Creative Nonfiction
Susan Lago

Tool of the Trade
Photo Credit: JL Stricklin

When I was twenty-five I thought I was going blind. One day I was driving home from work and when I stopped at the light I saw a glowing circle around the red traffic signal. Like a halo. I blinked, rubbed my eyes and then the light changed and I forgot about the halo until the next time I saw it. Over the next few weeks, the halo appeared with increasing frequency. I saw it mostly around objects that emitted light, like the buzzing florescent tubes in the office of the ad agency where I worked as an account coordinator, or the clock on the stove, or the screen of the small TV perched on the edge of our dresser. I tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, but the halo grew until it took over the whole world.

You should see a doctor, my husband said. We had been married for less than a handful of years then. Past the newlywed stage, but not yet at the start-a-family stage either. We were both starting out in our careers, still paying our student loans, living in a low-ceilinged basement apartment in Secaucus, New Jersey with the cast-off furniture from my father and stepmother’s attic.

Go see your dad, he said. He’ll know what to do.

My father was an ophthalmologist.

For my exam, my father wore his white doctor coat. It was after-hours, the waiting area empty of patients and staff. In my memory, the examination room is cave dim with quiet carpet and no dust. My father used his ophthalmic examination instruments to peer into one eye and then the other. His face loomed so close to mine that it was the size of the moon. His breath on my cheek mortified me.

Finally he sat back on his doctor stool and sighed.

What? I said.

He shook his head. I can’t believe this, but you have a cataract.

Are you sure? Don’t only old people get cataracts?

When young people get them, they’re usually hereditary. I had one myself a few years ago. I guess you got it from me, he said, and looked at me, his small gray eyes behind his glasses. But you can’t tell anyone about that.

About what?

My cataract. I could get sued for malpractice.

I was ten paces behind in the conversation as usual. Why? I asked.

Because I operated on patients when I had the cataract. Before I had surgery to remove it.

Oh, I said. I won’t say anything.

You’ll need surgery, he said. I’ll make arrangements for a buddy of mine out in California to do it. He’s the best in the field. He won’t say anything.

Why can’t I just go to a doctor here?

My father sighed again. A line appeared between his eyes, a knife slash. Another doctor would ask for your patient history, he said. He would know that a cataract in someone your age was probably hereditary. I can’t take a chance it’ll be traced back to me. I could lose everything.

What happens if I wait, I said. I needed time to think. Surgery. I pictured the scalpel, sharp and perfect, slicing into my sclera. I felt nauseous.

The halo glowed around my father’s white coat. You could wait, he said, but you’ll gradually lose vision in that eye. You’re young, you’re healthy. My advice is to take care of it now. You don’t want to be sight-impaired in your twenties.

Maybe I should get a second opinion.

The knife slash deepened. I told you, he said. This has to be a secret.

Pressure in the back of my throat. I knew better than to cry.

He took off his glasses, held them up to the light, and put them on again. Him on his doctor stool, me in the patient chair held in place by the black metal ophthalmic instrument suspended in front of me from a hinged rod. What’s the matter, I said.

This will be expensive.

Ten paces behind.

Knife slash.

You could talk to your sister, he said. I’m still paying her health insurance. I don’t know if I can afford this kind of operation unless I can free up some extra funds.

But she’s still in college.

I know, but maybe your mother could take over the payments. The word “mother” in his mouth like the worst kind of swear word.

He reached over and touched my hand. I only want the best for you, he said. And this guy is the best. Okay?

Okay, I said. I stood. Okay.

And then his arms were around me and he held me tight against the rough starched surface of his coat. Everything will be all right, he said, and then he let me go.

I tried to remember if my father had ever held me before, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t. I would have promised him anything.

A cataract? my husband said when I got home. That’s nuts. You’re too young to have a cataract. You should get another opinion.

I explained about the possibility of malpractice. How we had to keep this secret, but my husband didn’t understand. We may have argued about it, but I can’t be sure.

Are you crazy, my sister yelled when I told her about the cataract, the secret, the doctor who was the best in the field out in California. Her health insurance.

We were sitting on my bed, which took up most of the bedroom, sorting through Jujyfruits. I got all the black ones because she didn’t like them. How much do you think he pays for my insurance? she asked. Twenty dollars a month? Thirty? He has two fucking BMWs for chrissakes! He lives in a huge house in Mendham! And you have your own health insurance! He doesn’t have to pay a dime! If he wants to keep it a secret, then he should pay for it.

One could say the scales fell from my eyes, blue like my sister’s eyes, like my mother’s. You’re right. I guess I was so worried about needing surgery that I wasn’t thinking straight, I said.

She shrugged. She understood. He was her father too. Maybe you should get a second opinion, she suggested.

And so I did.

It’s a Mittendorf Dot, said ophthalmologist #2. He had the same ophthalmic examination equipment, but he didn’t wear a white coat, just a sport jacket. He explained that a Mittendorf Dot was an anomaly like a freckle. It in no way affected my vision.

But it could be mistaken for a cataract? I asked.

He frowned. No. It’s not even on that part of your eye.

Now I frowned. But what about the halo?

Do you do much work on a computer? he asked.

Only about ten hours a day, I said. This was in the late eighties when desktop computers had big box-like monitors with cathode ray tubes.

Doctor #2 explained that staring at the monitor and the rays it emitted for long periods of time could cause eyestrain. Take breaks, he suggested.

That’s it?

He nodded.

I used my health insurance to pay for the visit.

I didn’t call my father to ask if he had made a mistake. I didn’t drive to his home or office to accuse him of lying. When Sunday came I didn’t make my weekly phone call. Two weeks went by before I realized he hadn’t called me either. Then I tried to remember if he had initiated any of the Sunday night calls and I thought that probably he had not. Why don’t you call him, my husband asked when three weeks had gone by, but I didn’t. The silence screamed as I counted up the days, the weeks, and then the months that I didn’t call him and he didn’t call me.

More than two decades later and neither one of us has made any attempt at getting in touch with the other. Here’s the thing: if he believed his diagnosis was correct, then why didn’t he call to see how I was? Wasn’t he concerned that I was going blind from my untreated condition? Wasn’t he worried that I’d blurted out his secret? Or: if he realized he made a mistake, then why didn’t he offer some kind of apology or excuse? But the worst possibility, the one that’s kept me from picking up the phone or typing out an email, was that he had known from the beginning that there was nothing wrong with my eyes and that he took the opportunity to get something he felt was owed him. At various times in my life, I’ve believed different versions of the story as I’m sure my father has believed his.

I could throw in a metaphor about blindness, love, but I won’t. The halo? I took breaks as the doctor suggested and after a couple of weeks it went away.


Susan Lago teaches writing at William Paterson University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as Pank, Per Contra, Monkeybicycle, Verbsap, and Word Riot. In 2011, she was honored to have one of her short stories nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Pank Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: Professor L. Email: shlago[at]