I was always certain that if a devastating injury or major illness befell me, I’d clear the calendar, dim the lights, wrap myself in a caftan, and reward friends’ expressions of sympathy with a summons to my bedside. Come one, come all, preferably with gin.
So when, several years ago, my vision suddenly blurred and I was told that I might go blind, I got ready to convalesce like no one had ever convalesced. I figured that I’d guiltlessly miss deadlines—who could possibly blame me? I wagered that I’d subsist on martinis—who would dare to shame me?
And for a week, maybe two, I indeed threw myself a well-lubricated pity party. I went methodically through my address book, spreading the news: overnight, I’d suffered a kind of stroke; it had ravaged the optic nerve behind my right eye; I’d never see correctly out of that eye again, and there was a 20 percent chance that this rare condition, known as NAION, would come for my left eye, too.
When my vision suddenly blurred and I was told that I might go blind, I got ready to convalesce. I wagered that I’d subsist on martinis—who would dare to shame me?
I sent melodramatic missives. “If I’m finally going to finish Middlemarch, I better do it now, lest I have to scale it in braille,” I said in a text message to my friend Jennifer. I told my sister that she’d have to re-train one of her two retrievers as a seeing-eye dog for me. I googled canes. I started calling myself a Cyclops.
But then I stopped. It hit me: if I let myself sink into a hole, I’d have to find a way to climb out of it eventually. The deeper the hole and the longer I dwelled there, the harder the climb. Better to pull back from the edge of it now.
Standing tall, holding steady, and flexing what strength I had were challenges that I set for myself and, then, accomplishments that gave me solace, hope, pride. They were also a surprise—and that’s how I suspected I had the material for a book. We should write about what surprises us. We should mull the unforeseeable (and, in my case, the unseeable).
We should also mine the universal. As the weeks and months went by, and the shock of what happened to me wore off, I recognized that my situation was exotic in its details but not in any other way. I had impaired and imperiled vision; other people had bad hearing, bad hearts, backs that crippled them or brains that did. The sword of blindness hung over me; the sword of cancer hung over others. I was confronting a new set of parameters in my mid-50s, which was perhaps early, but most people face such limits by their mid-60s or mid-70s. These bodies of ours are time bombs—each just detonates in a different way.
To accept that is to turn affliction into epiphany. While a dappled fog hung over the right side of my field of vision and the letters on the computer screen sometimes shimmied, I saw the people around me—their struggles, their triumphs—more clearly. I saw that limits needn’t be regarded as unyielding boundaries or unbreachable borders—they’re the contours of a life with an inevitably altered shape. I saw that I could obsess over what had been taken from me or focus on what remained, which was plenty.
And I heard a voice. It belonged to the professor who taught the one psychology course that I took in college. He had a refrain, a mantra, which he uttered as many as a dozen times over the semester: “Life,” he would say, “is about adjusting to loss.” Back then I found those words overly simplistic and needlessly morose. Now I find them wise. I meet them with equanimity—and, sometimes, a stiff cocktail.
Frank Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times. He is the author of several books, including A Gospel of Shame and Ambling into History. His latest, The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, is out now from Avid Reader