Down syndrome · family · favorites · Findlay · parenting · surgery

Rachmaninoff Hands

rach handsThe surgeon who fixed Finn’s heart had Pygmalion hands, well scrubbed and seemingly cast of marble. Hands you’d want to see in a surgeon, with long fingers, tapered at each knuckle, nails buffed and professionally rounded.

These are hands you’d allow into your child, because—as the surgeon explained a day prior to procedure—this surgery necessitates a cracked chest-bone and exposed viscera. So far as infants are concerned, the heart rests close to the spine, a fact you realize once the rib cage is open like a grotesque and calcified blossom. The heart beats slow and sedated while awaiting the scalpel.

You’d like ‘nimble’ to be a resident fact on the doctor’s CV.

This isn’t like junior high when you’re slicing into frog alimentaries with a dull X-acto and making off-color jokes with your tablemates.


Finn’s surgeon could have passed for a Bond villain. I say this approvingly. He sported a Vanderbilt haircut; a Slovakian name; hands you could envision, within a different context, cinematically threading a silencer onto the barrel of gun. No apparent emotion, his only obvious proclivities being a surgical precision of language and a double-starch of the lapels.

You want an assassin when it comes to life and death. Assassins have good trigger-control.

“It vill be fine,” he held up palms. I thought of Rachmaninoff, who himself had long and expressive hands, the result, perhaps, of acromegaly: a genetic defect of human growth hormone. Genetic defects had been on my mind for the last three months. Finn was diagnosed with Down Syndrome shortly after birth.

The surgeon was either unerringly decaffeinated, else a Batman-type who maybe woke early everyday, breakfasting on half a grapefruit sprinkled with cinnamon; a neat and measured demitasse of espresso; and a plain hard-boiled egg. He was a man who had control of his faculties, who would maybe finish his evening with ten sets of rowing exercises in a cedar-lined room before retiring cross-armed to a mattress. He wore no ring on any of his impressive digits.

Me, on the other hand—I have dumb and stubby fingers. On the day Findlay was born, I sat in a fluorescent-lit hallway, too early, fumbling a Nikon camera and checking the light registers by taking pictures of the ‘Exit’ sign.200px-Old_exit_signI was in the hallway because hospitals sometimes make dads tourists in the birthing process, especially when C-sections are involved. The hospital either aids else emasculates Dad by curtaining him off from his wife before she’s cut open. Both my kids were born this way. I’ve therefore seen my fair share of hallways and surgical drapes, spent much time twiddling my clumsy thumbs.

‘You can’t handle this. Go sit for a spell.’ Take the pictures, cut the cord, be the et cetera, just don’t be here to hold any hands. We’re literally going to remove your wife’s insides for a minute and set them atop her chest.

<Click> ‘Exit.’

I can actually handle these things, just like I could’ve held the surgeon’s hand while he knived tissue from my son’s pericardium to later sew into his heart. I can, I could’ve. These are heart and gut things, and I specialize in heart and gut things. I’m still bad with a camera, though.


The obstetrician who delivered my son had massive hands, a celestial exaggeration of his calling: a guy engineered to pull life into the world on the regular. The backs of his hands were neatly haired, fingers smoothed by pumice and iodine, still masculine despite their polish.

When he lifted my son into the world, he held a red-haired, flap-eared raisin up for review, and my initial and guilty thought was that Findlay was not as beautiful as Cayden upon leaving the uterus.

The obstetrician was triumphant, hands clasped around Finn’s waist and the baby was passed to robotic attendants who were eager to wrap Findlay’s frog-belly into swaddles.

“Dad—come here for pictures!” And I cut Findlay’s cord like I hadn’t with my eldest son, Cayden. The nurses had me fake cut it a second time because the first picture came out blurry.

“Why isn’t Dad cutting the cord?” cuttingcord attendants had asked five years prior, and from behind surgical masks. With their mouths covered, you could only see the nurses’ raised eyebrows. There was a table lined with blue huck cloth and neatly autoclaved steel, but goddamn if the only instrument they cared about was the camera. How you complete memories with the only unsterilized gadget in the room.

My hands were busy holding my wife’s hair in a bundle. She was puking into a plastic depository, and my hands were better deployed holding her sweaty ponytail, while the surgeon re-threaded her fascia and peritoneum back together with God-knows-how-large a needle.

“Guess, Dad’s not cutting the cord,” the nurses shrugged, while my wife retched for a second anesthesia-induced time.

Fast-forward five years and Findlay’s obstetrician, triumphant, hadn’t noticed that he’d just delivered a baby informed with excess, noadisjunct chromosomes. Essentially: Trisomy-21, in a womb-soggy, redheaded vehicle. Findlay had these constellated eyes that still and stubbornly remain Sinatra blue. They were open.

