The eyes have it

The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV)
The late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) at 92

You’ve had a pretty good idea most of your life what “rheumy eyes” are when they are mentioned in print. And you see them on television occasionally — rheumy-eyed old men and women. But just try to find a photo that shows what you mean when you say “rheumy-eyed” … or that illustrates what you think rheumy eyes look like.

For me, the first “rheumy-eyed” people that come to mind are the old men (I’m old enough now that I can say that) of “60 Minutes,” past and present. I think of Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney, and Morley Safer. Also “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer. I think of eyes with heavy bags under them, seeming to pull down the lower lids, and a certain glisten that looks like tears. (John Boehner looks like this, but he cries so much that one never really knows.)

I’ve always found eyes like this vaguely discomfiting, while at the same time disliking myself for feeling that way. I try not to notice, in the same way I’d try not to stare at a deformity. Maybe it has something to do with a younger person not wanting to admit inwardly that she, too, will get old and might look that way someday.

Well, here I am at 69, getting lots of wrinkles and gray hair. And unfortunately, as a result of my glaucoma surgery, I now often have what I would have to describe as “rheumy-looking” eyes. Ugh. Simply put, the surgery relieves internal fluid pressure in the eyes by providing a tiny drain to the outside, just under the outermost transparent layer of tissue, or conjunctiva. Most of it is contained in a little bump, or “bleb,” created under the upper eyelid, from which it is reabsorbed into the body. Apparently the excess fluid sometimes builds up or pools, at least in my case, under the conjunctiva in the outer corners of the eyes. Gravity and blinking at work, I’d guess. It looks for all the world like tears about to spill over — except that they don’t. The first time I noticed it, I tried to blink it out, assuming it was a pool of tears, or dab it away with a tissue. But it doesn’t go away until it’s reabsorbed, and that can take from several hours to several days. Some days it isn’t apparent at all, and other days it’s bad enough that I can feel it when I blink.

Sure, it beats going blind from unrelieved pressure, but it’s a cosmetic after-effect of the surgery that no one thought to mention beforehand, and I don’t like it. It comes and goes, and the doctor says there nothing to be done for it; besides, “it means the drains (‘filters’) are working.”

So, whoopee! I have rheumy-looking eyes before my time. Those geezers on “60 Minutes” were in their 80s. I shouldn’t have eyes like them. Not yet. I wasn’t ready for this. (Vanity, thy name is woman!) You can bet, however, that from now on I will certainly look a little more kindly on other senior citizens and their teary-looking eyes. They could be fighting glaucoma, just like me. And I’m sure, like me, they prefer rheumy eyes to the alternative. At the very least, it’s another excuse to buy some big, expensive sunglasses.


(Note: Per the Macmillan Dictionary, in literature “rheumy eyes look red and wet because of illness, sadness, or old age.” Also, rheum, as explained on Wikipedia, is the naturally occurring fluid that may dry at the corners of the eye during sleep. When I was a child, these dried accumulations were called “sleepers.”

15 thoughts on “The eyes have it

        1. WP should really put in an editing toolbar for comments. I always have to go do codes on a test page before I post them in comments. There’s a toolbar on post and editing pages, and also on the edit comments page, but nothing on the page where people actually type comments. Annoying.

  1. It can also be caused by ‘dry eye syndrome’ where because the eye does not produce the sticky liquid to keep the eyes lubricated, they over produce tears, so the eyes are always leaking.

  2. Watery eyes are different than what I think of as “rheumy”. There’s an odd color to them and the iris isn’t as defined as it is in younger people. Maybe I’m thinking of glaucoma but it’s oddly disconcerting since it’s hard to tell where the person is looking. I’m sure you look fine.

    1. Dried rheum is what you sometimes find in the corners of your eyes in the morning. It’s the natural watery mucus the eyes, nose, and mouth produce. (See Wikipedia)

      The less distinct iris you describe sounds like cataracts, which would cause the iris to look cloudy or, in severe cases, be completely obscured.

  3. My husband has rheumy eyes, without glaucoma, the glaucoma surgery, OR the dry eye situation. His ophthalmologist says his eyes are fine.

  4. Interesting to read. I didn’t think I knew what you meant at the beginning but on full reading realised yes I did. It is really unfortunate for you of course but as you say better than the alternative. I love eyes. The window to the soul ~ a phrase I believe in deeply and that does not matter is ‘rheumy’ or not as I think it is the ‘projection’ that I feel on meeting a gaze 🙂

    1. I wish I’d done something different with the title. I was playing on “The ayes have it,” an expression we hear when a vote is taken. Totally unrelated. That became “eyes,” then “old eyes.” And even that’s incorrect. Anyone can have rheumy eyes.

      Eyes are indeed the windows of the soul, whether we’re peering out or others are peering in.

  5. Bill Leavy (NFL referee) and Paul Molitor (MLB manager and former player). Both are perfect examples of what I think when I hear “rheumy eyes.”

    And to me, they look like veritable twins. And I find their appearance to be creepy. I don’t know why, but I do.

... and that's my two cents