It started innocently with a pair of Christian Dior sunglasses in the window of a Madison Avenue boutique. They were ideal for my vacation, so I ran in, put them on and glanced in the mirror. Sexy yet subtle. I pulled out my credit card.
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Two weeks later, my fiancé, Peter, and I lazed on a North Carolina beach. Everything was wonderful, except the Diors didn’t fit; my eyelashes kept hitting the right lens. Otherwise, the trip was fabulous, especially at night, when I didn’t need the glasses. On our last day, I stuffed the specs into my bag, trying not to think about the money I’d wasted. On the drive back, my right eye began to itch. I rubbed it through Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, all the way home to Manhattan.
Soon after, I saw my ophthalmologist. He took one look and called in his assistant, which I knew couldn’t be good. They stood close together and spoke in hushed tones.
“What’s going on?” I asked, panicked.
“We’ll need to do an MRI,” my doctor said. “There’s a problem with your optic nerve. It’s not quite right.” He paused. “It could be a thyroid condition or something else, maybe a tumor.”
My heart started racing as I pulled the sunglasses out of my bag. “No, it’s these new glasses, see?” I said, holding them up.
“It’s not the glasses,” he replied, shaking his head.
If the frames weren’t the problem, I told myself, it had to be something minor, certainly not a tumor. True, I hadn’t been seeing as well the past few months, but I attributed it to age (I was 42 at the time) and put off getting my eyes checked. In my defense, I was focused on planning my upcoming New Year’s Eve wedding. I’ve always been an optimist, existing on unwavering hope and the belief that everything works out in time. After all, I’d managed to rebuild my life after surviving a physically abusive first marriage: I’d landed a job as a fashion designer and regained my emotional health. Whatever the challenge, whether finding the right lipstick shade or maintaining hope that my mom would receive a donor kidney despite the mile-long waiting list, I’d chant to myself, How hard could it be? How long could it take? The mantra worked for me. Eventually, I managed to hit upon my new favorite lipcolor (Chanel Soft Mink), and my mother got her kidney in less than a year.
So while the ophthalmologist’s assistant booked my MRI appointment, I didn’t let my mind stray to scary possibilities. Instead, I thought about dress fittings and the apartment we were renovating. The next day, all the way through my MRI, I chanted to myself, How hard could it be? How long could it take?
One day later, Peter and I waited for Dr. Robert Della Rocca, a reconstructive eye surgeon. Suddenly, we were plunged into semidarkness, then a nurse called my name and ushered us in.
“We’ve had a power failure,” Dr. Della Rocca said wryly, “but the generator will kick in. For now, I’ll read your MRI this way.” He held the films to the window, the sun his only tool.
I stared at the black and gray shadows, a Rorschach inkblot of my head. Then the doctor startled me with his diagnosis.
“It’s a tumor,” he said.
“What kind of tumor?” Peter asked, braver than I.
“It’s a meningioma, a benign tumor that’s irreparably damaged the vision in your right eye. You’ll need surgery ASAP.”
“Wait, if it’s benign, why race into surgery?” Peter asked.
“Look,” the doctor said. “You can see that her right eye is jutting out. The tumor is pushing it forward. While the technical definition may be benign, there’s nothing benign about it.”
“Surgery?” I asked, not sure I’d heard right. How could we not have noticed my eye bulging out of my head? Maybe love truly was blind, which would explain Peter’s obliviousness; as for me, all my thoughts had been trained toward our big day, which I hoped would erase my past hurt forever.
“Yes, surgery,” said the doctor. “To get to the tumor, they’ll go in through your skull, so they will have to shave your head. But don’t worry. Your hair will grow back.”
“But our wedding is in four months!” I flashed forward to an image of me in a wedding gown with a shaved head. Just what every groom wants, I thought. Vanity, perhaps, but it was easier to focus on my appearance than on the fact that I might die. I’d spent my life in the fashion world, where looking the part was key to success, and I was quite sure bald wasn’t in this season.
The doctor scribbled a name, saying, “Go see him. He’s the best with these cases.” Then we were back on the sidewalk, me clutching my MRI films. Everywhere, people spilled out onto the street.
“It’s a major blackout; the entire Eastern corridor’s dark,” a cop told us when we asked him about all the chaos.
