A bright light projected onto the opposite wall of the darkened room, and line after line of tiny letters came into focus. Evelyn knew the drill from fifty years of getting her eyes checked since being declared nearsighted at age seven. “A-K-L-3-M-V,” she read without being asked.
“Next line, G-2-B—“ Evelyn paused, squinted slightly while the ophthalmologist wasn’t looking. “Nope, the B is an 8. Then X-J-R.”
Dr. Rose adjusted the vision checker—a phoropter, as Evelyn recalled the word from a crossword puzzle she’d done one rainy Saturday.
“Does this make it better?” Dr. Rose flipped a lens. “Or worse?”
“Worse.” Evelyn fought the impulse to shift in her seat.
“How about now?” The lens changed again.
Worse, worse, worse. The word soured in Evelyn’s mouth.
Dr. Rose cranked a few more dials, gave her two more views, then declared, “No change. Same as last year.”
That irony set off a groan that rattled Evelyn’s throat and she coughed lightly to disguise the sound. But her eyes betrayed her with a rim of tears dampening her lashes.
“The drops bothering you?” Dr. Rose asked, handing Evelyn a tissue.
“No, it’s fine.” She pressed the Kleenex to both eyes. “It’s just—you know. Same as last year. That’s hardly the case.”
Dr. Rose wheeled her stool closer to the examination chair. “I’m so sorry. How is Brian?”
He was Dr. Rose’s patient, too, so she knew all about his diagnosis and prognosis—degenerative, debilitating, irreversible. Slowing the progression of the disease was the best possible outcome. But Evelyn saw changes every day—a steady erosion that took away small bits of the husband she had lived with for thirty-one years. Somedays when she looked at Brian, she had a hard time finding him inside the disease.
“Good days and bad days.” Evelyn repeated the mantra as she always did when someone asked about Brian.
Dr. Rose laid her hand on Evelyn’s forearm. “This is me you’re talking to.”
Evelyn tried to hold the ophthalmologist’s gaze but shifted to the dangling earrings peeking below the blonde, chin-length hair, then the collar of a pastel shirt worn under the white doctor’s coat. Pink, maybe lavender—it was hard to tell in this low light.
“Lizzy is having a tough time,” Evelyn added.
Dr. Rose made a sympathetic sound. “Seeing her father struggle like this.”
You don’t know the half of it, Evelyn wanted to say, but didn’t. Two weeks ago, her twenty-eight-year-old daughter had announced that she and John were separating. What came next was a litany of things that Evelyn had never wanted to know about her son-in-law: gambling, online porn, checks bouncing, creditors calling.
She’d never liked John—so smug, the putdowns couched as teasing. That was the one consolation in all this; her daughter would finally be rid of him.
Then just as Evelyn had built her mental army against John, she’d had to dismiss the troops. Liz had come over two nights ago to confide that they’d gone into therapy, wanting to save their marriage. Work it out… For the kids … Made a mistake … Such pressure at work.
Liz’s words had scattered like a handful of marbles dropped to the floor, leaving Evelyn confused about what to think, say, or do.
“—take care of yourself first,” Dr. Rose was saying, and Evelyn tuned back in.
“That’s right,” Evelyn said. “We’re all staying strong.”
This was the exit line most people waited for—an escape hatch swinging open and releasing them from her uncomfortable reality. But Dr. Rose kept looking at her, head cocked to the side.
Evelyn watched as the ophthalmologist extracted something from her lab coat and leaned down to the bottommost drawer of the desk in the corner. She heard a key turn, and Dr. Rose slid the drawer open. Craning her neck, Evelyn saw Dr. Rose extract a hard-sided eyeglass case.
“Try these,” Dr. Rose said, putting the case in Evelyn’s hand.
The glasses were black, with square lenses. “I thought my prescription hadn’t changed,” Evelyn said.
“They’re not that kind of glasses,” Dr. Rose said.
