A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, March 14, 2011


                Velcro-tab sneakers dangle high above the floor of the ophthalmologist’s examining room.  Lizzy’s eyes, dilated by eye drops and anxiety, look cartoon-huge in the dim light. 
Inwardly, I resign myself to seeing those eyes ringed by little plastic brackets.  I imagine years of hunting for lost glasses, fuming over broken glasses, arguing about uncomfortable glasses, and wiping off fog-steamed glasses.  The Fairbanks climate is not an ideal one for eyewear.  In January, there is often a temperature differential of a hundred degrees or more between indoors and outdoors, even for those who keep the thermostat balanced at a moderate 60.  Breath steams out in clouds, windows ice up, and frost creeps through walls, highlighting hidden nails and screws.  Take off a windbreaker after a short jaunt on skis, and ice crystals pour out from where they’ve grown among the layers of fleece and polypropylene. Defrosting a windshield requires ten minutes in the driveway, engine running full-bore.  Eyeglasses don’t stand a chance.  But I’m convinced Lizzy will end up wearing them.
                Never mind that her one-minute-younger sister has just sailed through the exam with flying colors – it’s not Molly I worry about.  Lizzy is two inches shorter, four pounds lighter, and prone to hiding behind my leg while watching all the other kids whack the piñata.  Lizzy is the one who needs six stuffed animals tucked into her toddler-sized bunk with her.  Lizzy teethed, walked, and potty-trained right on schedule, according to all the charts and websites – but nonetheless, Molly had already been biting my nipples for months by the time her twin had two bottom incisors.  With a gleam of determination in her eyes, Molly toddled across the room at ten months, graduated from diapers one week after her second birthday, and ditched the training wheels from her bike one week after her fourth.    Molly could write her own name legibly soon after she turned three.  Lizzy wrote “Li” and got stuck.  The letter Z, with the backslash diagonal it contains, is confusing enough that even our neighbor’s seven-year-old gets it backward as often as not.  Molly moved on to writing other things.  Month after month, Lizzy practiced her name.
Molly went first this time, too.  Luckily, Dr. Delzer has the kind of charisma that the front-desk receptionist and the nurse who administered the eye drops both so significantly lacked.  He would be able to serve as a judge at a dog show full of pit bulls, I think.  He could fill in as a substitute teacher in a junior high, and come out unscathed.  He is baldish, and smiling, and he knows what he’s doing.  I adored him immediately because –voluntarily -- he found a legitimate way to cover the appointment almost entirely on my insurance.  Molly likes him because he affords the kids equal measures of dignity and comfort.  He speaks to them like human beings.  I can remember a time when I was only three-foot-five, couldn’t tie my own shoes, and found Cruella DeVille terrifying, but was nonetheless affronted at being treated like a baby.  Molly made it clear that she and her sister could use the grownup eye chart.  Of course they know the alphabet!   This doctor understood. 
Molly, eager to go first, chirped out the letters to Dr. Delzer: “That’s an O… a P… an F… ” The letters got smaller and smaller, until I was squinting myself.  Twenty-twenty vision?  Where did she get if from?  Not from her daddy’s genes, certainly.  Without his contacts, Jay can’t read a font the size of a glowing red EXIT sign. 
I can’t claim that Molly has my genes for eyesight.  I have a slight astigmatism that allows me to drive, stargaze, or spot friends on the other side of the street, but makes me maddeningly inept at spotting the wildlife that Jay’s contact-corrected better-than-perfect eyes can pick out on distant mountainsides.  A bear?  Where?  Oh, you mean that thing that looks like a brown pebble?  No, that really is a rock?  I give up.  If it gets close enough to steal my raisins, let me know.
The astigmatism is in my good eye.  The other one is blind.  Not just legally blind, but flat-out blind.  People could sneak up on me from my right side, and I wouldn’t see them coming until they made it past the shadow of my over-large nose.  When I was a kid, other children would ask me what I saw with that eye.  Did it look dark on that side all the time?  “I see what you see out of your ears,” I told them.  I was born this way, so I don’t really notice any impediment – at least not until someone gets miffed about my failure to respond to a friendly wave proffered at the wrong angle, or until everyone comes back from Avatar raving about how fabulous it looked through goofy-looking glasses.
