Confessions of a DMV Vision Test Failure
At 74, Catherine Texier was forced to reckon with her cataracts, and her unexpected attachment to her eyewear.
Right before the start of the pandemic, my driver’s license came up for renewal, and for the first time, I failed the eye-test. I knew my distance vision wasn’t good, despite my glasses (how many times had I wandered in Brooklyn at night, iPhone in hand, Google Maps open, not being able to decipher the street names?) but that was a blow. Already I had a macular issue that had popped up in my sixties, which required getting injections in my left eye and eventually left a scar, shutting down some of my vision. But now, every time I had my eyes checked, cataracts were mentioned. Cataracts spelled old age to me, and I wasn’t ready to deal with them. The DMV agreed to renew my license, but only for daylight driving, on the condition I would retake the eye test every six months. If I wanted to keep my full driver’s license, I would have to submit to cataracts surgery.
At 74, I’ve been struggling with my vision for most of my life. I was 12 when I first found out I was near-sighted—a discovery that brutally marked the end of my childhood. From then on until forever, I would have to wear glasses every day to school, and everywhere thereafter. This new dictate was crushing. I was shy, and studying the classics, my nose always in a book; the glasses would mark me as a nerd and seal my fate.
My driver’s license came up for renewal, and for the first time, I failed the eye-test. I knew my distance vision wasn’t good, despite my glasses (how many times had I wandered in Brooklyn at night, iPhone in hand, Google Maps open, not being able to decipher the street names?) but that was a blow.
I was hardly the only one suffering from myopia in my family. My mother and uncle were near-sighted, and my grandfather wore round, tortoise-shell frames like those of James Joyce—they were the same generation and even looked a bit alike, with their little mustaches and their crew cuts and felt fedoras. But that was paltry consolation. My mother’s glasses, if she was going to a dinner party, sat idly by her place setting and remained there until she had to get up—say, to go to the ladies-room—and needed to see where she was going.
It was only when I started college, in the late ’60s, that I understood the sartorial potential of the round granny glasses, with their thin metal frames. The Beatles were wearing them, Janis Joplin was wearing them. They were the height of cool. Letting them slightly slide down the tip of my nose, I embraced the hippie look. By my thirties, I switched to tortoise-shell glasses. They added a touch of masculinity, a dash of bookishness. They contrasted interestingly with feminine features. They had become a signature. I felt I had overcome the trauma of my teens.
But now, as a septuagenarian, I couldn’t just get a new pair of glasses in an updated prescription and ace the DMV test. That would require something much more serious: eye surgery.
On the one hand I didn’t have a vehicle anymore. (I had sold my beloved second-hand red Saab when my younger daughter was in middle school). I live in Manhattan, where not only don’t you need wheels of your own, but parking (and re-parking) day after day in time with the alternate-side parking schedule is practically a job unto itself. If I leave New York, I fly to Paris or else some other major city in Europe, where I rely on subways, buses, taxis, or assorted bullet-trains to take me around. Who needs a car? Plus, they’re are bad for the environment.
The DMV agreed to renew my license, but only for daylight driving, on the condition I would retake the eye test every six months. If I wanted to keep my full driver’s license, I would have to submit to cataracts surgery.
On the other hand, my driver’s license was a symbol of my adulthood. I had gotten my French permis at 18, and, as a birthday present, my grandfather had gifted me a used Simca 1000, metallic grey, which we had gone to pick out together at a used-car lot all the way across Paris. I had driven it back home all by myself, following him through the tiny, jammed streets of the city, equally bursting with terror and pride. An old-school man, engineer, entrepreneur, Sunday painter, lover of French symbolist poetry and impressionistic painting, my grandfather—the same one who wore the James Joyce tortoise-shell glasses while smoking Gitanes Maïs and typing on an old Remington typewriter (which I keep as heirloom on a shelf in my apartment)—had come down hard on my mother’s rebelliousness when she was young. But when she got pregnant with me, unmarried, he offered to raise me, and as I grew up, I think he understood that women’s roles were changing. He supported my literary ambitions and my independence. That boxy Simca 1000 was the first token of it. I drove it all over Paris until I left to go to New York for a summer job and didn’t come back for three years.
