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At the age of twenty, who believes a crotchety old doctor telling him that he would be blind? The man sat there with his round-mirrored reflector tilted on his forehead like a cartoon Cyclops and intoned that my blindness would come eventually, probably sooner than later, and I should start preparing—learn braille, arrange for mobility training, all those jolly pastimes for a recent teenager. The place was a doctor's cold office in Denver, where I had not been before and have never been since (either the doctor's office or the city). I don't think I said much. Being dutiful, I thanked him, I guess. I had seen a lot of doctors, but none had ever told me that.
The bus ride back into the frozen Rockies, to Leadville where I was then living, alone, was drearyenough, bleak March in Colorado, but, strangely, I don't remember it as anything like a scene from Wuthering Heights —no depressing journey, no long last look at sun and snow and human faces, no tearful tirade against fate. Where were the violins? Twenty-year-olds do not rail and shake their fists at fortune. Statistics do not include them. Predictions are for others. Cart away the Delphic priestess and all her medical counterparts to a retirement home where they belong.
Orwas it my temperament, not my age? Dutiful, yes. That makes me an ordinary sort of person, not given to railing. In the first place, it would embarrass me to wail about blindness, and I do not like to be embarrassed. When I think back over the silly things, far less traumatic events, that have caused me mortification! I still feel the chagrin of a night in a crowded car of teenagers when Sylvia rode on my lap. She had sort of snuggled up, and I felt stirrings within me, but it was the conversation that followed. Heartlessly, in a loud voice, she asked what I had in my pocket. Without thinking, I blurted out, "A flashlight." Funny thing is that it was true. I did have a small pocket flashlight there, but what cost, truth. I just wanted to be anywhere else.
Even as a grown man I blush when the conversationgets beyond me. I worry about elemental discussions of sex and money. I broke up with Sylvia but not before she told me I needed green socks; I was just too gray and brown.
So it was a gray and brown me who rode that lonely bus back to Leadville. And I endured the first open news of blindness with a shrug. I was not that badly off. It was hard to feel sorry for myself. Not that I couldn't have. My eyes were only the tip of an iceberg. What I had really been fighting for years was a damnable case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Not too long after Sylvia, huge bulbar, inflamed knees and elbows and wrists, in fact every joint, including my jaws, had stiffened and pained, and that lasted for years. I consumed salicylates like popcorn. I spent my seventeenth year immobilized in bed. The joints grew so locked that they had to be literally broken loose by husky therapists in a warm-water swimming pool. Even so, my knees and elbows remained so deformed that they would neither straighten nor contract beyond fifteen or twenty degrees. I could never again assume the fetal position and so was at least insured against certain forms of insanity.
But so what? That was largely in the past, and who feels sorry for the past? Now on that stinking bus fromDenver we curved slowly back to the slushy streets of Leadville. The bus was full, for it was World War II, and Leadville was booming, bustling to produce lead and copper and molybdenum for the guns of the Allies. I slouched back to meals at Mrs. Powell's boarding-house with fifteen men around a threadbare oilcloth table. I only knew the others' first names—Louie, Rivers, Swisher, Dum-dum. Once boxers, longshoremen, lumberjacks, whistlepunks, now they were double-jack drivers or mill hands, released from the army or deferred by their draft boards to man the vital mines. They were happy to be out of uniform but not to be there; "Goddamned slaves," they called themselves. That horny-handed bunch never knew what to make of me, a stumbling college kid in dark glasses who worked peeling brussels sprouts.
Louie Blaine from Montrose was the only one I could really appeal to. He seemed to like me. He took me up to his bunk room once to give me some ore samples ("swell rock chunks from the Leadville mines," I called them in my journal). The attic room was filled with beds at all angles and clothes hanging from slanting rafters. On one bed sat a miner playing long mournful notes on a bugle. Somehow I could tell Louie about my eyes. He didn't say much, but the image ofthat room remains strong—lonely men, and that included me, yearning for women and home, trapped in places they didn't want to be, Sartre's existential characters looking for an exit that wasn't there.
Louie took me to his workplace once, too, where he mucked at the Resurrection up in California Gulch. He showed me the great crushers smashing four-foot chunks of ore into powder, the flotation vats with suds boiling up the minerals. They seemed to give him joy and a reason for being. I wished I had something like that. Louie was a good friend. He seemed to understand my predicament. We sometimes drank coffee quietly at Murphy's Bar.
