Richard tells me to open my eyes. The moment has been arranged as rehearsed. The bandages are off and the doctors will return once we’ve had this moment. The only thing missing is Jessie. Her reassuring breathing beneath the torso of bristled fur.
This is the moment when that simple verb, to see, forbidden me from early infancy is about to raise its curtain. I will understand the visual world, so often described, so revered. I cannot yet imagine this other sense, which was taken from me before the organ of memory engaged itself. It exists beyond sound, smell and taste; a present to be unveiled, unwrapped, uncovered.
I’ve waited so long for medical science to undo the thing that our family kitten did in two swipes of her paws. And now the day has arrived.
The concept of focus has been explained to me, and it might at first be something that my eyes need to perform before I see clearly. The intensity of light and colour can also overwhelm.
I’ve traced Richard’s face a million times. His nose isn’t straight and there’s a deep scar above his right eye. These are the consequence of an accident in Richard’s youth. Now he will be revealed to me in a new way, and all I can think about is Jessie’s wet nose.
There is a whiteness when I raise my eyelids. The inverse of my familiar dark. Then I begin to discern colour and through it Richard’s face. Not dissimilar to what I imagined. He is grinning from ear to ear, welcoming me to the world of sight.
I smile back and then close my eyes. There is a lot to process. It will require bravery to take all this in. There is a worry inside me that it will be like watching the film of a book and being disappointed in how certain things have been interpreted. Gosh! Even watching films will be different.
It saddens me that Jessie isn’t here. I didn’t see her, and now she’s snatched away. The shortage of seeing dogs the way it is, I understand. It would risk upsetting her attachment to her new owner. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to visit her.
She’s left behind, a part of my old life, which makes her feel imagined. I never saw her, it is only my sense of touch that remembers; a thing that will no longer stand as evidence of her existence, now that I can see.
There are photographs, says Richard, I will show you later.
He wants me to look at him first, before we trawl through the past. He wants to be the focus of my attention. This new Richard. Before I saw him with my hands, now I see him with my eyes.
The corneal transplant went exceptionally well, says the doctor.
Richard is thanking him profusely, I am a little dizzied by the overwhelming nature of gaining sight but losing Jessie. The someone who was always been by my side. I must accept that her presence has been replaced by Richard’s increased presence.
Before there was only the absence of colour, now it’s everywhere. The muted greys of winter are more intense than what was before, and the sun-filled skies are like bathing in heaven.
Richard has taken time out to show me the world, to help me forget. We go on holiday to Southern Spain, one of the quieter resorts.
Jessie would be happy for you, says Richard, it’s for the best.
But what if she’s not, what if she’s sad, and missing me. I can’t bear to think of her feeling unhappy. No more cuddles when the harness comes off, no more fun. I wake every night from dreams of Jessie being trapped with a new owner who mistreats her.
This isn’t fair on Richard, I should be happy.
The holiday is over, we’re on the train from the airport, the long tube ride home from Heathrow; the illuminated carriage passing through the dark tunnels. The fundamentals of underground travel haven’t changed since I regained sight; the continual stop starting, the squeeze of people.
There is a seeing dog. It enters the train at Acton Town. It triggers a reminiscence but also a certainty that the dog is Jessie. I need to confirm it with my hands. But to do so is against all etiquette. It will distract the dog from its task.
Jessie is sat looking forward, she doesn’t turn towards me. I want to gain her attention. I put my fist down for her to smell, opening my hand once she has done so. She realises it’s me, and goes into a spasm of excited barking and pulling on the harness. Her owner is annoyed, braces her back, knows she is being petted but has never known this to be the result.
Richard pulls me away and insists we move down the train. He questions what I was doing and the insane notion in my head for acting so cruelly.
In gaining my sight, I lost my best friend. He can’t understand it. To him Jessie was a dog, something that needed to be settled into our home. And though Richard appreciated the liberation the dog afforded me over my cane, he didn’t understand the love between us.
One more time, I say, breaking free from Richard’s hold.
I walk back to Jessie. She goes from sadness to joy and excited yelping. Another passenger intervenes, tells me that I’m being irresponsible.
The screams that I hear are my own as I’m made to walk back down the carriage to Richard. He takes my arm.
I’m not blind, I say, there’s no need to take my arm.
We need to get off the train, he says.
It’s not our stop, but he’s embarrassed, and wants to change carriages. I refuse to go, tears are covering my face. Everyone is looking, staring up from mobile phones, newspapers, books.
This is the true power of sight, used to control. To have gained sight is to have freedoms and possibilities restricted by others.
Before I had sight, I would walk unknowingly past signs telling me not to throw litter, not to take food into a shop, not to stand on the left side of an escalator. And no one would tell me otherwise, they’d simply acknowledge my blindness and let me do as I was doing. If they cast disapproving looks, I wouldn’t know anyway. Now that I can see, I’m expected to obey, and I’m sick to death of all these additional rules telling me what not to do, and how people respond when I don’t.
I am learning what it is to be looked at disapprovingly. These people don’t know why I act the way I do, they couldn’t possibly, but still they judge me as they judge one another. There are no learner plates when your sight is restored, it’s not like starting out with a car, and yet it’s a complex world to navigate when no exceptions are made for you.
I’m being confronted, the station staff have been called. The end of our holiday is being ruined. I don’t want to be here. I want to be back with Jessie, inside our world, the world we shared together, two parts of a navigational team. But this world won’t go away, it’s insistent and it pushes itself upon me.
Richard is making excuses for us, telling everyone that it’s been an emotional time. It’s unconvincing because he doesn’t really believe it himself. But after everything’s calmed down we’re on a tube and on our way home, sitting in silence, eyes closed, waiting for the journey to be over.
© 2020 Anthony Levings
Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.