The world opened up when I could see clearly. For the first time.
There’s no telling how long I would have watched the world through dirty aquarium glass. I still thank God for my fifth-grade teacher.
It was Mr. Wehling, not Mama or Daddy, who recognized my problem. I credit him with helping me appreciate the beauty around me. Watching as I squinted my eyes, moving my head up and down, back and forth, peering at the blurry letters on the blackboard, he never said a word to me. He didn’t want to embarrass me. Instead, he called Mama and suggested she set up an eye exam.
That exam unleashed a sharper, more vibrant world than I had ever imagined.
The doctor’s frustration pulsed through the room as I tried my best to identify letters on the wall. I felt like I was failing a school test, letting him down somehow. He wasn’t irritated with me, he just couldn’t believe my vision was that bad. A sharp click echoed in my ears when he flicked on the light before I finished. “Darlin’, you can’t see anything past here, can you,” he asked, holding his hand six inches in front of my face. Mama looked like she’d been stuck with a pin, her expression a mixture of shock and guilt.
Mama didn’t like having to take off work, and when she did, I was most often the cause. I was a clumsy kid, often with a limb encased in either a full cast or Ace bandage. But at least those were issues other people could see and doctors could fix. The doctor couldn’t find a reason for the pain searing my stomach at odd times, or the recurring headaches I had suffered for a couple of years. She had taken me to our family doctor several times for both, always with the same result. The rest of my family thought I was a hypochondriac.
While she usually took up for me, Mama must have decided I was a hypochondriac, too, because when she picked me up that afternoon, she was not happy. On the way to the eye doctor’s office she said, “You’d better pray there’s something wrong with your eyes, Stephie. I can’t be taking off work all the time for nothing.”
That was the pin sticking her. If she would have been another kid, I probably would have put both hands on my hips, stuck out my tongue then hissed, “Told ya so!” But I felt bad for Mama. She was obviously remorseful.
Our next stop was at the optical lab. Sitting like a live mannequin, Mama placed and replaced glasses on my face. After what seemed to be forever, she finally found a pair she liked, never thinking to ask me what I thought about them. We couldn’t take the glasses home with us, thank goodness. They wouldn’t be ready for a week, and I was plenty fine with that fact. I wasn’t looking forward to being the only four eyes in fifth grade. Or in my family. Life was not fun for a kid who stood out. Besides, I didn’t like the frames Mama had chosen for me.
Grumbling and griping that whole week, I make sure everyone around me knew I was being forced to get the glasses. But I’ll never forget the moment they first sat on my face. The weight between my eyes, not heavy but present, the gentle tug behind my ears, these were unfamiliar feelings. And I could sense they were about to change my life. I had no idea how much until Mama and I headed home.
For the first time in my ten years, I could see separations between similar objects. Other senses seemed to also be strengthened and I noticed life around me in a way I had never experienced.
Gazing out the car window I watched wispy clouds float above, playing chase through a robins’ egg sky. Cars moved around us, and I could hear tires, soft against warm asphalt. They’d stick then peel away, like a bandaid separating from my skin. Motors hummed and children rode a merry-go-round, colors whirling: green, blue, yellow, red.
The sun was warm on my face as I perched against the door, arms spread across the open window, hands cradling my chin. Wind blew through my hair, stripping strands from my ponytail. A rush of exhaust fumes from a bus we were passing brushed against my skin. They entered through my nose and danced down my throat, escaping here and there into caverns behind my jaw. Smoke mixed with the smell of sweet gasoline tickled my nose. For a moment I felt lightheaded, a tinny taste on the back of my tongue.
I had said nothing since we left the glasses shop. Mama was quiet, too. She watched as my brain woke up, as if I was seeing the world around me for the first time. I was.
When Mama pulled the station wagon into our driveway, I sat still for a moment, not opening the door. “Mama!” I exclaimed. “I can see every leaf on the tree!”
Instead of viewing green blobs on a brown trunk, I saw hundreds of separate leaves, each one clearly outlined. As my eyes wandered higher into the tree, the sound of a chirping bird pricked my inner ear. Searching for his hiding place, I found his blue feathers. They seemed to glow while he sang, “Do you see me?
