|Poet Nin Andrews. Photo credit: Michael Salinger.
When I was a girl, whenever my father took the family photograph for the annual Christmas card, he gave me a choice: Look down at your feet or look to the side. You don't want the whole world to see your crossed eyes, do you? My father always worried about appearances. He was embarrassed because I have an eye disorder called strabismus, which means that while one eye looks straight ahead, the other crosses. As I age, the eye that crosses will sometimes drift to the outside.
I spent most of my childhood trying to hide my eyes, glancing up at people quickly and then looking down or away. I liked to wear dark glasses and pretend I was blind. At school during recess the boys teased me. You sure are ugly with them crossed eyes. Usually I pretended not to mind. Or not to hear. But one day, I answered back, Yeah? Well, you look like your mama mated with a rhino! The teacher made me go inside. I had to stay after school and write lines. Nice girls do not say mean words.
My parents took me to every eye doctor in town, but no one could fix my eyes. So they sent me to visit my grandmother in Boston who found a research doctor who specialized in strabismus. That doctor is the only man I’ve ever met who was thrilled with my eyes. You're my perfect specimen, he said. He offered to work on me for free. My mother sent him a ham every Christmas as payment.
For fifteen years I flew to Boston for eye tests. Each time I was met by a team of medical students. Each time the doctor would explain I needed another surgery. I had five eye operations, and I still need another. Before each surgery, the doctor would explain that the muscles on the sides of the eyes are like shoelaces, and he just needed to tighten them up a bit. But only a bit. If he tightened them too much, the eyeballs would stay on the outer corners of my eyes.
After each surgery, I was very sick. I had trouble with the anesthesia. Once they had trouble waking me up, and I had to spend a week in the hospital because I couldn't eat. But I hoped that when I took the bandages off, I would see eyes that were like everyone else's. I would examine my eyes carefully, noticing tiny red stitches in the whites of the eyes. For the last operation, I was awake. I could feel the faint tug in the corners of one eye as they tried one more time to stitch the eyeball into place. Although each operation improved my appearance, my eyes have never looked all right.
After a while, I gave up. And the doctor retired. I still heard people whisper behind my back. You're going out with the cross-eyes girl? Glasses helped, but I didn't bother wearing them. Now, when I'm tired or anxious, the eyes cross a lot. When I'm relaxed, they aren't as ugly. As an adult, I've stopped caring about them. Grown men and women (at least the sensitive types), I reason, don't laugh at people's deformities.
At least that's what I thought before I read at the KGB Bar in New York City a few years ago. I read with another poet, and the bar was crowded with his fans. He stood up and began his reading with a poem about the poet, Robert Duncan's strabismus. He introduced the poem by saying that when one of Duncan's eye was looking at you, the other was like an F-16 taking flight. In the poem, he described how Robert Duncan didn't have to look both ways before crossing a road. He could do it without turning his head. Everyone laughed as if this were the funniest joke ever told.
At first I felt tired, old, spent. I wondered if I should stand up, take off my reading glasses and see if everyone thought my eyes were as funny as Robert Duncan's. But then, suddenly, I didn't care. I, too, began to laugh. I can't explain it, but it was as if the laughter was a gift. As I laughed, I felt as if I were releasing years of fears, crushed hopes, and shame. I hate to sound Hallmark, but it was a truly healing event.
Though now, as I write this, I have to confess, there is a tiny part of me that wants to back to that reading, turn to the other poet and say, Yeah? Well, you look like your mama mated with a rhino.
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