In Vermont you can almost set your watch by the beginning of the seasonal change. August fifteenth we begin to see the shadows lengthen. As I walk the sheep down to their pasture in the morning, the grass is newly wet, as I walk them back up the hill at night, I'm in the dark. Suddenly we feel the need to close our windows a bit in the evening, retiring our fans. If I look closely at the hillside I can begin to see change; the green, so vibrant in June and July, is slightly faded, a bit of yellow here, a dab of orange there. All are signals that fall and winter are bearing down.
I've often thought it would be nice if life put up a flag when something momentous is about to occur. Wouldn't it be helpful to see a red flag waving, look at it, turn to your partner and say “something's coming...”
Last Tuesday I was swimming in the river, floating on my back with the knowledge that my time swimming was short. Last Wednesday I noticed some flashing lights in my right eye. As someone whose occasional migraine headaches are precipitated by an aura, I assumed that this was what I was dealing with. Throughout the next day I would catch a shooting star type of light whiz through my right visual field. I'd swipe at an invisible hair or insect. Paul noticed and asked me what was going on.
Last Saturday morning Paul turned to me and asked, gently, “would you please call your eye doctor.” And, because he was so quietly concerned, and because I knew deep down I should: I did.
Last Sunday morning I was sitting in an examining chair in the ophthalmologist office. After a long period of eyeball adjusting (which is as bad as it sounds) I was told that I had a tear in the retina of my right eye. What this meant was that I needed to go to a surgeon to have it repaired by laser surgery. Not next week, not tomorrow. Now.
Paul and I drove to the surgeon's Sunday afternoon. My pile of ripe tomatoes sat on the counter no longer needed for the dinner party we were supposed to attend that evening. My surgeon came around the corner in full exercise gear: although on call, he apparently was going to get some running in. I quickly found out that the running was going to be mutual. He motioned for us to follow and I leaped out of the car to catch him. We zipped down the empty hallways, we had masks up but I wished I had thrown on my running shoes like he had. He talked quickly as we moved, taking in the bits of my history cutting me off once he heard words that mattered to him. I sat down in the chair, my head spinning a little with confusion at the speed of all of this, and that I was slightly out of breath from the running.
He quickly put more drops in my already dilated eyes. I tasted them in my mouth as they ran into my mask. I hoped that my tongue didn't dilate as well.
More eyeball manipulating, only he used something that reminded me of a cooking spoon used for meatballs. Yes, I did have tear but fortunately only one on the right retina, medium sized but “what made me special” was that it had crossed a blood vessel so I was bleeding behind my eye. Now, the gross-out factor of this is that I could see that blood..behind my eye. It is rather like a dark amoeba creeping across my visual field. One really should not be able to see the inside of their body parts. It feels creepy and oddly intrusive.
Within a few minutes I was in another room laying on a bed. “People can pass out from this surgery.”
I was also told that the blinding flashes of light might trigger a migraine. this was indeed icing on the cake.
At this point I just wanted to get it going to get it over with and he, clearly, was late for a marathon.
I had no idea what to expect besides the passing out and a migraine, and so we began. There was a blinding white light followed by a blinding green light accompanied by a rhythmic hammer sound- which, I learned, was the laser burning a fence, of sorts, around my tear.
As a Shepherd it was interesting to note that there are 288 fence-posts around my tear.
I should explain how this happened, if I am able to. Apparently we are born with a vitreous fluid in the interior our eye and as we age it sloughs off. If, during the sloughing, it tugs too hard on our retina, we develop a tear. The key phrase in that sentence is “as we age”. A retinal tear doesn't happen to you unless you are, for example, a rugby player and get belted in the eye or unless you are aging, aged.
When I got home Sunday evening, I was dazed and dilated and, being honest, addled. The addled part was evident in my admittedly incorrect thought process, that this would be a quick fix and post surgery life would continue as normal. No dinner party, but life would go on.
Monday morning I opened my eyes and saw, what appeared to be, several black threads moving around my right visual field. It was the reverse of the feeling you have when you wake up from a particularly bad dream and are so grateful it wasn't real. This was real and I got up realizing that this was what I was going to be looking through for the unforeseeable future.
I spent a lot of that first day weeping.. All would have been OK had I fallen mountain climbing, or wrestling a bear. But I had done nothing except age. In looking inward I realized that the surgeon may have nicked my ego while fencing my eye. As someone who has, fortunately, been very healthy all of my life, I was a person who thought that my healthy eating and exercising would put a protective barrier around me. Although this was certainly not the worst thing that could happen, it was something and it was my first surprise-something and there had been no red flag warning me it was coming. My wise oldest son likened it to having my knees swiped out from under me.
Sitting down to practice I was tentative. My biggest fear being losing the ability to see music. Interestingly, as I continued to play and got deeper and deeper into the music, my brain let go of seeing the amoebas and only saw the notes. Once I stopped, squiggling commenced, but I was filled with relief.
As I move further away from the incident, I realize that this, too, is a process. It is all part of the whole; the fear, the pain, the feeling of betrayal, the reckoning and finally, the healing. I thought about how many times I have talked with students about staying on the path, continuing to walk when it feels unwalkable. Recognizing that it is all OK.
What is important is giving ourselves permission to feel what we feel for as long as we feel it. And I would like the chance to remind my surgeon to try to see things through his patients’ eyes (literally), but I doubt I can catch him.
I like to think that with age comes wisdom, and that I can take this, move forward and remember to be patient, kind and caring when someone is on their path and it is rocky and seems impassable. To simply be willing to take their hand and walk alongside them.