Before the base closed to make way for the National Park, Lucasfilm, and the Thoreau Center, my mother and I drove regularly through the Presidio to buy cheap groceries at the commissary or to the Letterman Army Medical Center for visits to the pediatricians and then many eye doctors. My dad was in the military, and as a dependent, I received benefits that extended beyond my parents’ divorce.
I loved the drive that took us through the Arguello Gate, punching our car into an enchanted forest of Monterey pine, Monterey cypress, and the Tasmanian bluegum, a eucalyptus all the way from Australia. I did not know their names then, or that these seemingly primordial trees had been planted but a hundred years earlier. Inspired by the success of Golden Gate Park and Planted by the U.S. Army, these trees were meant to beautify the windswept brush lands that were an eyesore to the San Francisco Bay newcomers. It was no accident that the sudden woodlands reminded me of the enchanted New England greenery I looked longingly at in my mother’s pictorial atlas of America. The easterners who came to take over the Presidio after the Mexicans did not appreciate the sandy bluffs blowing into their windows or the scrubby barrenness sweeping down to the bay. So they made that landscape familiar by planting thousands of trees. And in those trees they nestled their Georgian Revival buildings for my mother to point to, with all the authority of having, for a few years, been the wife of an officer, “That’s the house of a general.” Or “those are bachelor quarters,” and I was duly impressed. One of those exotic brick buildings is now a boutique inn for tourists looking to enjoy amenities and hiking trails.
but this was the early ’80’s, at least ten years before the base was decommissioned, and long before I had need to know that the landscape was man-made. To my keen young eyes, it looked ancient, as if it were what San Francisco looked like under or behind all the people and buildings–prehistoric, darkly enchanting and full of dappled light. I could not know it was all fakery beyond those gates, all artifice and make believe.
In fourth grade, I suddenly couldn’t see the writing on the blackboard from the back of the class. I told my mother and she made an appointment at the optometrist. I was excited. Getting glasses seemed to me to be very grown up. We drove to one of the bungalows that lay in covered strips with wooden steps leading up to planked covered walkways, almost like an Old West town. The building was dark and creaky. I sat in the big chair and looked through the tiny eyeholes in the cartoonishly huge lens machine. I could not read the small print on the chart. Still, no matter how many times the lenses shifted and the doctor asked, “tell me if this one is better,” (click) “or this?” (click) “this one, or this one,” the line did not reveal itself to me. I was a child who wanted to please, so I tried very hard to see a difference. “Maybe, a little better.” I’d say, but there seemed to be no difference in any of the shifting lenses–no better anyway, only worse. Many of the lenses made my vision blurry. I did not know how to explain then that my vision had not been blurry before. I have never lived in a blurry world. My eye problems have nothing to do with focus. It was always a question of a lack of information, of a pixilated visionscape, of television fuzz, but I hadn’t the words then, or even much of all that was to come.
The optometrist prescribed some glasses, though he sheepishly explained that he could not get my vision down to 20/20. They did nothing to help me see the writing on the blackboard.
We went to another optometrist and then maybe an ophthalmologist. Again, there was the same clicking of lenses with its odd attendant sensations of shifting air currents so close to the eyeball, with no luck. “Maybe a little better.” Or “worse,” was all there was for me to say. After a long time, the eye doctor called my mother in and told us that he could not correct my vision.
Perhaps it was that doctor, or perhaps the next, possibly to allay my mother’s fears or perhaps to mitigate his own impotence, said, “Her eyes are growing too fast for her body.” Or maybe he said that my body was growing too fast for my eyes. That satisfied us for a little while.
Finally, we were referred from the bungalows to the main hospital–the building that has since been demolished to make room for the Letterman Digital Arts Center–to see the head of ophthalmology. This was when my mother began to worry that something queer and a little scary might be going on. Though My vision loss was not very impressive, maybe 20/40 in the worst eye, the head of ophthalmology could not offer a solution either. He sent me out of the room to talk to my mother, to berate her for bringing me to him.
In response to my mother’s worried summery–eye doctors offering wacky opinions and no answers–this brilliant man spoke lamely and with spite, “Maybe she can’t see because you’ve been taking her to so many eye doctors.”
