In the spring of 1980 I watched my father administer ear drops into his own eye, and I did nothing to stop him. Call it a sixth sense, or the hope that my father’s inability to let someone else be ill without stealing the show would finally teach him a lesson, but I knew from the moment he walked into our kitchen what he was going to do. And I let it happen.
My father was a medical chameleon. He would take on, or top, the symptoms of anyone nearby who was legitimately ailing. If he was near someone who had a cold, he had the flu. If he met someone who had arthritis, he cried out in pain as he shook their hand. He would limp, slump, wince, or wail his way through any crowd if he thought it would gain him sympathy points.
While my father collected infirmities like stamps, it was rare that my mother ever acknowledged anyone as truly sick, especially her children. Usually only excessive bleeding or unconsciousness warranted a trip to the doctor. If you were simply doubled over in pain, or vomiting profusely, she would give you some old, expired medicine that had been prescribed long ago, most likely for some other member of our large family.
This collection of poorly marked, dangerously outdated prescription medication was kept in our kitchen, on the first shelf of the cabinet that held our everyday dishware. Most of the bottles were dark and small, with unintelligible labels that were badly stained by the very medicine they served to contain.
To further complicate matters, my mother was legally blind due to a genetic disorder that claimed most of her vision by the time she was fifty. Many times I stood hacking, or wheezing, or shivering in the kitchen, while my mother held medicine bottle after medicine bottle centimeters from her eyes saying, “No, not this one.” Finally, she would either tire from the routine figuring the medicine was so old what difference would it make, or she would actually stumble across the right one.
On this particular morning, I awoke with a severe earache that called for a visit to Ann Roney, Blind Amateur Pharmacist. By sheer luck she was able to locate an actual bottle of ear drops that were clearly marked and fairly new.
After she administered the medication, I sat down to eat my cereal at the opposite end of the table from my next oldest sister. Neither of us were big morning talkers, so we ate in amicable silence.
Until my father moseyed in.
He was awful in the morning; cheerful, talkative, interactive. All the things I was not. Most school mornings in our house were a toxic mix of grumpy teenagers and a meddlesome parent.
Instinctively, I hunched over my cereal, shooting my sister a quick eye roll when I noticed something off to my right. It was the bottle of ear drops sitting on the counter where my mother had left them.
My father pulled up right next to them and very deliberately removed his glasses – an early and clear indication that he thought those ear drops were eye drops.
I drew a quick breath, contemplating a warning. But, then, a pause.
Sometime between the moment my father crossed the threshold of our kitchen and the moment his stare fell on that brown bottle with the black squeeze-dropper top, he had self-diagnosed an eye problem. It was as if he had walked into the kitchen, seen the medicine bottle, and thought ‘Oh, yeah, my eyes hurt.’
This bothered me. There was nothing wrong with my father’s eyes. And why assume a bottle of medicine goes in your eyes and not your ears? Or your nose? Or on a flesh wound?
Maybe he needs to learn a lesson, a voice whispered from deep within. We both know there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s as healthy as a horse.
My father took a tissue from a box on the counter and crumpled it softly under his left eye, preparing to catch the teary run-off. Little did any of us know how saturated that tissue would soon become as he cried tears of genuine, raw agony.
I looked across the table at my sister. She stared back at me with wide-eyed wonder. Her look said ‘you’re not going to let this happen, are you?’ I shot back a look of my own that warned ‘Keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you!’
The voice inside returned with a calming message. Let it play out. We all want to see what happens when your father puts ear medicine in his own eye. Sit back and enjoy.
And that’s exactly what I did.
As soon as that first drop touched my father’s cornea he knew he’d made an awful, awful mistake.
“Oh, Jesus Christ!” he shouted. “What the hell’d I put in my eye?!”
In the back of the kitchen, my mother, who’d been standing over the sink with her back to all of this, reacted in the only way she knew how. She started screaming.
My father took a quick break from his cries of pain to look at the bottle. For the first time, it should be noted.
“Ear drops?!” he yelled incredulously. “Holy shit! What the hell are these ear drops doing on the counter?!”
I attempted to stand and lend a hand, but waves of uncontrollable laughter erupted from nowhere. I fell to a knee as I struggled to breathe.
Tears of pain streamed down my father’s face while my mother attempted to console him.
“Take it easy, Jack.” she kept saying. “What did you do?”
“Somebody left these Goddamn ear drops on the counter and I thought they were my eye drops,” he answered. “Now I’m gonna go blind!”
With one arm around my father and another angrily waving at me to stop laughing, my mother walked him over to the kitchen sink to flush his eye with cool water.
My sister couldn’t believe what had happened. She stared with concern at my wailing father. But when she looked down at me, rolling on the ground with breathless laughter, she, too, gave in to the hilarity of the event.
Soon we were both wiping tears from our own, healthy eyes.
Exactly when my father regained his vision is unclear. Most likely it was as soon as he opened his eye. Just in case, he wore a homemade eye patch of gauze and medical tape for the next 3 days.
Am I ashamed that I neglected to stop my father from administering ear drops into his own eye? Not really. I like to think I helped teach him a valuable lesson.
Always read labels.