"You have cataracts, and you should have surgery as soon as possible." I was stunned. Only old people have cataracts, I thought.
We go through many rites of passage in our lives. I have already written about some of mine for other prompts.
Up, Up and Away described my unforgettable high school graduation. Nice Day for a White Wedding recounted both times that I got married. For the prompt 9/11, I wrote The End of the World, which included a description of my 50th birthday party, twelve days before the terrorist attack.
But now I am going to tell you about my most recent rite of passage — cataract surgery.
My vision has been bad for so much of my life, I can barely remember a time when it was good. I got my first pair of glasses when I was eight or nine. In high school I got hard contacts, which were not all that comfortable. Then in college I got soft contacts, which had just been invented. Contact lenses were a big improvement for me, not only of my appearance, but also of my vision because I actually wore them all the time, unlike my glasses. For more than fifty years contacts provided me with excellent vision, both close up and far away. However, in recent years they had become bifocal contact lenses, with two concentric circles on each lens. Perhaps the need for bifocals was a sign of advancing age, but still I thought I could see quite well. Then I started noticing that I was having trouble reading street signs. It was hard to see while driving at night if there were headlights from an oncoming car. When I watched television, if there were subtitles, or if they were showing texts on someone’s phone, I had to stand close to the TV to read them, even though the distance from the couch to the TV is maybe ten feet at most. So I knew it was time to get my eyes checked.
I hadn’t been to the optometrist in almost three years. He had given me a prescription for disposable contacts which provided me with twelve pairs, and I was supposed to start wearing a new pair every month, throw out the old pair, and come back for a new prescription at the end of the year. But I could never bear to throw the lenses out when they were still working perfectly well. So I would wear a pair for two months, or even three months. Once I went almost five months before I broke out a new pair. The result was that I didn’t get to my final pair until towards the end of the third year. But as soon as I opened those last two little bottles, I called to make my appointment.
It turned out that my regular optometrist was not there when I went in for my appointment, and a perky young woman was covering for him. She finished the exam and then said “You have cataracts. They are pretty far advanced, especially in the right eye, and you should have surgery as soon as possible.” I was stunned. I think usually people have more warning, get told a cataract is developing, and then each year it is a little worse and ultimately they have surgery, but they have had several years to get used to the idea. I wonder whether, if my regular optometrist had been there, he would have broken it to me more gently.
I went home and cried. It just seemed too awful. Not only because the idea of surgery on my eyes was alarming, but also because cataracts were something that only old people had! I was not ready to be one of those old people! We had been talking about having a party at the end of the summer, and I said we can’t have a party, I’m too upset about having cataracts! Luckily, although we had designed the evites, we had not yet sent them out. So the party was canceled.
I did not want to tell a soul. This was a terrible, humiliating secret, as far as I was concerned.
In between the optometrist appointment and the initial consultation with the eye surgeon, we went to New York for our annual family reunion. I had no intention of mentioning it to anyone, but my husband and my oldest sister always play duets together, he on clarinet and she on piano, and in between pieces they chat. I’m not sure how it came up, it may have been that my sister said something about developing a cataract, and he told her that I was going to have the surgery after we got home. At first I was angry that he had told her, but I ended up having a long talk with both of my sisters about it, and they were very supportive and reassuring. And best of all, they knew of people who were even younger than I was who had needed cataract surgery. So that made me feel better.
When I met with my surgeon, I instantly liked him and felt confident in him. He explained all the different options, because it turns out there are choices to be made about what kind of lens they put in when they take out your own lens. It turned out there was one that would not only correct my distance and close vision, it would also correct my astigmatism. Amazing! That one cost more than Medicare would pay, but of course I wanted it anyway. He promised me that I would never need glasses or contacts again!
On October 7, 2019, I had the first eye operated on. It was my right eye, the one that had had worse vision my whole life. (In fact, my original glasses had only had a corrective lens for the right eye, the left lens was window glass.) I came home after the surgery and slept most of the day. My operated eye was very sensitive to light, and I had to wear sunglasses, not only outside but also in the house. The next night, October 8th, was Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur, and I was singing with my choir at services. I was worried that I might have problems seeing the music, but it was no problem at all. The slight bit of bruising had already disappeared, and I could see perfectly! I did wear sunglasses at services, but I doubt anyone even noticed.
I didn’t have my second eye operated on until December 16th. I gather that usually people don’t wait that long between the two surgeries, except in rare cases where the cataracts don’t develop at the same time. But the surgeon was all booked up for the rest of October, and I had too many things going on in November, so I didn’t want to be incapacitated, even for a day. During those ten weeks I just wore my left contact lens and nothing in my right eye, and it worked out perfectly.
So while this initally seemed like a rite of passage from middle age to old age, I feel just as young as ever, and the amazing thing is that I can now see better than I have at any time since I got that first pair of glasses in elementary school. I have no problem with driving at night now, which many of my peers find themselves unable to do, and I can easily see everything, both far and near. It turned out to be wonderful! And yes, those are my eyes at the top of the story.