Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Right Eye 5: In the Waiting Room


A week since surgery, and this morning was the first time I've been allowed out of the apartment. Dizzying, the cold air and the piles of fresh snow by the cars on the curb, taxi and school bus horns and engine noises filling the air till it seems almost crystalline, as if you could see the fractured layers of sound. My right eye is dilated all the time now, to reduce pain, so outside is a sharp vague brightness, the snow almost an ache, even though I have a cup taped inelegantly over the eye in question. "Cup" isn't accurate, and in fact Paul (who is kindly taking dictation and typing this, putting up with my corrections and revisions along the way) has given me a writing exercise: write a six line poem about the cup without naming it. i've gotten nowhere with thi. It's a perforated oval of aluminum set in a bezel of blue plastic that holds it half an inch away from the eye, taped on with an x of white medical adhesive. I immediately creates the look of having been slugged in the eye. When we walk through the hospital lobby, or step onto the elevator, I have a juvenile urge to whisper to someone, "Look what he did to me."

Anyway, it's fantastic to be outside, though the cab seems inordinately fast and the air too sharp and the glare of the snow too pressing; all that and I still feel like a child let out into the city to see what he's been missing. What have I been doing inside? The character of my days has been determined by restriction: no lying down, not even to sleep; no exercise; no reading. And in fact at first I truly didn't want to do anything. After all, they'd sucked the vitreous jelly out of my eye, scraped my cornea so they could see in to operate, lasered up the retina in back to re-attach it to the wall of my eye, injected a bubble of opaque gas, and filled the empty space remaining in my eyeball with fluid. I became a little obsessed about this "fluid." What was it? Basic fluid, said Dr Reddy. Do you mean like saline, or water, I said? BSS, I think he answered, and that was that.


I don't need to say that all this hurt. I would like to be able to be precise about hurt but I don't know that anyone can, and I'm sure that Elaine Scarry is right when she asserts that the power of the torturer is in part the ability to make language meaningless. The NYU hospital was welcoming, efficient, and marked by genuine kindness. When I arrived I put my clothes in a locker, and wore the key around my wrist along with my plastic ID band. Once in the area where you get ready for surgery I was greeted by a wonderful nurse -- my age maybe, big red hair, funny and entirely compassionate. She wrapped me up in two blankets straight out of a warmer, a gesture which makes you feel you've gone somewhere between a spa and your grandmother's house. We talked, various anaesthesiologists visited, my doctor visited, and then I'm wheeled into the OR.

The OR was marvelous; it looked like an elaborately conceived set for a movie set on a space station, not a huge space but every bit of it alive with preparatory activity, people in scrubs and gauzy caps engaging with machines. I walked to a table in the middle, shed one of my surgical gowns, and in only moments a tube was introduced into my right arm, and I disappeared. Or everything did, until I began to be sensate again, two or three hours later, in a sort of armchair, with a sweetly concerned guy nurse who readily established that we belonged to a common community. I could not open either of eyes. I don't have any temporal sense for what happened next: the appearance of Paul, of Dr Reddy, or the comic turns of the nurse appearing with percosets; all seemed to move in a swelling and subsiding rhythm, and then each swell would crescendo in a moan coming out of my mouth, and the distinct sensation that a broad, curved knife was being pushed deeply into the socket beneath my right eye. Well, not distinct; I can't quite name it. The oddest thing is that the pain doesn't exactly seem located; I'm in the waiting room, and is that cry coming from my mouth or Aunt Consuelo's in the dentist's chair....? Only in the poem the young Elizabeth Bishop must hold onto her chair for vertigo's sake, whereas I am entirely all right with being in the swing of things, unanchored. Only that swing comes back, each time, to the crescendo point. Now think of a literal swing, the kind on a playground, how in a while the thing has a momentum of its own, you are drawn back, the world receding, and then you're going forward, something exciting about that, but as you go up that awful pressure begins again, pushing harder till the sharpness slips again beneath the socket...


After three percosets, I'm sent home with Tylenol. The first of my restrictions is the strangest: to sleep sitting up. We do have indeed the perfect chair for this purpose, an Eames lounge chair, arguably the classic midcentury form, certainly the most immediately recognizable, with its curved plywood shell and tufted leather, its elegant and vaguely office-y ottoman. I have always liked looking at it, but I have never spent all that much time sitting in it. When do I "lounge"? It's a little slouchy for my taste; I'm more likely to perch and then spring up soon, to my dog's endless signs.

Now I'm in the chair, my boat all night. In the morning, i can open my left eye a little without the right one screaming, I go back to the hospital to be checked out. It all looks good, says Dr Reddy, and my teenage Frankenstein -style bandage is exchanged for the blue plastic cup with its white X of tape. Eye drops four times a day, and each time I'm to put the cup back on. The first time I look in the mirror, I'm shocked at the sight of my naked eye. It looks dead. I have taken the notion of the eyes as the place where one sees the quickness within for granted; it never occurred to me that I would look at one of my own eyes and it would not be me. I thought of that terrifyingly abject moment in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," the Whitman poem where he's walking on the shore and comes upon his own drowned corpse, and the horror and fascination with which the speaker watches a bubble exude from his own dead lips.

On day three, I don't hurt. On the third or fourth day, I look at the eye again and it's me. The pupil is big, since I'm dilated all the time, and the iris is ringed in a slight corona of blood which widens, at the base, the way the sun sometimes seems to do when it's rising or setting over water. I think the iris is pointed a little more toward the ground than usual, since the whole eye seems a bit swollen, But I can see in it what I couldn't before: the evidence of my own character, the thinking me behind -- inside? -- the unreliable orb.


Nancy Devine said...

please consider compiling some or all these blog posts about your surgery and recovery into essay, perhaps.
it's important for us to read honest work about our bodies and health.

Quillfyre said...

I stumbled upon your blog just yesterday, and was fascinated by the posts about your eye. I can understand how frightening that would be. And then the posts ended Dec. 28, so I was somehow relieved to see a new post today, even though I do not know you.
It is hard enough to go through what you are experiencing, without sharing it with the world. I wish you all the best and a speedy recovery, with as little pain as possible.

Carol A. Stephen,
Ottawa, Canada

Anonymous said...

It's hard to imagine you unable to read or write (even temporarily), and your descriptions bring the experience vividly home. I wish you a full and speedy recovery, Mark. And thanks for being both nurse and transcriptionist, Paul.

Unknown said...

I'm the gal who wrote you the fan email yesterday. I have spent about an hour reading (and listening to) your poetry and just came across your blog. A few years ago I had major surgery and was confined to home for months. I decided to use the time for positive things that I never seemed to have time for during ordinary life. I watched videos of old Masterpiece Theatre productions that I had missed; I spent 30 minutes a day taking online tutorials; and I kept a private photojournal of the changes in my body. I hope you continue to record your progress. I only wish I lived close enough to send you chicken soup--the great panacea.

olorin86 said...

I would not have been able to resist that "juvenile urge" to use my own malady as a weapon against someone I love. I am surprised you had the will power to refrain.

Clint said...

Thank you for writing about your health experience (body experience?) with such honesty. I wish you the best.

Kathleen said...

Yes, thank you both for continuing this account. I wish you didn't have to go through it. But it looks like a very good thing you can give words to it.

Meredith said...

I'm getting shooting sympathy pains down my wrists and back. I hope you heal quickly.