Eye Exam, Part 1 – The Name

GC leaned his head back in his easy chair (“the big chair”). He pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes.

Me: “What?”

GC: “I can’t see.”

Me: “Your hand is in the way. And maybe your eyelids.”

He sat up, methodically unfolded his glasses, slid them onto his face, brushing his fingers along the side piece over each ear. Perfectly right.

GC: “When I put my glasses on correctly and look at the TV, I can’t see it.”

Me: “It’s just Jim Cramer yelling at you about which stocks you didn’t buy.”

GC: “So in order to see, I have to slide my glasses way down my nose and then it hurts and I can’t breathe.”

Me: “Breathing is one of the top 3 or 4 things you need to do today.”

So I call Pearle Vision. I tell them I have a fragile patient in a wheelchair who cannot sit in the waiting room for any length of time, lest there be a scene. And a headline. I talk to a Katherine on the phone.

Katherine at Pearle: “Well, listen, honey. You bring your daddy in when the doctor is on lunch break. We’re less busy then.”

Me: “What time does the doctor go to lunch?”

Katherine at Pearle: “From 2:30 to 4:00.”

Me: “What is he, a banker??” (Okay, not out loud.)  

I wrap up my father in his coat, hat, and gloves, and lift him up into my car. He only weighs 17 pounds, so this is doable for me, although it’s scary for him.

GC: “Momentum,” he reminds me, “is a bitch.”

Me: “I know, GC. I will not let you fall. I have a nearly 100% record of not dropping important people.”

GC mutters: “Nearly.”

Me: “Important.”

We pull up to the strip mall, I jump out the driver’s side, and lift the transport chair out of the hatch of my SUV. It weighs more than my father. I unfold it beside the passenger door. I unbuckle his seat belt and yell at him.

Me: “Don’t you dare fall, old man. Your wife will fire me.”

I wheel him up the sidewalk, his bent, capped head slicing a chill swath under the awnings of Ulta Beauty and Famous Footwear. I open the heavy, non-automated door at Pearle, hold it open against the freeze with my not-famous foot, whisper “Bump” to my patient, and gadump him inside the eye place.

Katherine at Pearle finally notices us, which is understandable since we’re so quiet.

Katherine: “You must be Mister Way!” She fawns. She is lovely.

Me: “Waugh. It’s pronounced ‘Waugh.’ Rhymes with ‘law,’ spelled like ‘laugh.’”

Katherine: “Mister Waugh! I am so delighted you could make it in today.” She is laying it on thick, and I am grateful. Her perfume is a welcome distraction. She turns her kindness towards me. “And you are?”

Me: “Erin. Erin Waugh. His daughter, care-giver, and comic relief.”

Katherine turns the full force of her makeup and red sweater on my dad: “And your first name is Bernard?”

Me: “Gernard. His first name is Gernard.”

Katherine squints just a little, not wanting to break character. But almost nobody can keep a straight face.

Me: “Yeah, I don’t know either.”

My father’s last name is WAUGH. Not special, but not terrible. A solid Irish/Welsh name, one syllable. Rhymes with ‘law,’ spelled like ‘laugh.’ Despite its near absence of consonant punch, it does not clutter up a conversation with any sense of needing to be examined. More complicated to spell than to say. It is only difficult to pronounce when drunk. (So I’ve heard.) “Waugh” packs no poetic thump, but neither does it belabor its room-temperature sense of importance. “Gernard” on the other hand… Yeah, I don’t know either.

His middle name is CARSON. A solid northern European name, it was the surname of my grandmother. His mother’s last name was Carson. Common but proud consonants, the sibilant fricatives bitten off by the teeth of Irish farmers and spit into the soil to grow even prouder potatoes.

But GERNARD… It’s pronounced “Gurr-nerd.” “Gurr” like a growling bear (which he never is), and “nerd” like a geek (which he always is). The name is not difficult to say, it’s just difficult to read off paper. It also lands on the ear like an attack. Or a joke. What I see on people’s faces when he introduces himself is “What? Your mother named you GERNARD?”

She did. My father was born in 1936, when a “ladies swimming costume” cost $6.95. That same year, as my grandmother was walking to and from church, heavy with child, she stopped and stared at a movie poster tacked up in the window of the Moving Picture Shows. It was a stylized photograph of a simmering blonde, blue-eyed actor-man sweating in some kind of uniform. Printed on the poster was the exotic (He was probably German!) name of the actor: GERNARD. My grandmother swears the actor-man’s name was Gernard and that she “just liked it.” (Uh huh.)

Actually, my grandmother swears nothing of the kind. The story of “Where did you get the name ‘Gernard’?” is a complete mystery, yet somewhere in the back of my memories, of grown-ups playing cards downstairs late at night (7:00pm) at my grandparents’ farmhouse, this story bubbled. Somewhere between somebody slapping the cards down and somebody else clapping his dentures: “Gott-DAMN-it, Margaret. Why would you trump my ace??”I heard this story from the attic bedrooms where all the kids “slept” and punched each other.

No matter HOW he got the name, I, as any daughter, could take as my birthright the opportunity to simply refer to him as “dad.” But I don’t. I call him Gernard, or, as I tell many of his nurses, especially the “English is a second or fourth suggestion of a language,’ just call him GC. It’s easier to spell.

I also call my mother “Judith” because that’s her name. Sometimes “Jude,” never Judy. I only call her “mom” when I am disappointed in her behavior and have to send her to her room to put on a nice face. “Mom, we are out of ice cream. This is bullshit.”

Is it disrespectful to call your parents by their first names? Jeeze, I hope not. I’ve been doing it for decades. And they haven’t fired me yet.

Back to the eye place.

Katherine of Pearle: “So, Mister Waugh.”

GC: “You can call me Gernard.”

Katherine: “Not with a straight face.” (She doesn’t say that.)

Katherine: “What seems to be the trouble?”

As before, my father describes his challenge: “When I put my glasses on correctly, I can’t see. So in order to see, I have to slide my glasses way down my nose and then it hurts and I can’t breathe.”

Katherine: “You’re going to need an eye exam.”

Me: “Can we do that today?”

Katherine chirps: “Nope! You’ll have to come back.”

Me: “Cool. We got nothing better to do.”

GC: “I’m retired.”

Me: “Me neither.”


“Eye Exam, Part 1 – The Name” by Erin Waugh, from the collection “This Gernard.” 4 February 2020