Evelyn tried them on. “I can’t see very—whoa! That’s weird.” She clutched the arms of the examination chair as the lenses seemed to adjust to her eyes.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Dr. Rose leaned over and shined a small light into Evelyn’s eyes, first the right, then the left. “The lenses read your retina and adjust.”
Evelyn looked down at her lap. Suddenly, her thighs looked slimmer. But when she pressed her hands against her legs, she still felt the sponginess of lax muscles and soft flesh.
Dr. Rose plucked the glasses off Evelyn’s face. “You can’t wear them all the time. No more than two hours a day—that’s the protocol for now.”
“Protocol?” Evelyn repeated the word that echoed the latest from Brian’s doctors who hoped to get him into a clinical trial for an experimental drug. My life as a lab rat, Brian always joked.
“It’s a neuro-visual aid,” Dr. Rose began, and explained that she’d been part of a team, led by a friend at the College of Ophthalmology. They’d developed a prototype meant to calm the brain with what she called “alternative visual stimulation.”
A history teacher for twenty-five years, Evelyn spent as much time in the past as she did the present but considered herself reasonably well-read about the latest in technology—at least what she could understand of it.
“Artificial intelligence? Or is it virtual reality?” she asked.
Dr. Rose nodded. “More of the first, less of the second. I mean, this is not full immersion VR. You’re not going to see dinosaurs or galaxies or something. It just changes your perception enough to minimize your stressors. Your view shifts, your brain relaxes.”
Evelyn reached for the glasses. “It makes things better.”
“Or at least appear that way,” Dr. Rose added. “But we’re finding with the test group that more optimism means being better at finding solutions and coping with problems.”
Evelyn stared down at her lap, watching her thighs narrow by a half-inch again. “Why wouldn’t everyone want them?”
“That’s what we hope. We have a clinical trial underway, but well—” Dr. Rose bit her lip. “I’ve known you for so long, and with Brian’s condition …”
Evelyn held up her hand. “Say no more. I’ll test them out.”
Dr. Rose handed her a thick folder of materials. “I’ll need you to review and sign, including the nondisclosure. You’re not officially part of the trial, but I want to treat you as if you are.”
An hour later, Evelyn emerged from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright sunshine of a late June day. Enough of the dilation eyedrops had worn off to make it bearable to walk down the street in prescription sunglasses. Having read every paper and watched the mandatory 28-minute video on a computer at the office, Evelyn understood that the Rose glasses—as she now thought of them—were not to be worn for more than an hour at a time, and no more than two hours maximum. And never while driving.
That night, Brian dropped a plate, sending shards of stoneware and the remnants of a salad and a pork chop across the eat-in kitchen. He’d been steadying himself with one hand on the back of his chair and then the kitchen island, trying to reach the dishwasher. Somewhere en route, his hand had spasmed.
Hearing the crash from the pantry where she’d just set a bottle of olive oil onto the shelf, Evelyn came running, expecting to find Brian on the floor. What she found struck her as far worse: her sixty-year-old husband—once a long-distance runner and an avid cyclist—slumped over the counter in tears.
She rushed to him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, to guide him back to his chair. “What happened? Tell me what happened.”
“I can’t do anything,” Brian sobbed. “Nothing! My body is defeating me.”
Evelyn thought of the very short walk they’d taken slowly around the block before dinner—the evening mild, Brian in good spirits. It must have tired him out.
Then she remembered the glasses. “I’ll be right back,” she promised. “Just sit here. Thirty seconds.”
She ran from the kitchen to their upstairs bedroom. The quilted bedspread bore the imprint of where Brian had taken a nap earlier in the day, something he would never have done a year ago.
Evelyn retrieved the glasses from her top dresser drawer, the case as black as a coffin amid a sea of white and champagne-colored folded lingerie. She felt a moment of vertigo as the lenses read her retina and adjusted to her vision. The sensation passed quickly.
