A young mother in New Jersey lovingly gives her two boys their evening bath. There is excitement and anticipation in the air—Thanksgiving is almost here. Bruce and John can almost taste the turkey. Yes, their mother once again assures them, there will be pie. Pumpkin, and probably apple, too. Now sit still, she begs, let me wash your hair.
Look closer at this family portrait. The mother is three months pregnant, another baby due in May. And those two young boys? Both have chicken pox. The mother had the dread disease once already. That makes her safe, she insists. You can’t get chicken pox twice.
Unless you’re pregnant, she finds out later, when it’s already too late. The immune systen is weak. Anything is possible, even chicken pox.
That’s how it happened. A pregnant mother gives her two children a bath. She catches chicken pox. Six months later, her third son is born. And five years later, that young boy starts having problems. He keeps falling down. He can’t tell the difference between Bruce and John. Worried, his parents take him to see a doctor.
He is diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes. The options are few in 1958. The boy won’t go blind, the doctor explains, but the lens will have to be removed from each eye. Four trips to the hospital. Four separate operations. One very confused and scared little boy.
The surgery is successful. The boy is fitted with his first pair of glasses. Very thick glasses. From that point on, both the confused young boy and the guilt-ridden mother begin to see things differently, both lives changed forever by the surgery. Their own relationship changes as well, as mother and son learn to deal with the consequences of a single November night. It’s difficult to say who’s had the tougher time.
The mother, quiet and shy by nature, suddenly becomes extra-protective of her youngest son, especially concerned for his well-being. She explodes when she hears other children teasing her son about his thick cataract glasses. She worries about whether the poor eyes will keep her son from driving a car, or having fun like his older brothers.
She firmly tells neighbors to mind their own business when they ask if there’s something wrong with her son. And those “what if” questions nag at her constantly. What if I had been more careful? What if I had known better? What if? What if?
Meanwhile, the young boy becomes a young man, still wearing those thick glasses. He knows people still perceive him as being different. He develops a quick sense of humor as a defense mechanism. He becomes a teacher and initially wears the glasses to class. His students laugh at him. His boss pokes fun at him. So he finally buys pair of contacts and makes a silent vow never, ever to wear those stupid glasses in public again.
But even with contacts, he can still see the concern in his mother’s eyes, hear that worry in her voice. Those “what if?” questions linger, even after all this time. The mother is almost 80, having led a full and wonderful life, clouded by only one regret, by one night back in November 1952.
The son knows what must be done. And he knows that only he can do it.
* * *
I pick up the phone and call Seattle. Mom answers the phone on the first ring. She’s been waiting by the phone all morning for my call. I try to sound confident. “It’s all set, Mom,” I explain. “May 17th. They do the right eye first. Then the left eye in June. Piece of cake.”
Silence on the other end. “Nothing to it,” I continue. “You know today people are getting lens implants all the time.”
More silence. Finally Mom speaks up, shouting into the receiver, forgetting that my ears aren’t as bad as my eyes. “Are you sure, David? Are you sure you want to do this?”
There’s that concern again, the familiar worry in her voice. I’m 42 years old, but when it comes to my eyes, Mom can only see that 5-year-old confused boy back in the New York hospital. “You don’t have to do this, David. Are you sure?” she keeps repeating.
Sunday is Mother’s Day. In the past, I’ve sent flowers, I’ve sent candy. I’ve bought dinner. I’ve sent mushy greeting cards, filled with little heartfelt scribbles. This year, I’m doing something different for Mom—heading back into surgery for the first time in 37 years, getting an artificial lens placed in each eye.
Call it taking care of unfinished business. It’s important that this happen now, while Mom is still alive. To finally give her peace of mind. To let her stop worrying about her youngest son. And to chase away any guilt surrounding a long ago night in November 1952 when she was only trying to be the best mother possible.
So, am I sure about this surgery? You bet. For me. For Mom. Hey, it’s Mother’s Day. She deserves nothing less.
Even I can see that.
San Luis Obispo County Telegram-Tribune (May 1995)