I roomed on Harrison Street, upstairs in the Victorian gingerbread house of Mrs. Strong. The town was so bursting that I had not been able to find room and board in one place, so I ate at Mrs. Powell's and slept about two blocks away at Mrs. Strong's. My quarters were hardly bigger than the single bed, but I had a small table in front of a window that looked out over dreary mud and snow to the post office and across Harrison Street to the square spire of the Presbyterian church. Friends had given me an electric record player and a few records. I alternated mindlessly and ad infinitum between a Bach Brandenburg concerto andDebussy's "Nuages" while I wrote long letters home on stormy Sunday afternoons.
Since my eyes were continually dilated, I wore dark glasses, always outside and sometimes in brightly lighted rooms. As I hunched along Leadville streets in a heavy coat and smoked lenses, I knew that the dogs did not like me. I wrote home:
There are more dogs per square inch in Leadville than any other part of the country, I'm sure. They roam all over the place, alone and in groups of five or six, and they range in size from Chihuahuas to St. Bernards. When I was a newcomer with my alpaca coat and dark glasses, I was an object of persecution by these numerous hounds, and they would all bark at me and some would growl at my feet as I walked along the street. All the old-timers have scars where they have been bitten by dogs. As soon as a dog bites a couple of people in a row, the police just come along and shoot him. Now, however, as my coat and glasses have become known throughout the dog world as not belonging to a Martian invasion or a bandit from the 1890s, the dogs have accepted me and no longer bark. Instead they jump and run along beside me in play and fun. So one aspect of Leadville is conquered.
That ending was obviously for a mother's consumption. I don't remember that the dogs ever did anything but bark and snarl.
The reason I was in Leadville was itself rather curious. The arthritis left me with an eye condition known as uveitis, more specifically, iridocyclitis. For both diseases, the doctors tried everything—concocting over time a witch's stew of salicylates, calcium glutomate, intravenous gold injections, intramuscular foreign protein (Proteolac), bee stings by mouth, intravenous typhoid fever inducement (literally!), intramuscular liver extract (that was a surprisingly painful one), tuberculosis skin injections, intramuscular penicillin, brucella vaccine. I suspected a note of desperation when my California doctor, John Lordan, suggested living at least six months in a high altitude. Elevation, he explained, increases white blood count, and those increased antibodies would marshal their battalions against the arthritis and the uveitis.
It was early in World War II. Movement was not that easy. My father was working in a shipyard. My mother was involved with the two other kids. A great auntwould come over and say, "You mean you're going to send that poor crippled boy to live alone somewhere, just because a doctor thinks something might happen with white corpuscles? He's only guessing. What does he know?"
What did anybody know? But that was like my family: everyone had to have his or her say. The expense would be a problem for my father, but I figured I could get a job and pay for some of it. Besides, it seemed a whole lot more fun than the typhoid injections. Except for my brother and sister, the family generally took their protective-buffer stance. They had seen me through the years of rheumatoid arthritis and had no desire to see me regress. But they had to admit that now I was able to get around pretty well, and in the end, what else was there to do? We had tried most everything, and there was an elementary logic to this idea. All it took was a little money for the train and a bit more to support me until I could get a job.
My mother was a reader. At nineteen she had tasted the intellectual life at Berkeley and dreamed of writing for a newspaper before she eloped with my twenty-year-old father and gave birth to me. Now she reluctantly pulled out her gazetteer, placed it on the kitchen table, and searched for the highest town of any consequence in the continental United States. It turned out to be Leadville, Colorado, 10,200 feet above sea level, plenty high to change blood count. So Leadville would supply the altitude; my parents, the train ticket. The leukocytes would do the rest.
The Denver and Rio Grande let me off on a freezing day in January at an improbable Leadville station in a godforsaken sweep about two or three miles into nowhere. A ramshackle bus took me to the town. When I got my room and board settled, I walked down Harrison Street in the crunching snow and saw a Help Wanted sign in the Safeway store. I got the job then and there, tending the produce. That smug companion, Independence, walked back with me to my room, where I wrote home.
A couple of weeks later I came to my room and found a telegram from my mother and father. Stop working at the Safeway immediately, the square letters spelled out, and they implied that my doctor felt that such work, lifting vegetable boxes, might endanger the cure. I can imagine the arguments that had gone on at home after they heard that I was working in a grocery store: he's lifting those heavy crates, straining the delicate veins in his eyes. We must check with the doctor.
It was hard for me to swallow the disappointment. My letter home the next day tried to be positive.