We were a family steeped in car culture. I had seen pictures of my grandfather’s prized Facel Vega, and I remember him driving a black Citroën Traction Avant 11, then a 15, with the classic low-slung frame, high front metal muzzle, and the round spare tire sitting on top of the back trunk. My grandfather was a Citroën man—later switching to the aerodynamic DS 19, the most technologically advanced French car of the ‘50s and ’60s. My uncles would come and have lunch with us every Thursday, which was my day off from school, and park their cars in the circular driveway of the house. They upgraded their models every couple of years, but they were not as faithful to the French automobile industry as my grandfather. My mother adored her 2 CV, which she later upgraded to a van to travel all over Europe, then to a VW camping-car, which she once shipped overseas to visit America.
So, losing my driver’s license would mean losing my belonging to the tribe. I couldn’t bear closing that period of my life—which had opened when my grandfather had handed me the key to freedom and adulthood.
I still have my French driver’s license, which is for life. But the New York State license is another symbol of its own—I remember the struggle to parallel-park in some Brooklyn back street before nervously hitting the BQE with the inspector, my first time diving into the complicated network of New York highways—a symbol of my American independence, especially after my divorce, when I hit the roads with the Saab.
I was 12 when I first found out I was near-sighted—a discovery that brutally marked the end of my childhood. From then on until forever, I would have to wear glasses every day to school, and everywhere thereafter. This new dictate was crushing.
I took a new eye test and got another letter from the DMV giving me six more months until the next one. It was a reprieve, but it was also absurd. Why not do the cataracts surgery and get it over with? My mother did have her cataracts removed, in her seventies. It was during a summer in Provence, where she owned a house in a perched village. I had driven her to the doctor’s office, and I remember how surprised I was that after the surgery, she didn’t need glasses anymore. At the end of that summer, she promptly got back behind the wheel of her VW camping-car and headed to Finland, where she spent her winters in a log cabin by a lake.
It’s nothing, everyone said. Totally routine. A game changer! But I was terrified to lose my one good eye in case something went wrong with the surgery. And I was even more terrified to have the whole thing done during the pandemic.
I was buying time, working from home, cowering from the threat of the virus. I didn’t even want to go get my eyes checked until after I got my two vaccine shots and my booster. I asked the DMV for extended time, which they were kind enough to grant—to my surprise—and I put the whole thing out of my mind for another six months.
In November, 2021, more than a year-and-a-half into the pandemic, I received my third letter from the DMV demanding yet another eye test in order to keep my driver’s license, or else. (A footnote gently suggested that I could just get a non-driving license to use as an ID.) I caved in and Ubered my way to the eye center in Brooklyn. I love my ophthalmologist, who is also the cataracts surgeon. He’s warm, relaxed, upbeat, chill. He makes you feel like having your cataracts removed is the safest and coolest thing ever. He assured me that, even though surgery is never without a risk—you could develop an infection, and you could lose your vision—the risks were infinitesimal. He quoted some reassuring statistic, and he gave me a hug. That gesture sealed the deal for me.
It’s nothing, everyone said. Totally routine. A game changer! But I was terrified to lose my one good eye in case something went wrong with the surgery. And I was even more terrified to have cataracts surgery during the pandemic.
A car service sedan driven by a Russian guy picked me up at the crack of dawn and took me deep into Midwood, Brooklyn, a neighborhood I had never been to, and I found my way into a waiting room packed with people of all skin tones and languages—it was like a regular Tower of Babel, and since I am French, I fit right in. Most looked to be in their sixties or seventies, or older, some with walkers, all waiting to have their eyes operated on. I couldn’t pretend to be young, having wandered by mistake among a bunch of geriatric seniors! I was one of them! It was an adventure, and I was embarked on this ship with all these people. One-by-one, we each soon filed into a pre-op room where a few of us where being prepped by another multi-culti crew, Russian and Chinese anesthesiologists, Afro-American and Hispanic nurses, and Caribbean assistants.
