Friday, January 15, 2010


“What colour are my eyes?” I ask David. It’s Tuesday, and receptionists in our offices are explaining that we are out of the office. We are sitting in an outpatient hospital eye clinic. Time is passing. Every so often a nurse or technician pads in on soft squeaky shoes to call another name.
David is reading a book on governance, addressing himself to work while we wait for something to happen. I, in contrast, am doing nothing, if thinking without speaking can be classed as nothing. My pupils, having received a dose of some unnamed liquid, have been occupied with the process of dilating. Every so often I glance up in curiosity as the overhead lights perform a fluorescent blaze. A little conversation would ease the boredom.
My question to David is actually a bit of a dare, a little test of memory. Here is his invitation to say that my eyes are green. He used to say they were green, back in the days when we parked for hours in shadowy parking lots in places where nothing moved except the late night police and security fellows who tapped regularly on the windows to inquire about our age, then scribbled the license number of David’s mother’s car in their little notebooks. Pierre Trudeau had recently declared that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation, but he apparently had not mentioned parked cars. “Routine security check,” they said when we asked what they were after. “If there are any burglaries in the neighbourhood we’ll be giving you a call.”
“What did you say?” David wonders, face still in book, reluctant to break the spell the engrossing committee and terms of reference charts have cast upon him.
“What colour are my eyes?” I say. Actually, this question is more than a dare, more than a test of memory. It’s an opportunity for him to declare that I have been right all along in my assertion that my eyes are blue.
Until David came along, I had always believed my eyes to be blue, blue like my father’s eyes, blue like Granny’s. Even when you can’t see the colour of your eyes, people tell you what colour they are, and I had no reason to disbelieve. Blue eyes, I believed were a good thing. Frank Sinatra’s eyes were blue, and he was rich, famous and much sought after in terms of romance. So you can imagine my confusion when my chance at romance was accompanied by a declaration that my eyes were green. As far as I knew, green eyes were the hallmark of monsters.
David turns in my direction—the first act in the process of checking my eye colour—or gazing into my eyes, if you want to think romantically. Actually, it’s a long time since we discussed eye colour. When did we stop? Was it at the time when we switched to spending more time together in the daylight—a thing you do at a certain point in a budding relationship? Conversation is different in the daylight. In the daylight you don’t mind at all if a partner exchanges eye-gazing for the assessment of coffee stains on your work clothes, baby burp deposits on your shoulders, or grey hairs in need of camouflage. In the process of daily living, the colour of your eyes slips under the radar.
It’s daylight now, but we are already dressed for work, the babies are grown and the grey has recently been subdued. Now seems like the perfect time to check again. Green or blue? Which will it be?
“The colour has disappeared entirely,” says David.
“Really?” I say. Caught by surprise, I am now of two minds. Half of me doesn’t believe him. The other half is wondering where the colour went and how long it has been gone.
“Yes.” He says. “I don’t see blue or green. Your pupils are huge. They’re taking up your whole eye.”
“What colour are my pupils?” I ask.
“Black,” he says.
My heart skips a beat. Oh dear! What can this mean? “Black!” I cry. “What colour are they supposed to be?”
“Black,” he says. “Everybody’s pupils are black I guess. They’re black holes right now. I guess that’s what the astronomers are thinking about when they talk about black holes in the universe.”
The universe! How fascinating! I am ready for a conversation about the universe. He turns back to a consideration of by-laws and facilitated agreements. I address my curiosity to other questions. How long, I wonder do your pupils stay dilated? What will happen if they close up before one of the squeaky-shoed nurses calls my name?
Time slows down. Eventually we find ourselves in a darkened office where the nether regions beyond the black holes have become the objects of intense interest. “The fronts of your eyes are very nice,” says the doctor, delighted by the absence of foggy cataracts, the perfection of corneas in their proper shape. My eyes are pleased to hear the news, so pleased they might bat if they knew how and were freed from the tyranny of the pointing, probing light. These eyes really don’t get much attention. People always wanted to look in them when they were younger. But the determination that no treatment could change them, no glasses could improve them, had rendered them unworthy of focus. Even now they’d be languishing in insignificance had I not noticed a paragraph in the newspaper about genetic therapy trials to increase vision for a condition with a name that brought back memories of other doctors, other years.
“Thirty years without an exam is a long time,” says the doctor. “You really should have them looked at now and then.” While he says this he is adjusting things, changing his tools. Now he’s looking deeper. What will he find?
“Your retina’s are beautiful,” he says. Sounds like he means it too. A little thrill goes down my spine. In all my life nobody has ever told me I had beautiful retinas!
My mind casts back—way back to the time when I could name the part of the eye that causes eye colour. Is it the cornea? No. The lens? No. Is it, by any chance the retina? No. It’s the iris. It must be the iris that disappeared in the waiting room.
Fishing for clarity, and—okay—maybe for compliments, I ask him to tell me more about those retinas.
He says he likes the way they haven’t deteriorated over the years due to lack of use—not quite in keeping with my idea of beautiful, but beautiful in this context nonetheless. He says that when they get the gene therapies up and running—be it in my generation or the next--they’ll be looking for people with beautiful retinas.
Now things begin to move quickly. The fluorescents are switched on, the future is discussed, the parking space is vacated, messages at the office are collected. It takes me about an hour to realize that I have missed a rare opportunity to get an expert opinion on the colour of my eyes.
The investigation of the world behind the black hole has enlightened us a little. It appears that the diagnosis made thirty years ago was accurate. Twelve genes have been identified as the cause. Only one is currently in clinical trials and the doctor suspects that the gene causing my problem is not that one. But it does seem that my condition is more interesting than it used to be. My personal genes will be identified through a bit of bloodletting and sending to a lab in Iowa. My name will be added to a catalogue for future reference, and a similar process will begin for my sister.
I might have been a little disappointed had I been expecting a miracle. But I wasn’t, and it’s kind of thrilling to think that children born in a future time that might be far away, or closer than we can imagine will sit in doctor’s offices and hear that there is a treatment for this condition. For now, it’s enough to celebrate my new identity—to bask in the life-altering possibilities of a woman who has beautiful retinas.

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