On the bright side – so to speak – the blindness isn’t genetic.  It’s a congenital cataract, a malady rare enough that medical professionals – school nurses, orthopedists, gynecologists -- all want a peek at it.  It was supposedly caused by some kind of infection in my mother when she was pregnant with me.  Ludicrously, she feels guilty about this, as if I might think she decided to contract a first-trimester virus out of malice.  It probably didn’t help that some 1970’s doctor in Ohio told my parents that their infant might have other problems, too, namely retardation.  There was no way to tell so young, he said, so they’d just have to wait and see.  “The jury’s still out,” I tell my mom, and she pretends to think it’s funny.  Now that I’m a parent too, I have a modicum of sympathy.  There’s something wrong with your baby: words to strike panic into a mind already addled by hormones and sleep-deprivation.  This same illogic caused me to badger the hospital pediatrician the day after the twins were born.  “Did you check their eyes for cataracts?  Check them again!”  He knew better than to argue with a woman waddling around with a 24-hour-old c-section incision.  No cataracts.
But the real reason I’ve dragged a couple of barely-four-year-olds to an ophthalmologist isn’t cataracts, and it isn’t near-sightedness.  The kids have another likely losing ticket in the genetic sweepstakes: ambylopia.  Knows as “lazy eye” by the syllable-challenged, this condition occurs when one eye is less developed.  The brain starts ignoring the signals from that eye, and eventually it becomes uncorrectably legally blind.  If caught young, amblyopia can be entirely cured.  But it takes years of wearing glasses, and sometimes, putting a patch over the stronger eye.  My sister had this condition.  So did one of her daughters, and our father, and our grandfather.  There’s no way to know whether I would have had it too, because, as mentioned, one eye is blind anyhow. 
“Mama?” says Lizzy from the chair.  I’m four feet away, but I can tell she wishes I were closer.  I imagine sending her, eye-patched like an incongrously introverted pirate, into a room full of loud, curious kindergarteners.  I smile at her encouragingly, knowing that my acting skills may not be good enough to fool her.
 “Ok, what letter is this?” the doctor asks. 
The little sneakers stop bouncing and swinging.  A tiny furrow of concentration crosses her brow.  Go, Lizzy, go.  Before I was a parent, I didn’t entirely understand why moms and dads were willing to eat the bruised part of the banana, to wipe noses and butts without flinching, to tolerate elementary-school violin concerts. There is a large clear N illuminated on the opposite wall.  You can do it, Lizzy.
The anxious furrow is replaced by the tiniest ghost of a smile.  “It’s a Z!” declares Lizzy.
A heartbeat passes.
“But it’s sideways, so it looks like an N.”
I sneak a peek at the doctor.  Can he possibly guess that all her careful practice writing her name has made Lizzy inordinately proud of the rare and difficult letter Z?   Lizzy has not one, but TWO Z’s – and now, finally, she can make them just right.  Lizzy can do it. 
Dr. Delzer doesn’t miss a beat.  “Ok, and what is this letter?”
Down the chart she goes, down and down, until I am squinting.  Twenty-twenty vision?  Where did she get if from?  Silently, I give thanks to recessive-gened ancestors.
I wrap both little girls in a hug, and they choose their plastic prizes – a keychain football for Lizzy, a gaudy ring for Molly.  “You did a great job,” I tell them.  The shyer twin, the one-minute-older twin, my little Lizzy, beams up at me with her inimitable smile.  Her slightly crooked, cross-bite, will-need-braces smile.  The smile that matches mine.


  1. Well, good news for all, but I was thinking I was going to get to give Lizzy pep talks about wearing a patch to kindergarten. We moved halfway through my K year, and in the new school there was actually another little girl with a patch over one eye. Who would have thought? Nearly 30 years later, I showed that very Dr. Delzer the post-op notes from the eye surgeries I'd had at 4 and 5 and he said they were procedures no one would ever do today for a kid with my condition (alas, the patch that followed didn't help either).

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