When I first found out, I was sitting at the kitchen table eating carrots. Ironic, really-- a girl finds out her best friend is diagnosed with glaucoma and she’s eating the exact vegetable claimed to improve vision. As I sat there listening to Mom ramble on about glaucoma, how it was caused by an increase in eye pressure, my mind wandered off to the last conversation I had with Lilia. It was over the phone, and she was laughing. “Dee, I can literally hear you chomping down on your nails. Quit worrying.” I tried my best to take her advice, but couldn’t ignore the twisting feeling in my gut. Lilia had said it was nothing, just a “simple case of blurry vision”. “Probably all that alcohol catching up to me, huh. I should’ve listened to you Dee -- too bad I just can’t seem to control the rebel inside of me,” she joked. I laughed softly along with her, but couldn’t help wondering: if it was just some tunnel vision, why was she going to the hospital? Lilia was certainly not one to be described as sensitive. “Lilia, I --” “So how about you come over tomorrow? We can pick up the new Vogue and find the fashion trends we want to bring to school in the fall.” I sighed. Lilia was done with the conversation, and I knew I wouldn’t get anything more out of this vision issue.
Yet here I was today, sitting at the kitchen table, finding out that the “simple blurry vision” was far from simple. I closed my eyes, trying to imagine a little glaucoma bug crawling into my eyes. Trying to imagine Lilia actually having this bug of a disease in her life, in her eyes.
I had just turned six when my family moved to Pennsylvania. The first day of second grade, I stood at the edge of the classroom as all my new peers mingled amongst each other, talking with their friends from the previous year and giving little attention to me, the mousy girl wearing a bedazzled shirt that boldly stated, “I’m Purr-fect!” The voice of another six-year-old echoed through the classroom, loudly explaining to her mom how the purchase of light-up sneakers would not only benefit her, but her mother as well. “If the power ever went out, I could just stomp and you’d be able to find me. These shoes are basically made to help mothers out. Think of how much less you’d worry.” The girl entered the classroom. She was shorter than I was, and sporting a hairstyle that could only be described as resembling a chicken's nest. But she carried herself with a confidence that made her hair seem more like a fashion statement than a failure to consult a mirror. Her eyes scanned the room, and landed on me. I shrunk a bit, her aura overpowering me as she marched towards my direction.
“I’m Lilia. What’s your name?” I stared at her, dumbfounded that she was addressing me. She cocked her head. “Can you hear me? Do you have a name?” “D-Diana,” I managed to choke out. “Hi Diana. Do you have any friends here?” I shook my head meagerly. “I don’t have any friends here either.” She looked at me again, squinting at my shirt. “I like your shirt. It’s shiny. I like you Diana. Let’s be friends.” She stuck her hand out, extending her palm out to me. “Take my hand then move it up and down a few times. I always see my dad doing it with other people and it looks fun.” I cautiously extended my arm, and as we tried out a handshake, I made my first friend.
Our personalities changed little as we grew in size. Lilia quickly made herself known to everyone in that second grade class, as well as to the rest of the people she met later on in life. I always trailed a little behind her, riding off her waves of self-confidence. Lilia was strong, Lilia was independent. Lilia was supposed to grow up and become a ruler of a country. A ground-breaking scientist. A world-renowned reporter. Lilia was not supposed to get glaucoma.
“Are you going to die?”
“No, stupid. Death and blindness are very separate things, and I intend to keep it that way.”
“Can they cure it?”
“Only if I pray every night and eat 50 carrots a day.”
“Kind of. I have to take eye drops that will help prevent any further vision loss, but my peripheral vision can’t be repaired.”
“Are you over 40?”
“What?” She finally peels her eyes away from the Vogue issue, and looks at me in bemusement.
“Are you over 40? People over 40 are more susceptible to glaucoma.” I try to keep a straight face. I know it’ll make her laugh.
She chuckles, eyes twinkling. “Are the wrinkles that bad already?”
The laughter dies out, and we’re staring at each other.
“Are you going to be okay?”
The twinkle in her eyes disappears. “I have no clue.” I look deeper into her eyes, trying to find see the pressure that was causing this disease. She frowns at me, seemingly catching onto what I was doing, and returns her attention to Vogue.
She grabs my hand one day and leads me out to her backyard to a field of flowers. She pulls me down with her, then promptly shuts her eyes. The sun bathes her face in light while the wind ruffles her baby hairs, and it is picture perfect. Then she frowns, her placid face crinkling into folds. Her eyes slit open, and she addresses me.
“We’re Practicing. I figured even though God has given me the good fortune of a treatable blindness, I should prepare for the worst. Now lie down with me.”