Brian sat where she’d left him—but now with his back straight, his shoulders square. When he turned, she saw how relaxed he looked.
“See? It’s fine now,” she told him.
“I dropped the plate,” Brian said. “Right out of my hand.”
Evelyn laughed, and Brian looked surprised. “You know we only have service for six, right? Because I broke one of the plates about a month after we bought them—and another one two weeks later. Plates break. So do coffee mugs and glasses.”
She bent down to touch his face. “You’re still you—and always will be.”
The glasses slipped down her nose, and she pushed them back up.
“I needed to hear that,” Brian said and hugged her.
Two nights later, a knock just before dinner brought Evelyn to the back door. She turned on the porch light, and there Lizzy stood.
“What are you knocking for, silly?” Evelyn said through the open doorway, but her daughter didn’t move.
“Dad here?” she asked.
“Where else? He’s in the living room,” Evelyn replied. “Do you want me to get him?”
“No. I don’t want him to hear this. I don’t want to upset him.”
Evelyn pointed to a bench in the garden, which Brian had given her two years ago for Mother’s Day. “We’ll sit outside. I’ll get my sweater and come right out.”
Evelyn noticed Brian napping in his chair in the living room and left him undisturbed. Upstairs, she grabbed a sweater from her drawer, along with the Rose glasses. She had them on when she joined Lizzy on the bench.
“You’re looking good, sweetheart,” she told her daughter.
Lizzy made a face and pulled the sides of her unzipped windbreaker together. “I doubt that.”
Evelyn brushed a strand of hair from Lizzy’s forehead, watching it curl around her finger. She’d always thought of Lizzy’s hair as straight.
“We’re done,” her daughter said. “Two sessions with the therapist and John said forget it. He’s not going to change. Can’t change. Doesn’t want to change.”
Evelyn heard the words and the sadness in Lizzy’s voice but focused instead on the glint of resolve in her daughter’s eyes. “You’re going to get through this—better than ever. You are strong and brave.”
“But Tessa?” Lizzy protested. “She wants to know when Daddy’s coming home. Even Jordan—he’s still in diapers, but he notices.”
Evelyn took her daughter’s soft hand in hers, seeing a fresh manicure where just the other day the polish had been chipped.
“Your babies—my grandchildren—are with you in a loving, safe home. You have to trust yourself, Lizzy. You can do this. And I’ll be there for you.”
Evelyn admired her daughter’s brave and beautiful face. “Your dad loves you, and that’s all you need to know.”
Three days later, Dr. Rose called to ask about the glasses. Evelyn spared no words in her praise. “My stress is so much less. And I can sleep at night.”
Twice Dr. Rose asked how often she wore them, and both times Evelyn assured her that she kept it to two hours, maximum. “And only when things get stressful. They help—they really do.”
A sudden thought occurred to Evelyn. “Am I going to have to give them back?”
Dr. Rose sighed. “Eventually, but not now. You’re giving us valuable feedback. Yours is a particularly stressful situation.”
On the following Saturday, Brian’s brother, Dave, came by unexpectedly. “How about I take you both out to lunch?”
It was a good day for Brian, his energy and his spirits up. That gave Evelyn an idea.
“Why don’t you two go?” she suggested. “I’ve got some gardening.”
She helped Brian with his jacket, smoothing the collar and brushing his hair with her fingertips.
“Thank you,” he said, and kissed her lightly.
Heading out into the garden, Evelyn brought her heavy gloves, clippers, and a nontoxic fungicide that promised to ward off blight in roses. She took off her sunglasses and grabbed another pair of glasses out of her pocket to read the instructions on how to mix and apply the solution. Her vision blurred then cleared. “Two capfuls per gallon of water,” she read aloud.
After preparing the mixture, she filled a spray bottle and headed over to the roses. The leaves were perfect ovals with slight points at the end. The blossoms unfurled delicate petals, each one worthy of a florist’s bouquet.
