When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating, swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence? The summer of a dormouse.
–Lord Byron, journal 7 December 1813
Uh oh. I’m quoting Byron. This can’t be good.
We’ll get there, but first, can we please talk some more about my eyes? Will you think less of me if I obsess some more about that ophthalmology appointment I had two months ago that resulted in my unfortunate bus trip and even more unfortunate selection of Frames for the Deranged? You don’t mind, do you?
What you need to know:
- I have wonky eyes—one is very near-sighted, one is slightly far-sighted.
- I have gone to the same eye doctor since I was twelve years old.
- I am loathe to change health care providers of any sort because I like to know about them and them to know about me and for each of us to recognize the other in the Kroger parking lot. I’m small town like that.
- I am a lover of history and tradition (well, the good traditions—not the crappy ones like sexism, racism, or no white shoes after Labor Day. This is America. You should be able to wear whatever color of shoes you want whenever you wish to do so!)
- Did I mention I’ve gone to the same eye doctor since I was twelve?
Also, unrelated to eyes, you should know that Z sent me home to Indiana for two weeks because he knows that I get twitchy and growly if I am too long away from my own ones, the straight line of a Midwestern horizon, and the sound outside my window of something more natural (songbirds, cows, coyotes, whatever) instead of leaf blowers, sirens, and the domestic disputes of strangers. When I go home to Indiana, I get nostalgic. I am sometimes gripped in the vise of melancholy.
In general, I have a lot of feelings.
Which is probably why—for reasons that are still a mystery to me—I found myself sitting in my old ophthalmologist’s parking lot crying big, snotty, snuffily tears that left yellow dye streaming down my cheeks because he’d just dilated my pupils.
I am such a mess.
Back in March, back in Seattle—despite the fact that I love Dr. B, the eye doctor I’ve been seeing since I was in 7th grade—I determined that it was time to get a new ophthalmologist because my eyes and I live in Seattle and because I (wrongly, it turns out) assumed that our vision insurance was only good in Washington. I wasn’t thrilled about not going to Dr. B, but I also was not thrilled with how little I could see at the bookstore or grocery because my eyes weren’t adjusting to different distances. So I made an appointment at the place where Z had gone because a) he had a good experience with a different doctor who worked there b) it was two blocks away and wouldn’t require a bus ride.
The new doctor was young and she seemed thorough, though she wasn’t what I would call personable. While I sat in her chair, I felt real pangs of homesickness for Dr. B. She asked me no questions and she seemed uninterested in answering any of the ones I had. She announced abruptly that I had dry eyes (I did that day—I hadn’t slept the night before but it’s not a standard condition for me), and when I questioned her about this, she shrugged and said, “Well, you have them now.”
And then the kicker, “It happens to women your age.”
There was something about the way she said “women your age” that unnerved me. In her tone was both the sense that I was 93 and thus shouldn’t expect to have well-behaved eyes at this point and also the certainness that she would never be so careless–as I had been–as to allow herself to age past 35.
Then she glanced over at my records, noted that I had good insurance coverage, and determined that I needed a test to confirm her dry eye diagnosis and to investigate my mismatched optic nerves. When I questioned her about the latter she said it could be nothing or it could be an indicator of something more sinister and it was worth having checked out. I thanked her for her expert opinion, scheduled the appointment for my further tests, and left with a box of complimentary eye drops.
All day the appointment niggled at me. I’m a fairly compliant patient. I almost always defer to the doctor’s expertise and try to do what they suggest, though I sometimes forget to comply. (I’m still not wild about the extra-strength fluoride toothpaste my dentist says I need.) But the more I thought about the dismissive way she diagnosed me, the more cheesed off I got.
And that side-eye she gave my insurance form before scheduling the additional tests? Hmm. That did seem dubious. The fact that she didn’t ask me if I had been suffering from allergies or sleeplessness lately before offering her diagnosis seemed like bad medicine to me too, and there was very little interest in my history and no suggestion that perhaps I should have my old records sent to her so she could see if I have, historically, mismatched optic nerves. When I got home and looked her up and discovered her special area of interest was dry eye, my dubiosity grew. After a few days of this, I canceled the appointment for further tests and decided I’d go see my old ophthalmologist next time I was in Richmond. If he said there was a problem, I’d reschedule the tests.
When I was twelve, I went to his partner for one visit during which I was forced into a pair of unattractive glasses because the guy insisted I “wasn’t ready” (meaning mature enough) for contacts yet. He was young and handsome, but he treated me like an ignorant kid and since I came out of the womb as a 40 year old and he knew nothing of my maturity level, I turned against him. I would come to hate the glasses, struggle with them (as in struggled with how much I hated them and how I looked in them), and am convinced that my dismissal of (bordering on hatred for) “pretty boys” stemmed from that interaction with him, his big blue eyes, and permanently feathered hair. When I went back in for a follow-up and his bearded, less hip, slow-talking partner, Dr. B., stepped in (looking like Gerry Adams only without the IRA connections), I realized I’d gotten the wrong guy; Dr. B was the one for me. I convinced my mother to let me switch permanently, and now it’s almost forty years later and he’s still my ideal eye doctor.
For an hour now I’ve been trying to outline for you the reasons why he has been the best eye doctor for me, but I’m failing, both because I find it indefinable and also because I have absolutely no idea why you would care.
