It was six months since I had spent basically half a day at the ophthalmologist only to find out that all those tests I took were merely establishing a baseline for what my optic nerves looked like. Now, it was time to compare, and this meant hours of horrible tests again (one of which involved a woman photographing my optic nerves, which means you are doing the exact opposite of what your instincts tell you to do when a blazingly bright light is repeatedly flashing in your eyes). But before this, it meant having my eyes dilated as much as they possibly could be, and they ended up nearly black and much like a cartoon character’s eyes. I was told I needed to wait around 10 minutes (it was much longer) before they’d come get me for the next round of tests.
I was led into the darkened waiting room, which is somewhere within the maze of examining rooms. It was completely full of other people staring into space or at the television that was blasting out at us. Every now and then someone’s name would be called and then another person would stagger into the room to wait. The lights were dim, but not totally dark, and I found that without my glasses and my book held pretty close to my face I could read (a book of John Cheever stories, as it happened). Oh, this is fine, I thought at first, but then noticed that over time my vision got slowly blurrier and blurrier. This fascinated me, but then kind of panicked me. It was like I was getting older before my own eyes, as though time had sped up and soon I would look in the mirror and see that my face had deeply wrinkled to match my much older, much weaker eyes. This is what happens, I thought, terrified, just not so quickly. And for the first time I wondered, What would happen if I couldn’t read?
From the time I first started figuring out how to put words together (which I am told was when I was three and a half) nothing has ever made as much sense to me as reading. And when I started to write a few years after that, it was mostly so that I would have more to read. If I really think about it, I’m probably better at reading than I am at anything else, though it’s such a personal and pretty much hidden skill. So what would happen, if, as I saw in that waiting room, my eyes began to fail me and no special glasses or operation could help?
My uncle, who was once a terrible reader, is now a prolific listener of (to?) audio books. He can’t get enough of them. And it thrills him that something that was once so impossible for him to do (apparently he read so slowly that it frustrated him too much to continue) is now part of his daily life. He listens on the subway, on his bike rides, everywhere he can. And, he calls this reading, which I have to say it really is. So there is no reason I couldn’t simply start listening to books, right? I think about how you end up asking yourself, at some point or another, If I had to choose, would I rather lose my sight or my hearing? And I always pick sight because I think I would die without being able to listen to music (which I recall becoming important to me around three and a half as well), but what about all the things I’d miss seeing? And what about reading? And then I just get sad.
Eventually my name was called and I got to have the flashing light tests, etc. When it was all over, they told me to wait in the regular waiting room, though I couldn’t figure out why. I had already paid the copay. I just wanted to go home. And as I sat there, feeling exhausted and battered, I suddenly noticed that on the radio (was there a radio on all this time?) Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” had just come on. Hadn’t I heard this song enough in my life? In fact, wasn’t this one time too many to be hearing this song, a song I had heard, on and off, for the past 39 years of my life? I stood up. There was a man at the desk (born in 1947 I could not help but overhearing) happily discussing his copay with the receptionist like he had all the time in the world. I did not. I put my sunglasses on on top of my glasses (which naturally made me feel like this guy) and headed out into the most blinding sun I had ever seen.