I had been to seven or eight doctors before I found one who could tell me what was wrong with my eyes, which watered so heavily that tears often rolled down my cheeks.
This happened 12 years ago, when I was in my early 40s. My wife and I were still at odds at times back then, though we have since settled into a companionable contentment. True, it’s not everything I’d hoped for when I was younger. And I’m sure she feels the same, though we don’t talk about it. We get along, play mixed doubles in our club’s tennis league and watch shows together in the evening. I bring her a cup of coffee every day – she’s a late sleeper. And she massages my bad knee in the evening after we’ve played tennis, especially if we’ve won.
We know happier couples. The hot dads, neighbors who, like us have an adopted daughter. And Jerome and Janine, who play tennis but aren’t nearly as good as we are. Once, I found them making out in the basement of another friend’s house. It was at a potluck dinner for our children’s fifth-grade class. The host had sent me to fetch a few more bottles of wine. When I flicked on the light, there they were in the corner, her hand inside his shirt, his mouth brushing her ear.
I told my wife, but she didn’t believe me. She’d accused me of making it up. I assured her it was true. She shrugged and said contemptuously, “Like two teenagers in love.”
But this isn’t about a happy or unhappy marriage. This is about my eyes.
The first doctor I saw told me that my eyes were watery because they were dry. She said this as if she was offering up a Zen koan, expecting me to be awed. She gave me eye drops, and they seemed to work, though it was summer then, when my problem was less noticeable.
By winter, the problem was at least as bad as before. I took my daughter and a few of her friends ice skating. This was before they were old enough to drive and when buying them a round of hot chocolates was a treat. I’m not much of an ice skater, so I generally move slowly around the ice trying not to hang onto the outer rail but never straying far from it. Anyway, that day, I got a little too brave and ended up ass over teakettle. One of my daughter’s friends offered me help getting up, which I needed but refused. With great effort and several awkward falls, I managed to get myself upright. When she saw the tears on my cheeks, she asked if I’d hurt my ankle.
This kind of thing happened all the time – people asking me if I was hurt or upset – though it was just the watery eye problem.
After that incident, I went to a different doctor, who said the first doctor hadn’t prescribed the latest, most effective eyedrops. He could barely hide his disdain for the first doctor, whom he said he knew by reputation. “I get a lot of her patients,” he sniffed. Once again, the eyedrops seemed to help, at least a little. But at a follow-up visit, he said the eyedrops were causing increased pressure in my eyes; “With your family history” – my grandmother had had glaucoma – “we don’t want to take this lightly.” He prescribed a second set of eyedrops.
Dutifully, I used two sets of eyedrops, twice a day, one to solve the tearing problem and the other to solve the pressure problem created by the first prescription. A few weeks later, my wife and I were watching a silly romantic comedy, and though I was focused on a crossword puzzle rather than the show, she looked over at me and said, “You’re a softie.” I lifted my hand to my cheeks and wiped away the water. It happened so often that I barely noticed the tearing. It was futile to wipe them away. More would come within a few seconds, so I’d gotten into the habit of just leaving them on my face.
She said she believed me when I told her it was just the watery eye problem, but I thought she might be just humoring me. Later, when we kissed goodnight, she brushed my cheek and held the kiss longer than usual, as if I needed comforting. And so, I went to another doctor, who suggested surgery.
“This has never not worked for me,” he said, as he explained that he would put stents into my tear ducts, which would open up the passages that were clogged. This was something, he said, the previous doctors had failed to consider. Then he would remove the stents and my now wide-open ducts would prevent the tears from pooling in my eyelids and falling down my cheeks.
I had the surgery and for four days struggled with the feeling of having two splinters tucked under the skin of my face. Not only was I constantly aware of the foreign objects embedded under my lower eyelids, but I had to deal with even more tearing than before. He removed the stents, and the problem continued.
There were other doctors with other ideas. One suggested I might need surgery to address what she called floppy eyelid syndrome. She mentioned that the surgery might change the appearance of my face, make it more “exotic.” Later tests determined that it wasn’t floppy eyelid syndrome at all, but she had no answers.
Finally, I found Dr. Zetas. She was the first to take a sample of my tears. I don’t know why this hadn’t been done before. She tested my tears and told me they contained high levels of leucine enkephalin. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Is it cancer?”
“No,” she said. “They’re psychogenic tears.”
“Is that like psychosomatic?”
“Your tears are filled with the chemicals released when our tears are tears of sadness. You’re not tearing. You’re crying.” Although Dr. Zetas had found the cause, she didn’t have a solution.
I stopped seeing optometrists and started seeing a therapist, who couldn’t identify the source of my sadness and, in fact, could find no evidence that I was sad. “You seem fine,” he said after a few sessions; “Perhaps your optometrist is mistaken.”
The crying or tearing finally ended when I turned fifty. My wife had arranged for me to celebrate by telling jokes – doing a standup routine – in front of our friends. For years, I’d told her I wanted to try to be a comic, and I kept a journal of jokes, which I tried out on her. Sometimes, she laughed. We gathered at a Greek restaurant whose owner had gone to school with Janine and Jerome. The two hot dads were there, and others we’d known since the girls were in grade school. Two of my sisters flew in.
I had practiced for weeks, but truth be told, my jokes weren’t all that good. Everyone was kind, though, and Jerome repeated one of the jokes back to me, laughing as he did so. I was glad I’d done it, though I can’t say I felt any different afterward. Maybe a little more confident, proud to have given it a shot after talking about it for so long.
The next day, a Saturday, was blustery and cold – my birthday is in November – and I went for a run. When I got home, I got undressed to take a shower, and, when I emptied my pockets, I noticed the two tissues, carefully folded, that I always kept with me. They usually were soggy and worthless by noon, but I realized I hadn’t used them at all. I carried the same two tissues around for a week or so, tucking them in my pocket when I got dressed in the morning, just as I did my keys and wallet.
To this day, I don’t know whether the joke-telling ended the crying, or whether I was really crying at all. Maybe Dr. Zetas was as much of a quack as all the others. Maybe it was just dry eyes, after all, and the problem had resolved itself somehow. But whatever it was, it stopped. These days, I sometimes find myself crying – at funerals, at my daughter’s wedding, and yes, at the occasional romcom. But then the crying ends, and I move on.
John See is a researcher and writer. His poetry, nonfiction, and fiction works have appeared or are forthcoming in On the Run, Poetry Salzburg Review, Allium and other publications. His poem, Sun Salutation, appeared this year in The RavensPerch. John earned an MFA in creative writing from Western Michigan University.