The OBGYN passed off Finn to the attendants without remark. It was akin to having just delivered a unicorn while deeming it a horse.

Children with Down Syndrome often have Brushfield spots,down-syndrome-ppt-for-ugs-22-638 these stars that ring the iris. It’s a trick of the tissue, something buried deep in the 21st chromosome, and it’s a tell–an obvious one. Kids don’t usually have galaxies for eyes before getting their first astronomy book.

Obstetricians aren’t palm-readers, either, nor do they always look deep into infants’ eye upon birth. Doctors have flesh to sew, which is a real and corporeal thing, especially when narrowly looking through the fenestrated window of a surgical cloth. There’s the room full of bustle and the next appointment to consider.

Also, the lights in the OR are bright. They don’t always reveal the miracle of birth or its sometimes accidents. I’m sure the lights better highlight the work left to do, the reds and yellows of things left to close, the blue nitrile gloves and the Betadine-swabbed torsos. I figure the obvious is most likely ignored when urgency takes precedence and the attendant nurse hands you a stainless-steel tray of sharp things.

“He’s healthy! It’s a boy!” There’s the declaration, but then the obstetrician has to duck back down, thread a needle, and remember the stitch-loops he’s practiced on apple-skins back in med-school (form a bight in the end of the line, and tie an overhand knot, form a bight in the end of the line and tie an overhand knot…).applestitch

These things we do with our hands.

We generally always see the backs of our hands, never our palms, when working. Unless, of course, we’re juggling. But juggling is a trick, and work is not. Palm-reading is also a trick, but as mentioned, doctors aren’t palm readers.

When a doctor delivers a baby by C-section, the doctor’s thumb is perhaps the first thing the baby grips. The baby wraps his hand around any of the doctor’s available fingers, and hides his palm by enfolding it around the digits that delivered him.

The OBGYN didn’t see Finn’s eyes, or Finn’s single palmar crease when delivering my son. Finn, like a good blackjack player, hid his ‘21’ when holding the doctor’s thumb.

‘Always hide your hand,’ is the advice.

Finn, apparently, knew as much in the womb. The single palmar crease, like the constellated and almond eyes, is an obvious tell that a newborn has Down Syndrome. It wasn’t until the Recovery Room that these things were noticed. The attendants there were better palm-readers.singlepalmarcrease

As far as fortune-telling goes, Finn’s diagnosis came with its predictions, less psychic than scientific.

“He’ll most likely have a heart defect.”

“He’ll most likely need surgery.”

“His heart will most likely be ok.”

At the hospital, days before scrubbing in, they show you a plastic doll with a multitude of wires trailing from its pretend heart-space. It’s a mock-up so that you’re prepared to see your baby hooked up to as many, if not more, cords and filaments and sensors immediately following surgery.

The sight is enough to make your own heart feel suspended by wire, cruelly commandeered by some unseen marionettist.

Finn’s cardiac surgeon, our man with the Rachmaninoff fingers and heavy accent, explained the procedure one day before surgery. He was clinical, matter-of-fact without somehow sounding clip or cold. His voice had right angles; his hands, however, posed as they were in various ways to demonstrate Finn’s heart and how it was to be fixed, had softness to them. heartmodelI imagined the surgeon cupping Finn’s heart as if it were a newly feathered thing, a fallen sparrow, a creature to be gently returned to its proper nest.

The plastic doll had my wife and I in tears; the surgeon’s pantomime of Finn’s heart, to what nest it would be returned, had us dry our tears just as quickly. There is comfort to be taken when gestures alone conjure confidence, when panic is disappeared through a particular and subtle kinesic. The surgeon, for lack of a better term, presented as suddenly and consolingly able.

When Finn’s gurney was hurried down the hallway following surgery, there was a coterie of nurses running alongside the rig like a team of gowned Secret Service agents. Four sets of hands on the transportable bed, more steadying the rack of wires, the swinging bladders of dextrose and lactated Ringers. All ran in soft shoes, their orthopedics still covered in surgical slip-covers. It was a near silent 100-meter dash from OR to ICU. I leapt up from the waiting room couch in order to join the controlled footrace. The surgeon followed the gurney at a moderate distance, his surgical mask removed and dangling loosely like an awry runner’s bib. I searched the nurses’ faces for sign of an outcome, for assurance that our quickstep down the corridor was one of expedience and not urgency. They, however, were a hive of back and forth buzzing, a language of numbers and stats fluently exchanged. Any edgewise word would’ve seemed an interruption, though I am the father.

“How is he? How is he?”

