been a dust yellow. The golden gauze was gone from my right eye. “White” had a new brilliance. Other colors were scrubbed clean as well. The depth of my nearsighted vision had extended to beyond the computer screen. Fonts could be returned to a size 12 and, looking with my right eye only, the words were clear! Looking through my left eye only, they were impossible to read. I was astounded at the difference. I will still need glasses for distances, but that has been true since 4th grade. Each day, I faithfully put in the eyedrops as directed, and three weeks later, the left eye was done, so now, they match! I can see the computer screen clearly with no glasses and items I had been needing to hold very close for the past sixty-five years, I can hold out further and still see it clearly.
I won’t get new glasses for another month, after the left eye heals completely. Meanwhile, my pre-surgery glasses are much too strong for both near and far, so I have borrowed a pair of my daughter’s old glasses for distance vision in the interim. I’m reveling in the new realities I’m seeing every day and looking forward to shifting my beliefs about the world once again.