I feel as if the wind, previously gentle, is now a tornado -- the impact of her words, prepare for the worst, hit me and I can’t catch my breath or formulate a response. All I can do is lie down next to her, and shut my eyes. We Practice for a long time. I’m surrounded in darkness, yet aware of everything around me. The sunlight pierces red spots in my vision, and I can feel the breeze, hear the birds chirping on the tree next to us. But there is something missing: an intrinsic part of my ability to process and enjoy the world, and as I imagine harder and harder never being able to gain back this ability, the pit in my stomach sinks lower and lower. Unable to bear it anymore, I open my eyes, my sight rushing into me like a welcoming hug. I glance over towards Lilia. Her eyes are still closed, her face serene, but her fists are tightly clenched, her knuckles pale white from the tension. She’s trying to envision an entire life like this, an entire life with no sight. Just as I prepare to say something, a collection of reassuring and comforting words perhaps, her eyes fly open and she jumps to her feet, walking towards the house without a second thought. As she passes me, I hear a sniffle.
The eye drops do not work. Her doctors suggest pills in addition to the eye drops. Lilia takes in all the new information with a smile, but I can tell she hurts inside.
The seasons begin to change. The Practice field of flowers begins to wilt and die.
There are good days and there are bad days. On the good days, everything is the way it was before her diagnosis. We talk about school, about boys, about things that once seemed important but are now meaningless, just a way of distracting ourselves. On the bad days, she says nothing. She usually leaves to Practice, and I trail behind her, not wanting to leave, yet never knowing if she still wants me there. Sometimes she allows me to join her in the field of flowers. Other days she yells at me to go home, saying that she doesn’t need me, that she doesn’t need anyone, and that she can do everything on her own.
Lilia seems to lose energy each passing day. She refuses almost everything on her plate, and spends most of her afternoons Practicing, unable to find the strength to do much else. She grows thinner and thinner, weaker and weaker. The doctors conclude this loss in energy and appetite is from the pills, and tell Lilia’s mom that the setbacks of the pills far outweigh the benefits. Laser eye surgery is suggested. Lilia is taken off the pills and eyedrops, and a date is scheduled. Lilia is to be operated on in one month.
We are Practicing one day. I open my eyes first-- I always do-- and look over at Lilia. Her eyes are shut so hard that they have crinkled into prunes. A tear escapes from the corner of one eye, and a sniffle escapes from her nose. I begin to turn away, but she suddenly opens her eyes, and I notice they are sparkling with tears. She grabs my hand and squeezes it, squeezes it so hard that I can feel my pulse when she loosens her grip. We don't say anything, until finally she whispers, "I'm scared." Then louder, "I'm scared." And louder and louder until she's finally screaming it, screaming it in this field of weeds, and I see from the corner of my eye her mom rushing to the screen door and then Lilia turns towards me and we're hugging and she's still saying I'm scared I'm scared I'm scared. And we lie in the field hugging and she thinks she's holding onto me for strength but I'm holding onto her just as much, because I'm scared too, scared about how vulnerable she has just become and scared about what was to come.
Lilia only had a week and half before her operation when it happened. Her mom said Lilia had been showering, and everything had been normal until it wasn't-- her mom heard a scream and found Lilia lying in the shower crying, crying and I can't imagine it, I can't imagine her tears mixing with the shower water, I can't imagine Lilia helpless in the shower, screaming, DEPENDING on her mom to help her. The doctors diagnosed it as acute glaucoma: the pressure in her eye had suddenly increased to a dramatic extent, and by the time she got to the hospital it had been too late. I can't imagine her never being able to see a bar of soap anymore, I can't imagine her never being able to see my face again and I'm mad, mad because I'm selfish and I want her to see my face. She is blind, she is blind and the reality I knew, was always a possibility finally hits me with full force and all I could do is close my eyes and Practice.
I walk into the room clenching a bar of chocolate. As I near her bed, I am unsure how to give it to her. Do I just place it in her hands? Do I have to let her know I’m going to put something in her hands first? Suddenly I'm right next to her, and I see her, and she looks peaceful, serene, just like how I remember her when we first started our Practices.
“H-Hey Lilia. How are you doing? I mean obviously not well, I can see that-- wait no, um… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be offensive… ah shit. I have some chocolate for you.”
She chuckles, and holds out her hand. “Thanks Dee.”
We sit in an awkward silence, and she fumbles with the wrapping, her eyes still closed.
“So, I’m blind. Bet you didn’t see that coming, huh?”
I burst out in laughter, and she does too, and instead of a blind girl, I see Lilia, and she is beautiful.