Christchurch mum Loren Harris pulls her toddler Saxton onto her lap and buries her face in the wee girl’s hair. Even up close, the details of her daughter’s face are lost to her. Loren, 28, can’t see the curl of Saxton’s eyelashes or the wisps of hair at the nape of her neck.
The young mother, who was born with cataracts and developed glaucoma as a toddler, is legally blind and has a prosthetic left eye.
Although she has no peripheral vision out of her good eye, she can see a blurry outline up close. “If something is right in front of me, I can see it, but it’s covered in static like on a badly tuned TV,” explains Loren, who is married to Joshua Harris, 29, and mum to Noah, eight, and two-year-old Saxton.
Although Loren’s sight is limited, for her, any vision is a precious gift. She has known since she was a child she may one day lose her sight entirely, but more recently it has become a reality. Loren’s doctors have told her she will probably be completely blind within a year or two.
“At first, I panicked, then I grieved for my sight,” confesses Loren, who is a trained make-up artist. “I felt like I was letting the kids down and making life hard for them.” But in the last year, Loren has accepted her fate. “I sat Noah down and told him I may go totally blind one day,” she says.
“He cried for one minute, then suggested we could cuddle up together and read audio books.
“Beautiful interactions, like holding my children, are not just about sight – there is also smell and touch.”
As a newborn, Loren’s eyes rolled continuously and her lenses were covered by telltale cloudiness. She was diagnosed with cataracts and then she later developed glaucoma.
By the time she was three months old, little Loren had “massive jam-jar glasses”.
“Any sudden movement, like the washing flapping on the line, would freak me out,” she remembers. “So Mum would fill a huge cardboard box with toys and put me in it so I felt safe.”
Loren had more than 30 operations on her eyes before her 18th birthday. She says her childhood was marred with debilitating headaches. “I remember collapsing at school from the pain in my head and as a side effect from all the medication.”
At school, most sports were out of the question and Loren used a monocular – a type of telescope – to help her read. By 18, Loren told her doctors that she’d had enough of the surgeries.
“It wasn’t helping long-term and was totally disrupting my life.” But within a year, the retina on her left eye detached. “It was like a big, dark sunglass lens that came into my line
of vision,” explains Loren, who was then pregnant with her son Noah. She had emergency surgery, but within weeks it happened again.
Two days after Noah was born, Loren lost all vision in her left eye. “It didn’t hit me at first. I had a newborn baby I was totally absorbed with. It wasn’t until later that I panicked.”
Loren separated from Noah’s dad when her son was just a baby, but they remain close friends. She met her second husband Joshua at Noah’s first birthday party. “I was a 21-year-old single mum with only one eye,” she says.
“Joshua didn’t bat an eyelid. He is totally judgment free – an open and genuine person.” At that stage, Loren still had reasonable sight in her right eye. She trained as a make-up artist and began working in a salon as a trainee hairdresser.
But the glaucoma was causing pressure to build in her good eye and her sight was diminishing fast. “Some days, I could hardly see my hands in front of me.”
In 2013, Loren was forced to leave work. “I was gutted,” she tells. For nearly a year, she battled depression and anxiety about one day losing her remaining sight – and her independence.
“I became a hermit and rarely left the house unless I had to.”
But the arrival of her adorable daughter Saxton two years ago prompted Loren to confront things. A turning point was making contact with the Blind Foundation. For the first time, she began using a cane.
She also received much-needed support and advice on how to remain independent without relying solely on vision. “I have little tricks around the house, like vacuuming in bare feet so I
can feel where it needs doing,” she says.
Loren knows her remaining eyesight is likely to go, but at the moment, the pressure in her good eye is stable – and she’s determined not to let fear rule her life.
Along with her kids, she catches buses around the city and is a familiar sight walking around her Christchurch neighbourhood of Sydenham. She has set herself a goal of one day retraining as a teacher and has a group of friends who “don’t let me go on the pity train”.
And along with Joshua, Loren’s busy making family videos that she can one day listen to, if not watch. “I’m thankful for what I’ve got and at the moment, life is all about making memories,” she says. “Lots of wonderful memories.”