Was Blind but Now I See by
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(82 Stories)

Prompted By The Eyes Have It

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My father was born in Chicago in 1921, but spent most of his youth in Riverhead, Long Island, which he described as “mostly potatoes”.  It was a small town life, limited but comfortable enough as the son of a low-level oil company manager, even through the depression.   There were a few trips back to Chicago to visit his mother’s family until her health failed (possibly rheumatic heart disease) and she died shortly after his sister was born.  He was ten years old.  It must have been lonely.

My father was leaving the lecture hall when he stepped out of the doorway and a snowball—or more accurately, an ice ball—came hurling from the side and hit him directly across his open eye.

He was probably the first in his family to go to college, though he had little ambition.  He chose William and Mary in Virginia, mostly because a girl he liked was going there.  Despite the generally mild weather, when winter arrived it brought a big wet snowfall.  Naturally, the students promptly turned the quad into a free-for-all snowball fight.

My father was leaving the main lecture hall when he stepped out of the doorway when a snowball—or more accurately, an ice ball—came hurling from the side and hit him directly across his open eye.  It was incredibly painful and the light went out on that side.  He had suffered a detached retina.  The only treatment then was to have him lie as still as possible, his head sandbagged on either side, for months on end, in hopes that the tear would heal enough to preserve some vision.  His schooling was disrupted and he remained effectively blind in that eye for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, the US was about to enter World War II.  My father was now 4F and couldn’t enlist, so he continued in school once his eye was stable.  Eventually he was drafted despite the eye, and after some uncertainty over what to do with him, he was assigned to Japanese language school at the University of Michigan and Yale.  The world suddenly opened up.  The other students were smart, funny and came from cities across the US.  They challenged his narrow world view and awed him with new foods like “pizza pie”. And he was learning about Japan, a country literally on the other side of the world, with a completely different language.

When the war ended, the army posted him to Japan for several months, and he got to travel a bit, talk with local people and develop a lifelong fascination with Asia and  other countries.  Once he was released, he sought out a job that would take him to China, where he met and married my strong and liberal-minded mother.  When they had to leave in 1949, she encouraged him to return to school on the GI Bill and he became an agricultural economist working in developing countries.  His work led back overseas, and he never returned to Riverhead.

In a strange way, when that small-town boy lost his sight, it turned out that his eyes were opened to the world.

 

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    A detached retina was very serious, indeed, Khati. I remember coming home during my senior year in high school to see my father sitting in his favorite easy chair with one eye bandaged. He had a torn retina, which had just been repaired. This was 1970, so much later than your time frame, and in Royal Oak, MI. It was frightening to see my father like that (of course, he hadn’t warned us, not wanting to frighten us).

    I like the way you turn your father’s disability around to a positive – it gave him an opportunity to broaden his horizons, interact with a wider set of people and travel to distant places. It didn’t limit him at all (except perhaps his ability to drive). Great story.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I hope your father had a better result with the more modern treatments. My dad had some ability to see light and shadows, and was able to drive, but was legally blind in that eye. When he had a cataract in his good eye, they delayed replacement as long as possible since if anything went wrong, he would really be in trouble. But all went well and he was thrilled, especially since he could read and play piano better. I never heard him complain and often forgot he had the impairment.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    An amazing story, Khati, and one very different from many of our own stories about eye problems. Talk about quintessential silver linings. And what a beautiful, metaphorical final sentence!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Glad you didn’t mind riffing on the theme a bit. I had the good fortune to have had good vision until the inevitable changes in my fifties (readers and then bifocals etc), and didn’t suffer the taunts, contact lenses or debilitating issues others noted. But I understand much better now, and marvel at how my dad made it through without complaints all those years.

  3. Suzy says:

    Wow, this is quite a story. How terrible that some student, carelessly tossing a snowball, could cause your father to lose his sight in one eye. But as you show, there was a silver lining, in that he might never have done all those other things that he – and ultimately your whole family – benefited from.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Those are the sorts of connections that become clearer in, shall we say, retrospect? We all have incidents and accidents that take our lives in different directions, and hope there are silver linings for them all.

  4. Thanx Khati for your wonderfully written story about your father’s loss and ironically his gain.

    From your other stories I know of your parents’ admirable work abroad helping to better the wider world!

  5. Amazing story, Khati. Among my mom’s oft-repeated (and way too oft for my taste) was “a door never closes but another opens”. And what a door, in your father’s case !

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Often true about the doors, and a positive mindset is good, though sometimes it is hard to convince yourself that you are happy about what lies behind that new door. It may take some time for the consequences, good and bad, to become apparent. In this case I focussed on the good.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Beautifully told story about how your father’s loss of vision in one eye opened a new world for him and put him on a new life trajectory. I love your last sentence.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Thanks Laurie. It was one of those things you would never wish on yourself, or anyone, but it was a fork in the road that led to some unexpected benefits. Too bad I can’t run this story by him to see if he would see it that way, so to speak.

  7. Marian says:

    Enjoyed this story and the silver lining about what happened to your father, Khati. Interesting that he eventually got drafted. My niece’s husband just suffered a detached retina and had it repaired by laser. He had to limit some activities for a while but nothing like your dad went through. What a tremendous change in our lifetimes.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I think by the time my dad was drafted, their standards had lowered and they found assignments for non-combatants—which of course worked well for him ultimately. Eye surgery and treatment, including retinal and laser surgery, is one of the real success stories of our time, even if it can’t fix everything. Cataract surgery is almost always ridiculously fast and effective. I hope your niece’s husband is doing well.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    Truly a lemonade out of lemons sort of story, Khati!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Seems like my dad had a talent for that. That’s kind of the story of human existence too—we know our mortality and pain, but find a way to carry on, mostly. Wish I thought the task were becoming easier.

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