The Godfather: Peter Corris on coming to terms with blindness
Readers will to have to forgive me for returning to the subject of blindness. Understandably, given that I’m legally though not functionally blind, it’s one of my preoccupations. My ophthalmologist has assured me I will not go completely blind, but he hasn’t told me what level of vision I will retain. How could he? He doesn’t know how long I’ll live and surely the two are related.
I first became aware of my vision problem in my second year at university when I was 19. Until then I read, played tennis, watched TV and films without glasses. My first girlfriend, of German parentage, asked me if I liked foreign films. A working-class youth from the suburbs, I had to admit I hadn’t seen any.
Our first date was to see Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. In emotional turmoil at her presence and evident interest in me, I was scarcely aware of the emotional impact of the film but I knew that I couldn’t read the bloody sub-titles!
After that I was prescribed glasses and was told that three years of diabetes had had an effect on my eyesight. The long story of how my declining vision was arrested through laser therapy I’ve told in my memoir Sweet & Sour: A diabetic life (2000).
Periodic eyesight tests are mandatory for diabetics to retain their driver’s licences. About ten years ago I was tested by an optometrist. I passed, just, for acuity, but he drew attention to my almost complete lack of peripheral vision.
‘Did you know that, technically, you’re legally blind?’ he said, ‘and that you’re eligible for a blind pension?’
I was stunned and in denial for a time but eventually accepted the fact and applied for the pension, which has a number of advantages over the age pension attached to it, a legacy of the welfare compassion extended to soldiers blinded by wounds or mustard gas in the First World War.
Which brings me to now. My ophthalmologist recommended I approach Vision Australia for help with my reading difficulties. I did, and found that I am entitled to various concessions for travelling and attending certain events. Inevitably there were doctors’ certificates to be obtained and forms to fill in and all this set me thinking about my situation again. Homer, if he ever existed, was blind; so was Milton, so was cartoonist James Thurber. Aldous Huxley was threatened with blindness until some exercises saved his sight and Jean-Paul Sartre went blind towards the end of his life. Not that I belong in this august company, but I think about these people and others like Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. At one time I was certain I couldn’t possibly live as a blind person. That was pretty much the implication of my previous column, but now I’m not so sure.
Sitting in the cracked concrete back courtyard of my house in Newtown the other day, I closed my eyes and listened. I heard birds, sirens (a constant in Newtown), traffic noise, neighbours talking and aircraft noise. I realised that, with my eyes closed, I could ‘see’ all these phenomena in my imagination. This is the advantage a person who has lost sight has over one who was born without it. It felt like a ray of sunshine or a slug of good scotch.
The downside would be the utter dependence on others close to me but then I’ve done my best for them and perhaps I am owed something. I’m too old for Braille, but I could manage a device that provided talking books. I thought of my friend Philip Nitschke and his evidence that elderly, infirm people who have the drug that would end their lives peacefully are in no hurry to use it, but feel comforted by the thought that they have it. I may not go blind and hope I don’t, but I feel a similar comfort from this recent epiphany and think now that I could cope – and write more cheerful columns in the future.