I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in the doctor's waiting room the day I found out I was going blind. I was nineteen years old and so rapt by Marquez's story that I felt irritated when the dilating drops took effect on my pupils and the words became too blurry to make out. I could still see the black letters on the page in front of me, but the revelation of which letters they were exactly was just out of reach. Later, as I waited for the elevator on my way out, I regarded the hazy book cover again and realized that one day, this is how books would appear all the time, drop or no drops.
I've been an avid reader ever since my Kindergarten teacher Mrs. Mulini taught me how to crack the code of the alphabet. When I open my worn copies of Sendak and Silverstein, the smell that wafts out is my madeleine, transporting me back to a childhood spent reading. I didn't play sports or an instrument, didn't have neighborhood friends, never went to summer camp. I read. I read at the kitchen table and in the backseat; I read on line at the bank and the shoe store and the post office. If the book was any good, I'd read while walking too, though more often than not, I'd end up colliding with furniture or fire hydrants or pyramids of cookie boxes, and earn a rebuke from my mother, who was fond of pointing out when enough was enough.
It wasn't until the day I read Marquez in the waiting room that that I discovered the real reason for all my collisions and it had nothing to do with my books and everything to do with the degenerative retinal disease that was steadily eating away at my vision like a colony of termites. The disease, retinitis pigmentosa, began by attacking my peripheral and nighttime vision, and would finish up by destroying my central vision too. The doctor speculated that I had ten, maybe fifteen years before the lights went out.
It was a terrifying prospect and immediately I thought of all the things I'd lose when I lost my vision, including the ability to read. I knew that this Lights Out wouldn't be the kind I'd encountered as a child, which I sidestepped, after my mother left the room, by pulling a flashlight from under the pillow. This Lights Out would have no loopholes.
So, I decided to make my own loopholes. I wasn't blind yet, and wouldn't be for at least a decade -- which was plenty of time to read everything worth reading, I figured, if you had good time-management skills.
As an English major, I'd gotten a head start; I'd already devoured Homer and Chaucer and Spencer (Milton was a buzzkill so I dropped him from my syllabus). I read Faulkner, Kundera, Murakami, Dostoevsky. Shakespeare was my favorite, and I cried during Harold Bloom's lecture on "The Tempest," whose epilogue felt loaded with personal significance. I would refuse to let the insubstantial pageant fade, I told myself, would simply not abide the revels ending. I went on to a Master's program for English Literature and there I read books about books about books, which I didn't like as much, but I read Joyce, too and Woolf, which made up for it.
My vision loss was slow but relentless and every year, the doctor adjusted my eyeglass prescription, making it stronger and stronger still, until there was nothing more he could do. I'd always been myopic but before long, I had trouble discerning things that were up close, too. It became difficult to make out the print of the scholarly articles my professors assigned.
I kept "book journals" in which I scrawled favorite quotes -- Hemingway, O'Connor, Neruda -- in an attempt to make them indelible. I wanted to hold on to the beauty of the words, the look of the letters lined up neatly to make words which made meaning which felt so critical to who I was. I married a writer, a man who loved books at least as much as I did, and at our wedding, we gave out poems as party favors.
A few months before graduating with my Master's degree, I was binge-reading Asturias' The President for a seminar later that evening when I was suffused with the certainty that I was pregnant. I left the book splayed open on my sofa and ran out to get an ept test. When I returned to the book a half hour later, it was hard to focus through the tears of joy and gratitude and the incessant daydreaming about my unborn baby's face and name and temperament and taste in literature.
While I nursed, I read the baby scenes from "Hamlet," and by the age of three, he'd curl up on my lap for a full hour while I read Charlotte's Web; I'd never loved books as much as I did when I shared them with him. But the pregnancy had been hard on my already faltering vision and I'd developed cataracts, which made the letters fuzzy, just as they had been the day of my diagnosis. Reading was laborious, no longer an escape. I read to my son, and the daughter I had two years later, but I put my own books down, promising myself I'd pick them up again soon.
By the time I had my third child, at 35, I'd gone legally blind, and had been trained on a mobility cane. I couldn't read menus, to say nothing of a paperback. I told myself that the reason I hadn't read a book in seven years was because I was so busy with the children but it wasn't true. I hadn't read because I didn't know how anymore.
So, on Christmas morning a few months after my youngest was born, when I opened the gift my husband had given me and found it was a Kindle, with The Fault in Our Stars already uploaded, I wasn't grateful. In fact, I was annoyed. Reading had become a trial and I didn't want to be reminded of it.
But then my husband pressed a few buttons and the words - the impossibly blurry, indecipherable words - grew bigger and bigger and bigger, as if getting a dose of George's marvelous medicine, and suddenly, everything changed.
"Oh my God," I said, "I can read this."
There's a mercy in losing something you love gradually, in a gentle disappearing act. At least, that's what I'd told myself. I'd gotten by just fine without the books. My life was filled with beauty and feeling and adventure, doled out generously by my kids, who burned brighter than firecrackers and whose stories were the most enthralling ones I will ever follow. I believed I just didn't need books anymore. It was a necessary lie I told myself.
The enormity of my relief when they were given back to me was disarming. It felt like a reprieve.
It felt a little like a cure.
Nicole C. Kear is author of the forthcoming memoir Now I See You [St. Martin's, $25.99].
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