Smells Like Toast

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I was filled with worry as I got off the subway and began walking toward Will’s Eye Hospital. I’d been dealing with double vision for fifteen years, and it just kept getting worse. The effort of trying to keep two images merged into one required so much mental energy.

I was always exhausted.

Normal everyday things had become such a challenge, like reading signs with lots of words, such as fast food menus and plane and train schedules: I’d end up covering one eye to keep the words from swimming in front of me. And driving had become a nightmare; even with my glasses on, once my eyes began to get tired, I’d start seeing twice as many cars in front of me as were actually there. Driving at night or in the rain compounded the problem. Was the edge of the road here—or over there? I felt like I was an accident waiting to happen. Even watching TV in the evening had become an exercise in frustration—I’d cover one eye, then the other; until finally, worn out, I’d give up and just go to bed early.

My double vision was becoming a problem for me socially, too. I sensed that I made people uncomfortable during conversations. I could tell my eyes were beginning to cross by the look on the other person’s face. Their expression silently said, “I’m not sure where to look at you, and I’m wondering if you’re actually looking at me.” When photos were being taken, I could no longer force my eyes to stay straight. I imagined descendants of mine in the future, looking at pictures of me, saying, “Who is this strange lady and what’s wrong with her eyes?”

At public events like concerts and church, if the person sitting in front of me moved around a lot, I’d have to keep re-focusing to see what was happening up front. Before long, my eyes would get tired, my vision would double and it would stay that way for the rest of the day. I always tried to get an end seat so no one would block my view, but then I worried that someone would ask me to move over. When that happened, it was too hard to explain why I wanted the end seat, so I’d usually just slide over, secretly angry, knowing my vision would be ruined until the next morning.

I’d worn glasses with corrective prisms in them for years, but they weren’t strong enough anymore and three attempts to get a pair with more prism had been unsuccessful. The first two pairs weren’t strong enough and the third pair was a disaster. When I put them on, it seemed like I was watching a meteor shower—with bursts of light shooting across the lenses—I felt nauseated after wearing them for only a few seconds.

After being referred from one eye specialist to another, I finally ended up in the office of a surgeon who specializes in double vision, or diplopia. Before moving back to Philly, I’d never been told that I might be a candidate for eye surgery. Learning there was a procedure that could correct my vision was so exciting. But my doctor, who is cautious and considers surgery as a last resort, wanted me to live with glasses for a few more years until my vision could no longer be controlled with corrective lenses. She told me that if I had surgery and it didn’t go well, my vision could double permanently—and in a different way than I was used to. I respected her caution, but it seemed to me that if I was going to have the surgery eventually anyway, why wait? Why not get it over with and start enjoying better vision right away?

As I climbed the subway stairs and walked to the hospital, I rehearsed what I wanted to say to my doctor. I needed her to see that the double vision was taking too great a toll on my quality of life. I needed to convince her that the risks of surgery were worth the high likelihood that I’d have a good result. I wasn’t looking forward to having to plead my case, and the truth was: I was afraid of having the surgery. The thought of having my eye muscles altered was scary; the possibility of having to adjust to a different type of double vision was scary too.

But I just couldn’t live like this any longer.

These were the thoughts bouncing around in my head as I got into the elevator at the hospital and began the ride up to the 12th floor.

I was alone in the elevator until it made a stop at the eighth floor, where the doors opened to reveal a middle aged man, elegantly dressed in a tweed suit, accompanied by a golden retriever. The man’s eyes were closed and his hand held onto the dog’s harness. Led by the dog, the man entered. He positioned himself with his back against the wall and took hold of the hand rail; the dog sat at his feet.

As the doors closed, the man breathed in deeply, smiled contentedly and said, “Mmmm. It smells like toast in here.”  I instinctively sniffed the air and without a second thought said, “You’re right! It does smell like toast! It smells wonderful!”

I had been so preoccupied by fear that I’d ridden all the way to the eighth floor without noticing what was now impossible to ignore. And in an instant, the comforting scent of toasting bread took me back in time to my mother’s warm, cozy kitchen. I suddenly felt safe and loved and peaceful, and the worries about pleading my case to the surgeon melted away.

The peaceful feelings stayed with me as I continued the ride up to the 12th floor and into the reception area. As I waited for my appointment, I mentally replayed the scene that had just taken place, and I smiled at the irony of it. While it was true that my eyes were presenting me with two separate images, those images were crisp and clear. The contented man in the elevator had eyes that didn’t seem to be seeing anything at all.

So why had I been the one under all the stress?

When it was my turn to see the doctor, I was finally able to calmly explain the reasons I wanted to move forward with surgery. This time she understood how important it was to me and agreed to schedule the procedure. She explained that a muscle in my left eye would be shortened; if all went well, I’d be seeing single, merged images again immediately.  

Sure enough, three weeks later, I woke up after a twenty-minute surgery, opened my eyes and saw my doctor standing there—just one of her! 

Instantly: no more seeing double; no more glasses; no more eye worries.

My life improved more than I could have imagined.

And as for the smell of toast . . . well, it never fails to make me smile.

Photo by Tika Siburt

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