THE SPACE BETWEEN DARKNESS AND LIGHT
by Cathy Beaudoin
The truth is I’m scared. Meetings with auditors, lawyers, investment bankers, and other financial executives are a faded memory. The days occupied by pedological objectives, advanced accounting curriculum, and academic research are long gone. It’s been almost four years since I was expected to show up for work. I neither quit nor was fired. Instead, my ability to do my job slowly eroded, along with my vision. Able to see fine for almost forty years, by the time I left the accounting profession I had limited peripheral vision in one eye, and a prosthetic in the other. I simply couldn’t do what my peers did. Forced to step away from the thing that made me happiest, I was adrift.
At first, I took my vision loss in stride. An archaic treatment for wet macular degeneration scarred one eye. Still, with a fully functioning second eye, and peripheral vision in the damaged eye, I pressed forward in a job that allowed me to travel, use my brain, and interact with people eager to solve complex business problems. When it came to work, I had few complaints, and assumed I’d continue in my role as a financial executive.
Unfortunately, my eyesight didn’t hold up. A second setback triggered an acute visceral fear. The vision in my second eye started to erode. Instead of seeing the intricacies of a slice of pepperoni pizza, a product label on a can, or a football glancing off the fingertips of a wide receiver, a fuzzy black spot grew until it dominated my central vision. When the doctor confirmed the diagnosis, dry macular degeneration, I shuddered. My eyesight was only going to get worse. Euphoric weekends spent staring at impressionist paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art or reading the spines of shelved books at the Barnes and Noble bookstore would have to be replaced. But with what? A fissure in my resolve shook me, and I pictured myself as a crippled, cane-bearing woman. After allowing myself some time to sulk, I rallied. Somehow, I’d figure out how to manage the inevitable darkness ahead of me.
I began to understand my career path, the one I’d meticulously built over seventeen years, wasn’t a long-term viable option. With the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the need for financial officers to certify the accuracy of financial information, no company was going to employ a blind accountant. The regulatory scrutiny was too intense. And having built and managed financial systems in several multi-billion-dollar companies, I knew the risk of error was just too high for someone who couldn’t see. Realizing my career was about to unravel, I panicked, paced, and worried about how I was going to take care of myself. I obsessed over the spreadsheet that tracked my net worth. How long could I live without an income? Which expenses should be cut? Could I live off a check from social security and my savings?
When calmer moments prevailed, I used my business skills to deal with the pending disaster. On weekends, I’d sit at my desk in a dark corner of my apartment and analyze my options. Before my diagnosis, I started taking writing classes at The New School. A lifelong lover of good prose and storytelling, I’d always toyed with the idea of becoming a writer. Maybe now was the time to consider this option. But when I thought about the reality of a writer’s life, my chest tightened. I wasn’t ready to spend my days home alone. And I was loathe to jump into a profession that seldom paid a living wage to even the best of writers. I needed a more practical path. Always thankful for the professors who provided me with the foundation to be a successful accountant, I wanted to apply my knowledge and experience in an academic setting. I rationalized my vision loss as a good thing. Instead of working in the pressure-packed corporate environment, I’d go back to school, earn my doctorate degree, and secure a tenure-track position at a university. My plan settled, I tried to adjust to my new reality.
While I methodically dealt with a career change, it was still jarring to face vision loss. I remember the first time darkness caused a paralyzing sense of fear. Having lived in Manhattan for eight years, I’d wandered the streets of most neighborhoods hundreds of times, and had a good sense of direction. When I couldn’t see the street signs, I used the major intersections and cross-streets as markers for where I was, counting the blocks as I walked. Colors were also a key signifier, yellow for the Subway sandwich shop, red for Bank of America, and black for Heartland Brewery’s front façade. Then it happened. Walking in the late afternoon, and daydreaming, I lost track of where I was. The sun had dipped below the skyline, and shadows engulfed me. There wasn’t enough light for me to see, and the cruelty of being blind hit me square in the face. Relying on memory, I knew there was a TD Bank branch and a CVS drugstore nearby. Looking for greens and reds, I couldn’t see the colors of either business. Overwhelmed and unable to move, I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and mourned the loss of my vision.
“You’re going to be okay,” I chanted. “You’re going to be okay.”
If I said it enough times, it had to be true.
Reminding myself I wasn’t really lost, I took comfort in having the wherewithal to discern north from south, east from west. Even if I couldn’t process key visual cues, I could work my way to a familiar intersection. At worst, I could ask someone to read the street signs for me. But the shadows were a hint of what was to come. Simple daily activities became a struggle. Shopping in stores made me anxious. A raised eyebrow, a curt smile, a nod of the head, all became elusive.
