It’s 2018 and a long time now since I was a child, but my young self is written into my adult life like a secret I can’t shake off…
I watch my first episode of Popeye at home on a black and white TV. Dad laughs more than Mum and I do. Olive Oyl makes me think of the sadness of mown flowers, while Popeye’s can-like muscles remind me of Dad’s rhyme about Jim, the softness of tomatoes and how they don’t hurt a thing unless thrown while still wrapped in a tin![i]
Though life changed after my diabetes diagnosis last year, I think I still love laughter. But I know already that I see things differently to other seven year olds. I decide that I must be adopted and my real name’s Penelope.
I don’t realise it yet, but subconsciously I’ve started to construct my identity in layers, like a multi-exposed photo, except I use words to do this. I’m not an origami girl – one whole piece of white beautifully folded – but a papier-mâché one. As for the real Sarah, now people see me, now they don’t. If people can’t see me clearly, they can never reject me. What they turn away from is only a passing aspect of my personality – blink, and it’s gone.
The first time I see my grandad’s false eye removed, I expect it to rattle around the china wash-basin like a noisy marble. Instead, it rises from the soap suds like a large pearl held tenderly between his thumb and forefinger.
Dad tells us Grandad lost his eye while chopping logs.
There’s never been a red wheel
barrow on Grandad’s farm.[ii] But there’s a big grey metal one, also chicken, rain on grass and lots of geese, none of which lay golden eggs.
Did these ruffled-feather birds hiss at a lurking presence? Perhaps my gran screamed. An animal howled. Or Grandad caught a gleam of big eyes and big teeth in the undergrowth… Whatever the cause, while Grandad was distracted, a splinter flew up from the axe blade and pierced his iris.
Whispering with my sister later, I decide to stay away from wood-cutters as well as wolves.
With the aid of glasses, I apparently now see better than most of my class. The blackboard sharpens its white teeth as bullies line up to tag the new four-eyes.
Knowing that I’m not like other kids – but believing I can hide this – I beg my parents for pierced ears, a perm and posters of Wham! Instead, they buy me a space-hopper.
Mum lectures us on personal hygiene. Although we don’t know our distant great-great-great aunt, she lost an eye after catching worms from a dog.
Dad used to joke that Mum boiled her hands to sterilise them when we were babies. I take to washing my hands several times before every meal, after touching my mouth or breathing near my fingers. (I might spread germs!)
Sometimes, it’s hard to eat. This may or may not be connected to the germs thing. It’s definitely connected to my mind and how it perceives my body.
Studying myself in the mirror, I can’t see my eyes for the thickness of my specs. I can almost see my ribs, but I think my tits are wonky. My best friend, Mel, who has a boyfriend, tells me I’m as thin as a non-model can be, and they’re soft as perfect peaches.
Sneaking a peak at Mel’s sister’s diary, we learn that Kim isn’t sure Brendan is serious about her but Phil is definitely flirting. She sprays her underwear with cologne. Nothing in Kim’s diary tells me how ‘different people’ get boyfriends. If Mel was a real friend instead of an imaginary one, would I get some decent answers?
My other grandad’s eyes are like a beautiful night sky, almost a planetarium, according to the consultants who are treating his diabetic retinopathy. Trainee doctors flock round him – it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen!
Grandad, who’s lived with us since my nanna’ death, treats this as praise. He refuses to use a white stick and sings along to Frank Sinatra, while biting back his frustration at the speed of reading on his ‘talking books’. He also loses a leg to gangrene – another diabetic complication. I don’t see how much these things change him; I can’t recall the time before Mum pushes him everywhere by wheelchair and repeats crossword clues slowly when he can’t visualise the blanks.
I resolve to never get ill or old.
Through critics’ readings of Madame Bovary, I discover many arguments about Gustave Flaubert’s apparently conflicting descriptions of Emma’s eye colour. Are they black, brown or blue?
Perhaps it is a slip of the pen, a lack of foresight leading to years of debate. Still, I stare at my eyes in the mirror. Sometimes they’re dark brown. Other times they’re hazelnut watered down. They’ve tinges of green too. Looking into my own eyes, I see my mirror-self reflected in my eyes in the glass. Me looking back at me looking back at me looking… I’m staring myself in the eye more times than I have real eyes. In that gaze, an infinity of shades and reflections.
