Monday, November 13, 2006

The Eyes Have It

From the time I have any recollection of my paternal grandfather, he was considered legally blind. He had developed both cataracts and glaucoma in a time when medical science had not sufficiently advanced to make those conditions curable. With the cataracts, his vision clouded, and with glaucoma it narrowed. Eventually he could no longer read, see to drive, or do anything which required precise vision. I distinctly remember him pulling out his pocket watch, which he always carried, flipping it open, and then carefully moving the face of the watch around until it caught in one small window of sight he had. That way, he could tell the time.

To compensate for his loss of sight, he had various capabilities and skills to fall back upon. In his youth, he had memorized a great many poems, and vast amounts of Scripture, so he could call up from memory these beloved passages. I have another vivid recollection of him—he and a friend, William Meikle (who for years taught at Messiah College and was himself a remarkable man: he lived in Harrisburg, some 15 miles from the college, and walked from his home to the college and back again!) would get together and entertain each other by reciting poetry.

My grandfather, who was a minister, also compensated for the loss of his sight by memorizing the number of steps he needed to take to get to specific places. Since he was sometimes called on to preach as a visiting minister, he memorized how many steps from the back of these churches to the pulpit in front, so that when he entered he could stride with purpose to the front. He always carried the quintessential blind person’s cane—tipped with white—and swung it back and forth in front of him, but always with purpose, never with hesistancy. When he moved to a retirement home, he and another elderly man would go for walks. My grandfather loved walking and would stride along. He compensated for his diminished vision by linking arms with this other man, who was unsteady on his feet, but clear-eyed. Thus my grandfather and his friend supported each other, together making a grand walking pair.

He was an inveterate letter writer, and continued to hand write letters to family and friends by guiding his pen along the paper with his non-writing hand, feeling where the edge of the paper was so he would stop writing. When his writing became too slanted, as he tended to write “up hill” using this method, and also began to overlap, he determined to learn how to type. So, blind and in old age, he taught himself to type. Tapping out on a manual typewriter, he resumed his letter writing. He put that typing skill to good use, as when his first wife (my grandmother) died, and he decided to “court” a woman who was a practical nurse at the nursing home where my grandfather lived, he did so in part by typing poems to her that he composed. I found some of these poems among my step-grandmother’s possessions after she died (I was the executor of her estate).

Several years ago, I wrote a biography of my paternal grandparents. In the course of doing research on them, I came upon a story about a conversation my grandfather, John, had with a brother of his, Laban. They were both in advancing years, and as they sat on a porch visiting, they had this interchange:

John: It's not so bad to be blind. I'd rather be blind than be deaf.
Laban: Oh, no! It's not so bad to be deaf. I'd much rather be deaf than blind.

What struck me about this marvelous conversation between two old men is that they had each accommodated to the infirmity they had. Neither begrudged his limitation.

I have been thinking of my grandfather lately and his ability to forge ahead in spite of diminished eyesight, partly because I recently had surgery on my eyelid. I had a small red spot that had stayed put for almost a year. After asking three doctors about it, I finally was treated by an oculo-plastic surgeon who removed the spot, had it tested by a pathologist, and determined that it was a basal cell cancer. It has all been removed, but the presence of such a growth so close to my eye freaked me.

As someone who majored in literature in college, I know that the loss of eyesight is frequently a metaphor for gaining knowledge. Take, for example,
Oedipus. He pushes and pushes for knowledge, trying to unravel the secret of his background as well as the cause of the curse that afflicts Thebes. Time and again, he is warned to cease his quest, that it could only end badly. One of the most urgent cautioners is the blind prophet Tiresias, who Oedipus accuses of lying. When Oedipus eventually discovers the truth, and learns all that he has done, albeit in ignorance, he cannot stand what he has learned, and seizing his wife/mother’s Jocasta’s brooch, he blinds himself. Once deprived of sight, he can fully see his predicament.

And, of course, there is
John Milton, the famous poet who having become blind continued to write poetry composing it in his head, and then dictating to his daughter and aides who faithfully recorded it. Thus was Paradise Lost, Milton’s great masterpiece written. Here is the sonnet he wrote when he first became blind.

Sonnet: On his blindness

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Oh, yes, folks, the eyes have it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wasn't that man's name Meikle? Was your spelling a "typo"? And that man with whom my father (your grandfather) linked arms and walked was Jesse Lady. Jesse Lady's widow lives here in the Village. He had had a stroke and was very unsteady on his feet, whilst "father", though blind, was very steady on his feet. One time Jesse Lady told me about your grandfather, after one of their deep converations, "Your father was a great man. I don't think the church realized what a great man he was." It made me feel proud.
Love, Father "C"