The light that fades

An octogenarian is losing her sight - but not her perspective.

January 12, 2006 11:22
4 minute read. (photo credit: )

Well, my dear," says the doctor, "you may count yourself very lucky." Lucky! He's just told me that I am going blind and that's lucky? "Usually," he says in a very persuasive way, "this happens to people 20 years younger than you. After all, you are 87." "Eighty-six," I correct him sharply. Ignoring me, he continues: "Also because you have blue eyes. For some unknown reason, blue-eyed people are particularly vulnerable." Good to know. Blue eyes, previously considered an asset, are now a liability. All my children have blue eyes as do a large majority of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. "Is there anything that can prevent it if it's diagnosed earlier?" I ask. "Nothing, I'm afraid," he says. "It's age related, you see. The full name is age-related macula degeneration - of the retina." It is known as AMD for short. Another illusion gone. Getting old and remaining healthy, previously a matter for congratulation, now is not. "Do you wear glasses?" he inquires. "Well, yes. I have worn glasses for distance for the last 40 years without changing the prescription. I wear them for driving, TV and recognizing people across the street. I take them off for reading." "The other good news," he says cheerfully, "is that you have, very fortunately, contracted the dry kind, which means that it probably won't get any worse. Now if you'd had the wet kind, you'd be almost totally blind." "So what about treatment? New glasses, eye drops, laser?" "No use," is the answer. Well! That's great. Can't drive, can't sew on a button, can't take notes. As a compulsive reader, one who would rather peruse Einstein's Theory of Relativity than nothing, this is a very severe blow. As one from a family of word gobblers who are never without a book, newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, even a box of Corn Flakes - anything with words on it - this is unacceptable. Echoes of the past haunt my memory of frequent exhortations. "Put that book down and eat your breakfast/ clear the table/ tidy your room / put your shoes on." And from my side: "Can't come for lunch. I've nothing to read." Breakfast coffee without a newspaper is unpalatable. I've stopped eating breakfast. There are some people who say, "Oh, I've no time to read." This is, of course, nonsense. There is always time to read, over meals if blessedly solitary, in the bath, on the train or bus - advertisements on hoardings, recipes on the sauce bottle. I've seen real addicts scanning a newspaper while riding a bike. My average is (was) two to three books a week. Paperbacks - nothing serious. But without access to something containing words, panic sets in. It crept up on me stealthily, sneakily, without warning. I came in from shopping, dropped my bundles and sat down to rest. I opened my eyes to observe a very strange phenomenon. The room was slowly going round to the right. Pictures slid into curtains, curtains into panels, panels into doors, doors into shelves. It was extraordinary but not at all frightening. After a while it stopped. Should I tell anyone? What could I say? I had not been drinking, and anyway I'm a lifelong teetotaler. No lemonade or orange juice could have affected me. So had someone put some halucogenic substance in my morning coffee? (I read - have read - a lot of whodunits). Reading, which is second only to breathing for me, has become a challenge. Odd things happen on the page. The words "Jewish New Year" are presented thus: "Jewi ish Ne yea' or as a variation "ewish ew ear." I don't know where the missing letters have gone. Probably on their way to outer space, to be found in time to come by moon walkers. Lucky, did you say? It's all relative. I have this enlarged keyboard and big letters on the screen. So, doctor, please modify your language. Lucky is my 90-year-old neighbor who reads only the sports pages, or that CEO of an enormous enterprise who boasts that he hasn't read a book since he left school. Or Joe the gardener, who reads only seed catalogues - with pictures - and he's got blue eyes and is over 80. Call me "visually challenged," "unfortunate," or even "desperate," but lucky it isn't - except in one respect: I have this wonderful friend Linda who edits my fumbling attempts to communicate electronically and tells me, when she's with me in the street, when to step up or down. That's lucky, doctor! We even play Scrabble. She doesn't mind that I hold every letter in a strong light and often put down "j" instead of "i." She reads the newspapers to me, although they are often very depressing. She edits and improves my wild stabs at my enlarged keyboard as they come on the screen. The letters are huge but foggy as is the TV. Even when I could see, my spelling was, to say the least, "original." Now Linda has to use imagination and intuition to know what I want to say. So from that angle, yes, I am very lucky. People are very kind. With my white hair and stick and my bemused look, they let me jump the line at the post office and see me safely across the street, even if I don't want to cross. Casual helpers, however well intentioned, seem always to assume that if one can't see, one also can't hear and are mentally deficient. So they shout and use simple language, goodhearted though. I've acted the same in days gone by. I'd give a lot to be 70 again - even 80 as was. Oh, well. They say old age is not for wimps!

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