“(We) took as our own the most dramatic, and the most obvious, of our white masters’ characteristics, which were, of course, their worst. In retaining the identity of our race, we held fast to those characteristics most gratifying to sustain and least troublesome to maintain. Consequently we were not royal but snobbish, not aristocratic but class-conscious; we believed authority was cruelty to our inferior, and education was being at school. We mistook violence for passion, indolence for leisure, and thought recklessness was freedom. We raised our children and reared our crops; we let infants grow, and property develop. Our manhood was defined by acquisitions. Our womanhood by acquiescence…
…And now, consider: Not according to my just deserts, but according to my mercy, the little black girl that came a-looking at me today… Do you know what she came for? Blue eyes. New, blue eyes, she said. Like she was buying shoes, ‘I’d like a pair of new blue eyes.’…
…I, I have caused a miracle. I gave her the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue, two blue eyes. Cobalt blue. A streak of it right out of your own blue heaven. No one else will see her blue eyes. But she will. And she will live happily ever after. I, I have found it meet and right to do so.” – Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
“Look at her eyes in this light! They’re blue!” Daniel exclaimed excitedly, holding our snowpea like baby Simba in The Lion King into the sunlight streaming through the living room window.
“Maybe,” I shrugged doubtfully, gazing at the scene over my shoulder. Before her second month of life, Eira’s irises were not one color but five: jet black, stormy grey, indigo, sapphire, and periwinkle, separately or all at once depending on the light, the angle, and the examiner.
Babies’ eyes change color countless times before their final shade is revealed around 6 months, and ours has only a 20% chance of the outcome being blue. I wasn’t convinced that blue eyes were in Eira’s future, nor did I think it mattered. But try as I might to convince him of this, Daniel persisted in his quest to alchemize Eira’s eyes to the waves of the Caribbean Sea – only the bluest blue would do.
To spite Daniel, I kindly asked the pediatrician to prove him wrong at Eira’s one-month check-up. As the pediatrician held his own light to our baby’s eyes, I implored, “What color do you think her eyes will be?”
“Oh… I don’t know…” At once, his tone turned from jovial to distracted to distressed. “You know… I’m not seeing a red reflex on her.”
I paused, unable to speak as my throat descended to my stomach. I didn’t know what a red reflex was, but I sensed his finding could be no good.
The pediatrician explained that he had been looking for a reflection of his beam that looked something like red eye in photographs. Seeing this reflection meant the pathway from the retina to the pupil was clear of all impurities, whereas not seeing one meant… well, he didn’t want to speculate. But in any case, we ought to call an ophthalmologist soon because, as he said, “vision is use it or lose it.”
Vision is use it or lose it… The phrase swirled like a jingle around on the periphery of my eardrums, refusing to be absorbed. Vision is use it or lose it… vision is use it or lose it… vision is lose it or use it… losing vision means…blindness! My throat suddenly jumped from the pit of my stomach to the soles of my feet. What good are blue eyes if they can’t see?! Had Eira been cursed by Daniel’s vanity?
But my baby CAN see! I wanted to scream, defending this poor, fragile life. At least, she could see as well as any other newborn – fuzzy black and white interpretations of light – which is suppose, is not very well at all.
I thought back to her behavior in the past week: in daylight, swatting and cooing at the moons and suns of her mobile; at night, squirming at the flip of a bright light switch. Had I just been imagining that Eira was studying my face? Was she actually just smelling me? It did seem that she had a bit of a lizard brain, but wasn’t that normal for newborns?
Though sometimes it did seem that she would only socialize with billowy shadows of light that no one with grown eyes would think to see. I recalled that after waking up from a particularly eerie dream about Nicole, my best friend who recently passed away, I found Eira in her bassinet gazing curiously, peacefully, and with full concentration at the edges of luminescence cast by our lava lamp, as if she were watching the delicate expressions of a ghost. If she couldn’t see, then she was certainly a seer to say the least.
“I’m sorry,” the pediatrician interrupted my stream of thoughts as if he could read them from the disgruntled expression behind my mask.