Heart palpitations and tears reappeared more than a couple of times, though not always on the streets of Manhattan. They also surfaced in the middle of an airport terminal, train station, or when finding my way back from a bathroom at a sporting event. But the feelings were always the same. I was helpless, and no longer living life on my terms. During those moments, my tenacity never failed me. Although I couldn’t control the deterioration of my vision, I could control my attitude about it. And while happiness seemed like an impossible target, the ability to persevere was a well-honed skill. I plowed forward and for seven years guided college students through the rigors of my classes and helped them understand the opportunities available in the accounting profession. My work with students, coupled with my academic research, filled a void. Though the stakes were different, I was grateful for the chance to continue to challenge myself intellectually. I flourished, at least for a while.
Five years into my academic career, and familiar with the signs of wet macular degeneration, I could tell I had bleeding in the eye previously diagnosed with dry macular degeneration. This time I had a newer treatment, a series of injections of a cancer drug known for its ability to atrophy the growth of abnormal blood vessels. After a couple of injections, the bleeding stopped, and the blood vessels disappeared without leaving any residual scarring. But a year later, my eye started to bleed again. The doctor commenced with another round of injections. Sixteen hours after a needle sent the drug straight into my eyeball, at 2 AM, I woke up and noticed my eye was sore. Believing the pain was a side-effect from the injection, I turned over and went back to sleep. I woke up again two hours later, this time experiencing a more pronounced pain. I got up, went into the bathroom, turned on the light, and noticed what seemed like a white film across my field of vision. I knew I was in trouble but the dry macular degeneration made it difficult to see or understand what was wrong.
Then I watched in stunned disbelief as the vision in the eye went from a blurry white fuzz to complete and utter darkness. It was like a movie that faded to black before the final credits ran. I called the doctor’s answering service, and got myself to the hospital, which luckily for me was only two miles away. By the time I entered the emergency room, I was projectile vomiting. In the span of less than twenty-four hours, an infection destroyed my retina and my body was doing everything it could to purge the bacteria from my system. Over the next several weeks, the doctors performed a series of operations to try to save the eye. Failing to do so, a final surgery for a partial enucleation was performed. I was left to recover and come to terms with the fact that I only had a little bit of peripheral vision in one eye. Able to see things like when I was about to walk into a wall, or know a body was in front of me, I learned to live in the space between darkness and light.
My academic career no longer tenable, I struggled to find purpose. I started to write my story, hoping it would help others. When I wrote short fiction, I integrated blind characters into my stories, something seldom seen in literary or commercial works. I moved from the northern reaches of Vermont to the central coast of California, hoping to find comfort in the sun. I pieced together a new life, running in half marathons, marathons, and trail races, all with the help of local runners who volunteered to guide for me. But it wasn’t until a friend took me backpacking on the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park that I was reminded of how much I could still do.
Although moving from business to academics wasn’t easy, a feeling of accomplishment was almost always present. Once I left academics, it was difficult to generate those same feelings. While writing helped, going backpacking reminded me there were other ways I could challenge myself, and exploring in the wilderness was one of them. When I was in my teens and twenties, I’d read dozens of books about adventurers, and fantasized about how someday I might climb mountains, raft wild rivers, and see the world. A different kind of life was within my grasp. But I needed to let go, to finally accept I’d never get my old life back.
My friend and I spent seven days on the trail, covering close to thirty-five miles. I learned how to hike with my guide dog, and move with a forty-five pound pack on my back. Starting at an elevation of sixty-eight hundred feet, the veins in my neck pulsed as we headed uphill. At first, mosquitos and gnats tried to annoy me. Quickly donning a head net, I focused on the smell of the damp earth, and listened to the dog snort in glee as she proceeded along the path. A mile or so into the hike, the bugs magically disappeared, and it became evident we were hiking along a trail cut into the side of a mountain. To my left, steep slopes of dense bushes were eventually replaced by tall pines in some places and cliffs of sun-bleached granite in others. To my right, there was nothing but vast open space. With my limited peripheral vision, I strained to see the mountains in the distance or the deep valley below. When a small stream trickled down the mountain, my boots squished in the mud. I was ecstatic, and felt life coming back to me.
While the details of the surrounding peaks were elusive, I still snapped hundreds of pictures. In my tent at night, I pressed my phone to my eye and caught a glimpse of what I’d missed during the day. For the first time since I left my job as a professor, I felt joy. Not long after we got home, I was eager to get out again. A life filled with hopes, dreams, and aspirations was rekindled. And while a discomfort with my blindness remains, the fear of not being challenged has been replaced with a trepidation involving coyotes, bears, and narrow paths along steep cliffs. With just a little bit of light, I know I can live a full life.
About the Author:
Cathy Beaudoin is a writer living on the central coast of California. Her fiction has been published in literary journals including Angel City Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Freshwater. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Triathlon Magazine Canada, the Reader’s Choice award-winning anthology: Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities, and literary outlets such as Five on the Fi.