As I opened the car door, I looked down at the ground and felt lightheaded again. I teetered back and forth, my brain trying to balance my body. Mama explained it would take a bit for my mind to adjust to the distance between near and far, now that I could see.
I stood in front of the house where I had lived four years, really seeing it for the first time. From the sidewalk I could see the living room drapes, framing our picture window. I could see the lines separating shiplap planks that ran the length of the exterior. Looking across the street I saw yellow roses blooming on bushes around our neighbor’s house. Her fat alley cat was laying on the concrete sidewalk. His tail rose and fell like a paper fan, white and orange stripes dripping into his round belly.
Reaching down I let my fingers brush along the edge of our lawn, grass bristling against the tips. “Mama! I can see every single blade!”
Glancing over to where Mama was leaning against the car, I saw her eyes filling with tears. She was trying her best to blink them back inside.
It took a while to get used to wearing glasses, but I never really liked them. Once the newness of sight wore off, they became a hindrance. They’d slip down my nose when I got hot and sweaty, which was most days since neither our house nor my school had air conditioning. On the few days winter nosed around, they’d fog up when I ran into the warmth from outside. But the worst was when I was accidently elbowed in the face and they smashed into my nose or behind my ears. Still, I was glad I could see.
Over the next five years different colors and shapes relaxed on my face, but the lenses got thicker and uglier. They distorted my eyes and I wrestled with dueling emotions. As much as I wanted to see my world while moving through it, I had come to despise the face staring back at me when talking to the mirror.
I wasn’t the only one feeling the struggle.
Mama never once said anything critical of my glasses, at least not to me. I often wondered if she noticed how bad they made me look. Dee Dee called me four eyes when she got mad, knowing it would hurt my feelings, and Daddy poked fun a couple of times, but no one dared if Mama was within earshot.
Confidence had never been my strong suit anyway and, fearing the four eyes would further damage my self-esteem, Mama morphed into a pit bull. No one was allowed to say anything bad about the glasses, especially not me. She saw the same face everyone else saw, she just didn’t want me to see it, as if ignoring the view would make it go away. Trying to make me overlook the obvious was pure paradoxy. But so was Mama.
At fifteen I was as tall as my teachers, further developed physically than any of my friends, a clumsy four-eyed teenager who was going to stand out among her peers, no matter what. Oh, and I was starting high school. Confidence, if she were a person, wouldn’t have dared approach me.
The frames had become better looking over the years, but nothing short of a miracle was going to thin out the lenses. I prayed for that miracle, but it never came. At least not like I expected.
Not known for frivolity, and still not willing to take off work except for emergencies, Mama caught me off guard one afternoon during summer break.
“By the way, Steffie, you and I have an appointment tomorrow afternoon at TSO.” Headed to her bedroom, she casually dropped that bit of news as she passed me in the hallway.
My breath caught in my throat and my thoughts flew around like a ping pong tournament ball, trying to make sense of what she had said. TSO? Texas State Optical? Mama and me? Tomorrow?
“Did you hear me, Steffie?” she asked over her shoulder, as she walked through her bedroom door.
“Uh. Texas State Optical?”
“That’s what I said.” Her head popped through the bedroom door, eyes expectant, grinning like a mischievous kid.
“Texas State Optical,” I repeated as the ping pong ball paused in mid-air, reluctant to move another millimeter without confirmation.
“Yes! Texas State Optical. You and me. Tomorrow at four. Whadya think?”
Think? I couldn’t think. The air around me started to twirl as tears stung my eyes. TSO? I didn’t go to TSO for my glasses. Did that mean . . .
“We’re going in to get you contacts, Stephie,” Mama answered, hearing my unspoken question.
“Oh, Mama,” I cried, running, nearly knocking her over as I tackled her in a hug.
We did go to TSO the next day, and she didn’t complain about having to take off work. A few days later, on a Saturday, Mama took me back to pick up the plastic discs that would settle over my pupils and change my life once again. This time we both smiled as we walked into my future.
I could see my world as clearly as ever, and I could see my own eyes, shining back at me. I knew God was in my corner, and I believed I’d never have to ask for another favor.