EYE | LEAH MIDDLETON
When I was a child my eye turned inward. Now the baby blue of white space between my iris and my tear duct is spreading. My left eye is traveling.
The inward turning eye is a dazed one, like an overwhelmed child pulled toward its parent's leg. It gives the viewer a look of having a lack of imagination, bounded abilities, a knowledge of what half of others know plus the boredom of the bridge of one's own nose. At age two, the ophthalmologist suggested we train the lazy eye by covering the working one. He gave my mother a plastic patch that clipped to my tiny tortoiseshell glasses but often I held my head at an angle to peer out and tap into the strength of the good eye. When they switched to an adhesive patch (an eye socket shaped band-aid) I peeled back the inner corner when no one was looking and invited the world back in. In a short-lived attempt, my family placed paper towel tubes on my skinny arms to prevent me from meddling with the patch. My three older siblings laughed at my awkward and restricted toddler arms, which ended the experiment. My parents had loving, Christian hearts.
Amblyopia is commonly called a lazy eye. Lazy and stupid are often associated with one another. I was not a stupid child but I was disoriented by pressing dysfunctions that I couldn't make out. Like all children I lived inside the faint outlines of a family history I would not begin to comprehend until later.
What I see when I close my good eye: I see all the shapes and colors, I see the lines that make up objects, I see texture and light. I see that letters are there, but I cannot make out the letters. There is a bluish filter and a sharpness to the scene, but it is like someone has taken their hand and smeared three fingers-worth of dark and blurry streaks through the landscape. These streaks dance the way those little uncatchable shapes do that you see when you close your eyes and watch the backsides of your eyelids. If I hold my gaze on one object, that object starts to disintegrate into darkness. Even the “E” on a vision test poster becomes a black, undulating distortion.
The lazy eye is the result of a muscle that is too short or too long. My parents eventually abandoned the patching, and I could see fine with my one good eye, the lazy partner contributing some depth and peripherals to my entire field of vision. As I got older I only thought about it when someone pointed it out or looked over their shoulder in confusion and asked where I was looking cuing a ripple of shame through my body. In my mid-20's, I realized by seeing myself in photographs that sometimes my eye would appear straight. In my early 30's it became clear that my eye was following a trajectory, once turning in and now falling outward.
The eye that strays outward is not the same dumb, unimaginative gaze as the inward turning eye. It is one of despondence, the way a woman lays across a chaise in a renaissance painting. It is one of knowing all there is to know and wanting to bow out at intermission, it gazes toward something beyond your shoulder more interesting than you. It is glistening and a little smug. It should be renamed the languid eye.
When I was in high school, my parents invited me to a special church event. It seemed very important to my mother that I come so even though I had not attended church with them in years, I agreed. I sat halfway back on folding chairs and watched believing humans approach this average white man in a polo shirt lay his hands on people until they fell like rag dolls. None of the words he spoke that day stayed with me. This does: my mother beckoning to me with pleading eyes for me to come forward, my father swaying behind her, eyes closed in prayer, hands half raised. I mouth to my mother: Heal what? Her sad brow furrowing, she gestures to her own left eye.
On occasion I am confronted with another lazy eye. The eye and the person who houses it are divided entities. In order to navigate this I must split myself between two interactions: a person conversing with another person about anything other than the mutuality of our lazy eyes, and then the two good eyes, frantic, searching for one another.
I have a trick to make my eye appear straight in a photograph. If I soften my gaze the way one does when they are crossing their eyes, my left eye moves inward just enough to appear normal. The result is that my eyes look glossy, somewhat feverish or stoned. I think I look happy.
At my son's soccer practice, a new teammate through the unfilteredness of autism makes a loud declaration about the strangeness of my lazy eye. It is one of those weeks where I don't feel beautiful and I turn away quickly to hide my tears from the damp, flush-faced young men who in that moment all turn toward me. At dinner my son brings it up. “Look at me, Mom,”he says, and I do. He stares for a second. “Huh, I guess you do have a lazy eye. I don't even notice it,” he declares and I try to decide whether to have a conversation about my most sensitive attribute or to tell him to finish his sweet potatoes.
Something I have always tried to reconcile—those that love me are the ones that matter and those that love me are blind to or have adoration for my flaws. What does it mean to want to abandon that small relationship between an imperfection and its lovers?
I ask every new eye doctor I see what they think I can do about my eye and the answer is unanimous. Surgery is not recommended—it's expensive, cosmetic, and the results are often temporary. At a low-cost glasses and contacts chain, I tell the ophthalmologist about my eye moving further and further to the left and I say with a laugh, “It can't just keep going, right?” She doesn't smile but says that it will likely keep moving for another ten years, until I reach my mid-40s. A horrible feeling occurs inside of me. In my head I begin designing a stylish eye patch to wear on my left eye to conceal the ugliness of this soon-to-be mostly white oddity. The doctor's words bring me back. She reminds me that because of this I have to take great care of my right eye—regular visits, clean contacts, protective eyewear whenever necessary. This feels revelatory: the right eye has been doing the work of two eyes with no complaints my whole life.
My eyes are neither good nor bad. Rebel and rule-follower, weirdo and babe, dreamer and analyst, pebble and jewel, nomad and hearth-holder: they have both given me the world.
Ms. Middleton is a queer mama with a BA in English Literature and Writing from Marylhurst University. She writes poetry and creative non-fiction, often about modern domestic life and how it collides with family history. She lives in Portland, OR, loves a good red wine and is indeed softening her gaze in this photo.
Cover image by Tyler Brewington: closeup of mineral deposit in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho.