The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks

“So,” I ask, “when you explain to your new friends why we got divorced, what exactly do you tell them?”

And the words come, well-rehearsed, as if she’s reading from a brochure. “I tell them that I made some mistakes, but that wasn’t the only reason. It’s more complicated than that. There are shades of grey…”

And my mind starts to wander because I’ve heard this “shades of grey” speech so many times now that I’ve got it memorized. And I think about how remarkable it is that the script for this conversation hasn’t changed in five years. And I think about how happy I am that we haven’t had this conversation in a very long time. And I think about how happy I am that this will probably be the last time we will ever have this conversation.

But then, perhaps because I just finished reading another one of his books, something about the “shades of grey” speech triggers the memory of a story in Oliver Sacks’ The Island of the Colorblind:

“As a child I had visual migraines, where I would have not only the classical scintillations and alterations of the visual field, but alterations in the sense of color too, which might weaken or entirely disappear for a few minutes. This experience frightened me, but tantalized me too, and made me wonder what it would be like to live in a completely colorless world, not just for a few minutes, but permanently. It was not until many years later when I got an answer, at least a partial answer, in the form of a patient, Jonathan I., a painter who had suddenly become totally colorblind following a car accident (and perhaps a stroke). He had lost color vision not through any damage to his eyes, it seemed, but through damage to the parts of the brain which ‘construct’ the sensation of color. Indeed, he seemed to have lost the ability not only to see color, but to imagine it or remember it, even to dream of it. Nevertheless, like an amnesiac, he in some way remained conscious of having lost color, after a lifetime of chromatic vision, and complained of his world feeling impoverished… — his art, his food, even his wife looked ‘leaden’ to him.”

And something clicks. And it’s suddenly clear to me that she has spent so much time in the “shades of grey” that she has lost the ability to see color. And it’s suddenly clear to me why these conversations are always so frustrating for both of us. Because it’s suddenly clear to me that I’ve spent years trying to carry on a meaningful conversation about the subtle and varied colors of love with someone who is colorblind.

One of the things that always disturbed me about the demise of our marriage was not just the speed and ease with which she tossed it aside, but what she tossed it aside for. I was baffled by the math. It had been a very basic value proposition for her, and I was simply on the losing side of the equation.

But it never made sense to me. (Nor to anyone else, for that matter.) How could I have been of so little worth to her that that seemed like an attractive alternative?

But worth is in the eyes of the beholder and hers had stopped working long ago. And with the beauty and color stripped from everything, to her it was all just shades of grey. And since every beautiful and colorful thing in life has a drab and monochromatic analog, a husband is the same shade of grey as a paramour, a friend is the same shade of grey as a groupie, a family is the same shade of grey as an entourage, and a life is the same shade of grey as a lifestyle. So what’s the difference?

Grey = Grey

And if both sides of the value proposition are equal, by all means go with the easier of the two. Husbands, friends, families, and lives are hard work…at least if you’re doing them right.

I was always curious about what my ex-wife would do after our divorce, when she’d have the freedom, the money, and the time to pursue whatever she wanted most in life. And, sure enough, she went after exactly what she’d wanted all along. And now she lives on the Island of the Colorblind, leading a grey life, with grey people, doing grey things. And she’s perfectly happy. Grey is fashionable. Grey is sophisticated. Grey is the new black. And with all people of color long gone from her life, she no longer has to worry that the word “blue” will come up in a conversation and trigger some vague sense of just how much she has lost.

As for me, I give thanks every day that I’m no longer on the Island of the Colorblind. I lived in those shades of grey for a while and being surrounded by all the lies and the artifice and the relativism and the self-indulgence and the manufactured drama just about killed me. After you’ve lived in the shades of grey for a while, you see them for what they really are: varying degrees of the absence of light.

But I’m back on the Island today. My ex-wife wanted to talk. She’d had a great moral epiphany while watching a certain TV program (exactly which program is a hilarious, colorful irony which she, of course, is incapable of seeing) and she’d wanted to tell me all about it. But I’d managed, with one question, to get us back on the old script again. And now I’m sitting across from her as the historical revisionism oozes out and I’m thinking, “Surely, not even she can believe this rubbish anymore.” And I’m wondering how long it will be before she is completely blind. And I’m overcome by a profound sense of loss — her loss — and the conversation is no longer frustrating, it’s just sad.

But since we’re back on book and I don’t know what else to do, I stick to my part of the script…hoping, praying, that saying it just one more time will somehow remind her of what she can no longer see, or imagine, or remember, or even dream of.

“Blue,” I say.

“Red,” I explain.

“Yellow,” I insist.

“Orange,” I point out.

But the words have no meaning for her anymore, and my heart really isn’t in it anymore, and I feel as leaden as I probably look to her. So I turn and leave and as I walk out into the bright, white sunlight, I’m filled with a new appreciation for the fact that I can leave.

I wish my kids had that same luxury, but they live half their life on that island. Sure, they’re bright, adaptable kids and they’ll learn not to talk to their Mom about colors because it just confuses her and makes her irritable, but over time it can’t help but take a toll on their eyes and their hearts and their lives.

So when they’re with me, we’ll sit in a circle and, like little chromatic sorcerers, conjure up small orbs of colored light in our cupped hands. (Zoë will favor orange; Emma has always been a purple kind of girl.) And we’ll giggle to ourselves and marvel at the subtle variations in hue, cast, and shade. And we’ll put words to tints, and together we’ll learn the names of all the subtle and varied colors of love.

And we’ll start with the basics. Because the first thing you need to know about love is that a heart is red.