This is a good week.
My left eye has finally stopped aching. The vision in my right eye seems sharper, and last night I watched the sunset in Los Angeles from a ledge in Runyon Canyon without blinking excessively or drowning my eyes in preservative-free drops. During the bad weeks the drops, steroids, and warm compresses don’t do much good and sunsets sometimes hurt my eyes.
However, I can always rely on my third eye, the one that’s powered by a rechargeable battery and rests in my hand.
For the past four years I’ve seen the details of the world through my camera, either the Nikon that resides in my backpack, or the iPhone tucked away in my front pocket.
Unlike my eyes, which have been through five surgeries, penetrated by multiple lasers, absorbed gallons of drops and steroids, and endured endless tests, my electronic eye is always dependable and less temperamental.
It’s allowed me to see the sharp details of the English countryside, Chilean mountain ranges, and vistas in Hong Kong. Once the photos are in my laptop I can really zoom in and closely examine what I may have missed: The patterns of feathers on birds, or smile lines on faces. They’re small but important bits. When you work as a travel writer sometimes little things are vital to telling a story. Other times they’re important simply because they make me smile.
The story of how my camera became my third eye began in the Cayman Islands in the winter of 2016. On a December evening I jumped into a rental car and raced to the western side of the island to get pictures of the sunset. My obsession with sunsets nearly rivals my obsession with cats. Mission accomplished, I returned to the hotel on dark, narrow roads that were intermittently illuminated by weak streetlights.
I felt like Mr. Magoo trying to read street signs while tackling a seemingly endless series of roundabouts. I had been mildly nearsighted most of my adult life, but in the months leading up to Magoo-ing my way through the Caymans, I noticed my vision changing dramatically. Colors were not as crisp and details were increasingly dim.
An optometrist checked my eyes, ran all the usual tests, and concluded that because I was over 40, my eyesight was simply changing. I was given a new prescription for contact lenses and sent on my way. That helped for a while, but then it didn’t. Relying more on my camera than ever, I began taking dozens, and then hundreds of pictures in my travels.
The second optometrist I saw was also confused as to why my vision was decreasing at a rapid clip. She also ran tests, and found nothing wrong, aside from the fact that my eyes were abnormally dry. Very dry. On the second visit, she figured out what was going on. I had cataracts.
Cataracts are usually not a big deal. The fix is a quick, generally painless outpatient surgery where the clouded lens is removed from the eye and replaced with a new, artificial lens. According to the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, 3 million Americans undergo cataract surgery annually. It’s not unheard of for someone in their 40s to have cataract surgery, but it’s also not particularly common.
As someone who was fortunate enough to have never needed surgery up to this point, I was absolutely terrified. On the day the Patriots celebrated a Super Bowl win with a parade through the city, I had the 10-minute procedure, and with the cataract gone and my new lens in place, I groggily rode the Red Line home wearing those stylish wraparound cataract glasses on a train full of tipsy, rowdy football fans.
With the vision in my right eye remarkably improved, life got back to normal. I could ease up slightly on my use of photography as a crutch. The improvement was short-lived.
Three months after cataract surgery, while in Australia on my honeymoon, everything went foggy in my newly repaired eye. My peripheral vision began shrinking. The following week in Montreal it continued to decline, so back in Boston I returned to the ophthalmologist with dread.
“You need surgery,” the doctor told me. “You need surgery today.”
My retina, the layer at the back of the eyeball where a visual image is formed and sent to the brain, had dangerously detached in two places. I understood this was serious and could lead to permanent vision loss, but it was also five days before I was slated to take my mother to England for a story. I called her in tears. This wasn’t self-pity. I felt as if I was letting her down by canceling the much-anticipated trip.
The next call was to my editor. Again, I felt like a failure. She was stuck with a travel writer who wouldn’t be able to travel. The recovery for my retina surgery required me to stay face-down for 22 hours a day, for an entire week. The positioning would allow the bubble of gas inserted into my eye to hold the retina in place while it healed. I was also unable to get on a plane for at least six weeks after the surgery.
The trip with my mother was eventually rescheduled, but others were not. There would be no Vancouver, no Seattle, or Los Angeles.
It didn’t end there. My eyes betrayed me again and again. A few months after the retina in my right eye healed, the retina in my left eye detached. I underwent another surgery and another week of lying still for 22 hours a day while the gas bubble did its thing. After the six-week recovery period, the left retina detached a second time and I had another surgery, another gas bubble, more canceled trips. Weeks, and then months of my life passed by.
The doctors weren’t able to figure out why this was happening. But my family has had issues with vision, so I’ll attribute it to bad genes.
Whenever I was given the OK to travel between these bouts I would hustle myself on a plane, boat, or train. I was despondent, but determined. At this point I still needed cataract surgery in my left eye. Meanwhile, the new lens in my right eye began getting hazy so I underwent laser surgery to clear it. But through it all my trusty third eye never let me down. I clicked my camera endlessly through Italy, Mexico, and Argentina, savoring and appreciating the beauty of it all. My vision may have been wavering, but the pictures were always consistent. When my eyes weren’t sharp enough to take it all in, my camera could. My dependable, clicking friend.
Sometimes I’ll drag myself home feeling battered by a time change after a trip. Other times on the road I’ll get terribly homesick, or feel exhausted. Despite it all, I remain grateful that I have the opportunity to see the world, and I refuse to let unpredictable vision get in the way of adventure. When I’m lucky, my vision is fantastic, nearly perfect, for months at a time. When I’m not lucky I’m battling some complication, be it cystoid macular edema, severe dry eye, or whatever gets thrown my way.
This is not a deterrent. I refuse to let my genetically inferior eyes sideline me.
I also know my situation is minor compared to the many, many others who are visually-impaired, so I don’t complain. Instead I make sure my phone and camera are always charged.
Believe it or not, there’s something good that’s come of this nightmare. More than once I’ve been told that I take beautiful travel photos. What these folks don’t know is that when you take as many pictures as I do, you’re bound to wind up with at least a couple of decent shots.
I love the mundane details that my third eye has picked up over the years. If I had 20/20 vision I probably never would have noticed the tiny wildflowers sprouting from craggy cliffs in Portugal, the moss covering gargoyles that guard 17th-century castles, or the grime on diner jukeboxes. Who has the time to take note of such things?
Thankfully my third eye has the time to soak up these details. It kindly holds them for me. I may not know what will happen with my vision next, but at least I know that the electronic extension of my body will help me keep going. It has preserved an era of my life that I treasure as deeply as I treasure sunsets, cats, and peppermint stick ice cream.
OK, that’s enough of feeling sorry for myself. Please, excuse me. It’s time to plan my next trip.