Image Courtesy of pulpolux. Shared via a creative commons license.
Nurse Parris calls me by my last name. She is always careful to call out softly from the entrance to my hospital room, and again, a little more loudly as she approaches the bed so she doesn’t startle me. Having a small room to myself off to the end of the ward makes up for the narrow bed, the thin mattress and the metal bars that are raised on each side to prevent me from falling off at night. Feels like I’m sleeping in a straightjacket but at least I was sleeping alone.
She wheels the cart close to the bed and lowers the bed rails. We’re old hat at this by now. I sit up and swing my legs off the bed, rest my feet on the stool, extend my right arm and raise the sleeve of my shirt so she can wrap the cuff of the BP monitor around my upper arm. The machine clicks to life. I can hear the beeps and clicks and whirrs in the darkness and feel the slow pressure of the cuff on my arm build.
“160/95” she says.
I know it’s still too high; she doesn’t have to say it. She takes off the contraption from my arm.
“How the eye feeling?”
“Can you take this thing out of my hand yet?”
I lift my right hand and gesture to the access catheter that was inserted into the fleshy pad between my thumb and forefinger two days ago.
“It hurts. And it feels a bit swollen. Do they need to take more blood?”
“When doctors come they will say.”
She puts the tiny red pill in one hand and a cup of water in the other. I can feel her standing next to me, watching me swallow. I do and she takes the cup back.
I lift my legs and push my way back onto the bed, carefully so I don’t accidentally bump the access. I can see its long stem just under my skin, keeping the vein open. I can hear Parris re packing the machine onto the cart.
“Going off shift. Gordon coming on. If she give you trouble let me know. She’s alright but she’s new.”
I open both eyes slowly, testing. It is not yet morning. In full daylight the room is a dirty colour that was once perhaps some kind of sea green but now it was all soft shadow. The light through the small window is blue and the ward is quiet except for the beeping sounds. She pauses, looking too. No luck. I still see two Parris’s standing in front of me, two BP machines, two screens, two bedframes, four feet where there should be two and way too many cardboard envelopes with too many charts and tests and scans. If I close my right eye, the world shrinks and there’s one of everything again. If I close my left, there’s no way to make sense of what I see. The world expands into a blurred contorted everything.
She watches me try to make sense of my eyes.
“Same way still?”
“They look the same too.”
I close my eyes and lie back on the bed. I can hear the squeak of her shoes on the tiles and the BP cart rolling away.
It happened on a Sunday. I had been doing nothing special. The hours passed the way hours tend to pass on a Sunday – slowly and unremarkably – when I felt the smallest of pops in my right eye and my vision became crowded with blurry doppelgängers.
I closed my eyes. Opened them. Same. Rubbed my eyelids shut. Waited. Opened again. Same. Tightness now, not pain, something else. Can you pull a muscle in your eye? Had I had too much gin? Then there were two corridors, two doors, two floors – to take a step was to be unsure whether my foot would connect with solid tile or hover in mid-air – two bathroom sinks, two bathroom mirrors, too many bulbs, too much light. Two faces in the mirror, two blurry right eyelids that had drooped low, loose, swollen and halfway shut, and two right irises now in the far quadrant of the socket. I tried to focus my right eye (both of them?) in the same direction, forward. Nothing. I closed them again took a deep breath and counted to ten. Opened them. My left eye and its blurred twin seemed unnaturally large by comparison but more or less looked the way it had the when I had woken up that day. But my right eyelid remained drooped and my right iris, acting on it’s own accord, had drifted decidedly off to the right. Two faces stared at me in the mirror, four eyes, none of them looked like they belonged to me.
Doctors probably practice that blank, vaguely pleasant look for years and get tested on it in medical school. This one had it down. I sat on the gurney and tried not to let the white walls of the clinic, the biting cold AC, the shiny chrome of the gurney railings, the wheelchair parked in the corner get to me. He lifted his index finger and moved it from side to side in front of my eyes, asking that I follow the movement. I couldn’t even tell whether I was doing it or not.
There hadn’t been
“No discomfort at all?”
Truth was, I felt fine. Puzzled but fine. Disoriented, amused at the turn my evening had taken, but fine. My friend and I laughed. We had been laughing since he picked me up to go to the hospital. How surreal for my eyes to rebel like this, on a Sunday. How odd not to recognize ones own gaze in the mirror.
When the doctor came back to repeat the exam, another one joined him, and another. They looked on, their faces just as inscrutable. I remember thinking that standing together like that, they looked like tall white crows.
