She says that I have always lived in darkness. But I’m fine with it. I don’t need the light. I don’t even necessarily want the light. I’m not doing this for me.
I’m doing this for her. Because she wants me to see the world the way she sees it.
The limit to my perception wasn’t an issue when she was young. We couldn’t have children, of course.
So we adopted. When she came into our lives, she was newly born into my world. And far, far away from her own. Even though I’d never imagined myself traveling that far, I swore to myself that I would someday, when she was older. So she could see where she came from. But I’d always thought it would be only to visit.
On our first visit, she loved it so much that I felt guilty pulling her away from the place. She kept asking me when we could come back. She kept marveling at all the new things she had tasted and touched and heard, and especially all the new things she had seen.
And it was the first time she noticed that I couldn’t perceive the world the way she did. I still remember the way the casual tone of her voice gripped my heart, clutched it, then slowly let go as she asked me a simple question on our way back home.
“Mom, can you see my face?”
I didn’t need to see my daughter’s face to love her. Of course not. It didn’t occur to me back then that I ever would.
It didn’t occur to me that it would bother her so much. She wanted to show me things that brought her joy and delight. And she wanted to show me things that she believed would bring me joy and delight. And when I couldn’t see those things, I could heard in a single sigh, her frustration, her irritation, and her disappointment.
I remember one time in particular. She took my hand and put something round and lumpy in my palm. It was a fruit. Imported from what would have been her home if I hadn’t brought her to mine.
She called it an “apple,” but it was not. I couldn’t see the thing she handed me. But I bit into it. It was dry and mealy, the consistency of the inside of a French fry, only with the flavor of a spicy pear.
Definitely not an apple.
Whenever I would remind her that being able to see what she could see would not make me a happier or better person, she would say she understood. But I heard the doubt in her voice. She wasn’t quite buying it.
And I’ll admit that in moments like those, I truly did long to see her face.
Not too long after she started school, she began to ask us why there weren’t any kids in her class who were like me. And even after we explained, she seemed dissatisfied.
“When I grow up, I’m going to fix it,” she’d say.
And though she’d seen the mask her father had to wear in our society since she was little, she began to comment on it more and more.
“Will I have to hide my face when I grow up?” she asked. “I don’t want to.”
She wasn’t the only child who thought such thoughts, of course. We were all doing the best we could to adapt.
She wanted to be seen, my daughter did. And not just by me.
And I began to wonder, and we began to discuss, whether we should move, at least for a little while, so our daughter could experience the other half of her heritage. I would be even more out of my depth. Even more unable to see. But she wouldn’t have to wonder about hiding her face.
I thought that would be enough. And it was for a while.
It might sound strange, but I kept forgetting that there were objects in front of me that I couldn’t see. Back home—our old home I should say—even when I couldn’t see with my eyes, I could see. I used to be able to navigate our house in the pitch dark. Unless my daughter left a toy on the hallway floor. I could have sworn that she did that on purpose sometimes, just to hear me yelp. And catch me sneaking downstairs for a midnight bowl of ice cream. Then I’d be compelled to let her join me, to buy her silence with a scoop of Neapolitan.
We can adapt. But we can only adapt to so much by ourselves. Beyond that we need help. They had adapted, my daughter, my husband.
Now it was my turn.
“The treatment is perfectly safe, and relatively non-invasive. Let’s not forget that,” the nurse said as I felt the back of my chair lowering until I was almost completely lying down.
They wouldn’t do the treatment back home, but that was because of the ethical concerns, not safety. Because the eyes I would be receiving were not artificially constructed or grown from scratch. They were coming from a donor. Artificial eyes were available. But they wouldn’t work with my physiology.
I couldn’t see the nurse’s face, of course. Based on the tone of her voice, I imagined that she was smiling a plastic smile. A smile crafted from practiced pleasantry. She cared in a general sense, of course. But she didn’t know me. And I disagreed with her notion of what “relatively non-invasive” meant.
I guessed I should get used to the generic reassurances. I was about to take on one of the most dreaded roles a person could take on. I was about to become…a patient.
I was about to put my life and future completely in the hands of strangers.
And all for a procedure that I didn’t need to have.
