It’s hard to explain what it’s like not to see, especially if “not-seeing-much” is all you know.
I was born with severe astigmatism and nearsightedness, although no one knew. My parents were clueless about my condition, since we moved when I was quite young to the Dominican Republic. In the early 1950s in a backwater village on a tropical island with a bare-bones medical clinic and a dentist that visited once a month, there was not much to give away my poor eyesight. My sister and I were home-schooled, it wasn’t like we were in a classroom where a teacher would notice a problem. We could hold books up as close as we needed to in order to do our homework, or read a story. There were signs of my poor eyesight, but no one saw them or if they did, didn’t heed them.
I was reminded of this when I got a call last month about upcoming cataract surgery. When writing The Coconut Latitudes I described what it was like not to see, but also to not understand I couldn’t see.
It’s the summer when Berta was sixteen, just before she will leave for high school in Florida—July, fly-swatting weather, muggy and still. The trade winds are holding their breath as if waiting for a sign before they can exhale. We’re hiking up the beach to to Cocoloco, the whole family. Sweat slides down the inside of my shirt, and we have three more kilometers to go. I’ve already taken two dips in the water, but that doesn’t help much. Now I’m irritated too, because Daddy wants us to play his usual game of counting how many fishing boats we can spot in the bay.
“Rita?” Mama prompts.
As always, it’s all a blur. There are a couple of vague shapes not far away that could be boats. And as usual, I make a guess. I’m always wrong.
Later, Mama asks me why I don’t I give real answers, like my sister Berta does.
“Because I can’t see anything out there.” My voice rises in a whine.
“Of course you can see, dear. You read just fine.”
I shrug and put my head back into my book. No one believes me.
And so it went until a fateful visit to the capital city of Santo Domingo the summer I was twelve. A friend of my mother’s concluded I was blind as a bat when I sat inches away from the first television set I’d ever laid eyes on in order to view the program. She persuaded my mother to have my eyes checked while we were there, and my life changed in an instant.
And here I am, decades later, once again with the new gift of sight—this time without glasses. In a way, I’ve been concealing myself behind lenses ever since I was liberated from near-blindness.
The idea that I won’t have that perceived protection from being “really seen” is disconcerting. It’s similar to the whole process of writing this memoir. It’s all about exposure, revealing secrets and letting strangers and friends see parts of me long kept hidden.
So I take a deep breath…blink…and hope I’m ready to see what this new reality will bring.