Blind Man and Daughter
My father’s going blind, and so will I. He has retinitis pigmentosa, which he inherited from his father, and which I, being his daughter and unlucky by nature, inherited from him.
My mother is a spokesperson for the Italian coffee company Lavazza. She mostly works with food stores in New York. She never makes coffee for us. I make coffee for my father each morning. We have an old Arrarex Caravel espresso machine. I grind the beans and tamp them into their portafilter with a silver disc. My father likes his espresso black and almost syrupy with sugar. I put five small spoonfuls into his tiny cup. If he knocks his cup over, I make it again. Some mornings he knocks it over on purpose. My mother is small and trim. She has to look Italian at all times, which means skirt suits, pointy-toe heels. We bought her an apron once as a joke. It said “#1 Mom.”
My father is making me drive him to Boston for a conclusive assessment about his eyes, and to translate. What is the point. We had argued about it. I had kicked the wall and made a dent which my mother did not notice when she came home.
He leans his head against the cold car window. Breath against the glass like a speech bubble. “This isn’t going to do anything,” I tell him. “You could just look it on the internet. There’s no cure.”
“Be quiet,” he says.
I stay quiet for a moment.
“I’m missing my boyfriend’s birthday for this,” I say. He’s not my boyfriend, but I’d been planning on giving him a present all year. He calls the sleep in one’s eyes “eye shit.” “You have a lot of eye shit,” he said to a friend in homeroom.
“And I have to make up a test,” I tell my father. This is true. The teacher is mad.
“You don’t have a boyfriend,” says my father.
“You don’t know anything about me,” I say.
“I’ve raised a monster,” says my father.
“Temper,” I say.
He shakes but does not move at me.
Once I got him to punch me. He gave me a black eye for saying I hoped I’d never end up like him, blindness notwithstanding. I have nothing to gain from being cautious around him.
“You,” he says. “You’ll understand, my daughter. You’ll go blind, blind, blind, and nothing else will matter to you.”
“Shut up,” I say. I stare at him, away from the road though I am going fast. His mouth is stretched out in a big mirthful grin, eyes squeezed shut.
“Fish oil? Fish oil?” I remember my father laughing. It was his Italian doctor’s only advice for how to delay his blindness. I was six, right before we moved to the United States.
“Fish oil?” he said, standing in the middle of the room, under the kitchen light that cast a shadow under his brow. “Fish oil?” His arms were out.
At home, I am the only one who cooks, and the maid is the only one who cleans. I often make crostata with our Bimbi. We don’t have measuring cups; we have a scale. My father eats persimmons, burying his wrinkled face into their pulpy orange, eyes open. We never eat vegetables. My parents retain the expectation that I, their only child, will take care of them in their old age, but they are wrong.
My father works from home. He doesn’t really work. He used to be a banker; now he pretends to look at stocks. He has to hold his nose against the computer screen, which must be black with large white type.
“I would like to move away,” he often says. “To a baita in the mountains with just Luna, bread and garlic,” he says. “That’s all I need.”
Luna, our German shepherd, sleeps on a pad in the hall. She’s stupid—she walks in front of me and trips me—and she farts all night. Sometimes she wakes me up, begging to be taken outside. My mother wouldn’t install a dog door because she thought that the people of New Jersey would get in that way.
Every week my father gets a new bruise. “Too much pride,” says my mother. Luna is not a trained eye dog, nor is she smart enough to be one, but my father walks around with her at full speed and crashes into poles and falls into holes. I often have to accompany him. He grips my upper arm when we walk. Sometimes he pushes me around, or moves at irregular speeds so I have to fall into step with him.
At mealtimes my father’s big hand goes patting along the table until I push into it what he wants—bread, a salt shaker. You get used to living with a blind person, their needs and rhythm, so that being at someone else’s house, without having to think about pouring the water or moving the shoes out of the way, is uncomfortable.
My father has “starry eyes” in that there is a burning white light in the center of his vision. He can only see around it but the borders of sight keep narrowing. I used to panic when I woke up with sleep in my eyes, but no longer. I have at least five more years.
I’m not driving very well. I remember once when were driving to a doctor’s appointment in the city, and my father said to my mother, “You should stay in the center of the lane, you keep going out of the lines and scaring other drivers.”
My mother glanced at him, jaw set. “You’re blind,” she said.
“You bitch,” he said.
“I can’t believe I married you,” she said, “Deficient.”
I stared out the window. Tree, tree, tree. Trying to store up the look of the trees.
We reach the hospital. I park far up in the garage, going up and up the spiral. My father grips my upper arm as we walk to the entrance. There is a television with volume and closed captioning in the waiting room so that blind people and deaf people can pass the time. Finally a man comes to get us, and we go to a room with a woman doctor. They put my father in a chair, and cover his face with different masks. They only need me for part of the time. I leave when they start looking into his eyes with blue and yellow lights.
