Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blindsight; or, A Banner Day.

I have a family member who is legally blind; my mother. She has glaucoma. With that, various things within the structure of the eye can conspire to alter and eventually rob one of  one's sight. Pressure within the eye is a key component. Although proper care can forestall and perhaps for some prevent the worst case scenario, it is a worrisome disease. It has been interesting to follow the way mother has coped with this difficult ailment. The worst event so far was the complete loss of sight in her right eye a few years ago. It made the lingering sight in her left eye that much more precious.

Mom has suffered both from glaucoma and cataracts. It has been hard to know which has lately dealt the greater blow to her remaining sight, but we've assumed the glaucoma played the greatest role. It was the reason her right eye was lost to her.

Mom is of the generation that truly learned good penmanship. She has especially clear and beautiful handwriting, with attractive flourishes that aren't overdone.  The large "G" that we know from General Mills' cereal boxes comes to mind. Besides her pure skill at handwriting on the page, mom is talented with actual content, having been a writer her entire life. The loss of this expression is perhaps the hardest part of the blindness for her. What will she do if she can't sit at her desk and write?

I've been amazed in the last few years to watch how mom became less able to see from her remaining eye, and yet the letters that came in the mail were, as before,  written in her distinct and attractive hand. This even though she could not view the writing on the card anymore. It was all done by feel, and by rigorously staying within the physical confines of the paper. She registered the edges with her fingers, and had to compose her thoughts in longer streams; pausing to reflect or letting her thoughts wander meant she would lose her place on the page, and scribe new ink over existing writing. 

She became good enough at this to continue to correspond, albeit with shorter missives, and you would not guess that the sender was blind if I didn't tell you. Perhaps the lines of writing were a bit less level, or more tightly crowded.  It must have been a strain. And I imagine it affected spontanaeity and turned a leisurely task into a "finish it now" chore.

Essays and longer work finally became too hard to create in successive writing sessions. Returning to a work, how would she review the existing content? Adjusting the message, editing the flow, revising the tone, all require some review and a chance to "listen" to what you've already composed.  Waiting until evening for a family member to read her work back to her was not very satisfying or effective. The stream of thought gets lost. The requirements of the day have moved on. Direction gets derailed,  for even the most tenacious and disciplined thinker.  Physically writing with either a pen or a typewriter may have been possible, but the full activity of writing a work comprehensively was less and less possible.

Those who merely have cataracts may be able to think of surgery for replacing their lenses as routine. But glaucoma makes cataract surgery a more daunting proposal. Anything that intervenes with the eye's structure may cause the pressure within to climb, and this can lead to more damage. At least one surgeon advised caution regarding surgery in mom's case. Even so, the hope of regaining vision made mom ponder the surgery more as time went by.

Recently, mom took the plunge, and had cataract surgery. She selected a talented and confident specialist who felt he could overcome the extra challenge her eye presented. In the days leading up to the surgery, she covered her "good" eye, to practice what it would be like getting around  with a patch on after the procedure. This sounded odd to me at first; how much difference would that make to an eye that didn't really see? But I hadn't understood how much mere light helped. Losing that wasn't trivial, mom's best status for vision had become mostly an awareness of light. I was surprised how much just this input helped her to navigate. Though objects and faces were not clearly visible, light from windows and doorways provided landmarks that helped orient her with surprising accuracy. She could walk in her familiar surroundings from one location to another with good results if she was careful. But the lack of detailed sight left many activities unavailable.

The suspense of a full day with an eye patch after the surgery was anxiously spent trying not to get her hopes up. She had decided it was no better than a 50/50 chance, and spent time reconciling her mood to the possibility of failure. Waiting to see what kind of window would open up was a tantalizing and edgy twenty-four  hour period.

The happy ending here came the next day, when the patch was removed. A quick eye test followed. Mom read out the letters, trying to absorb the sensation of sight restored. It turns out that the cataract was the main impediment to sight at this point in time, and the risk of the surgery proved to be worthwhile.

The rest of the day was a visual feast, including looking out of the clinic windows to see a view of  hills with saguaro cactus and  houses dotting the landscape. A celebration lunch followed.  An extra treat was a walk around a nursery to look at colorful spring flowers. A banner day.

Can you imagine losing your sight?  You wouldn't be reading this, or anything else....

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