Editorials

Letter to the editor: Confronting a fear of blindness

by Harvey Grossman

I love reading, especially when one of my grandchildren hops aboard my lap and remains perched there while I relate a story. Another dimension is when I am by myself and delve into non-fiction, another fascinating biography or a stimulating history. Maybe that explains why I am afraid of going blind. Whenever I receive a solicitation from my favourite charity for the blind, I immediately walk to my desk and reply with a cheque. The following year, I try to increase the amount.

I am not alone in my sentiments. Blindness occurs in older adults. A study recently cited in the New York Times reveals a dramatic difference by age, race, and socioeconomic group. The major cause among white persons is macular degeneration, a growing damage to the central portion of the retina. For black people, it could be glaucoma or cataracts. Those of working age, in their 40s to 60s, irrespective of race, is damage to the retina because of diabetes. Gender differences appear too, with white women more likely than white men to become blind. Regular eye checkups can prevent many of the causes of blindness. I, for one, have avoided blindness thus far by cataract surgery, a simple and common operation, and also by treating my eyes with daily drops to prevent glaucoma.

Not so more than five hundred years ago. In 1466, King Juan of Aragon, father –in-law of Queen Isabella, at the age of sixty-eight experienced cataracts in both eyes, rendering him blind. In that era, there were not the surgical skills which exist today, nor were there the antibiotics and the anesthesia. King Juan placed himself into the hands of Cresques Abnarrabi, a Jew, and the court physician before the mass expulsion, who operated on him for his cataracts. Learned in the ancient Hindu and Roman techniques, he inserted a sharp, red-hot needle into King Juan’s eyeball. The King had jeopardized his health in order to regain his sight. The operation was a complete success.

On occasion, when I attend morning services in a synagogue, in prayers of thankfulness to God, there is praise to the Almighty for giving “sight to the blind”. We have been asleep and, newly awakened, with the physical vision to see and the inner facility of insight, they are the summum bonum. One is grateful each day that we can renew our lives in good stead.

Life is the ability to carry on. Helen Keller, committed to blindness, saw more than we sometimes do. Born in 1880, at the age of 2 she became both blind and deaf. In 1904, she graduated from Radcliffe with honours and continued to make her mark as both an author and a lecturer.

Lacking the faculties of sight and sound, it was through her hands that she could discern expression. It is reminiscent of when, in Shakespeare’s play King Lear, Gloucester says of his son, “Did I but live to see thee in my touch, I’d say I had eyes again.” Helen Keller expressed her vision of the world with her three trusty guides, touch, smell, and taste.

Beyond touch was smell. She indicates this when she said “the air varies in different regions, at different seasons of the year, and even different hours of the days.” It reminds one of entering a bakery and relishing the smell of fresh loaves from the oven, and their tastes which linger.

Helen Keller brings us an awareness of the senses we do not always employ and appreciate but carelessly ignore. She was the perennial optimist.

Closer to us in time is Rebecca Alexander. Born with a rare genetic mutation called Usher Syndrome type III, she has been losing both her eyesight and aural capabilities. Informed that by age 30, she would probably be completely blind and deaf, now at 35, she is a psychotherapist, spin instructor, volunteer, and an extreme athlete.

With only slight vision, and the need for a cochlear implant for sound, she communicates in sign language, a form of speech used currently by about seventy million persons worldwide.

Rebecca is an example of the impermanence, the fluidity, of the life that we all lead. We cannot plot the future accurately. There are things we cannot change. Life is tenuous. We can only appreciate the little and the big things in life which we do have. 

One Comment

  1. Maggie Bugden says:

    Intetesting!

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