It seems like a lifetime ago. At twenty-two years, I suppose it is a lifetime. The anniversary almost slipped up on me this year. But, this uncanny and often irritating ability I have to remember dates and even days of the week they happened—always pops up sooner or later. This year, September 25th falls on a Wednesday, just as it did in 1991.
The week before, I’d had a dye test where they photographed the blood vessels in back of my eye after a yellow dye was injected into a vein in one of my arms. Then I nervously waited for them to call with the results.
They called me at work that Wednesday morning. “You have diabetic retinopathy. If you don’t have laser treatments right away you could lose all your vision.”
Outside my office, my co-workers went about their business. If someone’s world comes crashing down around them and nobody else hears it, did it really happen? Apparently so.
I needed air. I needed space. My office was closer to the back of the building. The next thing I knew, I was standing in the alley, trying to catch my breath. The intense Austin sun felt like it would cook me alive.
Home. Just get home. Now.
I found my way to the front parking lot, got in my truck, and drove to my apartment.
What am I going to do now?
I had only been there a few months. My health insurance wasn’t due to start until October 1st. Just a couple of months earlier, I discovered my kidneys were failing. This news was like a hammer driving a nail all the way in. Any pretense I had that maybe, just maybe I could stay in Austin and make it all work was gone. After Tampa, Kansas City, and Dallas, I’d finally a place—the place—I wanted to stay. It was so much like the quirky college town where I grew up but with big city amenities. My paychecks were increasing. After laying the groundwork, the accounts I’d opened were really starting to produce sales. Life was on a steady upswing. Well, except for failing kidneys.
My parents were anxiously waiting to find out the results of the test. I called them and we made plans for them to drive to Austin the first weekend in October to help me pack up and move back in with them. Life as I knew was coming to an end, but at least I wouldn’t have to face it alone. Still, as the oldest kid, I felt guilt at being a burden on them.
Since then, some of my worst nightmares came true. Some amazing blessings rescued me. I’ve had to pick myself up and go forward countless times.
When I want to torture myself, I try to imagine what life would have been like if my health hadn’t failed and I’d been able to stay in Austin. I’ve been back twice—in 1996 and 2001. Each time, it was so much bigger than before. From what I hear, it’s much more expensive and resembles Dallas and Houston more than the place I remember.
There are two things I was good at then and, thanks to professional guidance and practice, am even better at now. Writing and visual art. There are some gifts that vision loss can dull, but never take completely away as long as there’s some vision left.
In the months that followed me leaving my job, selling most of my things, and returning to Arkansas, I had plenty of time to sit around my parents’ house and ponder the future. There was one thing I vowed to do over and over again: surpass the expectations of people who thought I wasn’t capable of much anymore. I approached my new reality with the same tenacity I’d used to support myself in college and graduate in four years, even after changing majors and watching some of my friends give up.
I run into trouble when I expect things to be as easy as they are for people who can see fine. Sometimes it turns to resentment, which is as unproductive and unhealthy as guilt—another emotion that invades my mind when I remember the mistakes I made as a young diabetic in my teens and twenties.
On this day in 1991, the sense of fear and loss had me wondering if I would ever accomplish anything. I assumed that my skills and abilities would be frozen where they were then, as a 27 year-old who had no idea what he really wanted to do with his life.
Back in 1991, it would have helped me to know that before I was halfway through my forties, it would be the most productive decade of my life (so far).
In 1991 it would have given me such relief to know that by the end of that decade, I would no longer be diabetic.
In 1991 I would have been overjoyed to know that ten years later, after eye hemorrhages, invasive procedures and procedures, I would create a large piece of art like this.
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