This summit of ludicrous subterfuge, this apotheosis of smug defiance in the face of ignorance has oft been repeated by my mother and myself (who was loitering just outside the door, listening) as the climax in our sad little detective story: What was killing my sight?
My mother, never good at checking her emotions, allowed her voice to rise with tears and said, “then why can’t she read the writing on the blackboard?” She would not accept another answerless dismissal. To his credit, he did not dig in, but relented, perhaps embarrassed deeply, though on the surface the coolness remained. He called me back into the room and took another look into my eyes, with his headlamp and magnifying monocle, and saw…something. I can only imagine that it was a blip on the landscape of my retinas, a suggestion of that dystrophy that would grow into eventual blindness, or it may be that he saw nothing, but suspected something, something remembered from medical school or read about in an ophthalmology journal. Perhaps it was a eureka moment that sparked the intelligence of this head of ophthalmology–an intelligence that had been momentarily dimmed by ignorance. Maybe it was then that he remembered a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), or maybe it was later, but, in any case, the diagnosis would be forthcoming, and one which I would use for decades.
As it turned out, my eye disease did not present like RP–I lost my central vision first whereas most people with retinitis pigmentosa lose peripheral vision first, so that as it progresses, they experience an ever more restricted tunnel vision. My disease progressed from the center outward, albeit jaggedly, leaving pockets of living cells.
Thirty some odd years later, I’ve learn that my cone-rod dystrophy is caused by a gene mutation that remains unidentified. In a world of rare eye diseases, I have a really rare one. As I write, my blood is going its second round of genetic testing, and it may be that I have a mutation all my own.
Back then, a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa was at least a name, a thing I could tell people, and it was rare enough and unique. I was strangely proud, so that when at the end of that first year, I was sent across the road to the Letterman Army Institute of Research (LAIR) for observation and experiment, I was excited. For three days they ran me through a battery of tests–from organizing little disks of gradient colors to a primitive electroretinography (ERG), putting me into a dark room to measure the electronic firings of the photoreceptor cells in my retina. The ERG is standard procedure at retinal specialists now, but they were just figuring it out back then.
In my most recent visit to the ophthalmologist, after dilation and numbing drops a technician laid thin wires along each of my bottom eyelids and taped the ends to my cheeks and forehead to keep them in place. The thin wires were then connected to thicker ones that in turn made their way into a computer. But that first ERG, a lab rat was I, laying in the dark for many hours with my eyelids held open by grotesque contact lenses from which the wires sprung. That had been perhaps the scariest, but also the most important test I underwent at LAIR, one that likely contributed to the current state of the art technology that even suggests the possibility of a near-future cure.
I subsequently did a presentation on the experience. By that time, I’d moved from fourth grade to fifth grade, and in my private girl school, that meant a change in uniform, from green plaid bib dresses to sailor-style middies and pleated navy skirts.
My presentation on retinitis pigmentosa and my battery of testing at LAIR, with its photographs and little moments of humor, like when I described looking into a contraption to click a button when I saw (and did not see) a tiny red light move into and out of my visual field, as resembling nothing so much as staring for hours into an illuminated toilet bowl, got a laugh from my classmates. I also got some pointed questions from my teacher. Perhaps she, along with my other teachers, was concerned, but they did not let on. It was a small school and I was a scholarship child in a sea of very rich girls, so there was perhaps a lot of feeling sorry for me going on. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is just my grown up self who feels sorry for that little girl who tried so hard to make light of something scary and totally out of her control. Out of even the control of her mother and teacher’s and eye doctors too.
The progress of my eye disease has been the degeneration of my sight–progress and degeneration have thus been strangely confused in my mind since I was a kid. And today, it is not clear to me whether this long eye progression of sight to blindness, the slowest of calamities, akin to aging in its relentless and somewhat boring degeneration, has diminished or enhanced my life experiences. But human existence being what it is–complicated and fleeting–I imagine the answer must be both.
*This is the first of #52essays2017 written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read more about the project and the woman behind it HERE*