CERES — Over the past 35 years, Gary Brister could only envision and imagine.
He could only presume what his wife, Diana, looked like after decades of marriage and three children. Same with his two sons and daughter.
The nine grandkids? He recognized them by voice, not by their faces.
Places? Brister knew them only from memories prior to Jan. 29, 1978. Because from that day forward until two weeks ago, the Ceres man couldn't see a thing. His world existed in the form of a dense fog, a blur and memories.
Light and dark, yes. He could tell when objects were moving. But the details that make life so picturesque and special the color of a granddaughter's hair or eyes, smiles, objects and their angles, panoramas and vistas simply didn't register.
Life's most cherished big events might as well have been broadcast on the radio. He certainly was no spectator.
"The births of (two of the) kids. Their weddings. Ballgames," Brister said. "It's hard to explain. You just get a picture in your head."
He also missed the entire 15-year NFL career of his distant cousin, former Steelers and Broncos quarterback Bubby Brister.
And don't forget the logistics.
"Open cabinet doors were his worst enemies," son T.J. Brister said.
That all changed during a three-hour, breakthrough surgery March 26 in San Francisco.
Gary Brister can see now, and well.
"He's like a kid in a candy store, taking it all in," wife Diana said.
He now has 20/30 vision in his right eye. He hopes to have the same operation on his left eye as well, which still is foggy.
The circumstances that blinded him so long ago remain clear.
In January 1978, father of a 4-year-old and with the couple's second child on the way, he had just begun a new job with an electrical contractor in the Bay Area. While on a job, Brister reached for a bottle of hydrofluoric acid, a compound used commonly in the electrical industry as an insulator in transformers and switch-gear.
"I grabbed the wrong bottle," he said.
Instead, he mixed it with sodium hydroxide.
"It exploded and burned me," he said. Specifically, his eyes. The concoction continued to cause tissue damage long after the initial contact, he said. In fact, 13 years passed before doctors attempted a corneal transplant. He had some vision in one eye.
"But it didn't last very long," Brister said. "I didn't think I'd ever be able to see again."
He and his wife would periodically visit doctors who discussed options, including new surgical procedures. Some they'd consider. Others, no chance.
This one called the Boston KPro surgery offered more hope. It uses both donor and artificial corneas, and that's about as technical as we need to be to tell his story. The bottom line is that it's working.
Upon removing the bandage after the surgery, the doctor told Brister his vision might not improve greatly for a couple of months as the transplant took and the tissue healed. Indeed, all he saw initially was white.
"The ceiling," Gary said. "That's the way my head was pointed when they took (the bandage) off."
Very quickly, though, he could see the kinds of detail missing for more than three decades. He identified the letter on the eye chart before the doctor could ask.
"K," he volunteered.
And he got in the first dig, typical in a family that has relied on humor to get through the tough times.
"Chuck, you got old," Gary said to his eldest son, who was 4 at the time of the accident and now is 39.
Likewise, his family sees things it never thought it would.
"We always had to lead him, to guide him," T.J. said. "When the doctor walked in, (Gary) got up and shook hands. He walked out of the office."
Gary found himself avoiding mirrors.
"There was this old, fat man looking back at me," he joked. "He kept staring at me and wouldn't go away."
Cars are much smaller now than the giant gas hogs he remembered from 1978.
The Oakland Hills seem brighter and more colorful this spring than he recalled.
Indeed, there is so much catching up to do. He's now trying to match the faces accompanying all of those familiar voices.
"I watch him walk around the house now, looking at all the pictures on the walls," Diana said. " 'Who's this?' He'll see the grandkids' artwork and say, 'Who drew that deer?' "
Another thing she's noticed:
"I don't have to clean up for him in the kitchen after he makes a sandwich," she said. "He used to make a mess mayonnaise all over the counter."
Gary's right-eye vision is so good, he said, that he could even renew his driver's license, "but I'm not going to chance it."
He plans to go to Oregon to "see my best friend," he said. Note the emphasis on "see."
Add sightseeing at Yosemite to his to-do list.
"The only other time I was there, I was blind," Gary said. "I love the mountains."
Saturday, he got to watch 9-year-old grandson Conner Bilyew play baseball.
"Before this, I couldn't see it, but I'd go (to provide) support," Gary said.
He wants others with blindness to know they, too, might someday see again. Last week, the Bristers went to a medical lab in Modesto. Gary chatted with people in the waiting room, telling them about his good fortune and that "miracles do happen."
"A lady came up and asked more about what happened," Diana said. "She said she's been blind (in one eye) for 50 years. She told us she'll contemplate (a similar corneal transplant surgery) now that she has some hope."
"I hope what's happened to me gives other people hope," Gary said.
Because until a couple of weeks ago, seeing again is something he could neither envision nor imagine.
But now, he's a believer.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.