What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness - Candia McWilliam (2012)


It is now mid-September. Mr Foss operated on my right leg and both eyes on 30 June. He took out the tendons from behind my knee and sewed them in beneath the skin, stitching up my eyelids to my brows, pegging my brows from stitches above them in the ‘blank’ area of my forehead, so that there is a system of artificial tension that counteracts the blepharospasm’s continual downward force and in so doing offers sight. My forehead hurts. It feels as though it is cork, with drawing pins, six of them, set circumflexwise above each eye. There are six points of pain, connected by unhappy but essential tension.

The effect is at once of wound and freeze, vulnerability and a harder surface than the subtly changing thin-skinned area around a human eye usually offers. My eyes are fat-looking, peering piggily through swollen yet not smooth crevices. They feel bruised and stiff, both the eyes themselves, weirdly, and the lids. But–I can see.

I can see.

I look broken and I look mended. I have a bodged face. I’m not complaining. I’m attempting to define. There is no eyelid and there are no fluttering delicate surfaces for another person to read. I’m unclear as to how my face is legible to anyone who sees it. Most people say reflexively that I look the same. I haven’t asked them, the same as what? There is no need for them to say that; it’s a nervous reaction, like saying one looks well when one has suddenly got fatter. The most sensible description was from a friend who said that I looked as though I’d been stitched up after a fight. Sometimes I feel as though my face has been pegged up like washing, on metal pegs, then hung, heavy, and been frozen like a dishcloth in a cold snap. My soft old face depends loosely from its new circumflexed stitches.

But I can mostly see out from it, out of it, this face on pegs. This return to a world where I can read is an unlooked-for relief, a blessing that I had not imagined would come my way. I had believed that, since blepharospasm rarely goes into remission, I was shut in the dark for good.

Sometimes, if I am tired or frightened, or if the light is bright, I clamp blind again, so I still carry my foldable white stick, though not, of course, on to aeroplanes, since it would make a plausible weapon and is therefore not allowed. I have learned that, as I’m a nervous traveller, I do tend still to go blind at railway stations and airports.

Mr Foss said that my tendons are of notably poor quality and he had to reinforce them with some synthetic strings called something like ‘Plastron’. He says that you can improve the quality of tendons by regular running. He says that running is ‘hell at the time’. It is clear he cannot lie. I still love trying to guess what he will say next.

Mr Foss said that it was ‘a pig of an operation’.

His own sport, I’ve discovered, is high-level competitive fencing.

Mr Foss is slight, and only ever to the point.

Things had got quite bad by the time I went to the hospital for this last operation. Nottingham has several hospitals including the Queen’s Medical Centre, the largest in Europe. I arrived in the morning at the small hospital on the Mansfield Road where Mr Foss had stripped out my eyelid muscles in January, having come down from Colonsay the day before. It was a journey that would not have been responsibly possible on my own, I was so blind by then, yet not an adept, since not a reconciled, nor, thanks to Mr Foss’s operation, a resigned, blind person, and was also still lame from my broken leg. William came with me on the boat to Oban and handed me to his daughter Flora at Glasgow.

She had come up that morning from Euston in order to accompany me to Nottingham. We had a number of train-changes between Glasgow and Nottingham. Flora participated in a Virgin Trains hot-meal survey. Asked to choose between Lancashire Hotpot and Chicken Curry (it was a conspicuously warm day), she asked to try both, otherwise how could it be a survey? She’s skinny and always hungry. She received a thimbleful of hummus and two small red ‘presentation tomatoes’, together with a press release more substantial than the snack itself, about moving forward into a future where the customer came first. You can see why Mediterranean travellers are baffled in Great Britain.

We crossed a lavishly green part of England after the always for me too sudden loss of Scotland.

By the time I was in the hospital, I wanted anaesthesia of thought and condition, and was, I now see, inexcusably unprofessional (is being a patient a profession?) in speaking to both Mr Foss and the anaesthetist the way I did. I asked them if they wouldn’t just let me go to sleep for good.

It was a bad thing to say. I was exhausted by my condition. Nonetheless, it was ugly. When I think of it now, I see–I see!–how things had grown in. Like ingrowing toenails, I had ingrowing eyeballs, or, more precisely, an ingrowing brain. I was doing time with my sadness, it is true, but at least I had the time to do.

Mr Foss, when I asked him, said that our lives are not ours to take, nor are those of others, and that the doors you do not, ever, open are cruelty and madness. He could have said much more.

He did not tell me what follows, but I found out later, and by accident. His great-grandfather Sigismund Stanislaw Voss, a Latvian engineer who spoke six languages, who had converted when he married his Lutheran wife, Wally, had survived the Russians but was lost to the Third Reich, which took him from his post at Massey Engineering in France and to the concentration camp at Drancy. There is no record of his fate.