Even my daughter, who had pushed for me to get the transplant surgery, had changed her mind after she heard the doctor explain all the steps involved. She had asked more questions than I had. She had challenged the doctor in ways I wouldn’t have dared. She asked if it would hurt me. For how long. What side effects would there be? What medications would I need to take and for how long? Could my native eyes be put back if the donor ones didn’t work? How long did it take to determine if donor eyes were working properly? What if it made my life worse? What was the worst reaction I might have to the donor eyes?
Could I die?
No one had ever died from this particular surgery or from any related complications. That hadn’t remotely crossed my mind.
But behind the tough tone she was taking with the doctor, I heard the guilt in my daughter’s voice. On the one hand, I was proud that she was thinking about the procedure’s consequences in broader terms than just “mom will be able to see like I see.” Proud that she was thinking of the consequences of her own actions and intentions in convincing me to get the procedure. I would comfort her, of course. And let her know that it was ultimately my decision. I wanted to do this for her, certainly. But also for myself. So I could share her world with her. So I could see what she could see.
So I could see her face. Look into her eyes. And so she could look into mine.
“I wonder if you’ll still get me if you can see me,” she had asked the night before the procedure.
I frowned, confused. “What do you mean?”
“You know how you’ll say something like, ‘you sound worried, honey’ even when I’m trying to play it cool? Or just ‘you’re holding something back, aren’t you?’ Or you’ll hug me and ask me why I’m tense, or you’ll know if I’m tired just by touching my shoulder.” She sighed. “You already see me.”
I smiled. “Of course I do.”
“And what if it’s a trick? What if they take you away after?”
She’d been hearing morbid rumors from her classmates. I was only approved to get the surgery if I participated in a joint scientific study that our governments were conducting. The study required that participants sometimes flew back home. Sometimes on quite short notice. Not all participants could comply with every such summons. But there were severe fines on those who missed too many summons. Here, the surgery was allowed and considered safe, but it was still considered serious business. Just as it was back home. And while the procedure was being done on more and more people, it was still new enough and rare enough that research was still being conducted on it.
So rumors arose that people who’d gotten the surgery would “disappear” suddenly.
Yes, there was a cost to the surgery that I maybe wouldn’t fully understand until I paid it. There were risks beyond the procedure itself. But if I went through with it, I would be able to see what few human beings could see.
“Don’t turn your head yet,” the nurse said. “Keep looking straight ahead. Let your brain adjust and calibrate to the new sensations.”
It took all my will power not to turn my head, move my eyes, cast my gaze around the room, searching for my daughter. She wouldn’t be there, of course. That is, she was there in the hospital, but she was watching me from another room. For my own safety, my new eyes had to pass a few tests before I would be allowed to see her or anything beyond that room.
After the nurse completed her calibrations, she asked me to close my eyes again. She was going to set some objects in front of me and have me look at them while she assessed the calibrations. And also assessed my subjective response to whatever I would be seeing.
She warned me again to keep my gaze directed forward. But the next voice I heard was not the nurse’s.
“Can you see it now, Mom? The apple?”
I opened my eyes. I can see it. I closed my eyes.
I slowly opened my eyes again. It did look like an apple. There were shades of red and green. I blinked and my new eyes showed me something I couldn’t quite understand. Some…new depth. The apple flickered. It shifted into neon shades. I blinked again and it shifted into sharp angles and a flat dimension, geometric shapes of different colors. It looked almost like a stained glass apple.
“It will take some practice,” the nurse said. “But you should be able to narrow your focus enough to see the way your human eyes once saw…approximately.”
They warned me about sensory overload. That my mind would need time to adjust to the new and unfamiliar sensations. I hadn’t quite believed them. How much different could it be seeing through these new eyes than it was seeing through my own?
Well, it’s different. My new eyes could magnify things. I practiced on slides, samples, objects, and even a few familiar plants and animals in the hospital lab. I could see the unreadable expression on the face of a bee. I could see tiny organisms tooling around in a glass of water. I would have to get used to that—or maybe avoid looking that deeply.