“So doc, I going to be ‘cokey-eye’ in the wrong direction forever?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he took my blood pressure. It was 192/112.
I giggled at the figure and then I laughed and then I couldn’t stop laughing. I was the only one.
‘Possible right posterior communicating aneurysm’.
‘Ptosis with pupillary sparing’
The neurosurgeon in the fancy office said the words aloud and wrote them on a blank sheet of white paper. Who would have thought that anything so complicated-sounding could be going on in my body? Nothing was funny any more. Not even a little. The word ‘aneurysm’ hung in the air. Those were for old people, sick people, weren’t they?
“How?” I asked. I wasn’t even sick. I felt fine.
He looked up at me over his glasses, his hair shining under the fluorescent lamp in his office.
“I just quit a month ago.”
“How many years?”
“Umm…fifteen, maybe? Off and on?”
“Yeah, That would do it” and continued writing.
I listened to him talk. At just 36 years old there was a weakness in an artery in my brain. A bulge. It was probably small but pressing against the third nerve, which runs from the back of my brain to my eye and controls movement. A blood pressure spike, strong emotion, stress, any number of things could cause it to rupture now. He went on about MRIs and DSAIs, about health insurance, about the pros and cons of different types of brain surgeries, about the inevitable deep scar that surgery would leave on my skull and whether I should shave my head to show it off the rather than hoping my hair grew back fast enough to hide it. A couple of hours ago I would have laughed at that. Instead I surreptitiously tested my right eye, opening it just a little, hoping that by some miracle my vision had corrected itself and I would be able to read the scrawl on the white piece of paper. It looked like fuzzy spiders marching in the snow.
Three years earlier, almost to the day, my mother died. There had been no warning; she never grew old. One minute there was a mountain there and the next minute there wasn’t. I was miles away when I heard, unable to return. Each night I walked around the strange city, in a coat too warm for the weather, looking, looking…
There was no moon in the city for me to howl at.
I am at the fresh grave. It is not the funeral. It is the first day I have gone on my own since then. A grave is a mouth in the earth. If you stand too close it will swallow you whole. How soft it must feel to be swallowed.
The machine is a plastic coffin. They put me inside and anchor my head so I cannot fidget. Cover my ears so I cannot hear. I am planted in it like a seed. The dirt seals my throat. White noise seals up my nostrils. There is no breath when they lower me into the hole in the ground. Beep. Beep. Surely, I am dying; this must be dying. This must be what it feels like to die. DaddyMummyDaddyMummyDaddyMummyMummyMummy.
But they are in the place that they are and I am here in the plastic box in the ground.
I am not sure which is which.
Three days, several clear CT and MRI scans and two puzzled specialists later, I didn’t have an aneurysm. Instead, I had become a case study. I had an aneurysm that wasn’t there, a stroke that never showed up, and a neurological issue that the neurosurgeons couldn’t find. There was nothing wrong with me, except the oddness of my vision. There was nothing to treat me for except my high blood pressure. The cast of doctors that gathered at the foot of my bed increased daily. I should have been happy but I couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness. I should have had a date stamped on my forehead, a surgery date with an unspoken shadow date attached to it, the ‘if they don’t get it in time’ date, the ‘if things go wrong date’, the ‘so soon after both her parents’ date, but I didn’t. I would not be gone like the mountain that suddenly wasn’t there nor would I fade slowly, and dry up like an ancient sea. Instead I was to wait – an oddity, a mystery, not even as certain as a miracle.
That was when I started taking the pictures. I became fascinated by the fact that the camera on my iPhone could see things in a way that I couldn’t. That it could decide all on its own what to replicate no matter what lies my vision told. Sometimes I would keep both eyes closed and move the phone around the room slowly, blindly, clicking, clicking, clicking. I could move around now – slide off the bed, feet on the linoleum floor, navigate the meal tray contraption on wheels, the curtained screen that separated my bed from the one next to me that had been empty since the day I arrived, feel my way over to the small window. I’d let the eye of the camera look through it – click click.
I liked letting the camera do all the seeing. Sometimes I’d move my hands quickly, frenzied, click, clicking, forcing the camera to see as I saw – blurry streaks of nothing. Sometimes I would take video of my feet, my hands. Sometimes I’d squeeze my right eye shut, leave my left eye open as long as I could, putting all the strain of vision on one eye until it throbbed and it too grew blurry. Sometimes the room was less crowded, just for a minute and the ghost seconds of all the objects in the room seemed to fuse just a little with their originals. Then they’d spring apart again. Other times I’d keep both eyes open to allow the inevitable, disoriented feeling to wash over me, embracing the multiplication of everything, then find a spot, any spot, aim and click allowing the camera to make whatever picture it wanted.