The anaesthetist, when I asked if he couldn’t just knock me out, said that if anything happened to my life, his wouldn’t be worth living. Later I learned that he had recently had a heart attack and spent many weeks in hospital.

After the operation, he wrote me a detailed thoughtful response to my telling him that I had at some point been ‘aware’ during the operation. This is when the patient can hear what is going on and can think, but is unable to move (or they believe this to be so). As you will imagine, this state has a lot in common with certain nightmares of powerlessness and muffledness, when you know and see but cannot utter no matter how you strive. He questioned me closely, and sent me a number of articles on the subject. His guess was that my odd feeling might relate to my size and to my being an alcoholic. He managed to put both things tactfully. The sort of tact that must have been in demand at the Tudor court.

He said that I must warn any anaesthetist who was about to put me under at any time in the future of this incidence of ‘awareness’ (it’s a medically identified phenomenon), and he or she would increase the dose of one of the drugs involved to make sure that my brain as well as my body slept.

My sons and Fram came up for the night after the operation. I was bandaged and couldn’t see them. I am told that I annoyed them by asking about their journeys. They felt that I should be telling them my news. I didn’t really have any. I hadn’t arrived anywhere yet. I felt a bit useless. Olly had come all the way up just to see some bandaged ghoul on a gantry, probably identifiable as his mother by its bulk. He was having to go to America early the next day.

I am writing this in the beginning of autumn on a balcony beside an Italian lake, like some civilian idea of a real writer. The air is cool. There has been a Shelleyan squall. From where I am writing I can see–already the sentence is too rich in meaning to bear that meaning without my giving it an intrusive interjection for support, like the stitches holding up my stripped eyes–from where I am writing I can see a headland with growing upward out of it one quite small cypress, that seems to be gathering itself slimly for dive or flight. Its poise and pose remind me of a painted diver–the Tufa–on a wall at Paestum, in another part of this country that makes more sense to me than most.

The water is green and choppy tonight, the air just pink. Behind the headland, two long mountains meet in layers of blue. The sky is fumed with dusk as though the light weren’t going, just fainting away. On the opposite shore, the small yellow town of Bellagio disposes itself. Two campanili stand out white and will later be lit up. I know this because we have been here long enough for habits and rhythms to have laid themselves down. We shall have been here for six nights tonight.

Not only can I see, but I am recommencing to see in steady planes and charges of colour, not just the juddery reception I had when I lifted my eyes with my hands. The sort of vision that I think I have lost, unless habit makes it return, is my sharp peripheral vision that used continually to be collecting. To an irksomely upbeat degree, for one so stuck on metaphor, I can only look forward–unless I swivel my head, which aches a lot of the time, I think from the tension it generates when pushing internally against the blepharospasm that waits inside it.

Quentin arranged that we might all be together in this place at the end of the summer. It is the first summer holiday that all four of the children have ever been on together. My three haven’t been together in the summer like this for more than thirteen years.

The villa is reached by 184 steps down the sheer cliff from the swerving lakeside road. There was no such road when a group of four young Englishmen, calling themselves ‘the Lizards’, cleared the site they had clubbed together to buy in 1891 for a hundred pounds. They built a jetty, made the tall arcaded villa, established a garden and a little harbour. One of them kept a diary, which is downstairs. From it you gather the struggle and devotion required to plant and establish just one wisteria, the physical effort involved in creating this idyll on the edge of a moody body of water at the bottom of a cliff at the other side of the Simplon Pass which had not been open for that long. It’s curious, this nineteenth-century English tendency to choose to domesticate the intractable.

I feel a connection between Colonsay and this house and its situation, the close relationship with weather, the dependence upon boats, the choice of rising to physical challenge and natural beauty over other forms of indulgence, made by men of the privileged class with the world at their feet at the height of Empire and on the verge of irreversible change.

These are the last redoubts where a man could feel himself master. It is a sort of play, though it could not be further from the drawing room. It is a way of addressing otherness by not having to read or talk about it, while draining off animal spirits through considerable physical exertion. The pioneer character favours natural beauty over the created kind.

The demands made by beauty upon this house are visible through its windows and from its several balconies. All the beauty asks is that one absorb the light, which is changing all the time, dim and pearly yet full of sharp attentive spills that fall on the mountains, showing up here a grey rock, here a white church, or on the water, reaching down into it to show a lake trout hanging there in a column of revealed green, or to catch a dragonfly clipped in the air for its moment, the same size, apparently, as a single scull lying on the water moving with the smooth unbroken rhythm that looks like stillness.

In 1910 the villa was burgled. Finding it empty, the thief spent the night. He left a note, ‘Cantate anche per me’ (‘Pray for me, too’).

