Two weeks ago my daughter and I sat with my aunt who, nearly blind, kept us spellbound with her stories for three hours straight two days in a row during our trip to Adelaide. Reminiscing sounds duller than what she was doing. She sprang from story to story, bringing her farm life alive as if yesterday. She was singing. The sharks lined up offshore, forcing them to swim in the dam to cool off. The pine trees she planted and watered as windbreaks down the drive. The unreliable farm hands who couldn’t be trusted to measure fertiliser.
My aunt is meant to be grieving, my uncle having died six months ago following a fifty-year marriage. And yet she seems lighter – slimmer and more buoyant. Phone numbers in thick black texta sit propped on cards by the phone in the kitchen, with crosses over the days that have past on an old-fashioned calendar. The other night, cold in bed, she tells us that she saw her husband come into the sitting room pushing a wheelbarrow of mallee roots for the wood fire they’d had on their farm. ‘I could have touched him’, she tells us.
For years my aunt has avoided cooking. Instead she eats canned salmon and salad for every meal. And grape nuts for breakfast. ‘It’s so easy’, she laughs, ‘I’m never hungry and now that I’m off all but my stroke pills I’ve never felt better’.
* * *
For months I’d been putting off having an eye test. I’ll just wait until I get this manuscript off, I kept telling myself, and then let my eyes recover from staring at the screen. But last week my eyes got irritated in a way that made me realise I was being silly, and I made an appointment for the following day.
An Indian optician took me into his office. A female student, notebook in her lap, sat in. Three years ago, the time of my last eye test, I didn’t have to guess any of the black capital letters on the bottom of the chart. Today I do. Next it’s time for the green circles and the red circles. ‘The first one’, I say. ‘The second one’, I say, when the red circle looks clearer than the green.
‘I’ll just take you next door where we have a new camera that can photograph the back of your eye. You’ll have to pay $40 out of pocket, but I do recommend it. ‘Fine’, I say unthinkingly. The light that shines into my eye flashes the brightest light green light possible. Back in his office the optician stares at the screen. ‘Do you see here’, he says, ‘in each eye there is a tiny yellow spot. These are the beginnings of macular degeneration’. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘is that bad?’ ‘No, they are so small that I wouldn’t worry about them yet. Though I will get you back in another year to monitor them. And in the meantime I’m giving you a mild prescription for close reading, and I advise dark glasses against the sun.’
The student sitting in registers the worry on my face. Is this what she is writing in her notebook? All I can think of is my aunt sitting on her chair close to the television, unable to read the phone numbers propped by the phone without putting the card up to her face.
My daughter is unimpressed by my fears. ‘But the optician said not to worry. And besides, they can treat that can’t they?’ ‘Sort of’, I return, trying to be positive. I remember my mother’s goggly glasses towards the end of her life. I also remember sitting next to my father’s hospital bed in my school uniform, when he must have been around the age I am now, reading aloud the stock market report from the newspaper, as he recovered from a cataract operation that is now done as day surgery.
But really it’s anger that I feel. Do I really need another risk factor to cart around inside of me – like a shark sighting offshore – for those days when fear outweighs hope? If the optician hadn’t wanted me to worry about my eyesight shrinking to that of my aunt’s, did he actually have to point out those tiny white spots? Besides, what is all this testing really for, apart from leading me to fear rather than look forward to old age, and adding bilberry supplements to my nightly routine?
* * *
Last night I sat up late, far too late, drawn into the vortex that is facebook. It was the plight of the Syrian refugees that drew me in. Appalled at the snaking lines of slow-moving migrants, that our lack of commercial television has spared me witness of, I watch clip after clip of people wearing black bin bags against thin driving rain, united in their subdued desperation. Feeling helpless, I donate euros to a crowd-funding program, and wait for ages for the money to go through, hoping my money will be spent on something more than bin bags.
Leaving the screen after midnight I read a book upstairs to console myself. What do my lost mobile phone and scratchy eyes matter against those slow moving lines of migrants with no real sense of where they are going?
The next morning I pick up my son’s Modern World History book that sits on the window sill in the kitchen. As I flick through to the back I imagine an even fatter revised edition, with a section on the new face of Europe, swollen by refugees, ready for my daughter’s final exams in a couple of years’ time. The print is tiny, or so it seems to me, reminding me that soon my new glasses will be ready to be picked up.
EPILOGUE The week after my glasses arrived I returned to the optician. This time I saw the optician who gave me my last but one eye test three years ago. I said that I’d been worried about the macular degeneration diagnosis from the younger optician at my recent eye test. The more senior optician got my photos out and brought them up on the screen. ‘No’, he said, ‘I don’t think it’s macular degeneration. I think it’s areas of debris, normal in someone of your age’. ‘Oh’, I replied, ‘what a relief’. All the same I now wear sunglasses most places…