On my 21st birthday, as I was attempting to renew my driver’s license, I found out that I was going blind.
After botching the eye exam, I went to an optometrist for what I presumed would be a typical prescription for glasses. As it turned out, my eyes were on their way to being about as useless as my expired license.
To make a long explanation short, I was diagnosed with a degenerative cornea disorder called keratoconus, which warped my vision. After further tests, I was told that there was no way of knowing how fast my eyesight would deteriorate or how bad it would get — only that it would get worse.
It was one hell of a birthday gift.
My vision in my left eye plummeted fast while the right eased into blurriness more gradually. At first, that just meant a bit of difficulty reading without my new glasses. However, within a year, it would become dangerous for me to drive at night.
I was working as a pizza delivery driver at the time, so it seemed increasingly likely that I would eventually harm myself or others while hauling someone’s extra-large meat-lover’s supreme.
The main issue for me was always color and light distortion. Because of the bulge in my cornea, every single light source was refracted into a dozen or so separate light points, and each of these light points was surrounded by a washed-out halo.
So imagine what it was like to drive at night around Christmas time with zillions of multicolored lights everywhere. And, as I was living in rainy Washington State, the rain on my windshield further distorted the lights, making matters even worse.
By the time I eventually got rid of my car at the age of 24, driving had become like moving through a formless melting plasma of light and color. There were times when I literally had no idea what was in front of me, and I only made it where I was going by pure luck.
The sole solution to my condition involved getting a cornea transplant for the worse of the two eyes — an expensive procedure that was far beyond my means. Over a decade would pass before I would finally have medical insurance to cover it (thanks Obama — truly).
By that time, my vision was terrible, I had a dramatic lazy eye, and I often wore an eye patch over the other. Just call me Nick Fury. People did.
My surgery was relatively fast and entirely painless, though I did wake up near the end to watch them stitch my new cornea into place.
I was told that I could remove my bandages the next day, but when I did, I found that I was so sensitive to light that I could barely open my eyes. So for 3 days, I restlessly paced my apartment in almost total darkness, listening to one audiobook after another.
Once the pain and sensitivity subsided and I could open the eye well enough to take a proper look around, I immediately noticed that the sea of color and light that had obscured my vision for nearly a decade was gone. I still had a ways to go before everything was completely corrected, but this was a tear-jerkingly positive start.
Over the coming months my vision steadily grew sharper, and after a few progress checkups, I was given the OK to resume normal activities (more or less).
While the day to day differences were immediately noticeable, it wasn’t until I traveled to Spain a few months later that the profundity of the change really hit me.
I was at the Prado in Madrid attending a special exhibition of Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. The first room of the exhibit was mostly rough sketches, so I wasn’t initially struck by anything unusual. Then I walked into the next hall.
While I had seen many of the Picassos hanging there before, my immediate realization was that I had, in fact, never really seen them. The Forced Embrace, The Frugal Meal, Woman from Majorca, The Serenade, and so on — never before had I looked at a painting and seen so much.
The clarity, the depth of field, the colors — all in their intended places, rather than washed together in a chaotic mess. Was this what everyone else had been seeing all along?
I moved through the remainder of the exhibition in a daze. Everyone else seemed to be experiencing emotions ranging from mild boredom to tepid interest, but from moment to moment, I wasn’t sure if I’d burst out laughing or crying.
Outside, behind the museum it was pure autumn — multicolored leaves cast in soft light — and once again I was struck with the sense that I was seeing it for the very first time.
Did you know that the crown of a tree consists of hundreds of separate leaves? I didn’t. Or at least I’d forgotten that it was possible to see them as anything more than one large smudge.
We take too many things for granted — our eyesight, the clarity of a painting, the leaves of a tree — forgetting how fragile it all really is. There are times when we can regain what we’ve lost, but those are a precious few. The best we can hope for is to make do in our reality with our best.
I’ve learned to not only appreciate what I have while I have it but to celebrate it to the fullest.
That means enjoying all the paintings and sunsets I can get my eyes on.
Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, Thrillist, Vice, and more. You can follow his travels and connect with him via Instagram or Twitter.