|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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See how the Not Bob blog is getting a little more personal in 2012:
Poignant post this morning. I'm stunned at how cruel some people can be. Nin, you're perfect as you are and I'm happy you found this healing moment. If I were in that crowd with you, I'd be applauding you as you spoke the rhino comment. ;)
I'm willing to bet that there were many in the audience who laughed at the first poet, then noticed your eyes as you read, and made a connection that changed their attitudes forever. :)
Life is so much more enjoyable when seen over a smile. Cheers.
Andrea, it's amazing how cruel people can be, but it's even more amazing (to me, at least) how people can rise above the cruelty.
Let's hope so, Sharanya, even if just one person.
MrJodie, yes, it is. When terrible things happen in the Brewer household, I usually crack a joke. What else is there to do?
I agree with you, Robert. This story is an incredible example of rising above. I know it will stay with me.
Agree with Sharanya, all the way. One person's life-changing event can affect many others!
I hope Nin laughs as she thinks back on her "rhino" comeback!
Thank you Andrea! And Sharanya. And thank you Robert for posting this.
The strange thing about strabismus is that isn't consistent, but when one is stressed, the eyes go crazy.
So, that night in NYC, they were a mess.
But it was such a relief. To stand up and smile.
I, too, have an unusual eye "problem". I can see with only one eye at a time. I wear glasses, and my condition isn't noticeable. My left eye is dominant, and my right eye sees in a "peripheral vision" manner. If i close my left eye, i CAN see with my right, but it immediately feels strained. When I am driving, i have to turn my head further around to the right in order to check the lane before I merge.
About crossed eyes: i am unfamiliar with Nin's condition. However, i am one of six kids and many of us were cross-eyed. What our eye doctor of 50 years ago did was put clear eye-polish on the inside (nose) of our glasses, which forced our eyes to look straighter. Whether or not this helps YOUR condition, it might help someone else with a "regular" cross-eyed issue. Back then, a lot of common sense was used to help medical issues, and this is an inexpensive way to try.
This is so awesome. Nin, you've got the best comebacks! Ridicule is ridiculous. It takes much more skill for you to overcome your strabismus - and that deserves compliment rather than scorn. Inspirational stand. Thanks for sharing!
What fantastic writing. I really loved this piece--thanks so much for sharing it, Nin.
I'm just wondering if the first reader noticed your eye before he began. What do you do at that point, right? I mean, you have your material and you've got to go with it. But (if he realized) he must have been thinking, "What are the chances?!? I mean, really..." Which might provide you with a little laughter at his expense, too. :)
Shame on him for using his gift of poetry in such an unhelpful way.
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