The surgical rig disappears through a series of automatic swinging doors, my son and his zipped up chest, closed eyes, and fortune-foretelling palms swallowed up by a secondary corridor.hosp

“How is he?” I turn lastly toward the surgeon, and he barely looks my direction. He says simply, “It vent vell.” Despite having emerged from surgery where the lights were undoubtedly intense and the minutiae of needles and scalpels as stressful, say, as choosing whether or not to cut the red wire—maybe the blue—the surgeon was nonplussed and devoid of sweat.

“He is fine,” and the surgeon, too, disappeared into the corridor leaving me for the second time in three months, the father at bay, staring blankly at a hospital exit sign.


I looked down at my hands and spread wide my fingers. Rachmaninoff could play C E♭ G C G with his left hand alone. I could maybe duplicate that feat with both hands together, but—as they were—my hands were slightly trembling, and unfit for piano keys let alone otherwise surgical poetries. I curled my fingers into my palms, exhaled mightily, then turned back toward the waiting room.




The Recovery Room has natural light by means of a large plate-glass window. Though it overlooks the parking structure, the windowed room is welcome respite from the fluorescent halls, the dimly-lit waiting areas, and labyrinthian stairwells.

Findlay lies in his bed, less the marionette than his post-op and ersatz Pinocchio. There are only a few wires still attached, sensors which inform the technician how Finn’s heart is performing beneath all the stitches and an already-knitting breastbone.

Finn smiles—smiles!—atop his sheets, and wraps his hand around my extended finger. He’s effectively hiding that palmar crease again, the one line that divides his hand neatly. My hand has the usual two. The irony, though, of him having an extra chromosome means his body is sometimes made simpler: fewer lines, smoother eyes, an inexact heart. All these things used to scare me. I adore complication, after all. It’s maybe why Finn hid the fact of himself for nine months in the womb, why he escaped detection in the delivery room. Why he held his hand tight close to his chest.

I smile down at him. The surgeon appears in the doorway. Two days out of surgery, and the doctor doesn’t even enter the room anymore. He simply stands in the doorframe, waves and nods, before walking quietly away. His work is done.

Findlay continues to hold my fingers, my clumsy but suddenly capable fingers, and my work is just beginning.


Cayden · death · family · favorites · Findlay · home · parenting · surgery · wife

Fifteen Flowers Later

I made plans to meet with my friend Jason tonight up in Normal Heights. At the end of yesterday’s text thread, I signed off: “See you Thursday, then, in NH!”

“NH?” he queried.

“NH=Normal Heights.”

“Oh you goddam hipsters and your language,” he responded, “Get off my lawn.”

Jason has an unruly goatee, and I reminded him of the fact. Like something Layne Staley might’ve sported had he lived long enough to have gray hair.

“Get off your own damn lawn,” I wrote back. “Your beard is twice as lumberjack.”

Met Jason for coffee and he told me: ‘Hey! Having that fourth kid!’ This came at the tail end of our conversation about getting older, both of us recently with lessening capacity to drive at night. He wears these little James Joyce glasses, and I’m surprised he can even see past the nosepiece.

I gave him a hug. Inside, I felt a slight twinge. I’m working on a decade as a dad, and though Finn’s not yet five, I sometimes feel: ‘Ok, when are the next eight kids coming?’ They won’t be on their way soon..

Jason’s having a second boy, which he and his wife wanted; they wanted that roundness of two girls and two boys, the somewhat Life-game neatness of having an equal number of blue pegs and pink pegs in the little Bradley car. Jason blames his now son for orchestrating everything.

.“He’s been yelling at my wife’s belly and calling the baby a ‘he.’”

“Well, shit—nature operates in weird ways. Maybe he flipped the chromosomes on you—you’ll never know. Zygotes have ears and all.”

“Yeah, but now he’s gonna be super arrogant. Like it was all his doing.” Jason smirks. “Kid’s gonna punch me in the arm later and say: ‘See? See?! I made a brother.”

Driving home, I thought how much I wanted a girl, that pink peg, too. But I’ve got two boys, and I never expressly told my wife’s belly to do any sort of alchemy to prevent this. I’ve got my two boys, and the door may be closed on any more, but I’m happy. The fact of Finn—the diagnoses and heart surgeries and reelsome unexpectedness—threw me for a loop a few years back. My biggest regret is having been so ambivalent after Finn was born. Were I somewhat of Jason’s kid back then, knowing what I know now, I would’ve shouted at Jenn’s pregnant belly: ‘Grow that extra chromosome!’ Because I have Finn today, and were the door indeed closed on any more kids, I’m ecstatic Finn was born the way he currently is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kids decide the parents, in a way; parents decide the kids. You make each other at least. Driving home, a bouquet of carnations settled in the backseat, paper wrap settling. I had initially bought some purple chrysanthemums, but they weren’t what I had wanted. I explained to the florist that I’d been looking for carnations. They were my mother-in-law’s favorite. All the assorted five-gallon buckets of flowers still available at nighttime (and in front of the florist’s stand) were all fancier, or prettier maybe.