“I thought you couldn’t see?” Parris asks as she comes to bring me lunch and check my blood pressure, “What you taking pictures of so?”
“It’s not that I can’t see. I’m not blind, not really. It’s that my eyes aren’t working together anymore. One sees fine straight on and the other is lazy and blurry and looking in another direction. It’s like two people looking but with only one pair of eyes.”
She looks at me appraisingly while she takes my blood pressure. I have forced both eyes open today – the right is tentative, the left is tired.
“Looking better today.”
“Yes. I can force the two images into one now if I try hard but it is exhausting.”
“What doctor say this morning? They didn’t update the file.”
“They don’t know. They take more blood. More tests. Yesterday it was multiple sclerosis. Today the new theory is something called myasthenia gravis. You ever hear about black people getting that? In real life?”
“Bp is 145/88. Better.”
She wraps up the chords and starts to wheel the machine away.
“In here, everybody does get everything in real life.”
One night I dreamed I couldn’t see. I had been walking for a long time. I could tell when I was in a city by the sounds of cars, the feel of bodies brushing or bumping past me, the smell of lives being lived. I could tell when I was near a sea cliff because the air would smell like salt and I could hear the ocean crashing on rocks below. I could tell when I was in the bush because the air smelled green and wet and I could feel mud between my toes. Everything was half of itself. Behind my lids each place had its own colour and shape, like my damaged eyes had made a picture composed from memory and smell and sense, developed it in a darkroom made from my neural pathways and projected it, half-formed on my inner eyelids. In the dream my blindness was obvious only to me. I kept doing things I wouldn’t normally do, that no one would normally do. People would applaud thinking I was brave or unusual but it was just that I couldn’t see.
A few days later I was discharged. No myasthenia gravis. No multiple sclerosis. No autoimmune disease. No stroke. No aneurysm. My twin vision had reconciled slowly, a bit each day as my blood pressure decreased until both irises faced front and I could ‘see’ again. My people were relieved. They threatened me with exercise and broccoli and poured my gin down the sink. I laughed. All was well and all would be well.
Except vision and sight are not the same things. And being well isn’t the same as feeling well. For days, weeks after I am aware of my sight being somewhat slower. There is a split second delay in response time to things out of the corner of my eye, several near car accidents, a sudden inexplicable feeling when I look at the ground that I have miss-stepped and my foot is surely about buckle under me, a feeling that someone has lightly tugged on the rubber band that holds my right eyeball in place, just for kicks, to tease me.
My eyes stop responding to glasses. A visit to the optician reveals that my astigmatism has somehow vanished. I now don’t need glasses for the first time in almost twenty years, yet I am hyper aware of my vision. I consider what my eyes feel like when I wake up, what they feel like when I am tired. I look at them in the mirror. I take pictures of my face just to see whether they look strange. I fuss over the customary redness from broken capillaries after I pull an all-nighter working or reading. I keep looking, looking at things and assessing my eyes – how did that feel? Was that ok? Was it?
Whenever I have a scheduled follow up appointment at the neurology clinic, I take a detour and walk past the ward. I don’t want to disturb them but depending on the time I get there, I walk along the long outer corridor, and look in the row of windows so I can see the nurses as they make their rounds, see the beginnings of the short corridor that leads to the tiny room stuck in corner that had been mine. All the beds are full. Then as it does every time, a booming voice cries out,
I look up and see her seeing me through the window slats. She doesn’t smile. She never does.
“Parris!” I raise my hand to her.
She doesn’t pause her work. She is standing with a clipboard in hand, looking over the shoulder of another nurse and watching her attend to a patient.
“You seeing me good, Lloyd?”
I smile. Her uniform that had looked starched white before is actually a faint lilac colour.
“Yeah man, Parris, I seeing you good.”
I head to the elevator at the end of the corridor. I hope I am right.
Ayanna Gillian Lloyd is a fiction and life writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Her work has appeared in The Caribbean Writer,, she has been featured in the Bocas LitFest Who’s Next? showcase, shortlisted for Wasafiri’s New Writing Prize and is the second place winner of the 2016 Small Axe Literary Competition.