Monday, March 9, 2009

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I was a cute, if accident prone, kid. The year was 1974 and I was 13 months old. This photo was taken shortly following what was perhaps the most formative injury of my life -- the knife accident that caused blindness in my right eye. I was fortunate. The hunting knife that fell from the shelf of my father's gun rack was over a foot long. It could have killed me; at the least it could have sliced surrounding skin on my face and caused further scarring. But in characteristic fashion of large life events there is some sliver of bizarre luck lining the overall gruesomeness, tempering the stultifying reality of gross misfortune. This large knife fell from a couple of feet above me. The blade cut into my eyeball only, severing the cornea across my pupil and part of the iris. Somehow that was it. The hundreds of tiny stitches put things back together and although I could still sense light and some movement I would never again see with my right eye.

My tone is not meant to sound dramatic. The accident was simply something I lived with. It happened so early in life that I adapted. Some people don't see how when they perform a quick test -- cover one eye and try to walk a straight line or drive down the road. You can't accurately draw a comparison to losing an eye as an adult. I never fully developed stereoptic vision. I learned to compensate for a lack of peripheral vision on my right side. While 3-D movies do nothing for me, I can think of little else that I have been held back from doing. It never seemed like such a big deal, consciously anyway.

In the grand scheme that's true since it speaks to my reality. However, it does not take into account the impact on my family, specifically my Dad. He was there when it happened. Fresh from a hunting trip, he bumped the rack while hanging his rifle. He looked on in horror as the knife lay on the floor and I screamed and cried in shock. He drove us to the hospital and stood by as the medical personnel strapped me down in order to evaluate my injury and treat me. He was questioned by social services, asked to explain why I got into so many accidents requiring medical attention, the implication being that he was not a good father. I'm sure he questioned himself. He was not a bad father and he was certainly not abusive toward me. I just had some karma to burn and that was no fault of his.

My Dad and I did not part on the best of terms. He migrated from this life three years ago. The year prior we'd made up from a past quarrel that lasted several years of stubborn silence. We never resolved the dispute but agreed to put the separation behind us. It was awkwardly sincere and empty all at once. Despite the lack of resolution I'm thankful I had the chance to see him in the hospital. I read Psalms as well as Buddhist scripture to him. I squeezed his hand and told him I loved him because I did. I had a profound respect for the fact he was facing his own karma, encountering a pivotal moment of existence. I left Tennessee to return to work in Minnesota. He died a few weeks later at home, peacefully I'm told, while he slept.

After years of introspection and working with questions/issues I like to summarize my relationship with my father by saying we had a number of irreconcilable differences in ideology. It's a long story and I don't even understand all the parts of it. I have my accounts, my side of it. It's sad because he thought we were the best of friends, yet we weren't. He thought I should respect him simply because he was my father, but I wouldn't blindly pledge my allegiance based on blood. Perhaps he expected me to proudly pass on the Woodruff name, but I haven't. I wanted things he seemed unwilling to grant me -- honesty and openness; admission of guilt and hypocrisy; and concerted attempts at change.

One thing I never expected from my father was to bear the responsibility for my eye accident, but I fear he carried that weight every day. It's quite possible that was a larger obstacle in our relationship than I could have known at the time. In short, I believe I am being granted some inkling of wisdom into one of the most profound mysteries of life -- another side/sides of what we personally interpret as reality.

When I sustained my injury I was not much older than Willa:

I think about both our girls and the amount of concern I carry for their health and well being. As parents April and I are relatively laid back about the falls and crashes along with the resulting bruises and blood. But there have been those times when it's impossible not to imagine the worst (e.g. Willa shattering a full length closet mirror by pulling it away from the wall onto herself). Adrenaline races and the heart pumps in those moments.

I've felt that rush of fear enough times to have played the possible outcomes over in my mind. One of those is that we'd have to run to the hospital or call an ambulance. I hope we never have to do so and I'm not obsessed by the thought. But I feel I have personal history that compells me to remain aware of the possibility, to ask the question "How would it affect me?" The short answer is I believe I'd be devastated and I would feel responsible, or at least inadequate because I wasn't able to protect Sylvia or Willa from harm. Is that natural? Yes. Is it good? Not necessarily. It's complex though. If you are a parent and you're reading this you'll most likely understand.

I'm trying not to grasp too tightly. Discovering that old photo in a neglected file folder just made me begin to think. While I do not regret the stance I took with my father and I do not believe my views to have been unreasonable, I am remiss when I imagine his pain. If I could have had context, could even have known a fraction of the guilt he carried for my accident, I would have told him openly and honestly: It was not your fault; I don't hold you responsible.

You were a good father, Dad. I love you.


Snakebite said...

I wondered about the story behind your eye but didn't think it appropriate to bring it up.

Looks like I'll be up for Art Crank. Probably the H.C. ride Saturday morning.

April Fleck, NCTMB said...

Are you trying to make your sentimental wife teary eyed. I thought you were partying in Germany. No matter where we travel, we take ourselves with us.

Linden said...

Thank you John.

Andy said...


Thanks for sharing.

Auf Wiedersehen!

TOMMY GUN said...

stellar post, my friend.