Frank Bruni’s Memoir Offers a Playbook on Finding Silver Linings: “I went to bed seeing the world one way. I woke up seeing it another.”

From a Washington Post story by Steven Petrow headlined “Frank Bruni’s memoir offers a playbook on finding silver linings”:

One morning in the fall of 2017, Frank Bruni woke up unable to see out of his right eye. During the night, the journalist, then 52, had suffered a rare kind of stroke that ravaged one of his optic nerves and left him with a thick fog across the right side of his vision. A few days later, a neuro-ophthalmologist warned him, “You know that this could happen in your other eye.” Bruni asked what that risk might be. “About a forty percent chance,” came the answer.

Bruni’s diagnosis was less a line in the sand than a fork in the road, reminding him that he, like most of us, has the agency to choose his path. Do we give into our “sadness and scaredness,” or take “deliberate, concrete steps to move beyond them?” he asks in his memoir, “The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found.”

Throughout the book, Bruni not only tells us his story but introduces a number of people who have come to that fork, including his mother, who challenged “doomsaying, defeatism and dark moods” after being diagnosed with uterine cancer and went on to confound her doctors and model a positive way of living to her son.

Bruni recalls how his attitude was as important as his treatment options. “My world blurred, but it also sharpened,” he writes. “I held my breath; I exhaled. I said hello to new worries; I said goodbye to old ones. A clever friend of mine summed up my status wittily and well: ‘When one eye closes another opens.’ ”

A half-full glass kind of guy, Bruni tells us his story isn’t about making lemons out of lemonade or how the night is darkest before the dawn. “It’s about dusk. It’s about those first real inklings that the day isn’t forever and that light inexorably fades.”

On that fateful night, he adds, “I went to bed seeing the world one way. I woke up seeing it another.”

Bruni’s book reminded me that it’s perspective that determines how we see the world. Halfway through the book I picked up my iPhone to review some of the many photos I’ve taken of sunrises and sunsets. The dawns are literal and metaphoric new days, but I found the sunsets, although equally beautiful, to be tinged with a certain sadness. Bruni, in explaining the brain’s neuroplasticity — “it reorganizes and reinvigorates itself over a much greater span of human life, and to a much greater degree, than was long assumed” — we are reminded that the capacity for change remains with us throughout our lives. Each sunset, be it from illness or aging, is a new opportunity.

In his interview with former Nebraska senator and Vietnam veteran Bob Kerrey (who had his right foot and ankle amputated after a grenade attack), Bruni helps us see how hardship might allow for a deeper understanding than a life “untouched by significant turmoil.” His musings took me back to my mid-20s, when I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Before then I’d been a self-assured jerk, a know-it-all who’d never faced any real adversity. After three surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy, at age 26 I had to learn to rely on others, to accept dependency, mortality and vulnerability. Those were gifts it took me decades to appreciate.

Bruni describes vulnerability as both “a portal and a bridge,” as he introduces us to Juan Jose, a Mexican diplomat diagnosed in his teens with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disorder that can cause a slow descent into blindness. Instead of bemoaning his fate, Juan Jose describes how he changed as a person. “I became patient,” he says, adding, “In all my defects, patience is one of the good things. Because you have to become patient. And you have to become resilient.” The moral of the story, according to Bruni, is that while we can’t control what happens to us, “we have the final say over how we regard and react to them.” To that point, Juan Jose can’t cure his blindness “but he can shape his story.”

We all have our stories, and so many of them are invisible. To look at Bruni’s author photo…you’d never know that he’s largely blind in his right eye….To this point, that much of our suffering is not readily apparent, Bruni introduces his “sandwich-board theory” of life.

“Imagine that our hardships, our hurdles, our demons, our pain were spelled out for everyone to see,” he writes. “Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board that itemized them.” Bruni says his would be, “Eyesight compromised, could go blind.” We all need to understand how little we may see of the suffering of those we care about — not to mention those we only meet in passing. This is why one of the most popular and recurring social media memes is, “Be kind to others. You never know what someone is going through.” Indeed.

