The First Symptom

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It was a two day train trip from Sudbury to Fort William. I remember the gentle sway of the carriage and the clickity clack of the wheels.  Most of all I recall sitting aloft seemingly perched on top of the train in the glassed double-decker observation car. I spent most of the trip in my “nest” watching the countryside unfold before me on my adventure northwest. Even then I knew that one day I would ride this train again – at least for nostalgia’s sake.

We arrived at the Syndicate Avenue train station in Fort William on a mid-April evening. George, a man who would be Dad’s colleague for the next 26 years, met us. He brought us to a cozy, small motel called The Uptown. It wasn’t far from the station and just down the street from McKellar Hospital. We stayed there for a few nights. Then we moved to a motel on the Kingsway for a week. We finally rented a house for two years on Dorothy Street in the hilly Port Arthur side of Thunder Bay. The house was within walking distance to St. Bernard’s School where Catharine and I attended grade school.

We went for many family walks around Centennial and Chippewa Parks, visit friends and play board games like Michigan rummy. Mom and Dad made learning arithmetic fun by playing Cribbage. 15-2, 15-4, 15-6 and a pair is 8.

One family ritual I looked forward to each week was Sunday morning breakfast. After church Dad cooked bacon and eggs while Catharine and I set the dining room table with the good china and silverware. Then we ate our meal with fresh Irish soda bread that Mom had baked on Saturday. We only ate at the dining room table on special occasions. Eating Sunday breakfast in the dining room made this a special event I enjoyed immensely.

One Saturday afternoon in July, 1966, a year after moving to Thunder Bay, when I was seven, Mom noticed I was closing my left eye to catch a ball. She asked me why.

“So I just see one,” I replied.

She examined at me closely and saw my left eye had turned in slightly which gave me double vision. I adapted by closing my left eye so I would see only one image. My friends thought it was really cool that I had double vision. Some of them asked, “How come you can see two of everything?” They could only see one.

That August my parents took me to see an eye surgeon in Thunder Bay. During the month since Mom noticed my left eye had turned in to when I saw the eye surgeon, both eyes had turned in making me cross-eyed. The eye surgeon concluded that the problem had little to do with my vision. He said my eyes turned in because the outer lateral eye muscles were paralyzed. He suspected a brain tumour and referred me to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto for confirmation.

Mom and Dad were deeply troubled by this diagnosis. They downplayed the seriousness of it to me. My parents enthusiastically told me the eye surgeon wanted me to see a doctor in Toronto. They knew I liked to go places so they pretended to be excited that we were going on a trip. I was excited too.

My parents brought me to Sick Kids in Toronto in September, 1966, where received many pokes and prods from doctors. The one test I remember was the air and dye studies. The doctors put me under a general anaesthetic. Then they injected air and dye into my spinal column and moved my head around while they made their observations. During the procedure I stopped breathing and they had to resuscitate me. This meant they were unable to complete the test which left the results inconclusive. Even with incomplete results the doctors concluded that they could find no evidence of a brain tumour and could offer no explanation as to why I was cross-eyed. When I woke up my head was like a helium balloon bobbing up and down tethered to a string. I felt totally disconnected for a week.

In May of 1967, we moved into a new house that Mom and Dad built on Whalen Street. I turned eight in June. In July we vacationed in Montreal with Grandma, Dad’s mother, who came from England to visit. After we spendt a great time at Expo ’67 in Montreal, during a stopover in Toronto on the way home, my parents dropped a bomb shell. Mom and I would be staying behind while I had eye surgery to correct my double vision. I was upset they hadn’t told me sooner. Mom and Dad didn’t want the thought of the surgery to spoil my trip.

The next day I was admitted to Sick Kids and had eye surgery the day after. The eye surgeon shortened the muscles to pull my eyes straight. I have not been able to move my eyes from side to side since. I spent three more nights in hospital, two nights with Mom at a hotel in Toronto and then we flew back to Thunder Bay. I was home, seeing only one image again and I was glad it was over. I was back to my regular self playing like all the other kids. For the next three years I had no health problems.

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