Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Are You Looking At?

When I sit at my computer and cover my left eye, I can only dimly see the large print on my screen. The title of this post looks like the footprints of baby mice. When I cover my right eye, I can read everything that's written in front of me, including the very small print of the formatting options. I know I lean far to the left but this is ridiculous.

I look back at different rites of passage that marked stages of my life: my first cup of coffee, my first legal drink, my first baby. I've always been eager for that next stage--but not this one. My first cataract.

I know the surgery is blithely routine. I know many people who have had it done, and I know it's become much less irksome over the years. I make jokes about getting a bionic eye, but the truth is I am frightened.

It's not the surgery so much, although I don't have much faith in hospitals or the people who work in them. It's the beginning of physical deterioration that has me feeling scared. I love my life as it is; watching it shrink its borders isn't fun at all.

Although I know rationally that this surgery will expand my world, not contract it, there's a visceral reaction to my cataract that I'm having difficulty with. I can ignore my approaching birthday with its 66th year, but I can't ignore my failing vision and its cause. It's a physical change that is as portentous as losing my first tooth or getting my first bra. But this change is a different kind of growth, through loss; it's making me think of death.

I tell myself I'm not afraid of death, but I sure as hell am afraid of dying. I just read Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal, and I know I need a lot more courage than I seem to have right now.

An essay in the Atlantic proclaimed a doctor's determination to begin dying at the age of 75, to refuse all medicines and procedures that prolong life when he reached that age. My mother maintained that her life was the way she liked it until she reached 80. One of my uncles said on his 30th birthday that now he was old, and he meant it.

I've already reached an age that many people whom I love didn't achieve. When I was 20, 60 was ancient. It's all relative until physical changes make us realize that no, 70 is not the new 50.

As I find that my body fails, what I ask for is grace, if not courage, to face fear with dignity. And perhaps the ability to be happy standing in place, since I've learned that yes I can run but I sure as hell cannot hide.

And I can look for signposts. Work is where I have gone in the past to make sense of difficult places, and when I think of what I'm working on now, I come up with a woman who slaps me upside the head. She was run over by an 18-wheel truck (or its Thai equivalent) when she was in her mid-30s; her pelvis was crushed and she lost a leg. She lived to be 62 and in those years she wrote scholarly books, got her PhD, raised a child, founded a museum, and went on archaeological expeditions. Oh--and she still rode a motorcycle. When I look at her, I know I'm whining. Thank goodness I'll have many opportunities to look at her and I know I'm lucky.

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