Saturday, January 29, 2011

Even all night long

I've just been given permission to read again, after nearly four weeks of that sort of eye movement being off-limits. It feels extraordinary, this permission -- it's as if I've been away somewhere, and have just come home. But there was an odd little daunting feeling, too: what to read first? It had to be exactly right; some quality of magical thinking attached itself to the choice.

So it was a gift to find Jean Valentine's new book, BREAK THE GLASS (Copper Canyon, 2010). And especially this poem, something no one else could have written, and which seems a pure distillation of comfort, of being cared for.


Even all night long while
the night train

pulls me on in my dream
like a needle

Even then, down in my bed
my hand across the sheet

anyone's hand
my face anyone's face

are held
and kissed

the water
the child

the friend

Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Right Eye 6


Not being allowed to lie down for two weeks sounds like the sort of simple but nightmarish torture inflicted on those held at Guantanamo, but in fact it's not been so bad, thanks to a comfortable chair to sleep in, even though the sleep's been on the restless side. But I have been a little surprised at the intensity of the longing; as with any prohibition, suddenly the proscribed thing seems intensely alluring, as if it's just calling to you from across the divide between the permissible and the disallowed.

On Thursday, January 20, I was allowed to lie down again, and it seemed ridiculously luxurious. I took two naps that day; i paid attention to how it felt to lower my body onto the bed, turned to my left side (lying on my back is still verboten, as it would contribute to cataract formation. I watched myself drifting into sleep, that feeling of descending further. Just now I don't think I can get enough of that.


Also on January 20, and an equal pleasure: I'm allowed out once a day, for one errand. I left the apartment at seven on Thursday morning. It had snowed in the night, and was still snowing, but by the time I walked around the block and stopped to talk to Sam's 'father' - Sam is a gorgeous Weimarner pup, and I regret I don't know his human companion's name -- the sky was clearing, and sun beginning to break out across the white sidewalk and the white cars. One eye enough to be dazzled.

I am not yet, however, allowed to read, and that seems, if it goes on much longer, far more dire than the other prohibitions.


January 22: Wally died today seventeen years ago. How can that be, seventeen years? I have a terrible time remembering dates and numbers of any sort; I need a visual or sonic mnemonic to make them stick. For the date of Wally's departure, it's two swans with their necks bent.


Sweet generosities: the kindness of Susan, Angelo, Zach, Adam, Jaime, Guy, John, Alex, Algis, Koshin, Chodo, Paul M, Carolyn, Alison, Terry, and more Facebook well-wishers than I could shake the proverbial stick at. (That's one of my parents' southern regionalisms, as far as know, and where on earth did it come from? "More than you could shake a stick at" was used to describe any uncountable number. Why would you be shaking a stick at things?)

And of course Paul, walking Ned many times a day, shopping, getting the mail, reading Jane Eyre aloud, and only very occasionaly looking like I am driving him crazy. In my own estimation I am a calm and grateful invalid, as far as the species go, but you'd have to ask him.


For two weeks I wore, at home, my perforated metal eye patch with its blue plastic rim, held onto my face with an x of white adhesive tape. Then, when I'd set it on the coffee table while I put in eye drops, Ned got ahold of it and made short work of the thing. Paul was appalled, while I was relieved; I didn't like that thing one bit, and it gave me an excuse to wear instead the classic black piratical kind I got at the drugstore. Well, almost classic: it has a stiff armature that holds it away from the eye in a flattened cone, rather like one of those bustier cups Jean Paul Gaultier made for Madonna, but not quite so pointy. Two different men have asked me if I really need it or it's just a look; they both thought it was hot. Chodo took a careful look at it and said, You like that, don't you? And I do.


So here's the prognosis. On Thursday I go back to the hospital so Dr Reddy can see how I'm healing, Late in February, the grayish bubble of gas in my eye will have been absorbed into my system, and he'll be able to see what kind of shape my retina is in. Maybe a second surgery, maybe not. Vision will be compromised to some degree by the scars on my retina, but I don't know how much. In early summer, I'll have surgery to remove the cataract caused by my treatment. Cataract surgery is remarkable: the clouded lens of my right eye will be dissolve by a laser, and then a tiny plastic lens will be inserted, unfolded, and slipped into place. It will be a prescription lens, of course, and thus to some degree will compensate for my loss of vision. And maybe, who can say, that will be the end of the saga of the eye. Though Dr. Reddy says we are going to be togther for a long time, and I don't want to press too much to learn what he means by that. Enough for the future to unfold, as it does, enough for the eye to open onto the sun on the snowy sidewalk. Or this morning, the marvel of going to the GLBT Center on 13th Street, and walking down the curving stair, holding onto the handrail while the distorted but nonetheless apprehensible stairs flow downward beneath me. Provisionally functional man descending a staircase.

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.