The Godfather: Peter Corris on going blind
One of the few books in my parents’ house – the collection was kept in a hallway cupboard – was an edition of Henry Lawson’s short stories. Its publication was somehow sponsored by the Sun newspaper. I have no idea how my parents acquired it. Neither ever read it as far as I knew, but I did.
I found many of the stories, such as ‘His Father’s Mate’, ‘The Union Buries its Dead’, ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’ and ‘The Drover’s Wife’ profoundly moving. One in particular struck me forcibly – ‘Going Blind’. I’m talking about 60 years ago and the details of the story are lost other than the pervading sense of despair as the darkness closes in on an impecunious man.
Of course I had no thought that such a calamity awaited me and it still might not, but it is a possibility. When my severe diabetic retinopathy was diagnosed, a condition I had brought about by my failure to manage my diabetes in my 20s and early 30s, a doctor said, ‘You’ve come very close to the tin cup and the white cane.’
The argon laser, then only recently introduced to Australia by Fred Hollows and used by one of his former students, Dr Paul Beaumont, saved my sight. The only way to describe the treatment in those early days is that it was not for squibs. The preservation of a functional amount of retina and better diabetic control, partly at the instigation of Fred Hollows, enabled me to see well enough to perform most visual tasks – reading, writing, driving, playing sports – at a reasonable level for the next 35 years.
But things have changed. While my ophthalmologist expresses confidence that I am unlikely to go completely blind, the eyesight has deteriorated. The scarring left by the laser has thickened, reducing still further the amount of retina. As I have noted in earlier columns, I can no longer read ordinary print and have to resort to e-books with a blown up font. I am writing this column in 20 point.
But recently I have become aware of the emotional and psychological, rather than the physical and technological, dimensions of my impaired vision. Fred Hollows observed that people who went blind in the third world usually died comparatively soon as a result of accidents, neglect of personal hygiene or the lack of community support. I have become conscious that something of the sort, far less severe, but nevertheless troublesome, operates in our affluent society.
Of course, poor eyesight is life-threatening in a busy suburb like Newtown where cars and trucks contend at speed for space. In addition, the footpaths are continually being dug up, fenced around, and part-repaired, making for barriers and uneven surfaces that trouble the visually impaired, whose confidence and balance are tested by changes in levels and texture underfoot.
At home, the pitfalls are many. From major things like difficulty with electrical connections and ensuring that the gas is off, to ludicrous, but pride-sapping errors such as mistaking rice for raw sugar and yoghurt for mayonnaise. I am constantly aware of the great caution needed to take correct doses of my several medications and above all, not to make any mistakes in dialling up the right amount of insulin, which is different for each of the four daily injections. Many things that people with good sight do automatically I have to prepare for and execute with extreme care.
Grateful though I am for e-books, the large font has slowed down my reading to the point where I sometimes get tired of a book despite its merits. Recently I struggled with the black on white keyboard on my computer, finding the letters too small and faint. I tried inking over and enlarging the letters, only to find that use wore away the changes. A new keyboard, black on yellow with the letters blown up to something like 22 point, has allowed me to keep writing.
Not as plea for sympathy but as a matter of self-examination, it’s not too much to say that these trials and the accompanying exasperation, loss of confidence and dependency on others, challenge the will to live. I must re-read ‘Going Blind’ to see whether Henry (whose own disability was deafness, quite as destructive in other ways), had any idea of how this distress can sap the spirit.