There have been boyfriends and flings. Now there’s He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-in-Writing. He sees me as I can’t see myself: beautiful. I like this me almost as I love him. We get engaged on a woodland trail in the heart of the Lake District. Excitement rustles through the leaves, whispering sweet futures to an almost blue sky.
My glasses may be rosy-tinted, here as at other times of strong emotion, but creating an idyll of this moment is a crucial to love’s spell. Believing in it is also an essential part of making it true.
I can’t wear contacts for the whole of my wedding day, so I choose ultra-thin, ultra-expensive glass lenses in a pair of specs with almost invisible frames. Vanity is only one of my bridesmaids, but not the cheapest!
Of course, the frames still aren’t invisible enough – could never be invisible enough – to please the part of me that would rather vanish completely than face the unavoidability of my imperfections, and my diabetes.
Twenty-two-month-old son, James, grabs my latest ultra-thin, ultra-expensive glasses and pulls. The left lens cracks as it hits our ceramic kitchen tiles. Two-months pregnant with my second son, Daniel, I’m more interested in closing my eyes and sleeping than seeing anything clearly. My replacement lenses are plastic. My new frames are so close to invisible that they could be mistaken for the ones from my wedding day, unlike my permanently tired face.
Parenthood is hard. Without sleep, everything stings. Without sleep, everything makes so much abstract sense that all five physical senses merge into one mangled mess. Some mornings, my brain feels tacky with tar. I fight against it like an oil-smothered bird trying to flap its wings.
We get by. I tell myself I won’t ever shout at them but of course inevitably sometimes I do. I want to make everything always happy for them and inevitably I can’t. I hope that they’ll grow up to have all the best bits of me but inevitably they get some of my traits that I don’t like, though what seems like an imperfection in my personality or appearance mostly feels like a forgivable and lovable human quirk when it’s mirrored in them.
Overall, my boys are healthy and beautiful. I give them the only childhood I can give them, one shaped by my own childhood and life’s circumstances. This is not ideal, but I’m no longer know sure I know what ideal parenting would look like. As with managing and living with diabetes, there are too many contributing factors, too many unpredictable possible outcomes, so much I can’t directly control.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The monkey in our garden turns out to be a gnome. Our neighbours have a quiet word with my husband when they think they catch me talking to a frog about the dangers of greenhouse gases.
Later that summer, I am diagnosed with mild depression.
We visit a rescue farm where a dog has a smudged petal of blue in one brown eye. It leaps around, licking our hands as if they were candy.
A girl at James’ pre-school also has one hazelnut iris and one blue. She dances to meet us, her dress sparkly as a cake beaded with hundreds and thousands.
Already the girls at pre-school seem to tease, taunt, even bully each other:
“You’re too fat.”
“Your ears stick out funny!”
“Why aren’t you beautifuller?”
They each want to be the prettiest, most popular, perfectest. (Or is that me/other parents projecting our own needs?) Meanwhile, the dogs at the rescue farm leap at each other and us, but mostly just want food and attention without a beating. All respond best to gentle words and stroking.
The boys don’t believe their great-grandad had a false eye. They refuse too to believe in video tapes, phones which had to be dialled, or knowledge without bytes.
Obviously, that’s my bad. For them, being different is reading from a book not a screen, and playing chess instead of Clash of Clans. Besides, surely doctors would have fixed a missing eye with robotics!
Another aunt or cousin (I lose track of my kin’s many distant relatives) is diagnosed with cataracts. Family weaknesses take on a greater significance as dermatology confirm a basal cell cancer on my cheek. The consultant cuts out my bad flesh though, and that’s that.
Now doctors are sure that I’m no different, I no longer envy normal. Too late, I realise oddness as escape from a reality that’s mostly hard, grey and boring. But ‘oddness’ is protection too. If I foster eccentricities, then no one can get close enough to hurt the real me.
My kids wear odd socks, and drag me along with them like one of Mother Duck’s lost ducklings.
I’m not the girl I was.
My myopia finally stabilised, I know that my tits were never wonky, I’m not partial to protruding ribs and my children can clean their own teeth to a white that almost gleams like pearls.
But I refuse to be as old as the ghost that the mirror gives me. My eyes haven’t sunken into leathery holes. My face is not becoming anything like my mum’s.
Clearly, hindsight isn’t always clear-sighted. Still, even viewed subjectively, surely it’s time by now that I realise my place and purpose in this given life-slot.
