I always got my contacts from Costco, and it constantly felt like a chore. Like any child made to go on errands with their parents, Costco was my eye-rolling-moan-inducing trip.
I realized my eyes were inadequate in third grade while reciting the Hail Mary. I was a little distracted as my blue and green plaid skirt was all twisted and the scratchy green sweater vest a little too tight. Despite years of saying this prayer, I did not recall the words. Instead, I peaked at the wall plastered with large white construction paper listing the words. I squinted as hard as I could to make out the bold sharpie penmanship, and still I could barely read them. This was what I recounted to my mother days before the trip to Costco.
At the ripe age of eight, I got my first pair of contacts. A woman with one-inch fake nails delicately balanced the flimsy contact on the pad of her finger to place it on my eye. I thought it impossible to get it on without her nail piercing straight through me. But here we are decades later, and my eye is still whole! I emerged that day, largely unmaimed, to find a whole new world. If you’ve ever been to a Costco, you’re familiar with the unfinished ceilings and blaring industrial lights. I felt as though I’d never truly seen anything; the lights like stars overhead made everything brighter, more vibrant, and more alive.
Costco’s twinkling lights made me look forward to every optometrist appointment from then on, each time gazing upwards as soon as a new prescription came into place. These appointments rejuvenated me and gave me quite literally new sight. That freshness, understanding, and new perspective are what I thought I would gain in medical school. I was searching for the twinkling lights, but with every holiday at home, I feel as though I’ve discovered thin tissue paper versions of them, easily ripped through by personal and family history. This past thanksgiving, I found just that. Despite three-and-a-half years of empathy and recognition of circumstances taught in medical school, I walked into my childhood kitchen dreading what my aunt and uncle would do this time.
Warmth permeates the house during the holidays, from my mom’s face alit with joy watching her kids come home to my dad rolling his eyes but secretly finally feeling whole. The smells transport me back to my elementary school days. The scent of butter thickening the air in a hot kitchen signaling the start of the holidays as the family pours wine and asks if “there’s anything they can do?” but hoping there isn’t. Pies lined up and out of the way, always too many for the number of people coming over. But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that everything would be perfect if my aunt and uncle weren’t coming. I never want to think that, but I can’t help it. When I hear them ring the doorbell, I try to stifle my inevitable annoyance.
Where are those damn twinkling lights, that new prescription from medical school? I can’t find it; it feels just beyond my reach. Everyone is chatting, milling about, and I hear my uncle saying no to appetizers in that slippery slow voice. Why does he have to talk like that?
But I recognize he denies food because he feels fat from the decades of lithium, and the antipsychotics have caused psychomotor slowing making him speak in an exaggeratingly slow manner.
We encircle the kitchen island to hold hands and say a prayer before loading up our plates. I always stand strategically between my parents for grace. I see that my brother, who apparently is less calculated than I, stands between my uncle and aunt. As my dad says grace, she sneezes messily into her hand, then replaces it back into my brother’s. We all stifle a laugh as his face dissolves into alarm.
I know this is a manifestation of poor social graces from her schizophrenia. Her medications are being adjusted, and the voices may have slowed, but her behavior has never quite evened out. It’s likely she has seen this happen for a lifetime, the effect of which has built a wall of performed indifference.
By the time we’ve all overeaten and are lounging, I’ve stopped looking for my twinkling lights and am resigned to focusing on other family. We speak of career plans, futures, soon-to-be babies, and where we all want to go when the pandemic is finally over.
I know they feel excluded, unable to comment on many, if not all, of these topics. They sit in silence picking at food; somehow feeling grateful for being invited. No one else must work so hard to be invited to a family holiday. But they do.
Before pie, they rise from their chairs, and my uncle says in his classically slow “Eeyore” voice that they should get going and don’t need any leftovers. I hug them stiffly and try my best to warm in my goodbyes.
Were my goodbyes warmer than my welcome? I think so.
The door closes behind them, and tension melts out of the room. We don’t speak of it; rather we pour coffee and cut pie as if the holiday finally started. My twinkling lights come back into focus, and per usual, I see my bias and discomfort an hour too late. They’re gone, and with them, an opportunity to give them a sense of comfort and familiarity.
My new prescription didn’t prove as clarifying as previous ones. It’s so much easier to be kind and empathetic when working with strangers or patients. I find no comfort in knowing the time it takes to improve, and I doubt the timeline would bring any comfort to my aunt or uncle. I hope my long-awaited prescription is on its way so I can see the twinkling lights next time around.
Elizabeth Tower is a physician.
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