“Oh—you want carnations? I have some in back in the fridge.” The florist wrested a bundle from their corner, and turned away from his otherwise task of snipping spent petals and thorns off some un-bought roses.

“12, or 18?”

And I said: ’15? If I could.”

My mother-in-law passed away fifteen years ago today. Jenn and I had spent the night with my father-in-law in a hospital waiting room while Carole underwent surgery, her brain bleeding. The room was scented with bouquets of lilies and superfluous Glade plug-ins–too much perfume, really—in overcompensation for the hospital’s otherwise iodine-scent. Jenn’s brothers joined us in the early morning, in time for the beleaguered surgeon to arrive with his latest and worst news. Jenn’s dad pulled us all into a huddle, and asked, “What should we do?” He looked at each one of us in turn, said, “I love you. I love you. I love you, and I love you. What do we decide?”

At a stoplight on Florida St., two blocks from home, Jenn and I both erupted crying. It was a brilliantly lit day, with these clouds under-girded in silver, sign a storm had passed.

“She’s not gonna be at our wedding.”

“She won’t know our kids.”

Tonight, I walked through the back door with my clumsy bundle of flowers to find Jenn and the boys huddled on the couch, and in tears. Cayde had weathered a bad week already, finding trouble when he could. He’s young—his tears are still less salty than they will be later on, and once he knows more exactly the nature of regret or sadness. And Finn—he was inexplicably gripping a football on the couch, crying at the fact of there being crying.

I placed the flowers on the end table, started cleaning the house of its hastily discarded shoes and backpacks and plastic toys. Jenn had photo albums out, open envelopes with long-ago letters, a spread of relics that she’d been showing Cayde.

“I wish I’d known her.”

“What was her personality like?”

“I wouldn’t have been bad today if I knew you were having such a bad day. I’m sorry.”

Prior to me coming home, Cayde had asked probing questions, lending his particular scalpel to the long-ago and failed surgery. I could see it in Jenn’s face, with her brow knit and reddened eyes, Cayden pressed up against her shoulder in nine-year old devastation. Cayden wore a silly top-knot of tied-together bangs: ‘Why, Mama?’ He meant the surgery, meaning why there had to be a decision made in the first place. In his understanding, surgeries have always been successful. Finn is living proof.

“Why did you have to decide?”

“What would it be like if she were still here?”

Jenn pauses. “It would be different,” she says.

Although Cayde focuses on what there was to decide—what he knows about difference simply being, ‘She could be here, she could be not’—Jenn and I know, being there in that room that night, that there was no decision. ‘She could be here’ was really ‘She isn’t here. Not any longer.’ But we posed the question anyway in our waiting-room huddle.

“What do we decide?” More important to that moment, was Jenn’s dad making the pretend-question an affirmation of love, and saying it to each one of us in turn.

Cayde will figure it out. Just like Jason’s kid yelling at his mom’s belly, believing he could actually sprout a brother by sheer matter of will, Cayde still has a certain naivete about him. It’s fading though. We agree to take the bouquet to the water on Saturday, to take those fifteen flowers and place them in the bay, and to watch them drift away, however which way the currents decide.