Last night your telegram arrived, and I still do not understand. I showed the telegram to Steve this morning (he's the manager of the store) and he said of course you mustn't work if it's going to do any harm and was very nice about it. Since all the days I've worked I have been learning the job, I didn't want him to pay me for them, but he insisted on doing so. I am anxious to get your letter to know the reasons, for it seemed to me that everything was working perfectly.
I do not still have their letter of explanation, which came a few days later. But my response to that letter concealed the gamut of emotions.
I was disappointed to find in your letter that there were no doctor's orders to quit the job. I really do not think it would have hurt me, but if it makes you happier why I of course will not work. Maybe later on I can find a job which would suit better.
So back I went to the lonely streets with the dogs and my dark glasses, sleeping twelve hours at night and three hours in the day. That was clearly a measure ofboredom. It's a wonder I did not turn to crime, or at least vice! But I labored under the illusion that so much sleep would aid the cure.
As I walked up and down to my room, just to the right of the coiled banister and creaking stairway, I passed a dark room with yellowing eye charts and dusty scopes, the former office of Dr. J. C. Strong, an ophthalmologist. Now his widow fearfully took in us roomers upstairs, but she had not disturbed her husband's space. That unused office was an eerie augury, portent of a long line of cheerless ophthalmologists' offices awaiting me.
You may have already guessed. The leukocytes of Leadville, lazy critters, did not work. Many times during that frigid time I hoped and thought that they were doing their job. When there were temporary thaws in the weather (so temporary in Leadville winters), I was sure that the precipitates in my eyes were melting, too. On January 30, for example, I wrote in my journal,
I can say truthfully that my right eye has noticeably improved vision. Outlines are still very fuzzy, but objects can be distinguished with a fair amount of ease.
In March, however, the old fiery redness and sandy discomfort, telltale signs of a uveitis flare-up, led me toboard the bus down the Continental Divide for a medical look-see in Denver. That's where I got the black news. Neither the snow nor the precipitate had really gone, and as I look back now through that journal, I was not only being unduly optimistic but also unconsciously noting sounds more often than sights. For example, aware like a Californian of such things, I described the winter: "New snow rustles as the wind blows it across the old snow." "New snow is soft and silent as you walk on it." "Old snow crunches." I was beginning my long descent into Arctic twilight. Primary senses were changing.
On the bus ride back from Denver, maybe I reacted so little because a part of me knew it would happen. I may well have been resigned to becoming blind, though it was twenty years before the fact. Yet since the sprigs of hope are symbiotic, smothering like dodder the vines of acceptance, it is hard to know when realization finally comes. And I still do not know when individual members of my family came to understand that I would be blind.
Did my father realize it? I wonder. He was too much the optimist, a superstitious gambler at heart, and gambling is one way to deny reality. He gambled on the Bible and once read it through, doggedly, word by wordevery night in bed before it fell from his hands in sleep, without understanding, without joy, because the act was itself a protective talisman from the world around him. He spit in his itchy palm and rubbed it in his pocket because that brought money. So too did the bubbles on coffee, each one worth a dollar if you got them into your mouth before they broke. He would drive miles out of his way to avoid a black cat crossing the street. To him, these were not idle jokes. And deep down he must have felt that my blindness could be conquered by his legions of good luck. Still there were weekends when he would disappear, taking off for Tijuana.
My mother was more rational, but she was far more emotional and sentimental. She could cry at the mere mention of a suffering animal. Accepting my illness must have been hard for her, and she probably never faced the likelihood of my blindness, perhaps until she died, for she succumbed to cancer in 1963 before my vision had dropped terribly low.
My brother and sister are twins, eight years my junior. They were just starting their teens when I went to Leadville. Dick was a free spirit, always active, but with some of our mother's sentiment. I remember him as a boy crying over a dismembered dying insect. Pattyappreciated school far less than she enjoyed the boys, and she was liked by everyone. It seemed to me that Patty and Dick coped pretty well. Suddenly their only older brother ceased to provide any kind of physical role model, became a constant drain on their parents' attention, and required explanation to their friends. But that was primarily because of the arthritic deformities. I always thought that for them my blindness was remote, unthinkable. Now I learn that for my sister, at least, through all those years my sight was her wish on every star and every birthday candle.