Midlife isn’t a kind therapist. She’s a tawdry stage hypnotist come hissing snake charmer. There’s no release once she’s got me transfixed. She knows no boundaries as she prods me with questions.
Why can’t you get a decent job? Why haven’t you climbed Kilimanjaro, written that novel, or even been to Egypt yet? Why did you bust a gut at uni to end up stuck at home clearing up after other people? Why does sudden sunshine make you cry? Why are you sadder than a train standing in the rain?[iii] Why do you exist at all?
Like a six-year-old child, my pseudo-psyche can’t start a single thought without a why…always in a whining tone. And, no, this six year old is not a manifestation of myself at the point of childhood trauma. And, no, I won’t give the poor girl a hug.
But the 6-year-old traumatist hasn’t made it to this age without persistence, keeps on and on, until…
Oh, for Pete’s sake, girl, you’re not me and you’re not getting any sympathy, but will you leave me alone if I do pretend to hug you?
Is it so bad if my life resembles my mum’s? I’ve never loved my parents as much as since I’ve seen my childhood from the viewpoint of parenting myself.
I’m reminded again about the changing colour of Emma Bovary’s eyes. Perhaps people, like critics, find what they go looking for – the tiniest grit at the edge of a camera lens or the beauty of William Blake’s ‘World in a Grain of Sand’.[iv]
Suppose though that there was intent. Do the shifting tones in Emma’s iris mirror her mood or do her moods flow from the colours through which she views the world, unable to maintain a steady perspective?
Flaubert’s novel opens with Emma’s husband as a schoolboy in class. Meanwhile, she was mostly raised in a convent. Is one significant childhood detail enough to shape whole lives? How I look back now, and how I looked forward then, is from the hood of a child – in my case a hood reddened by diabetes and fear’s many shadow wolves.
I talk with a wise man of what he’s learned from other wise men. His waistline is rounded but not Buddha-like. He looks like any other middle-aged grey-haired man but once had a beard which resembled a giant dandelion clock. Though he’s long since shaved this, he has many spores of knowledge which he releases when he senses a favourable breeze. Sat in his fading armchair with an open Strongbow, he shares a philosophical exercise about understanding the self.
Wise man: Point to an object and pay attention to what you see.
Wise man: Now point to part of your body and pay attention to what you see.
Wise man: Now point to your chest and pay attention to what you see.
Me: My T-shirt. Is the magic coming soon?
Wise man: There is no magic. Now point to your face, to the observer who is looking. What do you see?
Me: Just my own finger pointing. I can’t actually see my face, and I can’t see what’s observing… ah, I see!
Wise man: The observer can’t observe itself.
At some point in an infinity of nows, I realise this isn’t a story about my childhood, or even the narrative of me. It’s a sequence of glass words used to recreate the glass that lies between my eyes and the world: opaque, stained, crazy-glazed, false, perspex… The problem was never the glass itself, not even this shattered metaphor, more the piercing jab of the glass fragments disturbing my vision. My sight itself is kaleidoscopic, twist it a little and the patterns around me change. As I pick out the broken pieces, the world heals over, slowly.
When my 6-year-old trauma queen visits now, she wears the funkiest sunglasses. We don’t hug, but we do sit together side by side, mostly in silence. We watch raindrops balance on the edge of autumn leaves or at the heart of a naked rose. We see how sunsets turn pylons, trees and hills to a single merged silhouette against the softened skyline. I realise that both our worlds are beautiful. I see, I breathe, I smile.
S.A. Leavesley is an award-winning journalist, poet and fiction writer, who also runs V. Press poetry and flash fiction imprint. Diabetic from the age of 6, she’s only recently realised exactly how much this condition affects everything that she experiences and does ‘False Eyes & The Myopic of Me’ is a condensed extract from her memoir/essay collection longlisted in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017 and 2018. Latest books include: How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press 2018), plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, 2015) and Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press 2018). Website: www.sarah-james.co.uk.
[i] ‘An accident happened to my brother Jim’ (‘Books for Children / He said, she said, they said: Poetry’, article by Jenny Gilbert, 21 November 1993), Independent <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books-for-children-he-said-she-said-they-said-poetry-1505730.html>
[ii] Williams, William Carlos, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ < https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/red-wheelbarrow>
[iii] Neruda, Pablo, The Book of Questions, III <https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/book-questions-iii >
[iv] Blake, William, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence>