EYES

Until he backed the Oldsmobile into a tree outside a restaurant, we did not know the extent of my father’s inability to see.  According to my mother, it was still twilight when he failed to notice the sycamore, and the tree trunk was enormous.  The car was only mildly dented, but my father had banged his head on the steering wheel.

“Did he have too much to drink?” I asked my mother the next morning, with a mixture of doubt (he rarely drank to excess) and, ironically, hope (it was a possible explanation).

“No,” she whispered.  “He just didn’t see it.”

We heard his footsteps in the hallway, and my mother put her finger to her lips.

“Good morning,” said my father, without conviction, as he entered the kitchen.  He held an ice pack against the side of his head where an ugly lump protruded.

“Does it hurt?” I asked, feeling stupid immediately.  Obviously, it must have hurt.  My question revealed my discomfort with the situation.

“It doesn’t feel good,” he replied.

I did not want to stare at the purple and blue bruise, but I could hardly keep my eyes away.  I had never seen my father look so vulnerable.

My father was seventy-seven but rarely wore his glasses.  He insisted that he did not need them, except to read.  The family had referred to him as “Magoo” for years, but never within his hearing.  Along with his hair darkening and comb-over, it was clear his appearance was vitally important to him.

“Lou,” said my mother.  “I made you an appointment at the eye doctor this afternoon.”

“Why?” he asked, appalled.  His response struck me as funny, though not in a “ha-ha” sort of way.

“You might have done some real damage to your eye.  A doctor has to see it,” she said.

“Accchhh, doctors don’t know anything,” he scoffed, repeating a line I had heard all my life.

“You can’t just ignore it,” she stated.  Looking at me, she said:  “You should come along.  It will be good for you to get out of the house.”

She was right about that.  Since returning home after college graduation, I had spent hours each day in my childhood bedroom studying for the bar exam.  However, accompanying them on a trip to the eye doctor was not exactly an excursion.  The mission potentially teemed with tension.  I would act as a combination chauffeur and kidnapper.  Most importantly, perhaps, I would be nearby when the doctor brought up the sensitive issue of my father’s continued driving.

I drove the three of us in my father’s Oldsmobile to Wills’ Eye Institute in Philadelphia.  It is a prestigious institution located in a massive stone building.  When we arrived, I let my parents out of the car at the entrance while I parked.  I planned to meet them in the waiting room.  When I arrived, my parents were engaged in an animated discussion, whispering loudly to be heard over a television talk show ironically featuring a collection of bickering spouses.

“I am going in with you,” said my mother.

“Not necessary,” said my father, his tone angry.  “I am not a child.”

She persisted.  “It will do some good if one of us asks some questions.  And you never do.”

“I’ve come here for decades and handled this myself,” he said.

“That’s the problem!” she proclaimed.

The debate would have continued if the nurse had not interrupted, addressing my father:  “The doctor is ready for you.  He’d like your wife to come in, too.”

My father startled as my mother rose and strode in ahead of him.  I noticed for the first time that there were other patients in the waiting room.  They looked at me sympathetically, like I was one of the participants in the talk show.  I tried to distract myself with a People magazine.

My parents re-emerged after thirty minutes which seemed like hours.  Both appeared stone-faced.  My mother simply whispered to me:  “I’ll tell you later.”   We traveled home in suspenseful near-silence with my father in the front passenger seat and my mother in the back.

Once home, I hovered near my mother in the kitchen as my father went silently upstairs.  He acted deflated.

“Well?” I asked.

My mother seemed to be choosing her words carefully.  “He’s basically blind in his left eye,” she said.  “And he’s not so good in the right eye.”

“He blinded his eye bumping his head?” I asked, shocked.

“No, the bump is not the problem,” she said.

“What do you mean it’s ‘not the problem?’”

“The doctor said he’s been blind in that eye for forty years.”

“Hunh?”

“The doctor said he has been blind in the left eye for forty years, and now he has a cataract in the right eye.  Basically, he has about twenty percent vision in one eye.”

The reality dawned that my father had concealed his poor vision his entire adult life, from his wife, from his family, and from any official at the DMV, if any ever checked.  Surely, he had learned to compensate in earlier years so that he could function with only one eye.

My mother concluded:  “The doctor said he told him years ago to stop driving, certainly at night, but he never shared that information at home.”

It was hard to process all the thoughts and memories that went through my mind.  My father was loving and devoted.  However, he had knowingly driven me and other family members, day and night, countless times over the years.  I thought of our harrowing trips ten years earlier to my trumpet lessons along the winding Wissahickon Drive, a challenge even for able-sighted drivers.  I was so tense during the rides that it is not surprising I was so tense when I played!

After the cataract was removed and my father’s right eye returned to normal vision for a seventy-seven-year-old man, he refrained from driving after dark.  He never expressed appreciation for my mother’s ability and willingness to drive, but he did accept his place was in the passenger’s seat.  He still insisted he was able to drive during the day, however.  No one would be his passenger, but he occasionally drove himself to a haircut or lunch with a friend.  He never told any of his friends that it would be better if they picked him up.

As my father passed eighty, my mother wrestled with how to end his driving.  We all knew it would be difficult.  Sometimes, he just sat in his car in the driveway.  What was he thinking?

The dilemma was surprisingly solved one day.  My mother told me matter-of-factly on the telephone his car had disappeared.

“Was it stolen?” I asked.

“Seems like it,” she replied, cryptically.

“Who would steal a sixteen-year-old powder blue Oldsmobile Cutlass?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, unconvincingly.  “I really don’t know.”

“Did you call the police?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “There’s no point.”

“Insurance?”

“Not worth it,” she said.

“That’s it?” I asked.  “That’s the whole story?”

“That’s the end of the story.”

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