My mother's sister, our Aunt Katherine, known to everyone as Aunty, lived with us, too. She was particularly close to us kids, having practically raised my brother and sister. When arthritis immobilized me, she set up her own combat battalion. She rubbed my knees and elbows with liniments. She boiled whole grapefruit for hours and fed me the extract. She administered the bee stings. She heated oil in big cans and immersed my joints in them. And when the eyes became involved, she insisted on hot compresses. Given her dogged determination, I cannot believe she ever supposed my blindness was anything but reversible.
My acceptance, whenever it came, was quiet. So, if someone thinks of himself as a pacifist, how far doeshe go in carrying on a fight? An awful array of treatments had already proved unavailing. At what point would Mahatma Gandhi or Henry David Thoreau or Thomas Merton simply accept? Weren't there other matters on the agenda, like, for me, writing poetry about blood on the moon, drafting peace treaties, and planning leagues of nations?
Maybe there is something wrong with not fighting back. Why do I admire feisty Eleanor Clark, the writer who went blind? She alternated between fury ("Go away, get under there with the snakes. I'm sick of you") and anguish ("Secretly I yell No, no! and shut my ears, or they shut themselves"). Give me, she said, "a good, healthy capacity for gloom and despair."
That I avoided such gloom and despair I say with no bravado. It makes me feel even more an unheroic, ordinary person in need of green socks. Certainly I felt that way in Leadville—draft age, not even working for my keep, a traveler on trains filled with men in uniform.
The joints began to bother me. The white blood count was not working. It seemed time to scuttle Leadville and get on with things. My sight remained adequate, and however subconsciously, I slowly let the Denver curse grow dormant and tucked it away withthe memories of Louie and his cohorts at Mrs. Powell's. With what vision and mobility I had, I went back to college, graduated in history, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Most important of all, I married Shirley, a wonderful woman who never told me to wear green socks; she took me as I was. When we were married, my vision was 20/100 in the good eye, 20/200 in the weaker left one, corrected to 20/50 and 20/100. That was plenty strong to see Shirley's long, straight, blond hair curled in around her neck. It belied her strength and hardiness. She made me promise never to say that I was doing something for her own good. Her intense blue eyes told me she would persist, and, though she knew the risks of marrying a man with my joints and eyes, I think she saw a kindred quality of persistence in me.
We took those risks together, and they outdid any gamble of working at the Leadville Safeway. The first big one was graduate school, all the way to Yale. New Haven winters were as rough as Leadville, and graduate study in history is for the best of retinas an invitation to problems; for one who had been consigned to braille, it verged on madness. But Shirley expressed no doubts. She took a job as the first woman receptionist at the Winchester Repeating Arms factory.
(She later happened to see her interview form; it had "Blond +" penciled on the top.) We lived in the rented upstairs room of a Polish Jewish widow who subsisted on the white meat of chicken boiled with carrots the size of untended zucchini. She gave the broth to us, gallons of it. We persisted rather well, and you might chalk up the staving off of trouble to those gallons of broth.
The Ph.D. brought us back to California, first to a fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino and then to teaching in the liberal arts college newly opened on the Riverside campus of the University of California. That was 1954, some dozen years after my sentence of blindness. Things were going well. I let the grim decree of Denver be swallowed up by rationalizations on the fallibility of doctors. The eyes still harbored their uveitis, but that was a nuisance I could live with. I sat for interminable hours in medical waiting rooms, none as dusty and dark as Dr. Strong's in Leadville, and I must admit that, in spite of light carpets and decorator prints, the visits had a way of calling up the old interior anguish. During those years I put in eyedrops morning and night—atropine, duboisine, scopolamine, or neosynephrine—to keep the iris open so the precipitates within would not stick it forever shut.
When cortisone became the wonder drug, I daily squeezed in Neo-DeltaCortef or dropped in Aristocort to calm the inflammation. There were other drops and salves through the years. Still, all these appointments and medications grew routine. I never mentioned them to outsiders, even people who knew me well at the university; I would as soon have told them I brushed my teeth.
My doctor for the majority of those years was Emma Mueller, a stern, no-nonsense German ophthalmologist at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana. I saw her every few months. After a long wait and a vision test, I would typically be seated in a chair that combined the graces of an old-fashioned dentist's and an electric executioner's. I knew just where and when to jut my chin in the brace of the slit lamp. Dr. Mueller clicked that blinding beam so it shone brighter and brighter as she drew it like a klieg light across the night-interior of the eyeball. When I first saw her, she took the pressure, like all doctors before her, by placing two fingertips on the top of the eyeball and alternately pressing like a hunt-and-peck typist to judge the pressure. But soon technological advances caused her to stretch me out on a table, place a drop mechanically in each eye (an anesthetic, I think), and position on my eyeball an early version ofthe tonometer. It was like a tiny scale of justice on which a little arm swung up and gave her a pressure reading.