Two years ago, my mother and father went to Germany to visit a doctor, a “particular” doctor, my mother told me affectlessly. He knew ancient techniques, she said. They came back in a week. My father was angry. “He was a dirty fake,” said my father. “He had pine resin all over his hands.” He was a witch-doctor. My mother told my father to wait and see. My father said that things got worse the more he waited and so he could not wait and see.
Once I asked my father if he could still see clearly in dreams. He ignored me. What does “mind’s eye” mean? Is it possible to see anything well in a dream? I haven’t—everything is bleached out or the wrong color, or seen through slats like Venetian blinds. Can you see anything when you close your eyes in a dark room? Maybe big dark blooms like camellias, which dissolve into dark silver spots. Do you ever blink floating cells into your eyes, staring at a blue sky? Or let the light refract through the sleep in your eyes? Can you see trees of blood vessels when you look away from a bright light? When I squeeze my eyes almost shut the world looks black and white. There is no glass you can look through that will turn the world black and white.
It is not possible to remember the way a view or a face looks. For a face, at least you can describe it in words that you can memorize: big forehead, wide nose. But even a face described this way is a blur. Where most of us, waking from our sleep, looking away from a page, engage happily with sight. But my father’s face is an abyss.
For some reason, the examination of my father takes hours. Finally the man comes to get me from the waiting room. My father is lying back in an examining chair.
“Your father is legally blind,” the doctor says.
“She says, ‘You’re blind,’” I tell my father.
“Ask them about stem cells,” he says.
“Some promising research has been done with mice,” the doctor says.
I ask her what promising means.
“Well,” the doctor says, like I won’t understand. She mentions British mice, light receptors connecting to the nerves in their degenerated retinas. “This was an unexpected success,” she says.
I try to explain this to my father.
“However, the British experiment only shows a potential first step,” says the doctor. “Researchers in Japan have also been looking at proteins,” she says. “But a real treatment has yet to be found.”
“And so?” I say.
“The best way to deal with it right now,” says the doctor, “is to take fish oil gel caplets. DHA. Sunglasses are always a good idea. Vitamin A is also helpful.”
“That sounds good—Vitamin A,” I say.
“Yes, Vitamin A,” says the doctor. “It causes severe liver problems.”
I don’t bother telling my father about the Vitamin A.
I could ask her how things will be in twenty years. I could tell her I have the same disease.
She writes a prescription for DHA.
“Sunglasses,” mutters my father in English, over and over.
One of my socks may be a different color from the other, junk in my teeth, hair on my coat, but at least someone might point it out to me, fellowship no longer offered to my father, who has passed the point where things become too bizarre for strangers to note.
We are driving home. We say nothing for an hour. The road is a blank. The sky is a blank. Then my father speaks.
“You’ll never have a real life,” he says.
“Shut up,” I say.
“We’ll be in hell together,” he says.
“Shut up,” I say.
“Then you’ll remember—”
“Shut the fuck up,” I say.
“—How well I did and you’ll beg God you could be as strong as me,” he says.
I keep one hand on the wheel but I wind back with one fist and punch him as hard as I can in the nose, just for the hell of it. Since he is blind, I have the advantage of surprise. Blood pours out of his nose right away. Some is on the windshield. He lets out a strangled groan and punches me so hard in the ear that my head bounces off the side window. My head rings like a bell. I swerve left, almost hitting the concrete divider, and swerve back. Cars honk. He punches me in the right eye, which didn’t quite close in time. I yell and punch him in his left eye. His neck stretches like a spring then bounces back to place. Going all over the highway now. I try to point the car towards the shoulder, but my face is beating out so hard I can’t really tell where I am. In a second, though, it’s all right again, and I’m pointing straight down the road, and we’re both laughing.
I’m not snapping out of it, I’m going way back. Back to a train trip with my father, back when he could see enough that my mother would let him go alone, a train trip to my grandparents’ old farm in the mountains, before I had ever heard English.
I had forgotten that he had ever been able to take me places by myself. I had forgotten that he ever thought he could live in the mountains. He grew up in the Alps. He had to leave because of his eyes. His parents had no one to care for them. They died young and ashamed. Then my aunt owned the farm, and my grandfather’s green hat from the war, with its jaunty feather, hanging alone in a closed-off room.
On this final trip I must have been six. My father slept in his blue seat, head so heavy on his shoulder his neck looked broken. I walked through the train’s shifting aisles trying to find a toilet through which I could not see the bright sunlit tracks speeding below, because I was afraid. I passed men playing cards and women with children in their laps. I passed a bathroom with blood on the floor. I entered a car which was entirely empty, but all the windows were open, and all the blue curtains were blowing so hard their flapping overwhelmed the sound of the tracks. As I watched all of them on the left-hand side broke off their rings with a great shriek and tore out of the windows and over the mountains beyond. They scattered like birds. I could see every tree, I could see every branch. I could see every leaf and every needle.