They took me up to the roof and let me see the night sky. It had been dazzling enough before. Even in the cities here, night skies were crystal clear and sparkling with stars. But now…I could see more than flickering dots of light. I could just see the shape of the largest planet in their solar system. And their moon. I could trace the cracks on its powdery surface.
The nurse would instruct me to slowly pull back, as slowly as I could.
If I switched modes or perspectives too quickly, I felt as if I were dizzy, unbalanced, on the verge of vertigo.
They told me that if I couldn’t adjust on my own there were regulators that could be implanted just under the skin at my temples.
What’s the catch? I asked. Because there had to be. Otherwise, they’d use the regulators from the get-go, wouldn’t they? Ease people into the new sensations.
I was told that it was “not preferred.” Because the regulators often served as a crutch, a crutch that was all too easy to rely on.
Aside from the “apple” I’d seen when I first opened my eyes, I had been isolated from seeing other native organisms on the planet. Some of them, I’d had no trouble seeing even with my human eyes. But my human eyes had been completely unable to perceive much, including the faces of my family.
They shift through the spectrum, my daughter and her people. As do so many organisms on their home world. To human eyes—to the eyes I was born with—it looked like a blur of glowy afterimages that never quite resolved to a point where the image could be identified. For her whole life until this point, my daughter’s face, her whole body, had been a blur to me. There was no technology yet developed that would allow us to see them. No goggles or filters we could put before our eyes to sharpen the edges of the blur.
The adults among their people wore masks. It made it easier for human eyes to deal with looking at a static mask than an ever-shifting blur. But we didn’t make the kids wear masks. We tried, in the beginning, to explain it to them as gently as we could. We tried to explain that humans couldn’t see their faces because our eyes saw a far more limited spectrum and scale than theirs, and so we needed their help to…adjust. But it seemed a mean thing to do to make kids wear masks. They understood, if even subconsciously, that we were basically telling them that we couldn’t handle the sight of them.
We could speak each other’s languages. We could eat each other’s foods. We could clasp hands in greeting, five fingers to five fingers. There was so much we had in common. So much that connected two peoples separated by the vast and dusty distance of the galaxy. But this one thing was an obstacle we had yet to resolve.
They could see us. But we could not see them.
There were other ways to perceive. My daughter had finally learned that lesson for herself, just before I got the surgery.
And there were other ways to expand our perceptions. We humans had some intuitions that our friends did not share and were curious about studying.
I told myself that I was getting the surgery for my daughter. But if that were true, then I would have stopped when she told me she had doubts. The truth is that my daughter had pushed me to pursue an opportunity that I would not have otherwise pursued. Not because I wasn’t interested. Not because I had any objections based on principles or beliefs. But because I was scared. I was scared to see more than I had seen before. I was scared to change myself. And I was right to be scared. I had my own questions, ones that I never asked the doctor or anyone.
Would I change? Would I be a different person once I was able to see what an alien people could see? Would my feelings for my husband and my daughter change once I could see their faces? I had imagined their faces based on how they felt beneath my fingertips. What would my own face look like to me now?
Those doubts were still there, but the anxiety around them began to drain away the closer I came to the day of surgery, replaced by excitement.
I sometimes wonder if I would have ultimately been as keen on getting the surgery if I had been born completely without sight. Was it only because I had some sight that I wanted more?
I’d have to do what my nurse kept advising me to do. Take it slow.
I was doing well. I just had to take it slow.
I would be discharged in a few days if things progressed as they had been. And then it would be up to me.
I ran through all these thoughts as I waited in my room. It had a window and a balcony. I could look outside, but everything and everyone was sufficiently far away that I would have to slowly zoom in to see. And I hadn’t even tried to see anyone’s face. The nurses had worn masks when they came to check on my vitals. Seeing their faces was an advanced skill. They told me that my new eyes would reflexively focus and see, as they had with the apple. My donor eyes were working as expected. My brain was the issue. My brain needed time to adjust to what it was seeing.
I’d been practicing on native objects and animals. But today was the day that I would be able to practice on people. On my family.
I had dressed up and put on shoes. I took a deep breath and blinked a few times as I heard the click of their shoes coming down the hall. I bit my lower lip, waiting for the door to open.
Waiting to see, at last, my daughter’s face.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel