Ideas

What I learned when I lost my eye

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Twenty years ago, on May 2, 1995, my mother met me for lunch holding a single red rose. It was a weekday, and she’d made the trip from Boston, where she worked, to Cambridge, where I was a senior at Harvard. We’d never met for lunch, but I didn’t give it much thought when she made the request. Maybe she wanted to talk graduation plans; maybe she was getting emotional about my launch into the real world. I had only an hour between classes, lunch would be quick, so I’d agreed.

We met at Bertucci’s, my choice. When I asked what the rose was for, my mom began to cry.

“Did something happen?”

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She shook her head.

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“Did I miss Mother’s Day?”

She fished a balled-up tissue from her purse. I realized she’d probably been crying in the car. “You didn’t miss Mother’s Day.” She dabbed at her eyes. “You really don’t know?”

The restaurant slipped into a kind of slow motion. The waiters, the Italian photographs on the walls, the heavy wood tables — everything suddenly seemed exposed to the murkiness of my inner life. It was as though some primary wall of identity, of how I presented myself to the world, had rotated like a fake bookshelf to reveal an abyss.

“Your accident was a year ago today,” my mom said. But by the time she said it, I already knew.

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The accident had happened on an ordinary Monday, a beautiful May afternoon. During a pick-up game of basketball, as we darted for a rebound, a boy’s finger curved behind my eyeball and severed its attachment to my optic nerve, the cable that connects the eye to the brain. The loss of vision to my right eye was permanent.

I thanked my mom for the rose but told her it wasn’t necessary. I told her while I understood her need to mark the date, I didn’t feel the need myself. The accident was behind me, I said.

“I just thought it was important,” she said. “To start a kind of ritual. To remember.”

My response wasn’t an aversion to ritual. I cherished holidays with my family, from Thanksgiving to Passover, in part because I recognized them as an opportunity to make meaning. And I wasn’t just a fair-weather ritual-lover. I knew how important it was to come together for funerals, for commemorations — knew that the words on such occasions, however inadequate, were less important than the fact of setting a day aside, of having everyone face the loss, and put a face on the loss, together.

But trauma, my trauma, felt different. For one thing, how do you mark the anniversary of something you’re still in the midst of? My peripheral vision on my right-hand side had lost 45 degrees. My depth perception was gone. Granted, I was no longer crashing daily in the dining hall, no longer spilling glass after glass of juice. I’d learned to reach until contact before trying to pick up a glass, learned to walk up to class late to avoid the crush of students. But the larger questions of reality and identity — of what I could trust in the physical world and in myself — weren’t something I could put into words, especially with my mother.

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In my 20s, I continued to struggle to feel solid in the world. It felt presumptuous to say the accident happened one year ago, then two years ago, then five years ago, because in a way, it hadn’t stopped happening. I dropped out of grad school, then lived in one rural, wide-open place after another — New Mexico, Idaho, Montana. I liked being able to see and hear a car for miles as it approached. My body wouldn’t let go of a new level of tension, of watchfulness. Eventually, I retreated into solitude in a house in northern Vermont, at the dead end of an unmaintained dirt road.

There, I developed my own rituals. Waking at dawn, tending the fire in the woodstove, walking or snowshoeing through the woods. They gave me comfort and gave the days meaning. But none of my rituals had directly to do with loss.

For the loss of a loved one, Judaism offers helpful guidelines for the period of mourning and the years that follow. But for personal trauma, in Judaism as in American culture at large, there are no rituals. Rather, there’s often silence. There’s often shame. There’s often the fear of assigning blame, the fear of who or what, going all the way up the ladder to God, might be implicated. Part of the difficulty, to be fair, is that the varieties of trauma are endless — they reverberate in unique ways through individuals, families, and communities. Every culture knows to prepare for death, but for particular traumas? For the loss of vision in one eye?

Even after my return from the Vermont woods, even after a Rip Van Winkle-period of adjustment to daily life, I wasn’t able to mark the anniversary of the accident. I’d found the perspective — in both senses of the word — necessary to return, but I’d only notice May 2 privately, and sometimes not at all. With trauma, the question of what you should forget is as pronounced as the question of what you should remember. And to commemorate the loss, to lay the track for a train of memories to come whistling through, seemed to be asking for trouble.

But this spring, something changed. Maybe it was that I’d now lived more years with vision in one eye than with vision in two. Maybe it was that I’d finished writing a book about the disorientation and search for meaning that followed the accident. Maybe it was that I finally felt as comfortable living in Boston as I’d felt living in the woods. Whatever the reason, I no longer felt the accident was still happening. It was a part of my life but had ceased to define it.

I called my mom, asked if I could see her and Dad on May 2. She didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” she said, “Yes, of course.”

We sat outside the Starbucks near my apartment. My mom teared up again. My dad patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. We didn’t need to say much. We were together. Time, and all the pain of the intervening years, was there among us. May 2, I understood, could be like a door jamb, a possibility for a yearly mark, a mark that might make visible the changes that otherwise would be hard to perceive. Commemoration was an invitation to vision. Which didn’t mean that each year I’d see the emotional equivalent of a few inches of growth. It only meant it would give me a day to check in, to feel the intervening time in the singular light of the accident. Minus the rose, it wasn’t such a bad idea.

After about half an hour, we stood up. I had a literary conference to attend. They had a funeral, a reminder that grief keeps coming. The day was warm, the traffic light. We continued on with our lives.

Howard Axelrod’s memoir, “The Point of Vanishing,” was released on Sept. 22.