Monday, June 3, 2013

Both Eyes Straight Ahead

Dr. Nonspeth was deep in the ravine, face up, listening.  There was a lot to listen to, more calls than he could manage, the strident and common—goldfinch and song sparrow—and the squeakier, buzzier voices that mattered.    Up among the branches, itchy with soft-bodied larvae, were tanagers, vireos,  flycatchers—and warblers, warblers, warblers.  It was an Easter egg hunt on Christmas morning.

The night before, radar had flared on his laptop screen, following sunset across the continent, and then, after midnight, rain had rumbled through and knocked the birds from the sky.  The morning forests were dripping and alive.  It was the promise of days like this that kept your soul from abandoning your body and sailing to Mexico during the bleak months.

Up above, at street level, oblivious vehicles pulsed up and down the streets with hockey flags flapping from their window frames.  Those cheap adornments were a relatively new invention, and their sudden appearance indicated the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Go Leafs Go.  They also served to remind that it was time to polish binocular lenses and think about watching the radar at night, perhaps cancelling office hours the next day.

He was a pediatric ophthalmologist.  Ninety-five percent of his cases involved corrective surgery for strabismus.  One could argue it was one of the best specialties a medical doctor could have.  Children came to your office unafraid, knowing they weren’t going to get a needle.  You darkened the room and had them read letters off a distant screen, clicking through the lenses as the letters blurred and cleared. Eventually they would come up with the right answer and feel proud of themselves.  Then you would encourage them to play with the prismatic apparatus that lined up the pictures, the frog on the lily pad, the butterfly in the net.  Fun! The worst they ever got was drops in their eyes, and then you would have a tissue handy.

Eventually, when you operated on them, they were unconscious.  They never even saw you masked and gowned.  You came in after the nurses had reassured them and the anaesthesiologist had put them under.  Though wide-eyed through the procedure, your masked image on their retinas was not backed up, was stored nowhere.

Later you were there, unmasked, to remove the patch, to tell them they looked beautiful.  With amblyopia constant at a rate of about four percent of the population, as long as people kept having children, there would always be patients.

True, cancelling office appointments on account of a fallout inconvenienced children and their parents and gave Edwina the receptionist fits, but it only happened once or twice a year.  He would have her explain that he had been called away to perform an emergency surgery that morning—as if there were such thing as an emergency strabismus surgery.  Based on laws of probability, two of seven fallouts occurred on the weekend, in which case there would be no need to jigger things.  So some years you had to, some years not.  He had ethics, of course. He would never duck out of a scheduled surgery, no matter what the birds were doing.  He avoided that issue entirely by never scheduling operations during the first two weeks of May.

In any case, a postponed appointment, a minor annoyance to child or parent, was a reasonable trade-off placed next to the ongoing benefits to a pediatric ophthalmologist.   Taking joy in neotropical migration was healthy—and good for one’s soul—and, as every patient should know, a happy doctor is a better doctor.  More importantly, finding and identifying birds was a soul-nourishing activity that done regularly reinforced that self-evident truth to the birder, even if you weren’t a pediatric ophthalmologist.    It made you want to open this glorious world to children, to nourish their souls, provide them a lifelong gift.  With strabismus, you could not possibly see correctly through binoculars.  One eyeball would be pointed uselessly at the inside or outside of one or other barrel, which would be immensely, cripplingly frustrating.  Your first look through a pair of binoculars could easily, justifiably, be your last. The more he birded, the more determined he became to straighten the eyes of all the children of the world.

Tacked up among Bateman prints on his waiting room walls were missives from grateful parents—before and after pictures of their wonk-eyed children.  There were heart-warming notes from some of the children too.  “Dear Dr.  Nonspeth, I hope I will always need to wear glasses because then you will always be my doctor.”

Yup, there, his office, on the first floor of the old, crumbly wing of the children’s hospital, he was the benign king of the universe.  You would expect him to be a happy man.

But out here, down in the ravine, as his heart was filling with birdsong it was also quietly breaking at the edges.

He could not help but think that there were people in this world who were paid to watch birds. It didn’t pay as much as realigning young eyeballs, not by a long shot, but it paid in other ways.  He had always wanted to be one of those people, out in the wild places, in jungles and deserts. On oceanic islands perhaps.  But now it was too late. That was a younger man’s life.  A foot had to have been in that door soon after high school, when physical strength and endurance and heedlessness were at their peaks.  He had been in college, earning a medical degree, making his parents proud.

His revised dream was that at least one of the faces on his office wall would one day live that life, never having been tormented by a hopeless attempt to use binoculars.  He or she would never know what hadn’t been lost, would never think to thank him.  He would never learn that his dream had come true.

By the time the rain resumed, his list had reached 68 species.  Highlights were Mourning and Kentucky Warblers, Black-billed Cuckoo, and American Woodcock.   No lifers—those were few and far between by now—but a satisfying outcome nonetheless.

He climbed the rickety wooden staircase to the busy road.  Something was wrong with the lights at the corner.  They were frozen red in all directions.  The hockey flags flapped weakly in the mild spring breeze.  For this city, this team, that was as good as it gets.  

Thousand Word Stories


sarah said...

Ahhhh, love it.

Hilary said...

Wonderful writing, Hugh!

Eskarina said...

Hi Hugh,
Ever read Dan Keoppel's "To see every bird on earth"?

Hugh said...

Sarah and Hilary, thank you. (Hilary, are you Port Moody Hilary?).

Eskarina, The book was given to me a while back and I got partway through but didn't finish it. Too many other things going on at the time. It's still here, waiting for another go.

Hilary said...

Hi Hugh,

Yes, I am "Port Moody Hilary". I made an assumption that you were "sunglasses solitaire" Hugh when I saw a tweet re: buffleheads, which led me to your beautiful blog.