Evelyn checked every rosebush but found no traces of blight. Since she’d mixed up the solution, she gave the leaves a few sprays for good measure, then busied herself deadheading the snapdragons.
She had to admit her garden never looked better.
A bee droned, solitary—pulling its fat body into a dangling blossom of a fuchsia plant. Evelyn always worried about the dwindling number of pollinators and planted flowers that would attract them. Suddenly, she saw a dozen bees in the garden, all moving in unison. She hadn’t seen that many in months—maybe years.
Humming to herself as she pulled a few weeds, Evelyn got the idea that she and Brian should take a road trip. Not far—she’d have to do all the driving. But if they went to their favorite place along the lake, they could be there in less than three hours. Leave early on a Saturday, spend the night, and come home Sunday afternoon. Brian would love it, and the trip would be good for both of them.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Charmed by the plan she’d just hatched, Evelyn answered the phone with a lilt in her voice. “Hello!”
“Evie, it’s Dave. Brian’s had a seizure.”
The trowel in her hand clattered to the brick walkway through the garden. “What?”
“We’re at McMurphy’s, having a burger. Then he just—Oh, God. Evie. The ambulance is here.”
“I’ll get my keys,” she stammered.
“They’re taking him to Good Mercy. We’ll meet you there.”
Evelyn stood in the middle of her garden, watching the graceful heads of the flowers bob on the pulse of a light breeze. For a moment, it was all so pretty, she hated to leave it.
Go! She ordered herself. Shucking off her garden gloves, Evelyn ran inside for her purse and car keys. As she switched into her sunglasses for driving, Evelyn saw what she’d been wearing all along without realizing it.
And that’s when she knew. The blight hadn’t left the roses. The aphids still infested the vegetable patch. She just hadn’t seen any of it.
Sedated, Brian slept in a hospital bed, the heart monitor beeping steadily, his chest rising and falling with each breath.
“Doctor says he’ll be okay,” Dave said. “They’re not sure what happened. Maybe a reaction to the meds. Could be his brain misfiring—or something like that.”
Evelyn pressed her hand against her husband’s shoulder, feeling the warmth of a body that was as familiar as her own. Then she looked up into the careworn face of her brother-in-law.
“I’ve been in—” She thought of the black-rimmed glasses she’d thrown across the kitchen counter. “In denial. I keep wanting things to be better than they are.”
“You gotta have hope,” Dave said. “Otherwise, what is there?”
Evelyn stepped out of the room to call Lizzy, and she came nearly an hour later, having persuaded John to come over to the house to stay with the children.
The three of them sat together around Brian’s bed. They talked a little, but conversations never lasted very long.
“You go home, Dave,” Evelyn said, giving him a grateful hug. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Brian stirred but slept on. Nurses came and went. A doctor checked his vitals and explained they’d keep Brian overnight and run more tests in the morning.
“I’m going to stay here,” Evelyn told Lizzy. “You need to go home and take care of your children. Nothing is going to happen to your dad.” Not tonight, she added silently.
Lizzy leaned down and kissed her father, then hugged Evelyn. “I keep remembering what you told me. That I’m strong and brave—and I can get myself and my kids through this.”
The glasses, Evelyn thought. She’d said a lot of things while wearing them.
Then she realized that Lizzy was still waiting for a response. “You’re stronger than ever. And I’m here for you. Your dad is, too, to the best of his ability.”
A nurse brought her a blanket, and Evelyn made herself comfortable in the chair in the corner of the room. She didn’t read or turn on the television or scroll on her silenced phone. All she did was look at Brian—taking in every line and pore and strand of hair.
Leaning forward, Evelyn touched his arm lightly. “I’ve been thinking, honey. When you’re feeling better, we’re going to take a little road trip—just the two of us. We’ll go to the lake. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
His eyelids fluttered. It was a subtle, but undeniable sign he had heard her.
“We’ll go,” she promised him, not really caring if it ever would come to pass. What mattered most was truly seeing him.