When I was in first grade, I had eye surgery. The muscles that kept my eyes synchronized and focused were, in a word, bad. They needed to be manually shortened in order to be tight enough to work. The ophthalmologist had delivered the news very gently, holding my confused mother’s hand to comfort her. That alone had sent her ranting the whole car ride home.
“I mean, who does that? She knows what we’ve dealt with. This is kids’” stuff!”
My dad nodded in the passenger seat and let her vent. (There was a way to tie the conversation back to labor unions somewhere in that rant, and by God he was going to find it.) I stared at the stale fries below my feet and wondered how long my eyes were going to spend outside my head.
I tried to keep out of Mom’s way back then. It wasn’t that I was scared of her, of course. She was a decent mother, not a truly mean bone in her body. But she didn’t suffer fools gladly and was always quick to swoop in on a behavior she found “unacceptable.”
Most of the behavior I enjoyed doing was unacceptable, especially if it got in the way of my eye exercises. In fact, I’d begun to suspect that Mom wasn’t keeping the exercises on any sort of schedule. Rather, she held onto the idea throughout the day and deployed it the second I seemed to be enjoying myself the most. She’d wait ominously at the kitchen window, I imagined, eyes sizing up the height I was swinging up to every time. Waiting. Lurking. And then, just as I was approaching the record for highest swing, she struck!
“Dorian! Come inside and do your exercises!”
And I’d be forced to wear an eyepatch over the better eye and do “quiet, educational activities.” My mother was a dragon, ready to catch any escape attempts.
It was this fate that tormented nearly my every waking thought. In the many years I’d been trapped in this prison, I’d learned the best way to escape the exercises was to avoid being called to do them. If I laid low around the house, tucking into little spaces under tables and between bookshelves and such, Mom would often forget entirely about eye exercises, thanks to my three other siblings running wild about the place. And better yet, there was no way she suspected that I, the one who went into crying fits at the sight of a spider, would have the stomach for such underhanded tactics.
I thought a lot about how to lay low enough that my parents would forget the surgery entirely. It would have to be for a good, long time. Maybe even a couple days. And there was no place sneaky enough to hide, anyway. I stockpiled some graham crackers, still, in case I figured something out before my time was up.
A week before the surgery, I tiptoed down the hall in the middle of the night. It took ten minutes of very soft knocking to wake Mom up, but the face that opened the door didn’t look awake or very much like Mom at all. Her hair, usually an effortless sweep of auburn, was frizzy and tangled, hanging in her eyes.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
“I don’t think I need eye surgery.”
“You aren’t a doctor, Dorian.” Mom began shutting the door, but something hot welled up in my throat.
“Well, I read doctor books! And I do that with both of my eyes! So I don’t need surgery.”
Mom didn’t say anything. I ducked my head, suddenly embarrassed at waking her up. She bent down to give me a tight hug.
“I understand you’re scared, but this is happening whether you like it or not. I’m going to be with you the whole time, and so will Dad. Go to bed.”
The day of the surgery, I found myself sitting glumly in the prep room. Mom was silent next to me, tapping her shoes. She was short with my brothers getting them to school, she was shorter with my dad about tying my shoes for me, and she was shortest of all with a doctor that asked one too many questions about my medical history.
But when the nurse gave us the gown, Mom held my pants and shirt for me like they were glass. She ran a careful hand down the front of my shirt before folding it into my pants, then down into her purse.
“Can you tie my gown?” I asked her, still staring at the purse.
“Look at people when you talk at them,” she warned, but knelt behind me anyway.
The room softened and I felt my shoulders relax when she brushed my hair gently out of the way. She tied all three strings on my gown in that astoundingly confident way adults tie knots, then paused for a second to rest her hand on my shoulder.
I don’t know when exactly the anesthesia took me under. The moment is fuzzy, but I remember that Mom had set Lamby next to my hand the second I was in bed.
I awoke from a gooey sleep, sat up, and hurled. Then, I tried opening my eyes. The world pierced my pupils like knives, and I slammed my eyes shut again with a scream. Panic surged in my mind. It hurt. Would it always hurt? Would I be able to open my eyes again?
“I’m blind! I’m blind!” I hollered, burying my face in my hands. I heard a sigh from overhead.
“For Pete’s sake, you’re fine! The swelling will go down in a few days.”
I sniffled irritably and listened to the rustle of discharge papers being filed. Then Mom scooped me into her arms and carried me home.
Half-sick with adrenaline and anesthetic, I spent my first few hours of blind life vomiting in my bed. Lu, short for Lulu, short for Libby, short for Elizabeth, short for Elizabeth Shannon Claire Get-That-Out-Of-Your-Mouth-So-Help-Me-God, sat on the bed next to me and soaked in the sights since she knew I could not. Being the youngest of four had taught her to take advantage of any sense of superiority she could snag, and being the only girl after three boys had taught her to revel in the disgusting like a real champ.
“Your face looks gross. Should I get Mom?”
“No, idiot. I’m fine.”
Big brother and little sister regarded each other for a long, tense moment. She knew I couldn’t stop her from indulging in her favorite habit while blind and weakened by possibly regurgitating my entire digestive tract. So I relented with a sigh and sat back against the pillows.
“Get me a snack?”
“Bitch. Shitty bitch.”
“I’m rubber, you’re glue. That makes you a bitch.”
“Bitch bitch bitch bitch bitch to infinity.”
I tried to glare at her. It made my eyes feel hot and cloudy. So I wound my leg back and gave her a nice solid kick. There’s a wonderful satisfaction to kicking a little sibling, especially when they sit around swearing at you and maybe getting crayon smudges on your blankets. If I could rank all the feelings in the world, it would rank only below giving an older sibling a good strong whack to the arm and having them actually feel it. Possibly one of the worst feelings is kicking a younger sibling so hard they fall off a bed and start screaming.
“What’s going on? Who did what?” Mom said the second she marched in.
“I kicked Lu by mistake. Didn’t see her.”
Lu was too busy screaming to realize what I was doing, and I hoped that would keep Mom too busy to deal with me. There was a long pause where I guessed somebody was looking at me. All I saw were the puffy insides of my eyelids.
“You’re not as sneaky as you think you are,” Mom said. I thought suddenly of all the hours I’d spent under tables, behind couches, avoiding the dreaded exercises. Of course she had known where I was.
“She called me bitch, then I called her one, and she called me an infinity bitch so I had to kick her.”
Mom sighed. When she finally summoned a judgement, her voice wasn’t as firm as usual. It sounded like she was laughing. I took a chance, and dared to crack my eyes open again. For a blurry second, I saw Lu in my mom’s lap, giving me a tearstained glare. Mom was turned toward my window, face twisting to hide an amused smile.
“Okay, just . . . never do that again, got it?”
“Got it,” I said
Mom tucked me in again. Her voice was always sharp, her face usually stormy. But her touch was nothing but gentle and reassuring. As she pulled the covers around me, I felt safe.
Dorian Moreland is an amateur writer and cartoonist, and has previously drawn for the Iceberg. He keeps a pet moss and feeds stray cats.