Traveling with my husband Seeing Eye

The appearance of a cataract led me to experience our trip to Germany unexpectedly

If you can read this, you’re doing better than me in December 2019. Just in time for a long-planned trip to the Christmas markets in Germany, my right eye dropped.


Like many Americans whose eyes don’t age well, I was dealing with synchronized surgeries to repair damage from a retina that had decided to peel off, potentially taking my eyesight with it. I was determined to pursue our travel plans and ended up learning a new way of seeing the world.

Nuremberg, Germany seen through the antique glass of one of its 18th century buildings. According to the author, this photo probably best illustrates his experience | Credit: Joanne Cleaver

After discovering in June 2019 that I had whiteheads, I undertook a series of operations in July that would repair my eye and restore my vision (if all goes well). After the vitrectomy, I had to lie down for a month, and after another month I could probably go back to normal life, including flying.

People over 40 who go through this procedure are almost guaranteed to develop cataracts.

But after the scariest part – patching my retina inside my eye, like a piece of rubber stuck to an old bicycle tire – I could expect, according to my doctors, a cataract to develop. , sooner or later. It may be able, with its gray ashes, to blur my vision in a few months. Or years. Or maybe not at all.

That’s the typical process, said Dr. Jonathan Russell, assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. About half of his practice involves repairing retinas (but not mine).

The inevitable cataract

I did well to drop everything in July to have the operation. “It’s a very serious problem and you shouldn’t worry about your job, your children, your activities…everything is secondary until you fix this problem. If you don’t, you will go blind “, he told me.

People over 40 who have this procedure are almost guaranteed to also develop cataracts, just like me, confirmed Russell. The cycle of losing sight due to retinal detachment, then recovering through surgery, only to see it fade again with the inevitable cataract, makes it difficult for patients to know how to adapt accordingly.

But I didn’t want to adapt, if it meant canceling our trip. I was lucky to be well past the worst—the repair of the detachment—and to be cleared to fly. I thought I’d take my chances that the cataract would hang around long enough for my husband, Mark, and I to have our trip before the window of my vision started to close again.

But of course, right after Halloween, an uneven haze started creeping in around the perimeter of my vision.

Each day in November, my anticipation grew as my eyesight eroded. As Russell claimed, it was not dangerous. I still had a good eye. I could adapt.

But I wanted to see everything. Ours was a vacation itinerary, but I would have felt the same no matter when or where we went. Our must-sees included the markets that went through Munster like candy in a long, winding stocking, then going to Stuttgart for the city lights, then to the great Santa of all, Nuremberg, the oldest and oldest Christmas market in the world, sprawling from its medieval square to the town squares.

The cataract operation could not arrive in time to continue.

So I would be traveling with an eye and a half, and Mark would have to help me navigate the cobbles, the language barrier and our busy itinerary.

Another way to pack for the trip

I had to rethink everything about the trip: what I was wearing, how I would see, how I would count on Mark.

Grapes on a bush in front of colorful buildings.  Next Avenue, visually impaired travel
Mistletoe for sale in the streets of Esslingen, Germany | Credit: Joanne Cleaver

I decided to bring only one pair of shoes – short, soft-soled boots that would let me feel the edges of curbs, door jambs, and uneven sidewalks. I packed bright pink gloves so I could easily see my hands if I needed to hold them to push my way through a door. I poured toiletries into color-coded purple and green plastic bottles so I didn’t have to read impossibly tiny print on travel-sized containers.

And I left my pride at home. I had to rely on my husband’s arm, his sharp directives, his patience, to get from one point to another, in complete safety and even with an ounce of dignity.

Each season evokes its own senses beyond sight. If we had gone in the summer, I would have oriented myself towards the flowers, the pines, the warm breezes from the canals.

In winter, the sharp contrasts of hot and cold helped me sense the end of one stall and the start of the next as we walked through the aisles of wooden shacks with red and white awnings, brass ornaments clinking at the gingerbread cookies twirling in the breeze, to spiced wine bratwurst. It was almost easier to see at night, by the strings of lights and beams from the restaurants, which cut through the darkness.

We were never faster, as we had to read the scrolling electronic train signs in a language we didn’t know, scrolling by at a pace we couldn’t keep up, at a size we could barely decipher. (Next time we will use the Eurail train app, which became available in the summer of 2020, long after we left.)

Have I seen Germany? Not as much as felt, and who’s to say that using all my senses didn’t make the experience richer?

An unexpected precious memory

Have I seen Germany? Not so much seeing as feeling, and who’s to say that using all my senses didn’t make the experience richer? One of our fondest memories is discovering my husband’s lost family recipe for a honey, nut and rum cookie.

Tired of the bustling crowds in Nuremberg, we followed our noses down a side street to a neighborhood bakery. There, in a glass display case, innocently lay the ice cream bars he had been trying to find since his grandmother died in the late 1980s. I didn’t need to see him smile as he bit into the cookie. I heard him sigh, even as I tasted the cookie for the first time that brought him back to his five-year-old self.

At some point in the near future, my left eye will collapse during an encore performance. Whether the good doctors at the Duke University Eye Clinic can catch it in time remains to be seen. (Sorry.) I’ll take care of the repair and recovery. I could retain all of my vision, or part of it, but now I know the world is still there, waiting to be explored, waiting to be enjoyed, with all the ways I can see it.

Joanne Cleaver