All the Answers

James Tate Hill

The ophthalmologist asks you to repeat what you just said. He’s right to be skeptical. In recent months, you’ve seen so many eye charts that you’ve memorized the first few rows below the E. Is it cheating if no one is helping you? When you were nine or ten, your parents refused to play Trivial Pursuit with you because you had memorized many of the answers, and you didn’t think that was cheating either. Nevertheless, two months after your sixteenth birthday, your vision has gotten too bad to drive, so you come clean, admit you can’t see any of the letters, not even the E.

Your hometown doctors, stumped, refer you to a specialist at the state university, a Bea Arthur lookalike in a black turtleneck. She sees right away there’s something wrong with your optic nerves. If you had to put your medical fate in the hands of a Golden Girl, Dorothy would definitely be your first choice. She orders an inpatient steroid treatment — not the Hulk Hogan kind, you’re disappointed to learn — and when your blind spots continue to expand, she signs off on a second.

At this point, instead of eye charts, you’re memorizing buttons on the remote to your hospital TV. Turning on the French Open final, you can just make out the red clay of Roland-Garros, contrasted with the pale-green wall. It’s possible, without seeing the tennis ball, to know whose shot is the last in a rally. Whether that shot is in or out is harder to discern. The crowd cheers harder for Mary Pierce, who is half-French, but the chair umpire announces the score in a language you don’t understand.

Optimism led you to bring your school books to the hospital for this second treatment. Whether or not you would have removed them from your backpack, even if you could still read, is up for debate. In recent years, you’ve rarely found homework more enticing than The Arsenio Hall Show or Saturday Night Live reruns. In elementary school, tests with more positive results allowed you to skip an entire grade, but a lazy B average has steadily undermined that potential.

Your regular neurologist visits you in the hospital, checking for changes in your optic nerves. He’s a young Indian man with a patchy beard — or at least he was the last time you could see faces. Because you’ve told him you want to be a doctor, he explains thoroughly what he’s looking for and how your nerves work. You’ve never really wanted to be a doctor, but grown-ups always seem impressed when you say this. Lately you’re not sure what you want to be, what you can be — your eyesight is worse when you’re discharged than it was when you were admitted.

Only two days remain in the school year. Students with normal numbers of absences have been excused. It’s not the number of days you’ve missed but a few final exams that make your attendance mandatory. It feels strange, presenting your teachers with documentation of where you’ve been and what you cannot currently do. You never have been the doctor’s note sort. For several years, you haven’t been any sort, really, and you can’t help wondering if this new difference might be the result of wishful thinking gone awry.

Your Chemistry teacher, that subject not particularly compatible with an orally administered exam, lets you keep the C you are fortunate to still have after weeks of not seeing the chalk-scrawled equations. Ditto Pre-calculus. You thought you had an outside shot at bringing your B in Spanish up to an A with a solid performance on the final, but the math shows otherwise. You forego that final, too, and return to homeroom, nothing left to do but last the day.

Your comic books and video games have become artifacts from another era, but TV remains an enjoyable pastime. Keeping track of actors is harder without the benefit of faces and credits, but voices, too, can be memorized. Hours once spent in Waldenbooks with Entertainment Weekly and Roger Ebert’s annual compendium of film reviews are replaced with Show Biz Today and E! News. Soon you’ll branch out to CNN, hoping all this information will mask what you don’t know — what you cannot know because you cannot see. You doubt your friends or relatives would question your intelligence, but who knows about strangers and acquaintances? Blind, after all, is a common synonym for ignorant.

Six nights a week you schedule a date with Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek. Unlike Trivial Pursuit, you don’t need anyone to play with, and Trebek helpfully reads all the clues on the screen. You’ve always found the whole phrasing-answers-in-the-form-of-a-question thing kind of pretentious, but trivia is trivia: questions and answers — questions that have answers. The contestants usually know more than you, but they feel less like your competition than study partners. Sometimes, with movies or pop songs, you can sweep a category. Other times, with opera or architecture, you don’t have a clue.

A blood test over the summer confirms your untreatable condition, and you begin memorizing everything you’ve put off committing to memory — buttons on the microwave, track listings on all your CDs, cooking instructions for your favorite foods. Every expansion of your blind spots means another shelf in your mind set aside for everyday tasks. How much space is there on your mental hard drive? In seventh grade, you finished a not-too-shabby third in the school spelling bee, competing against eighth and ninth graders, but yesterday you couldn’t remember if monitor is spelled with an -or or an -er.

Once in a while, you emerge from your bedroom to watch Jeopardy! with your parents in the living room, on the big-screen TV that no longer seems as big. Four categories in, your parents notice you’ve only missed one clue. The slight smile on your face is your first in a little while. Should you let them know it’s a summer rerun? Early in the Double Jeopardy round, you consider telling them, but you keep it to yourself. What they don’t know won’t hurt them.


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