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Speaking Out: Blind Faith

An author discovers that as he loses his eyesight, he begins to rely more on food--not just to provide pleasure and sustenance, but to help fend off the spiritual darkness.

When you go partially blind, as I did for several years a decade ago, your other senses--hearing, touch, taste and smell--come to the fore. You listen intently to people's voices because the timbre may tell you what their body language used to, and feel the curbstone with your groping feet, reach for the banister at every staircase and detect the presence of a silent stranger in the room by perhaps telepathy or the scent of sweat. You squeeze lemon juice on fillet of sole more carefully, not only so it won't squirt in the wrong direction, but because you're paying so much attention to what the lemon adds.

Orange juice seemed to have a sunny taste (I could dimly see its color) and certainly a morning feeling, though not as bracingly acidic as a pink grapefruit. I liked eggs sunny-side up for the same reason, and peppered liberally as a visual anchor, with ketchup on the table for its color, even if I didn't plan to use it. I liked salmon, too, for lunch, especially for its color, which my fading eyesight took in longer than the shades of white or gray of sole or tuna. But canned tuna fish was like the very sea: penny for penny, maybe the richest taste of all. You can dress up salmon with hollandaise or cod with tartar sauce, and those are comfortingly delicious, but nothing like as real as tuna's evocation of the sea. Spinach had a Popeye strength of character too. And corn on the cob was childhood-yellow. Peas, nibbled raw, were a vivid, crispy green. I went in for red wine, naturally, to go with my red flannel hash or spaghetti marinara, but once or twice spilled wine on my hash, reaching for what I thought was ketchup, or knocked over my wineglass in front of company, mistaking it for ketchup.

Company, when you're going blind (at my worst I was 20/800--seeing at 20 feet what I ought to have been able to see at 800--or legally blind, times four), is a mixed blessing. You crave it, yet it limns what you are losing because your experiences have diverged so miserably from your friends' and you can't see them and therefore really know how they are feeling: whether they look tense and tired and haven't gotten any sleep lately. You fumble for what to say across the gap and haven't been able to read a paper for months, so you know only the sound-bite news, not real stuff that can be discussed in any detail. They are solicitous, rather as if you were terminally ill. Friendship feels suddenly enclosed in a time frame.

Although grades of steak had never meant much to me, they did now because the tenderness of the expensive cuts enhanced the flavor. I'd have a juicy steak and Boston lettuce with Dal Raccolto olive oil and Modenaceti vinegar. But eating well need not be expensive. There's garlic bread and loaves of sourdough; and grilled ribs with red barbecue sauce; and cherry tomatoes dipped in Russian dressing--when blind, I did go in for reds. Or just popcorn, buttered and salted, can taste as savory as a $50 meal if you're in the perfect mood for it.

Just to "wake up and smell the coffee" in the morning was something. I liked shredded wheat for breakfast, or Grape-Nuts, though seldom more than oatmeal with maple syrup and light cream. But cooking is dicey when you can't peer into the pot and see how things are doing or look at the clock. You have to guess at measurements and stir clairvoyantly with your spoon, being careful not to burn your hand on the edge of the pot, which, like the food, becomes invisible.

Food is a lifeboat when you can't see, but provisional. You need more in your basket of consolations than just gaining weight. Your mettle is tested in losing the blessing of sight. Your forehead has shut down over your eyes, and, groping along a fence or wall for orientation, you walk and talk and even listen haltingly, struggling for language skills you never thought you'd need, like distinguishing the click of a stoplight at an intersection, the texture of a wind from the west, versus wind from the east. A Girl Scout cookie or a hot dog with ballpark relish is a memory incubator. And memories were the easy part, compared to scrambling to improvise this new existence. What do you do when you wake up and can't read, write or see your partner across the table? Mostly you troll for information at first, beginning with whether your partner slept decently, since her face can't tell you, and what the front page says. Trolling is an appropriate metaphor because it's done blind yet plumbs worlds you need to get a handle on.

Instead of my English muffin, I might butter my thumb--but I did like having muffins because a toaster is so much safer than a stovetop; it was a form of "cooking" I could do. And by switching from marmalade to raspberry jam, I kept my breakfast visible longer. Also enjoyed prunes for the same reason, and V8 juice, so bright-colored and spangled in taste. I wore binoculars around my neck, for recognizing cars that came up the driveway, or gazing at tree shapes, and the scrimshaw on the rising moon. Carrot sticks and orange cheese on melba toast and gazpacho, ruby wine, a lobster and apples for dessert made a fun meal I could see. I didn't much like cranberry juice but appreciated the thought when my partner brought some home, along with lovely apricots or peaches. Affection and sex were pointedly important in not just comforting but rooting me. And I played music every waking hour; anything heartening and directional could make a difference. That is, Bach or Mozart or Louis Armstrong knew where they were going, and in a time of turmoil you could sometimes triangulate from them. My tastes inevitably broadened to more operas, more Baroque and organ music, Gregorian chanting, African music and stride piano and ragtime, as I listened with the sort of focus my eyes had formerly monopolized.

When blind, you appreciate any kindness or diversion and the tinctures of genius that are accessible, but also begin to scrimp as you lose your ability to earn a living. So you do eat more tomato soup, cold beets, acorn squash, red onions and red chowders. As your perimeters narrow, you dodder like Mr. Magoo, always grasping for a handhold or feeling with your toes for where the stairs start; and the tendons of your hobbled legs begin to shrink. Newsstands are only good for Baby Ruths or Butterfingers, and the subway is not a feast of faces, just the decibels. Noise drowns the sounds that would be of more interest. You chew licorice chewing gum and smell the vanilla at an ice cream stand, or hot chocolate, butterscotch, jelly doughnuts, maybe sauerkraut. But the countless spirits shuffling by--telepathy is not enough to register them. I do believe we have a sixth sense, but it has been severely blunted by civilization and was never designed for cities anyway.

I was rescued by civilization, however. Surgery fixed me--a two-month process. And to be lifted from the murk of darkness into blazing sunlight seemed as sudden as a superhero's intervention. I was staggered by the wide world opening before me. Fields as green as salad, clouds like meringue. Or snow, blue water, a red sunset, a purple storm. Children playing. More than joy. Overjoyed.

Edward Hoagland has published 17 books, including his memoir, Compass Points: How I Lived. He lives in Bennington, Vermont.

Published April 2002
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