The older children have come from their work for the weekend. There is so much to see just now that I am staying at home at the villa. Everyone goes out in the boat to look at things. I stay at home and see things. I’ve lots of work and am still lame over distances and bad at stairs. The pearls I wear always, that Quentin gave me twenty-seven years ago and that need restringing every year or so on knotted cotton, now have the sort of fastening that is made for blind pearl-wearers, a magnetic clasp. It collects safety pins and paperclips while I sleep.

I work here for ten or so hours a day and meet the family at mealtimes and when they visit my balcony. I go rather slowly in order not to choke on my new experience of sight. It is hard to ration sight, but I am trying; I cannot yet avoid the superstitious sense that the consequence of seeing too much will be again to have my credit of sight-time withdrawn.

This July after my second operation, Fram discovered, after a lot of enquiries and effort, a priest who was also a psychiatrist whom I made an appointment to go and see. There had been some suggestion that I might start taking lithium for anxiety. Lithium is a drug whose reputation is at present enjoying a degree of rehabilitation after being thought of as quite controversial. A helpful doctor friend had identified what she called an ingrained habit of what she called ‘depersonalisation’ in me; she was right, if it means, as I think it does, a coping system of saying to oneself that nothing bad matters if it’s happening to oneself. Or, that nothing matters, since it’s happening to oneself.

She also told me that she believed more strongly every day that one never knows what is going on inside other people. It’s a sense upon which my life has been built, and which is a premise of, or a challenge to, much interesting fiction, but you seldom hear a doctor say it. Isn’t that odd?

I was willing to do almost anything to find some sort of dry land to rest on.

Most days, I walked to the chemist’s to buy new dressings and show my wound to the pharmacist. I put a gauze dressing on and then a creamy elastic long bandage that I wound round and round my thick right leg and pinned with little toothed clasps. My legs were thicker than ever, thick as waists at the knee, spongy and blue-red. Fram worried that the wound wasn’t healing and badgered me to do something more assertive. I didn’t.

The stitches were taken out of my leg. The scar was wet and about five inches long. The stitches had been neat. The stitches in my face came out in Nottingham, ten days after the operation, on 11 July. Fram took me. He and Mr Foss seemed to like each other; they were intrigued by one another’s take and speed. They had that never-questioned high-functioning intelligence in common. I turn dozy in such company but it’s the sort I like. I’m not bored; I’m listening. It’s like listening to music, not eavesdropping.

On 17 July, I went to Nottingham alone, a treat. I was already going blind again. Mr Foss had warned of this. He said that after the second operation there is often a honeymoon of twenty-four hours when the patient feels as though everything has righted itself. This honeymoon, he warned me, is misleading. I visited Mr Foss to have the first go of Botox injections which I will now have every three months for the rest of my life, if I want to see.

‘If’ I want to see? Do some people actually decide that they want to remain in the dark? Apparently, the answer to this, in any intelligent terms, is yes. We’ll come to that.

Mr Foss gave me four injections at specific points around each eye, eight featherlight poison darts in all. Any comparison with fencing is perfectly apt. He handles a syringe more lightly, more precisely, than anyone who has so far injected my eyes. Some people hurt. In their hands the needle feels wide and thick, unconfident. He was, as he always is, quick. He gave me the tiny jar of poison to take away, in case I needed topping up.

My deadly poison is still in Fram and Claudia’s freezer. How like a fairy tale. The poison that makes me see is in the coldest part of their warm home.

Minoo and I went to Edinburgh for the Book Festival for ten days. Every other day, I visited a surgery, to see about my leg, which had not healed properly, and which had put me back in the hospital for a time in Oxford. The flat we had rented was up many stone stairs.

Everything got better in Edinburgh. I was surprised by what happened to me at the Book Festival. I had felt I was there as a visitor, more than an author. Then someone got hold of the human story, the story that makes out of my whole recent experience something soppy; the ‘I once was blind, but now can see’. Which is far too simple and not true, so it will probably be what is remembered.

I hope not, though.

It is a human story. It is also a story about words. If I hadn’t been asked to write about going functionally blind for the Scottish Review of BooksThe Times would not have reprinted the piece. Marion Bailey would not have read the piece nor so generously got in touch with me and told me about Mr Foss. I owe my present new-made sight to many, but directly to the Scottish Review of BooksThe Times, John and Marion Bailey, and Alexander Foss.

The fight inside my head will not disappear, but the curtains may be lifted so that it may look outwards from its internal drama.

In there in my brain, decisions have been taken to shut my eyes down, taking much else with them.

Out there in the world, someone was imaginative enough to know what it might be like to be able to see and not to be able to see, and clever and knowledgeable and courageous enough to know that it might be done, and how.