Then she would write a few lines in my chart and swing around to say, "Mr. Hine, I find little change. Continue the drops as before and see me in three months."
In the late 1950s, she explained that cataracts were developing; no one could say how fast they might grow; she would keep an eye on them. The cortisone was very likely causing the cataracts, but since the cortisone was thought to be and probably was keeping the uveitis at bay, and since uveitis could itself cause cataracts, treatment went on as before. In 1967 I finished five years as chairman of the history department. Between then and 1970 the cataracts grew like hotbeds of spurge on a humid summer day.
Vision dramatically clouded. These were what Albert Vajda, who in London walked a similar path to blindness, called "the Gauze Ages." During that time layers of haze and floaters, swirls of lazily moving clots, became frenzied when I moved from bright light to darkness.
I went through scores of magnifying systems, handheld glasses, round and square, tiny telescopes, devices that rested on the page, lenses suspended on frames with light beneath. "Great fish eyes leering up from beside bed or telephone," Clark called them, and "baby googlies crawling around bureau drawers."
"The next time I hear the word 'aids' I intend to misbehave." Those were her words, not mine.
I began writing with felt pens, and the letters got larger and larger. Notes for my lectures were in black blocked words, eventually so large that a page would take six lines from top to bottom. And the gauze between got thicker and thicker.
But, you ask, if I was going blind from cataracts, why not surgically remove them? The cataract operation alone would not have been that big a deal. It was the uveitis that caused the hitch. That delicate condition would not take kindly to the disturbance of surgery. Certain and total blindness, I was often told, was a likely possibility. I asked the question, however, times without count. In the end the dutiful temperament won out, for at heart I trusted the doctors.
Dr. Mueller was good in seeking other opinions. She called in three fellow ophthalmologists of Kaiser Permanente (Drs. Winters, Aiken, and Ousmanski). Some of them felt that surgery for removal of the cataracts was something to consider since there was solittle to be lost, especially in the left eye, which had already grown far worse than the right. They admitted there was real danger, including a flare-up in the right eye, sympathetic opthalmia, as a result of surgery on the left. And beyond blindness there was always the possibility of disfigurement along with far more intense pain. I took that as a particular trauma—pain covering up how repulsive your eyes might look to others.
We went outside of Kaiser, too, to Dr. Ray Irvine in a Wilshire Boulevard overstuffed suite. He pressed his fingers on the eyeball so hard that I saw red, and indeed he asked me what color I saw. In the good eye, I recognized red; in the poor one, nothing. The good eye, he wrote, "had lardaceous keratic precipitates with central corneal edema and a white immature cortical cataract. There was early band keratopathy [deposits of calcium in one layer of the cornea] noted at the limbus [the margin of the cornea nearest the sclera]." The same was true in the bad eye, but in it the "anterior cornea was opaque and the cataract was mature." The intraocular pressure was soft in both eyes, especially the bad one. His conclusion regarding removal of the cataracts: Don't touch the left one; there isn't a ghost of a chance there. On the right eye,I would be very hesitant to operate. . . . It has been my experience that cataracts in active rheumatoid arthritis do not respond well to surgery, and one has a great chance of enhancing the inflammatory process and causing the eye to go under atrophy such as has happened in the left eye.
He talked with Dr. Vernon Wong who worked with ophthalmic problems in arthritics at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. Wong was noncommittal. Dr. Samuel J. Kimura, a researcher at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco with experience in this kind of problem, advised Irvine on the diagnosis but would not venture a conclusion on surgery. There was clearly no stirring battle cry for surgery; indeed, the voices of caution seemed more convincing to me, and I stayed, wearing my brown and gray socks, until the vision was gone.
By 1970, when I was forty-nine, the right eye with the strongest and best correction was 20/800; the left eye could discern only hand movements at three feet. Within a year or two neither eye had more than vague light perception. If the sun were comingthrough a window, I knew the difference between that and a blank wall. Like Dante, "In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost." From there on, as far as I could tell, it was white canes and braille all the way. "Nyah, nyah, nyah," said Denver, "I told you so."
Excerpted from Second Sight by Robert V. Hine Copyright © 1997 by Robert V. Hine. Excerpted by permission.
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