Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
The Deep Gray Anger
“So…two of us meet,” I heard someone say as I was tapping down 9th St. in Brooklyn at about 7 on a Saturday night. I was well occupied with grumping to myself about what a miserable subway ride it had been, so at first I wasn’t sure if it was directed at me or not. Still, I paused just in case.
I couldn’t see who’d spoken, but the man sounded old and smoke-torn. I didn’t recognize the voice and had no clue what specific attribute would make us “two” of anything. He didn’t say “the two of us,” after all—just “two of us.” But two of what?
I could sense that he was still standing there, just a couple of feet away. I didn’t say anything, but I’d stopped and drew the cane back in, so he knew he had my attention. Then he said, “I’m mostly blind, too.”
“Ah,” I said. The spotty camaraderie of the malformed.
“Do you have any vision at all left?” he inquired. It’s something not too many people ask. To most folks, it seems, if you have any vision at all, then you’re not really blind. They don’t realize that people who are profoundly, utterly blind are rarities. Most of us have a bit of light still creeping in.
“A little, yeah,” I told him, before explaining that I had RP. I introduced myself, and stuck out my hand to shake his, but soon realized it was just hanging there in the darkness, so I let it fall back to my side. I knew better than to be insulted. Then I asked, perhaps a bit crassly, “So what happened to you?”
He told me that he had glaucoma, and some optic nerve damage, and that he’d had several cataract operations.
“But I still got a little sliver left,” he said. “I’m trying to hold onto that.”
It didn’t sound like he had a cane or a dog with him, but he still seemed to be navigating the sidewalk pretty well in the darkness. Different kinds of blindness affect people in different ways, I know, but I have to admit I was a bit jealous.
We chatted a few brief minutes longer about our various conditions, then as he began to turn away he said, “Well, they’re working real hard in the labs for us.”
“Yeah, that they sure are,” I replied. We both knew, I sensed, that we didn’t have a chance.
We wished each other luck, then continued on our ways — him up the street, me down.
I don’t deal with many blind folks, simply because so many of them tend to be humorless and sour, convinced that God is pissing on them. Either that or they try desperately to overcompensate for their failing eyes, which is just kind of sad and futile, and tends to leave them humorless and sour anyway. In either case, they aren’t very much fun to be around.
This old man, though, whose name I never learned, seemed to have everything well in hand. He was resigned but straightforward about what he’d been dealt. I hadn’t caught that typical whiff of self-pity and martyrdom in his voice.
Granted, I may be drawing some awfully broad conclusions from a three minute conversation on a sidewalk. I don’t know what he’s like at home or when dealing with the sighted. I know nothing about his life prior to this. But as we spoke, briefly as we did, he seemed quite reasonable about the whole thing, taking it with a sigh and a shrug.
I’d like to believe that I take the fate of my own eyes in much the same way, but I’m not sure I can. I put on the Deal With It mask every morning, and more often than not even come to believe the mask. But sometimes it’s clear there are things going on underneath that mask that I’m not aware of , and which aren’t very pretty.
Talking with Morgan these past few weeks, a couple things have come up. It may be cliché, be she sometimes knows me much better than I know myself. She can hear a shift in the tone of voice or catch the gesture that reveals that the ol’ subconscious is banging on the door again.
In a fit of pique while we were talking one afternoon, I brought up an incident in which I’d dropped a contact lens on her bathroom floor. As I was patting around on the tiles under the sink, she stooped down and picked it up for me.
It was a silly, inconsequential incident—she was just helping me out—but it frustrated me, even cheesed me off a bit.
After I brought it up, Morgan pointed out that I was much angrier, deep down, about the eyes than I would like to admit.
I think she’s right. That stupid incident in the bathroom cheesed me off for the simple reason that I wasn’t able to find the damned contact myself. It’s a deep-seated frustration I run into a couple times a day. Even though on the surface I deal with things—I get around, I adapt as I can to situations, I’m the first (or at least second) to joke about it—I also realize that it would still be so much easier to just be able to see, and not have to worry about that crap.
It would be swell to go back to movie theaters, stroll comfortably down sidewalks, not worry that each step is going to drop me off a subway platform. It can be a wearying way to live sometimes. The resulting anger and frustration comes out in sly, insidious and nasty ways—and far too often ends up being directed at the one person who’s helped me more than anyone else—when there are so many deserving people out there. I think people would be surprised to know how many assholes there are who still shout names and insults at people using canes (caught me by surprise), and the number of folks who don’t know—or pretend they don’t know—what a red and white cane means.
Morgan reminded me of an old story from my high school years—long before I was ever diagnosed. Back then, I wanted nothing more in life than to be an astronomer. I even got myself a fancy-ass refracting telescope—only to learn very quickly that I couldn’t see anything through it except the moon. No stars, no planets. They were all too dim. This didn’t deter me, though—in 10th grade I joined the astronomy club, which was run by a science teacher I’d had 2 years earlier. I shouldn’t have been surprised, when we all went out on the school roof to observe Sirius at the first club meeting, to learn that I not only couldn’t see Sirius through the eyepiece—I couldn’t even find the eyepiece. And I had to be led over to the telescope itself.
As I left that night, the teacher made some crack behind me about getting a red and white cane. I laughed at the time, but it stung a bit. I was coming to the hard conclusion there was no way in hell I’d ever be an astronomer.
So it goes back a ways, I guess. Earlier than that, even.
Ah, well. Things have worked out for the best. I need to keep reminding myself of that. And every morning when I pout on the mask, I need to remember that old man on that Brooklyn sidewalk. Maybe like me, he’s realized, too, that there are bigger, far worse things to worry about.