As we were all being asked basic questions before getting the anesthesia IV (height, weight, etc…), I overheard my neighbor say he was more nervous than when he’d had open-heart surgery, adding that he smoked 10-12 cigarettes a day. I thought he might have had more reasons than me to be afraid. Then I had a quick look at my chart while the nurse fitted me with an IV for the sedative cocktail and saw the list of meds, which included fentanyl and Propofol. (Propofol? Wasn’t that the one that Michael Jackson used to inject every night to put himself to sleep, and that finally killed him?—and what about Fentanyl???) That was alarming, but at that point I had surrendered to the experience, and I was half knocked out by the time I was wheeled into the ER.
A month later, my second eye—the good one—was done, and that was the scariest moment. I had to rely for 24 hours on my bad eye, and, since I can’t read or work at the computer using it alone, I spent the afternoon listening to podcasts.
To my utter amazement, at the next morning’s check-up, I could see far and even close, if I held my iPhone at arm’s length. My surgeon was even more excited than I was with the results: 20/20!
Back home, it was a shock to see myself so sharply in the mirror without glasses. The crow’s feet around the eyes, the bags underneath, the network of fine lines, the oval of the jaw softening. Without the forgiving blur of myopia, or the safe harbor of my glasses, which hide all of that aging stuff and provide an interesting architectural focus to the face, I could barely recognize myself.
“But I thought you said I would need weak glasses,” I ventured. I had told him I loved my glasses.
He smiled wryly. “I like to under promise,” he said, while filling out the latest form from the DMV I had brought with me.
He added that most people were happy to get rid of their glasses—the way someone who can walk again after a hip surgery, I imagined, must be thrilled to throw away their crutches—but that wasn’t me.
I insisted, “What about glasses with blue-light filter for the computer?”
“The American Academy of Ophthalmology says they don’t make any difference,” he countered.
Back home, it was a shock to see myself so sharply in the mirror without glasses. The crow’s feet around the eyes, the bags underneath, the network of fine lines, the oval of the jaw softening. Without the forgiving blur of myopia, or the safe harbor of my glasses, which hide all of that aging stuff and provide an interesting architectural focus to the face, I could barely recognize myself. I also have a theory that eyes that are used to hiding behind glasses look kind of haggard, with a startled expression, when they are suddenly deprived of their crutch. I have seen that look on people who’ve had recent LASIK surgery. The eyes look like vulnerable new-born chicks that need to relearn how to interact on their own with the world.
That’s what mine looked like.
Decades after having first learned I had to wear the dreaed eyeglasses, I didn’t need them anymore.
And I couldn’t stand it.
There’s a reason some of my role models (entrepreneur Linda Rodin, designer Norma Kamali, Diane Keaton, Joan Didion) so often pose with sunnies, or slightly tinted glasses. Better than Botox, better than injectables, the right pair of glasses manages to achieve that miracle: they make you look simultaneously younger and timeless. Glamorous, literary, cool as hell. If only 12-year-old me had known that!
Joan Didion, for her part, already knew it at an even younger age. In a 2011 essay for Vogue entitled “In Sable and Dark Glasses,” she wrote how, at the age of 6, she imagined herself as a young woman:
Decades after having first learned I had to wear the dreaded eyeglasses, I didn’t need them anymore. And I couldn’t stand it…The right pair of glasses manages to make you look simultaneously younger and timeless. Glamorous, literary, cool as hell. If only 12-year-old me had known that!
“…Standing on the steps of a public building somewhere in South America… wearing dark glasses and avoiding paparazzi… getting a divorce… I would let other six-year-olds (Brenda, say) imagine their wedding days, their princess dresses, their Juliet caps and seed pearls and clouds of white tulle: I had moved briskly on to the day of my (Buenos Aires) divorce, and the black silk mantilla the occasion would clearly require.”
When the French brand Celine chose Didion as their poster girl for its 2015 sunglasses advertising campaign, in a photo that has now become iconic, it was, no doubt, inspired by her essay.
As for me, ignoring the skepticism of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, I took one of my favorite frames to the optometrist’s and had them fitted with clear lenses with blue-light filter. A few days later, to protect my new eyes from the slanted winter sun, I hurried to the Ray-Bans store in Soho to treat myself to a pair of tortoise-shell Wayfarers that I had been coveting for years (the style worn by Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, J.F.K and Andy Warhol). Since I didn’t need prescription lenses anymore, I could wear whatever sunglasses I fancied.
Meanwhile, my new driver’s license came in the mail—good for eight years. No restriction.