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After a stroke blinded one eye, Frank Bruni focused on the future

Qi Yang
Getty Images

One morning in 2017, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni woke up to find that everything looked blurry and smeared.

"There was a fog, a dappled fog over the right side of my field of vision," Bruni says. "And I thought for hours that there must be some gunk in my eye, or maybe I'd had too much to drink the night before. Then I thought, Oh, no, it's my eyeglasses. I just have to clean them. And on and on, until deep into the day, I realized there was something wrong beyond all of that."

Bruni, then 52, soon learned that he'd experienced a rare kind of stroke that had irreparably damaged his optic nerve. The prognosis: His vision in that eye would never return. What's more, there was a 20 to 40% chance that another stroke would impact his good eye.

The news was devastating. "I had some emotional, psychological and really spiritual work to do to accept this and figure out how to go on in the most productive and constructive fashion," he says.

But after going through a period of shock and terror, Bruni saw himself at a decision point: He could fixate on what had been lost, or he could focus on what remained. He chose to do the latter.

"I feel like once you've recognized what's happened, ... it is so important and so constructive and so right to focus instead on all the things you can still do, all the blessings that remain," he says. "I ended up determined — determined to show myself that I could adapt to whatever was going to happen."

Frank Bruni is a contributing opinion writer for <em>The New York Times </em>and a professor at Duke University.
/ Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy
Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy
Frank Bruni is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and a professor at Duke University.

In the memoir, The Beauty of Dusk, Bruni chronicles the changes to his vision and the adaptations he's had to make in his work, personal life and attitude. The book also profiles a number of other people who've survived and thrived in ways that Bruni says are profoundly instructive.

"I decided it was time to learn about how human beings at their most resilient survive and make the most of these situations," he says. "And that was my personal journey and also the journey that I ended up describing in the book."

Interview highlights

On experiencing how nimble and plastic the brain is through this experience

/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

I was terrified of the idea that I would lose [all of] my eyesight, I'm not anymore. I hope I never do. I wish what had happened to me so far didn't. But you learn quickly that the senses that remain often become sharper in compensation for the sense that has been compromised. You learn how nimble the brain is.

I've been shocked at the fact that sometimes, in certain situations, I can take in visual information I didn't before because I'm optimizing what's available to me. I'm focusing on certain details with my one good eye in a way that I never had with my two good eyes. And that's both a physical promise of sorts, but also an example ... of just how nimble our brains and our bodies can be when circumstances demand it. And when you realize that, when you see it in practice, in your own life, it takes away a lot of the anxiety and fear of what's coming down the road and frankly, of aging. Because as we age, we're all going to lose certain physical potencies and be asked to make certain adjustments and compensations.

On becoming single when a long-term relationship ended, around the time of his stroke

The possibility of being blinded in the second eye was actually one of the reasons — when we had to decide whether to try to repair this relationship or not — I decided not to. And I know that almost sounds like the opposite reaction or counterintuitive, but I felt like the question was whether I was loved faithfully enough or just loved enough. I worried very much that my partner was making his decisions and calculations in the context of "I can't abandon someone who may find himself soon in great need," and I did not want to be in that kind of relationship. I did not want to feel like a drag or a burden on anyone.

But I had a great privilege and blessing there, which is that I have an enormously close family. I have three siblings with whom I could not be closer. And so I never had to worry — nor do I worry now — that in a worst-case situation, I'll be alone and without a support system. Lonely, sure. And I felt very lonely when ... [we] broke up, and sometimes I'm lonely, still, but lonely is endurable and ... I want to live as truthfully as possible, and that's more important to me than little pockets of loneliness.

On trying to have an optimistic outlook, modeling after his mother who had cancer

[My mother] survived with cancer — a very rare and potent cancer — for much longer than she was supposed to. Like her, I decided to be as active as possible. I decided to try to do as much as I could do, rather than to kind of say, "Oh, wow, I have to do less now." I probably read more books a month since losing vision in one eye than I did beforehand. "Read" has become a different verb. I listened to two-thirds of them and I've trained myself to do that in a way I had never imagined possible. I listen to these books at 1.7/1.8 speed ... and I realized there's so much power and agency I still have. And focusing on that, making sure that is always where I point myself and steer myself — that's been a real lesson for me, and I hope it's a lesson for other people, too.

On how the vision loss has changed his feelings about aging

I used to be extremely fearful of aging. I used to think, "Oh, you know, when I lose the ability to do X, I'm going to be inconsolable. When I lose the ability to do Y, it is going to plunge me into a deep depression," because I just assumed the loss of ability would be the kind of event that one could not get comfortable with or spin in any sort of positive direction.

I've seen that there are many dimensions to losing something, to being physically limited. I've seen that you can be left with enough ability and agency to feel completely whole and to feel completely happy.

I've seen through this ordeal, adventure — I call it more of an "adventure" now with my eye — I've seen that there are many dimensions to losing something, to being physically limited. I've seen that you can be left with enough ability and agency to feel completely whole and to feel completely happy. And so when I think about what will happen down the line, and I know now more than ever before that I'm not going to be able to predict it, I don't dread it the way I used to, and I also accept it as just part of the process.

I think people who have had a kind of vision episode like I did at 52, people who have been diagnosed with serious diseases in their 30s and 40s, I think, in some ways, they get an accelerated and advanced course in aging, and they learn early what we all eventually learn, which ... is that our bodies are time bombs, but each detonates in a different way. The certain thing, though, is the detonation, and the other certain thing is that you control your response to that, in a way that can leave you with plenty and that can leave you with a lot of joy.

On struggling with binge eating, and how his relationship with food changed once he became the New York Times restaurant critic in 2004

That proposal came along to me at a time in my life when I had just felt like I'd turned the corner in my relationship with food, where I'd gotten healthy again after a period of enormous weight gain, where I was living in a manner that felt kind of disciplined and healthy. And I somehow knew in a really counterintuitive way that if I accepted the restaurant critic job and every day was about dealing with food, that I would kind of approach it in a methodical and conscious enough way that it would be sort of the best recipe for not being undone by food. That was possible.

It's difficult to describe ... but I was probably at my food healthiest at my trimmest and all of that during the five and a half years when I was the New York Times restaurant critic than I ever was before or since. I'm heavier now than I was when I was eating professionally. ... I ate steadily as a restaurant critic, but I finished nothing on my plate. And being a restaurant critic is about tasting, not gorging. And that is, in fact, one of the healthy ways to eat that is often encouraged. And so it kind of kept you on a schedule and kept you to a discipline that wasn't so different from what some nutritionists' advice would be.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Laurel Dalrymple adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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