Do You See What I See?

This past summer, I got LASIK surgery. The procedure took about twenty minutes the laser part taking fifteen seconds per eye. The doctors clamp open your eye, numb it, clean it, use an expensive machine to very precisely cut into your cornea with heat, spread some medicine on, and then move on to the next eye.

I started wearing glasses when I was seven, and now I have to undo fourteen years of muscle memory. I still reach to push my glasses up my nose when my vision goes blurry (part of the healing process). I still try to take them off my face before I go to sleep. I’ve poked myself in the now-unprotected eye more times than I care to admit.

I remember learning about the parts of an eye in middle school. There’s the cornea, the aqueous humour, the lens, the iris, the pupil, the sclera; there’s the ciliary body, the vitreous humour, the retina, and the optic nerve. I remember being fascinated by the parts and by all the things that could go wrong. When I focused on the green dot between the lasers, that’s what I thought about.

Why did I get LASIK? Vanity, mostly. But there are other reasons too. There’s a sense of joy, of satisfaction in being granted something that you could never have before. Now I can see every detail: the individual leaves on trees, the bricks on the building across the street, the blemishes on my face—even in my periphery. I’d worn contacts before, but those were never perfect. Even now, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best it’s ever been, and I could never imagine anything better.

And that’s the thing, right? I will never know what it’s like to have truly perfect vision; I’ll never know what other people see when they open their eyes. All we can do is try to communicate, argue when we can’t decide on the difference between yellow and green, or pink and red.

And it’s not just colours. When I see two people talk to each other, I notice things. The faint smile behind their eyes or the nervousness in their eyebrowsthe details that tell me something about their relationship. I don’t know if anyone else can see it. I’ve always been the kind of person to see misunderstandings. I witness a conversation where he’s saying something, but she misses the point, and he doesn’t see that she’s missed the point, and they’re trying to have two separate conversations. I see it. I don’t always interject, don’t say “I think he’s talking about… but she’s talking about…” because I don’t want to speak for anyone, and I’ve never wanted to call attention to how blind they are, not when my own eyes are imperfect. But that’s perception, not eyesight— equally important, but not the same.

They say eyes are the windows to the soul, but I’ve never really understood that. Because 1) if the soul does, in fact, exist, it would not have a physical manifestation, and would, therefore, have no windows; it would not be represented by any one thing, its reach would be all encompassing, the eyes, mouth, the hands, the feet. 2) What does it even mean to serve as a window to the soul? Look through them and you see someone’s soul? Are eyes metaphors for the soul, so when someone’s eyes are bright, their soul is bright? Through your own eyes, are you able to bear witness to your own soul? The phrase is ambiguous. There’s always a better alternative. Precision is key.

When using a laser, there’s no room for mistakes. If you burn into something, you’re making it disappear. Changes are permanent; scars and blindness are avoidable. Eyes fixed on that green dot, deliberately still.

Eyes are the focus of hundreds of quotes. Quotes about love and beauty and smiles and morality. Why do we talk about eyes as metaphor when none of us know what anyone else is seeing? How can we make any kind of generalization when we have no frame of reference? I’ve always wanted to know how other people see, how they think. When people see someone talk about something they care about, do they see what I do? The tension of excitement in their muscles? The way their faces animate?

Or do they just see someone talking?

After my surgery, as short and easy as it was, my eyes reacted to the trauma. For the first three days, I struggled to keep them open. At first I thought it was because they were healing, but I very quickly realized it was because I had developed some sort of block. I could open my eyes briefly, but if I thought about them, they would close, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I spent the fourth day holding my lids open with my hands, forcing my eyes to take in the world.

I have my grandmother’s eyes, or that’s what my mother tells me. She died when I was young, so I don’t remember, and the photographs don’t do her justice. With a photograph, you never see the whole picture. In motion, you can see a person’s character, their heart, and my grandmother had a lot of heart. My mother talks about her like she was a saint. Children see their parents as perfect until they don’t, but I don’t think my mother’s vision changed. When my grandmother died, hundreds of people wrote articles in memoriam, expounding on her saintly character. Maybe she was a saint. What is the truth but a widely held perspective?

The doctor told me he could fix my vision, but the astigmatism couldn’t be corrected entirely. Astigmatism is when your lens is turned just a little on its axis; nothing focuses quite like it’s supposed to. It’s the hardest problem to correct, with glasses, contacts, and lasers. “You have her eyes… You’re so much like her,” my mother says. She sees my grandmother in me; she sees the best, but the axis shifts. It’s a weighty mantle to bear. I try to be who she sees, but nothing can be perfect.  

People say that a genuine smile reaches the eyes. It’s an if and only if sort of statement—a biconditional connective. Proof by contrast, the statement is false. When I smile, it’s not always genuine. When I smile, it always reaches my eyes.

For months after the surgery, up to six, I had to wear sunglasses whenever I was in sunlight. Long term corneal scarring was the warning, caused by UV rays. So I wore them; everywhere I went, and they shielded me. I saw the people walk past, I could stare; no one noticed. I sometimes think about the fact that a person can never see themselves. Even in a mirror, it’s always a flipped perspective. With those sunglasses on, I could stare, I could form opinions, but I will never see what they saw when they looked at me.

Then again, did I ever?