Cayden · childhood · Findlay · grocery · neighborhood · surgery


A Monday, especially a Monday hemmed in with high clouds and high heat, is no day to celebrate a birthday, but it was Cayden’s birthday today. Yes, he liked the burgers I grilled for him; no, he did not like the brownies, though they were a special recipe. The brownies were “sticky” at the edges, and it isn’t till you get a few years past eight that the crusts become palatable, or the corner pieces become the best pieces. Everyone knows the corner wedges of brownies are the best, c’mon.
Been picking the boys up at school and Cayden whined how far it was walking to the car. Parked as far as we were, it meant a different way home. Usually, we take 16th to the top of the hill. It’s a forty-five degree angle down 16th and an immediate right onto Pershing to get home. Cayde usually turns in his seat, says, ‘Hold on, Daddy,’ and inspects for cars when paused at the summit. He looks around, then conspiratorially whispers, “Go!”, and we gun it down the hill. Daddy is fun.
Went the opposite direction today, east before turning north, and it was over some rough-shod white concrete. Slower streets, so the windows were down, and Finn thought it a roller coaster with the up and down jostling and the fact that his hair was splayed back from his forehead. “Yay! Yaaaaaay!” Hands up the entire time.
Passed the Metamorphosis Center–some sad wellness storefront–then hit green lights on into the narrower streets where the trees bower and we have to slow down.
It was Cayden’s birthday today, and the car in front of us was kicking up dried myrtle leaves by manner of exhaust, autumn confetti, and we followed the leaf litter through the length of South Park and on toward home.
The week is all sorts of anniversaries. Yesterday, three years ago, Finn had his breastbone broken on purpose, and his heart re-stitched.
Finn was a marionette on twenty different circuits following his surgery, a few wires penetrating his chest: it was a hard puppet show to witness.
It was also Cayden’s birthday and, friends being the best of friends, threw Cayden a party when we were entirely incapable of doing so ourselves.
“Daddy–I have to poop,” Cayden says when we’re shopping for ingredients at the neighborhood market. I promised him burgers and brownies and needed to pick up cuts of sirloin and chuck, hamburger buns, all the etc. We’re parked, hurriedly shopping, and Finn is meanwhile threatening the pyramid display of Zinfadel while perched precariously in a grocery cart.
“Hold on, hold on, Dude.”
Cayden clutches the seat of his pants while I pay and while the engine clicks just outside the door in the heat.
“I’ll run home and get there first, ok?” Cayde says nervously.
“But I’ve got the keys, Dude–just get in the car. The house is locked.”
And we get home on time, Cayde bursting out of the car when barely we straighten into the driveway.
He’s eight. The idea of ‘eight’ has always scared me. His face has changed, graduated into boyhood and is already suggesting adolescence; I worry that–after eight–the fact that I have the keys, or that I drive the car home, will somehow change and that closed doors will be my fault; maybe the car ride won’t be as much fun.
Cayde got a magic set for his birthday. While trying to prep dinner, I told Cayde: “Please–show me your magic tricks in a bit, ok?” because he was too much in the kitchen with a silk sack, a wand, and some sorcerer’s box; Finn was wailing not having slept at all during pre-school.
I couldn’t conjure patience, was still in my work clothes; the grill was set too high so that I burnt both my eyebrows and the chicken.
When the evening waned and Cayde re-attempted a magic show, he tried to convince me that this foam ball would, by clumsy sleight of hand, become some other thing. Not a pigeon, certainly, but I wished for it, to have a magic trick work so well as to give us all confidence in the illusory.
No; instead we just take 16th home–usually, even if not today–where the road ramps downward so steep that we fly past the eyesore cinder-block buildings and the rusted-out chain-link. Cayde says ‘Go!’ and Finn throws up his hands in expectation, and I know to hit the brakes two-thirds of the way down so we don’t bottom out. It’s magic making that right-hand turn, when it’s absolutely certain the car won’t crash despite the momentary rush–I can even calmly flick on the blinker before turning into the right-hand lane–and Cayde says, always: ‘Daddy, that was AWE-some.’
Love you, Kid.


Surgeries, Pt. 1

My cat Frida likes to stare for hours out the pet door and I can’t fathom why. I don’t even know when that particular door was installed. The house itself is over a hundred years old, so we could be talking a half-century of doggy commutes here. It’s since yellowed with age and the flap is marked with a myriad of scratches. It certainly can’t afford much of a view. The door is tamped shut, too, and with good reason. Upon moving into the house, Frida—who had until then only known the comfortable interiors of apartment life—decided the outdoors was a temptation worth exploring. Or so she thought. Twice I rescued her from a tangle of vines along the side of the garage, pissing herself and yowling in absolute terror. I figured she’d just realized how big the world really is. Which would terrify anybody.

I imagine Frida’s world is now comfortably smaller from behind the nailed-shut pet door, albeit blurrier and more jaundiced. In which case, I understand Frida’s point of view. For a while my world was plunged into a yellowed soft-focus as cataracts ripened into something ochre, and although my eyes are fixed now, my days—like Frida’s—were similarly sepia-toned.

I was my ophthalmologist’s youngest cataracts patient at age thirty.

By ‘ripened’ I mean ‘proliferated.’ Cataracts are blemishes that affect the lenses: as they grow in multitude, the world slowly loses its sharpness. You don’t notice it at the time because it happens so gradually, but the world begins to lose color while you lose focus. Everything yellows slightly, takes on an unwelcome veneer. Like a plasticizing pet door, or your friend’s poorly chosen filter on Instagram.

Remember when television sets had knobs for adjusting sharpness and color? Imagine you’ve knobs connected to your optic nerve and a random toddler has given them a similarly random twiddle. It’s like that.

When cataracts decide to ripen, it’s a slow disorientation. I discovered I was having problems when I undertook a physical exam prior to a Jackson Hole research expedition.

Mind you, my right eye has always been worse than my left. I could show you grade-school pictures wherein my right eye has a characteristic squint. I said so to the nurse practitioner but—when in socks and a slit-robe—and standing in a doctor’s office hallway, I fairly read Greek when listing the letters I saw on an optometrist’s chart. I had just my left eye open, the right properly shielded with a black plastic paddle. My posterior had a breeze.


The practitioner was confused: “I thought you said your right eye was worse.” There was something judgmental in her tone.

“Maybe I need my eyes checked?” I offered.

Recently, the computer screen had been hovering pretty close to my face. The weekly readers, too. Not out of their particular insistence to be scrutinized. It was just that my eyes seemed simply southward-bound, and that my world was fast getting smaller, too close for comfort.

I left for Jackson Hole to do some bird research that necessarily involved binoculars. I had a referral to the ophthalmologist in my wallet and a particular penchant for rubbing my eyes ten times a minute.

Ironically, I was one of the best bird-spotters on the trip and despite the fact that I could never dial in proper focus on my set of binoculars. The body: it has ways of compensating and—quite frankly—I don’t remember any of my particular tricks. Sometimes you can see well without seeing well. I picked out the osprey on the tree 300 yards away, and that juvie hawk a half-mile out and lazily floating the zephyrs.

At the same time, and back in San Diego, I had to habitually count street signs when driving home. For lack of actually being able to read them.

Jackson Hole, mind you, was beautiful. I got to experience this only ex-post facto. Only when my doctor’s referral became a recommendation for surgery, and only post-expedition; when my eyeballs were sliced open and their lenses summarily removed; when I got pieces of plastic shoved into ocular space and I finally got to see my pictures of the Grand Tetons—literally ‘the Great Breasts’—in full photographic detail like some form of geographic pornography rising high and taut above the meadows of a milk-thistled Wyoming morning.

The photos were fantastic.

A picture of when you’re younger is, of course, always a picture of when you’re younger. That’s the way time works; you can’t say ‘here’s a photo of me five minutes hence’. Seeing pictures of the Tetons, though, was like seeing pictures of me when I was older, the way time’s not supposed to work. I took a few snapshots of these lavender moths in some rapine grass and I didn’t enjoy them until a doctor had done his work and, with eyes suddenly younger, I saw things in the past suddenly present. If you follow.

My eye doctor: he did not so much give a recommendation for surgery as he did surrender it. “I don’t think you have cataracts,” he would muse while gazing through his magnifying devices into the inner workings of my eyes. “I think you have…cholesterol spots marking your lenses. Something granular. Probably’ve had them since birth.” He was the first optometrist of mine to offer this opinion. Ever since childhood, my eye doctors diagnosed me with congenital cataracts. They saw the telltale flecks, seeds that would later proliferate into a gathering of motes scarring my lenses. They said surgery was inevitable. My current eye-doctor, however, refused the diagnosis for years. “They’re not cataracts,” he’d say, “They’re cholesterol spots.”

Once he showed me a model of an eye, carefully disassembling the orb into its component parts with steady, surgeon-like fingers. The lens came apart in numerous pieces. He explained: the lens is made of flexible fibers that interconnect in various concentricities. In effect, he went on, the lens is onion-like in its structure.

(My doctor was not convincing me with his choice of analogy—onions make the eyes water and blur. When I cut onions, I can’t see).

He continued: cataracts are malicious, they enter randomly into these allium-like cells and they form little pattern save for a final one in which light is completely denied access. You’ll wake up suddenly one day, and when cataracts have set, it’s like the ceiling lamp-switch hasn’t been turned on.

“What’s different about your eyes,” he countered, “Is that your blemishes are in perfect order. They’re rather beautiful, actually.”

Go figure. My disease is worthy of a headshot.

My doctor, two inches from my face and with a retinoscope in hand, peered deeper into my eyes than would have an attentive lover; he murmurs that my eyes look like constellations. If I were asked to have read a chart at that very moment, I may have spelled out: F-L-A-T-T-E-R-E-D-? I do like my doctor, after all.

Later I visit an ophthalmologist, post-Jackson Hole, with the goal of alleviating the question marks.

“Yes, you have cataracts. They don’t seem exactly terrible.” That was the surgeon’s summation. My friends’ faces, meanwhile, had been blurring at a rate of two-feet remove per second. That was my empirical summation, and I would have argued against the ‘not terrible’ verdict.

“If it affects your quality of life, then ok.” He’s a white-coated shrug.

Ok, then. I wonder, in this world of scopes and dials, and with eyebrows raised above glorified magnifying lenses, why is a diagnosis so hard to get? Somewhere there’s a mean balancing out subjectivity and objectivity and if I, as the subject and—with fogging eyes—declare genetic foul, doctors should be listening.

“I’m not stupid, actually. I’m just going blind.”

“I want you to cut my eyes open.”

“I can’t rightly see.”

“I get lost, a lot. I can’t read a sentence six inches away from my nose.”

Quality of life: if I need to hold newsprint this close to my face, if I can smell the fiber of the paper better than I can see it, I ask—please—for some help. If end all I can’t read, it’d be like surgically extracting part of my being; I would rather an ophthalmologist surgically extract the blur instead.

The blur, at this point, I envision as gauze soaked in milk; or an onionskin, soggy, and left unceremoniously in the sink. Seriously: I want this shit tweezed out of my eyes.

I’m at last granted surgery. I am assigned a date, an anesthesiologist, and a bed where I will lie—face-up—for open-eye surgery.

(Open-eye, open-heart. Finn is born two years later and he’ll lie, too, on a surgeon’s table, eyes closed but chest decidedly open, breastbone cracked and stretched by calipers, his heart stopped by machines and laid still and bare for surgeons’ fingers to reconstruct and make beat again; I simply go and get my eyes fixed. I want to see. Findlay—he needs to live).

Here’s a moment: the anesthesiologist has already dressed my veins in cold chemicals and the ophthalmologist has dilated my eyes with constancy: drop after drop after drop. My vision has since been reduced to fog. I see only the likeness of shapes, but decided color still—like the purple of the surgeon’s lamp and the blue of the surgeon’s gloves. I am forced to see a steady series of drops glaze my cornea because my eyes are pinned open like a scene from ‘Clockwork Orange’. Consider me Alex. I’m hostage to the operating table at this point, blankets wrapped thrice around my body. I can’t move.

The drops are so constant that all I see is purple. That and the drops themselves, which form in soft-focus, maturing as they do into resolute tear-shape before disappearing into my eye. I’m meanwhile bound to the table. Van Morrison is on the radio and a doctor is moving somewhere in my vicinity, exchanging remarks with the anesthesiologist. I know about isoflourane, and I know I should probably be asleep.

I really shouldn’t be hearing about ‘Gypsie Robin’ or ‘Emma Rose.’

The doctor begins cutting and I am wide-awake.

I have a strange association, and it’ll be hard to explain. This color purple I’m seeing, it has a particular depth to it. I know it’s just a reflection of a surgeon’s lamp relative to my dilated eyes but I’m reminded of when I was a young aviculturist and I opened a wrong egg by mistake.

To best and quickest explain: I’m a bird-keeper. That’s what I mean by ‘aviculturist’. And as a bird-keeper I habitually candle eggs with a bright light. The light illuminates the goings-on inside the egg—vessels, embryonic movement, etc. Sometimes the egg is dead and it’s summarily pulled from the incubator; the egg is generally opened afterwards to find out what or where went wrong.

So one day, I pulled an egg. It was supposed to be dead, but when I capped the shell with a pair of tweezers, I immediately saw purple beyond the cell membrane, a pulsing purple I can only describe as alive. It was a horrible mistake. Generally a dead egg is non-descript in color but there, floating in magenta, was an undeveloped bird embryo, breathing through vessels still, looking up at me in a suddenly mortal WTF. I’ll never forget that shade of violet, that abrupted vitality.

Why the surgeon’s lamp is the same purple, I don’t know, but from within a violet field there are issued continual eyedrops. I’m still puzzlingly unasleep.

Dear God, I’m actually now witnessing a needle being inserted into my eye. I don’t sense it, I observe it, and I’m not sure how I should be feeling. Turn off Van Morrison at least, please. Caravan is over. This becomes the strangest of phenomena. My eye’s supposed to be unseeing, but there it is, a silhouette of a needle exaggeratedly thick two nicks away from my expanding pupil. I’m not asleep and there’s a shadow against the purple. I’m seeing something inside my eye. I’m braced against the wraps, I feel the pressure, but all’s violet and there’s nothing I can do.

The surgeon actually says at one point: “This is not good.”

Really? I can’t speak. I actually watch as my new lens is shoved into place, roughly. The lens—a synthetic disc–unfolds and suddenly my world is in better focus. The drops still rain in continuous fashion, but the old lens has since been discarded and the new lens unfurls slowly, like a starfish arm curling curious, finding place within my eye. Everything is still purple. This, I guess is a color that incision suggests.

When I awake from anesthesia—and easily—never having been completely under, I’m fine. The nurses don’t have to steady me. I’m familiar with my ride home and I walk out the door just—well—fine.

I inform the surgeon that I’ve remembered every moment of the procedure. He says that he doesn’t believe that accurate, and he frowns. Doctors have a lot of ego, and I’ve grown to know this more of recent. I remind him that Van Morrison was playing on the radio and I say this while shrugging on my brown wool coat. Anesthesia makes you cold, not dumb. I list off the songs. I have an eye patch on, but I’m not blind. He frowns further.

I lift my eye-patch in, of all places, a Jack in the Box drive-thru. I never go to Jack in the Box, but I’m there and there are neon signs. The fact of neon is a complicated chemistry and what runs through tubes is something in a vacuum. I think there are noble gases involved; also cheeseburgers.

I see true purple for the first time in years, and oh my God: why does my cat stare out the backdoor? There is purple outlining the drive-thru window and there are tacos here. The windshield reflects the order-board in an amazing andluminescent yellow. I momentarily forget the stars.

The constellations were in my eyes; they were removed.

Cayden · childhood · family · Findlay · home · neighborhood · parenting · surgery

The Heaven Chord

The Hollywood moguls must be in a sudden yet agreeable cease-fire. At least that’s what it seems as the park’s jungle gyms down the block have sprouted a few new superheroes, the lot of them motley and without allegiance to DC or Marvel, let alone Disney.

Batman is riding a scooter. No, really. Velcro is withstanding Newtonian Law and a scowl-some cowl is holding fast to a four-year old’s dome; there’s a cape flagging behind him that flaps in gusts as he pumps furiously around the park’s perimeter.

Obi-Wan has a Quiksilver shirt beneath his knightly robes, and with a light-saber rendered in Nerf. All his future Padawans are frankly doomed. Cayde steals the light saber within fifteen minutes and does some non-damage to the bordering privets.

There’s also Thor.

“Is that your name: Thor?! Is that for real, or are you an Avenger?” (Serious questions among seven-year olds).

Thor has Spicoli hair and impeccable balance on the lesser playground elements, the spring-powered see-saw thingamajigs. He has blonde ringlets and Cayde plays with him for a minute before finding greater intrigue in the kid running around in Obi robes and an undercut hair-do.

Cayde takes off with the Quiksilver Kenobi and Finn putters along. I follow Finn who takes to the perimeters of the park, fingering the chain-link fence and voicing his language of monosyllables. It’s a sing-sang song and he marches along to it, pausing to pick at some nasturtium else flurry a palm at some plumbago blossoms. Cayden reappears every now and then to strike with me some Nerf saber, else hang upside-down on the  exercise equipment. Upside-down, Cayde’s belly shows and I’m reminded of Friday when I picked Cayde up from school. I had Finn with me, and every kid cooed because Finn is Teacher Hofman’s kid; I’m popular too and by default because I’m Mister Hofman. I’ve got a SeaWorld shirt on, and I smell like penguins. This has every six-year olds’ attention.

When holding Finn, his shirt skirts upwards.

“Aww—look at his chubby belly.”

“He’s so cute.”

“What’s that scar?”

Zecariah asks about the scar; he’s truly perplexed. He even puts down his crayon.

Cayden launches into explanation: how his brother had heart surgery and—yes—his brother had his chest opened up. Cayde lifts his brother’s shirt and points out the scar that zippers down Findlay’s breastbone.

Zecariah squints and remains inquisitive: ‘What’s that dot beneath the scar?’

I could explain about the pacemaker, the wires that protruded from Finn’s chest, the ones never connected. Wires that were implanted just in case. There were enough wires as it were, and that’s something you just can’t explain, and especially to a six-year old kid.

(In preparation for Finn’s surgery, Jenn and I wept when we were shown a doll, a model of our kid, with a marionette’s number of strings protruding its chest as the illustration of recovery. Wires upon wires upon wires).

I tell Zecariah: “Oh, it’s just a dot. Look—it makes an exclamation point. You know how Superman has an ‘S’ on his chest? Finn has an exclamation point. He’s a super-hero, too, you know.”

And I leave it at that. So when Batman shuttles around the park, and Obi-Wan wacks evil on the head with Nerf fury, things aren’t so weird. Though they always will be.

Finn wanders the park today—a full quarter mile—pausing occasionally to yell downwards into the drainage gates; he also picks random flowers and chooses to slide down the biggest slides before, finally, just sitting.

I’m at home with Cayde later. I’ve tuned two guitars and I’m teaching Cayde the Em chord. Halfway successful, I train his fingers to the ‘G’ and the ‘C’.

“My fingers hurt, Daddy.”

“I know, Kid—that’s a steel-stringed guitar. You’re doing fine.”

He looks real cute, though, with the strap slack on his shoulder and him trying so hard. I place his fingers on the strings. ‘Here, here, and here. This one’s ‘E’.

He strums it badly.

“Takes practice, Cayde. That was real good.” (‘A Day in the Life’ends on ‘E’).

“You know what that chord means, Dude?”


Every chord means something. ‘E’ is the heaven chord.

He tries again; just not there yet.