Now it was the paper that owns the Scottish Review of Books that broke my little story. A few others went with it. The general tone was ‘Triumph over Tragedy’. Not so, of course. One interviewer, from The Times, asked very shrewd questions. In each case he hit the spot. He asked, ‘But has your condition gone or is it just held off?’ And he asked, ‘What has happened to your idea of yourself?’

My condition, or ‘the’ condition, so that it knows I’m not hugging it possessively to me, hasn’t gone. It is held off. That must be good enough for me. It fights back day and night and I feel it punching from within my head. I have a sore head and tense eyes most of the time. But I am not shut in in the dark alone as I was.

You, having read this book, will have some idea of the answer to the second question. I worry that I will look ugly in my children’s wedding pictures. I do look peculiar. I often don’t recognise myself. I realise that I did rely, to an extent I did not understand, on how I looked. But I never knew that I was, sometimes, beautiful. I didn’t feel it. Sometimes I see it now, in a photograph, and I think, ‘You fool, you didn’t do it right at all. When you looked like that, you felt as though you looked like this. You had it coming to you.’

So much for vanity. I have to meet new people with my self and not my face. People who knew me before are sometimes shocked. Often they don’t recognise me. Sometimes I feel cross then relieved about this because I knew they were creeps all along and I can add it to my dossier on them and walk on, at others I feel sad but sad as one feels in an afternoon alone when one has just missed a telephone call; sad, but fairly sure that life is like that and that it might equally well have been a caller you didn’t want to hear, a wrong number, or some unreal win on a non-existent lottery for which you haven’t signed up.

To some degree at the age I am, one is composed of loss, and here is a loss I have behind me, the loss of a beauty that wasn’t a safe gift for me. Loss is the new beauty after a certain age, a matter for refining and sharing. I didn’t ever admire the sort of looks I had. I looked a bit thick, where thick overlaps with apparently sexy. A bad mix for a sardonic introvert.

As to the less superficial stuff. My identity is shot to bits, I cannot pretend it is not. But I have some chance of finding it and maybe even changing it a little or patching it up where it was wearing out or set stubbornly in the wrong direction, frozen by habit.

What, if not writing, will be the home of any self I can build from the bits I finding lying around me as I look about after these years when I came to naught and thought that this was it?

Why write?

The tree isn’t dead yet.

I want to pass it on, to pass the shiver that comes when we read and know for a time what it is to live, think, feel and be inside the mind of another.

There are phrases that stick. We can’t probably be lucky enough to write one–

‘And still she wished for company’

‘Quoth the false knight upon the road’

‘The Scots Lords at his feet’

–but we can recognise one, and pass it to a friend, a baton in the dark.

I write because the work is real. It involves concentration and a study of life, which is all we have. I write because I want to help my parents out of their graves, she wherever she is, and he in the wall of Scottish heroes. I write because I cannot often express things face to face, being at once (or I was; we’ll see about that) performative and shy. I write because I don’t think most of my children are interested at the moment in what may interest them after I am dead, the half of themselves that will have been buried with their mother, but that lives in them. I write because I want to write more well. And better. And better. I write because I read, and they are my patriotisms and loyalties, reading and writing. I write because it is the act of glorification and gratitude to which I am most suited to take up my apprenticeship. I write in order to keep abreast of the swim of words and to hold the world–whose glory is, with its sadness, that it will not be held.

I write because I wake up, I fall short, I sleep, I wake.

I write because the world and all I love in it is forcing itself upon my attention and to pay attention is everything.

I write because words change one another when they lie together. Because words change things. They make people see.

Words can mend what is broken, or render it more interesting than mended. They can make people attend to one another.

They are what we have that cannot be taken from us and what we have that we can give to other people without feeling stolen from.

Also plain words are always under threat. The languages of severely systematised untruth and imprecision, that exactly mean what they don’t say, don’t say what they mean, rejig it how you will, are used to sell everything from systems of government to hair gloss. Readers are mistrusted by those in power and not encouraged to keep their side of the bargain, which is to partake in the work themselves. If you wait for everything to be signalled, in a work of fiction, you lose connection with man and stars because you are listening to the satnav. A good writer has put in the invisible turnings, the neglected hedgerows, the boarded-up shops and dead men within the shadows or environs of his story, so that the reader may feel the wind in his mind, smell the wild rose, hear the rats, smell the deep pond, as he passes them. Do not underestimate the silences or breaks in a line.

I write because I’m not dead yet. And I seem to want not to be.

I flew back with my older son and his girlfriend from Italy. The queue to get back into this country at Gatwick was long. I took my place in it. Oliver and his girlfriend went ahead, into the exit channel that was for identification by the irises of their young eyes. Their lives move at another speed, the speed of sight. Over the entrance to their route back into this country was a graphic of an eye. Eyes are everywhere, if you look. I want to attest to the goodness of life and I want to share something. If it isn’t a life–well, then, let it be a sentence.