“Great,” I said to Peter. “Isn’t a tumor enough?” I squeezed his hand, thinking that by now he must have no circulation left. We walked uptown as everyone scrambled for home before dark. I was grateful for the distraction. I didn’t want to think about my own possible vision loss and the darkness it could bring.
Immediate surgery needed
Six days after the bad news, we went to see Dr. Chandranath Sen. Before my appointment, I’d Googled the renowned neurosurgeon. In real life, he looked like he did online, with black hair and a mustache. I could see from the band on his left hand that he was married, which made me feel calmer. Smoothly, he put up my films for review. “Diane, please come here,” he said.
I stood and walked over to the light box. “Here,” he said, pointing to a blob roughly the size of Massachusetts in my otherwise Rhode Island–sized skull. “Your meningioma is quite large and in a very precarious position, I’m sorry to say. It’s wrapped around your optic nerve and pushing back into your brain. Not the usual place for this kind of tumor. In 20 years of practice, I’ve only done about 25 surgeries like this.”
I stepped back, startled, though whether from his description or the shock of what the pictures showed I’m not sure.
“So what do we do now?” I asked.
“I recommend immediate surgery to remove the tumor; we’ll have to reconstruct your eye and part of your skull.”
“But…we’re getting married in four months! Will you have to shave my head?” I asked, weakly. “No,” he answered, smiling for the first time. “I can save your hair — no shaving necessary.”
Then Dr. Sen pointed to the films. As I listened to the medical terminology, words that presaged a major impact on my life, I forgot about my hair. Information can be a dangerous thing.
As Dr. Sen spoke, I tried to breathe deeply, taking in his scent of Acqua di Gio cologne. My ex had worn Acqua, which suddenly made for some very negative connotations. But what the doctor did next reassured me. “Diane, I need you to look closely because you should know what’s going on,” he told me. “Every surgery is potentially life-threatening. This one could result in blindness, partial paralysis, a stroke or even death. It’s frightening. But know that on the day of your operation, you will be all I am thinking about; your well-being will be my only concern.” With that, he pulled me in close and hugged me, something no other doctor had done. Suddenly, Acqua smelled different, better.
Dr. Sen booked my surgery for the following Monday — five days away. Then Peter and I headed to Central Park to discuss what we’d learned, again toting my MRI films, which had become my constant accessory — not a good look for me. But I couldn’t do much talking, nor was I able to feel much of anything at all. I was in a fog as I tried to absorb the horror of images that clearly showed a bulging eye popping out of its socket. For the moment, my optimism had been immobilized.
Maybe that’s why Peter and I made a silent pact to embrace denial for a few days. Other than telling our families, we immersed ourselves in wedding preparations and the apartment renovation as if everything were normal, visiting showrooms in a quest to beat the clock. Until the Friday before the operation, when, worn out, we went home and holed up in bed with our dog, our cat and a box of tissues. For the first time, I doubted my mantra. Everything felt too hard; everything was taking too long.
The morning of the surgery, after Peter and I said our good-byes, I was wheeled into the operating suite, where Dr. Sen looked down with smiling eyes over his mask. “It will be fine,” he said reassuringly. But I woke up in recovery 11 hours later far from my ordinary self. To reduce the risk of brain swelling and seizures, I’d been prescribed massive amounts of medication that quickly turned me into a paranoid, argumentative monster. When they moved me out of the ICU and I tried to walk on my own, my balance was precarious. A nurse handed me a cane and told me to practice. I did, hanging on tightly to Peter with my other hand.
Despite all that, four months after my personal blackout, my sight mostly gone in my right eye, Peter and I married as planned, on New Year’s Eve. I walked down the aisle, my balance and mood restored, in white silk, my hair piled atop my head. The photos were beautiful (it helped that my eye was now in its proper place), but they didn’t show the deeper changes, beneath the hair and makeup. Every day, I cope with head pain and facial numbness, as well as sporadic disorientation, fatigue and short-term memory loss. Yet I’m grateful — for looking normal at my wedding, yes, but especially for having the gift of life, and being able to begin my life with Peter. I’ve learned that sometimes, what we value most is worth the least and that denial will only serve for so long. But I’ve kept my mantra (How hard could it be? How long could it take?) and my optimism. The honeymoon was magical, seven sunny days in St. Bart’s. My Diors fit perfectly.
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