When I was in the Fourth grade, a nurse came into our classroom at Farmer School and taped an eye chart with lots of letter E’s to the chalkboard. One at a time, each student got up from his desk, stood behind the piece of yellow tape the nurse stuck to the floor, held a piece of cardboard to cover one eye, and stared straight ahead at the chart, turning his hand up, down, right, or left, depending on which way the tines of the E pointed.
When it was my turn, I stood behind the yellow tape. I looked toward the chalkboard. But I didn’t see any E’s, not even the biggest one at the top of the chart.
I’m not even sure I saw the chart.
The nurse whispered to the teacher. I went home with a note to my parents to take me to a doctor immediately. In a few days, I slid on my first pair of glasses, ugly brown plastic frames that made me look bookish and nerdy in the way no elementary school student wants to look.
But still. I was lucky. My school recognized pretty early on that I had vision problems — but it wasn’t that way when my mother was in school.
Back then, nobody noticed how close she sat to the chalkboard. No one noticed how she leaned in to her schoolbooks, to try to see the print. No one noticed how she squinted when she tried to read.
Why didn’t you go to a doctor, Mama?
She shrugs. Just wasn’t something anyone did. Not children, anyway. Her teacher didn’t know she was having trouble seeing. Her parents didn’t, either. Nobody talked about it.
She got her first pair of glasses when she was 16 years old; as it turned out, she couldn’t pass the driver’s test and wasn’t allowed to get her license without glasses. So for the first time, she went to a doctor. He told her she’d be blind by age 35.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but I don’t remember ever seeing my mother without her glasses. They’re just a part of her face, the same way I recognize the beauty mark near her mouth, and to me, those glasses are mostly invisible anyway. When I look at her, I see past the glasses to her green eyes instead, the beautiful ones that light up when my dad smiles at her. The ones that sparkle when she laughs. The ones that shine when she hugs me.
A few months ago, my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration. The doctor changed her glasses prescription; the lenses are thick, and she’s adjusting. He gave her some pills to take. He told her that he’d monitor the condition.
She doesn’t talk about it, but I know she’s worried.
My mother looks at everything now as if she’s seeing it for the first time. She drinks her coffee by the kitchen window in the morning and watches for the yellow finches to come. She notices the moon rising at night. She looks — really looks — at her little brother’s face when he visits, and at her friend Linda when they go out for a sandwich at Subway. She watches my dad when he nods off to sleep in his chair. It’s as if she’s memorizing every detail, locking these images into some kind of a brain vault, visions she can retrieve when she closes her eyes.
It won’t matter how thick her glasses get, or how much her vision deteriorates. My mother sees with her heart. And I don’t know of a more beautiful sight than that.