My favorite chapter in this book is the one about Bruni’s dog. Regan is an Instagram celebrity who regularly teaches Bruni — the old dog in this instance — new tricks. Among them: “Putting off experiences often means never having them.” And on occasion, Bruni reports, just before leaping into the air Regan catches his eye as if to say, “Look at me. Look at what I can do.” He marvels at her aerial feats, but that’s not the point. Her simple joy is infectious, with the power to ease whatever is troubling her human companion.

You don’t need a dog for this (although it helps). Bruni says what you need is “attention, openness, and humility … the recognition that something ordinary could be extraordinary. Without therapy or thought, Regan reveled in being alive. That helped me do the same.”…

I hope that his readers can discover through this memoir the inner strength to face their inevitable challenges, a renewed understanding of what others would say on their invisible sandwich boards, and a deeper well of compassion and kindness.

Steven Petrow is a journalist and author whose most recent book is “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old.”

Also see the New York Times review by Min Jin Lee headlined “Eyesight Compromised. Could Go Blind.” The opening grafs:

One October morning in 2017, the writer Frank Bruni woke up unable to see clearly. During the night, he had suffered a stroke, and the drop in blood pressure damaged an optic nerve, resulting in blindness in his right eye. After a series of doctors’ visits, Bruni learned that he had non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy, known by its acronym, NAION. While undergoing an experimental drug trial involving many needles, Bruni discovered that his partner, Tom, was unfaithful. Then Bruni’s father, the pillar in his life, developed dementia. Life keeps knocking.

What happened next and how Bruni managed would have made for a valuable story; however, what makes “The Beauty of Dusk” far more remarkable than one man’s triumph over life’s cruelties is how Bruni persevered through the difficulties: by seeking the counsel of others who had suffered physical losses. This isn’t the sad story of a man who lost his sight; it is the generous narrative of a student who sought wisdom when trials appeared in his life.

Bruni’s biography is relevant here. A lifelong journalist, he has served as a White House correspondent, Rome bureau chief, restaurant critic and Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times. Early in his career, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has written one book on President George W. Bush and another on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — demonstrating his knowledge of institutions of power. A memoir, “Born Round,” dealt with body image, eating disorders, mental health, sexual identity, being a restaurant critic and the loss of his mother to uterine cancer. And he published a compendium of 49 meatloaf recipes with his fellow Times journalist Jennifer Steinhauer.

He has covered wars, child abuse, elections and the advantage of tortilla chips as a preferred binder for meatloaf. The scope and range of his writings remind me of what M.F.K. Fisher would reply when asked why she wrote about food and drink. She would say she was writing not about food but rather about hunger, and “when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it.” Bruni’s prodigious output inspires awe, and as with anyone who does that much work so faithfully and so well, it raises the questions: What do you do when your body says you are no longer in control? What will you do with your vast hunger for life?

Early on, a doctor tells Bruni that there is a 40 percent chance he could lose sight in his working left eye, and he thinks, “These bodies of ours are time bombs, but each detonates in a different way.” The possibility of greater impairment and limitations becomes so troubling, Bruni turns to what he knows how to do well: He begins to interview people who have faced down physical decline with hard stares and wise hearts. The volume curates an extraordinary collection of miniature profiles in courage and perseverance — a college friend with Parkinson’s, a blind Rhodes scholar turned lieutenant governor and many more. As Bruni walks alongside those who have heard the unwanted news, suffered the terrifying and somehow found intimacy, purpose and joy, he metabolizes his own loss into a muscular wisdom.

Like his mother, Leslie Jane Frier Bruni, who tended to her family despite a devastating cancer, Bruni is indefatigable in his search for greater knowledge and acceptance of the random insults to his body. He refuses to back down from life’s demands and joys: He figures out how to fly on planes even though this could damage his left eye; he keeps his deadlines and public engagements; he cares for his declining father. Unwilling to give up any more of life, he returns alone to his beloved Italy, a place he had traveled with Tom, and when he tires of coming home to an empty apartment, he wheedles a rescue dog from his brother and sister-in-law and finds love again in Regan. He pushes past countless closing doors. In jest, he calls himself Cyclops, the one-eyed, man-eating giant described by the poet Homer. But as time passes, Bruni develops another way to see, bringing to mind what Mrs. Johnson thinks of Mr. Armitage in V.S. Pritchett’s perfect story “Blind Love”: “He had made her forget that blindness meant not seeing.” Bruni persuades us to adapt out of loss….

Speak Your Mind