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For My Father’s Last Eye, the One Untouched by Melanoma

My father lost his right eye under the ether and the surgeon’s scythe. He had a cancerous melanoma his optometrist misdiagnosed as a cataract before he left on a trip to Europe, eight years ago.

A week into his trip, he woke up in Rome with a lint-like bulge pulsing and burning well behind his eyelid. They scheduled him for emergency surgery the next day, but when the tumor had unexpectedly grown bigger and twice as dense, they realized it wasn’t what they thought and sent him home immediately.

***

One evening when my dad was talking about his lost eye, I said, “At least it doesn’t hurt anymore.” I was in a bad mood, uninterested in his loss.

My dad just breathed in and said, “You know, I would rather have my eye with it hurting than to have no eye and no pain. The only reason I had it removed was so I could live.”

In the moment, I attributed my dad’s loss to being overly emotional, but of course, that’s not true.

Losing his dominant eye changed his experience as a computer programmer for work and a mechanic on the side. Recently, when I asked if work was harder with only one eye, he said he was lucky because while software programming, he doesn’t need to see well with both eyes. On a computer, everything is a flat 2-D, so depth perception doesn’t really matter. He can see everything he needs from a single angle.

However, I remember when he first lost his eye and he would come home early and exhausted, his eye patch over his right socket and his left eye drooping with fatigue.

It’s much worse as a mechanic and especially as a welder. He has to be careful that he wears a full headset and that his goggles are in top condition. Perhaps he would stop being a mechanic altogether if it weren’t for the unfinished 1965 Triumph TR4A IRS that has slept in our garage since I was two years old. He painted it robin-egg blue, and disassembled parts lean against the walls of the basement — the hood, doors without windows or handles, the thin steering wheel hung on a pin.

In addition to the dangers of a spark flying in his good eye, it takes longer for him to work on it without depth perception, especially when trying to see letters stamped into the metal sockets or to find different wrench sizes.

His lost vision impacts his love for driving itself, too, not just the cars he makes: when he drives his Montero through the mountains to his favorite ski trails, he can only see the spread of the front window and a small slot of a side window. It may not be too dangerous, but it’s certainly less of a view.

Sometimes, my father wishes he had never had both eyes in the first place, so he wouldn’t have to take the ache of losing one eye, adjusting, comparing himself to when he could see better. At the same time, he is reverently grateful that he did have both for at least half of his life.

When his eye tires, he begins to see as though looking through a paisley patterned glass. He flosses by touch and brings his fork to his mouth by bending his arm in degrees, his elbow against the edge of the table (a habit by now), and when cooking he avoids cutting vegetables. In the yard, he can’t see branches and snags against them while raking or chasing our dog.

***

My dad still types at 70 wpm, makes gluten-free German pancakes and replaces sprinklers in the backyard on Saturdays.

He still welds bike frames, trims and edges the yard and modifies the wood shelves and cupboards he made twenty years ago.

He even helps my younger brother work on jigsaw puzzles, though he has to press most pieces to feel the fit.

An outsider wouldn’t know my dad only had one eye because of the prosthetic that resides in the upper right hole of his skull. He wears this prosthetic to connect with others and to help them feel comfortable. It is also physically comfortable to have his socket cushioned with methyl methacrylate, a soft, malleable plastic also used for hip and knee replacements.

My dad’s recovery has been far from simple.

He works hard to keep his cancer in remission and his body in commission. He goes to the hospital every three months, either for an ultrasound or a CT and MRI scan to check for any tumors. My dad prefers MRIs; during CTs, he drinks a berry-Barium contrast smoothie that smells like sunscreen, and the nurse injects a thick, hot fluid that aches through his body. The MRI also requires an IV, but only for a small injection of contrast.

The nurses at the clinic love my dad because his veins stick out, robust, unlike the bleak, flat veins of most of their cancer patients. For both scans he has breathing instructions, such as to hold his breath five seconds after inhalation. Day to day, he follows an exercise routine and takes a melatonin pill to help him sleep and keep up his immune system.

My dad appreciates what he does see and lets himself look at his world longer. He is more aware of what his body does well and uses it more often, cross-country skiing in the Rocky Mountains and pruning the giant Australian Willow that shadows half of our backyard. He empathizes with others more and even contacted a man through a KSL news piece, who had the same cancer but didn’t recover, being his friend until he passed almost five years ago.

As a parent, he makes sure I have health insurance and has me get my eyes checked regularly at the ophthalmologist instead of the optometrist.

Chances are, I will never lose my eye like my father did. I am vulnerable to get the same cancer he had, both because I am my father’s daughter and because I have blue eyes and freckling skin which predispose me, mildly, to melanoma. However, the combination of seeing a medical doctor during my eye exams and knowing my father’s history almost ensure that any defect (unlikely though it is) would be caught early and treated with minimal loss.

***

The first day my dad spent out of bed after coming home from surgery, our family sat at the dinner table, taking turns covering one eye and seeing if we could bring our cups to our mouths without spilling, how far back we could still count fingers where our vision had been shared, or how quickly we grew dizzy while spinning.

My father breathed with a sleepy smile, his eyeless socket swollen shut, thin skin around it mottled and purple.

I remember that night like few others and can still draw from calm of it. There was an unannounced and familiar light, something akin to a thinness of the veil. There was the quiet sacrament of feeling touched to have our father.

We took turns passing around his eye patch and saying different painted lenses he could have: an eight ball, Sauron from “Lord of the Rings,” a marble with a ribbon through the middle. My step-mom who has a lazy left-eye spoke up, offering to switch seats with my dad so each could see the other better. For dessert we pulled out frozen blueberries, high in anticarcinogens, and a tub of thin vanilla yogurt we dished into paper cups.

When we went to bed, it was past time to turn the lights out — the sprinklers clicking outside, the chugging pipes, slowing to a stop.

A longer version of this story was previously published in print in “Relief Journal.” 

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Thinkstock photo by Jupiterimages