I wouldn’t say he’s a guy about whom I know much or who knows much about me in a non-ocular sense. His goal always seemed to be appropriately focused on the health of my eyes and betterment of my vision and not so much winning me over with his charm. Honestly, I’ve never known if his low-toned responses to me meant that he liked me, disapproved of me, or was completely indifferent. (I was pleased in 2010 when he mentioned that he’d seen my wedding announcement in the paper. I quite liked the idea that briefly on some Sunday in the spring he was sitting at home having a cup of coffee and the Palladium-Item forced him to think about the girl with the wonky eyes that he’d been tending to for over three decades.)
I appreciated the way he’d come into the exam room, take the book I was reading from my hands and say—whether I was twelve, twenty, or forty—“Let me put your homework over here.” I appreciated the lozenges he sucked that clicked against his teeth as he asked me which set of letters was clearer. I appreciated the display of antique eyeglasses on the shelf that indicated he had an interest in history, and the juxtaposition of those with some children’s art of eye glasses that hung on the wall. He always told me exactly what he was going to do and he always answered my questions as if they were reasonable ones to have.
In college, when I admitted that I was rarely wearing my single contact (wonky eyes only need the one) because I was getting too little sleep, he shrugged and said, “Can you see okay?” I told him I thought I could and he said, “With your eyes, you don’t really need to wear that contact. One eye will fill in the gaps of the other if you don’t correct it, so if the contact bothers you, don’t wear it.”
I was not in trouble for bad vision behavior as I expected! Instead, I could make my own choices! Freedom!
While I sat in the largely unchanged waiting room a couple of weeks ago, Boz Scaggs’s song from Urban Cowboy played on the Muzak and I texted Leibovitz: it is still 1980 in Dr. B’s office—I’m listening to “Look What You’ve Done to Me. Remember when we went to see it. I think it was our first movie together.” We had a volley of texts about the places in our lives where time seems to stand still.
Because the Muzak had transported me to a time three decades ago when I smelled perpetually of Love’s Baby Soft and my lips were greasy with Bonnie Belle lip balm, when Dr. B appeared a little later in the exam room—taking my book from me and setting it in the chair with his trademark phrase—I felt shocked to see his hair greyer and his pants worn higher. I’d heard his wife had had a spill and hurt herself and asked after her and learned she was having some other health issues that drove home the fact that time had passed.
He was older.
I was older.
Life really is only the length of a summer of dormouse.
The exam was like any other exam I’ve ever had. He was perhaps more careful because he knew of my concerns from the Seattle doctor, but he said, “Your eyes don’t look dry to me.” And after some photos and some pupil dilation, he said, “Your optic nerves look exactly like they always have.” I was relieved.
But then when I got ready to go, I had this sudden realization that Dr. B can’t be an eye doctor forever. At some point, he’s going to want to retire. And my eyes, which are aging, are, at some point, going to need to have more regular attention from someone who is geographically closer to me than Richmond, Indiana. There was a lump in my throat as I gathered my things, and then Dr. B did the most unexpected thing ever, which is this:
he hugged me.
So I stumbled into the lobby and paid as quickly as I could because I knew I was on the verge of a full-on, existential, snotty sob. I unlocked my car and sat there in it, honking my nose into a tissue. I finally pulled myself together, drove through the neighboring park, and had to pull over and have another round of weeping. There’s probably a word for this that I can’t think of, but it was simultaneously horrible and satisfying to be weeping in a public place while squirrels and geese loitered by my car in case I had some spare bread to toss their way.
I’m still not sure what all the emotion was about. We’re all getting older seemed to be a theme, but it was something else too. A goodbye to all that, maybe. I tried to explain to Leibovitz later but failed. I was never one of those divorced daughters who had “daddy issues.” I had “dad” issues, I suppose, but I was never looking for a father in all the wrong places to misquote another song from Urban Cowboy. Dr. B was not a father stand in. I had a father I saw much more regularly than I had eye exams, plus I had a stepfather, grandfathers, uncles, and filling in all those gaps heroically, I had a mother who did her job and a man’s job too, so I was okay in that department I think.
And yet–maybe there is something here–I’m finding as layers of people above me peel away and fly off to heaven that I miss that authority. I miss there being an adult out there somewhere who knows more than I do, who has some answers, who has a calm voice and lozenges.
I’m reminded late on election night last November when Leibovitz texted me and said her daughter—now in college—had said with great concern as the returns came in with different results than what we were hoping for, “What do we do now?” As in, who is in charge now?
We had no answers to give her because the truth is, no one. When you hit a certain age, you realize that those authorities in whom you’ve placed all of your trust, all of your belief, your sense of right? Well, they are just people.
Summer of a dormouse.
The one, less melancholy note from my experience is that while I was being escorted back to the exam room, Dr. B’s assistant looked at my new glasses and said, “Ohhh, I like your frames.” I felt vindicated for that earlier choice that seemed sub par. I’ve been wearing my glasses with more authority, pulling them off my face with aplomb, and wishing I could strut around town in them without tripping over my own feet (but they are, alas, just computer glasses and not meant for walking or strutting).
And then there’s this vision-related non sequitur: when I returned to Seattle, Z announced that security cameras have been installed in all the common areas of our apartment building because of some thievery or hooliganism. While I quite like the idea of Big Brother watching the Evil Doers, I’m less thrilled with the notion that if I grab Z inappropriately in an otherwise empty hallway, our building manager will see it, and Z himself admitted that he was concerned his pants would venture too far south when he was bending over to retrieve clothes out of the dryer.
We live in interesting times.
I feel lucky that while I’m living my own “downright existence” I’ve had connections–some close, some fleeting–with people who, for whatever reason, move me.
Next time, there will likely be less weeping and more complaining about heat and tourists. Brace yourselves.