And so, instead of defending the supposed vision of my sightless child, I smiled with my eyes. I left the hospital with a sheet of infant ophthalmologists’ phone numbers in my hand, my baby strapped to my chest, and my throat still thrust down deep in my footsteps.
Daniel studied Eira’s eyes intently when we returned home, this time noting the clouds cast across her pupils that had seemed to roll in overnight. Like any good parents, we awoke diligently at 3 in the morning to Google the array of conditions that abnormalities in a red reflex could indicate: cataracts, fatal brain cancer, or a mistake on the pediatrician’s part. We braced ourselves for all three possibilities.
Our searches also indicated that Eira should be examined by an ophthalmologist within 3-5 days of the detecting the abnormality, but the earliest we could be seen was 10 days away. “Can’t we be seen any earlier?” I pleaded with the receptionist.
She laughed at my request and replied, “That’s a good date. We’re booked for months because of COVID-19.”
Ten days went by like two eternities, but I continued to keep pace with my late night Google searches (eventually, I would realize that this wasn’t helping my mental health, but as a brand new parent, it was the only power I could accrue over the agonizing situation). There was no question about the diagnosis: our baby had congenital cataracts – a condition shared with only 3 out of 10,000 babies. The ophthalmologist seemed like she also wanted to apologize, but I was too overjoyed that fatal brain cancer had been ruled out to accept her sympathy.
Only minutes after the diagnosis of cataracts, we met with the surgeon who would remove them. She pulled out her iPhone from her Louis Vuitton purse and pronounced, “Let’s see, I just had a cancellation for Wednesday, so I can remove them then.” My eyes widened. We were halfway through Monday. Seeing my expression, she added hurriedly, “I’ll be out of the office next week, so you’re lucky to catch me.” Boston Children’s Hospital is the top-rated children’s hospital in the nation, so I didn’t doubt the sincerity of her words.
With the hours ticking down to the single digits to mentally prepare for Eira’s surgery, I woke up frantically at 4 a.m. to the nightmare realization that I needed to learn to pump breastmilk. After the pump was assembled and the parts were sterilized, I returned to bed for 30 minutes of sleep before waking my baby up for her big day.
The downside about being scheduled for surgery at the nation’s best children’s hospital is that its waiting rooms are filled with the nation’s most anxious parents or children with rare and often critical conditions. Mothers nervously flip through magazines on the knife edge of their seats and fathers swiftly stride around their assigned cubicles. Their nervous energy was infused into my veins as I pumped milk in a panic and breezed through the pages of The Bluest Eye.
“Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez?” I heard from beyond the black and white of my book. A masked man was trying hard to avoid looking down at the suction over my nipple. “We’ve just finished operating on the second eye, and Eira did great. She’ll be a little groggy from the anesthesia, and her throat will be sore from being intubated, but you can come see her now.”
In that moment, I was far too overcome with relief to value modesty. I blushed only mildly as I disassembled the pump and followed him down the corridor lined with rainbows, bedazzled fish, and mixed-race children holding hands.
I wish I could capture and bottle up the essence of the infant Eira that I saw her in the recovery room. From behind her enormous silver alien-eye patches, she seemed to be smiling at us as she slept and suckled on her new blue pacifier. Her tiny, 10-pound body took up only a fraction of the child-sized hospital bed, on which she was elevated and strapped in as if she had just landed back from outer space. I instantly felt my throat well with joy and my breasts refill with milk.
“She must be hungry!” was all I could think to say, certain her tank must be on empty after her bold journey through the constellations.
We were discharged with a strict regime of eyedrops (one with a yellow cap and one with a pink cap every four hours, another with a red cap once a day), a schedule for a plethora of follow-up appointments, and the awareness of second surgery looming on the horizon – this one to implant artificial lenses in her eyes after her second birthday. Until then, we’ll have to change her contacts every 7 days. As if newborn parenting isn’t chaotic enough, we had just been bumped up to a new level of challenge. And yet, nothing could quell the euphoria I felt for my tiny astronaut’s bravery!
Now that Eira has new eyes, it’s clear to me that her vision truly had been clouded. Not only does she have a newfound ability to socialize with us and interact with the bird’s nest of our apartment that makes up her world, but she also has a new eye color: hazel. And we love her infinitely more each day.