Eyes frighten me. Or perhaps I should be more specific: eye injuries frighten me, and eye surgery, and eye infections and most things having to do with the eye that aren’t simply seeing or wearing glasses or contacts.
I haven’t studied the eye since medical school, so perhaps it’s simply ignorance that makes me fearful. What I remember boils down to this: The eye is unspeakably complex. Sight is a miracle. Daring people operate on the eye with teensy retractors that keep the eye from blinking.
That’s what I know about the eye, and I tell you this to try to explain why I got nervous when my mom told me she wanted her cataracts done.
“Really?” I asked, trying not to sound as freaked out as I felt.
“I can’t see the birds at the bird feeder,” she said. “I can’t tell them apart.”
“OK,” I nodded slowly. Inside though I was thinking, “What’s so great about birds?”
I would have been less nervous if my mother were in better health. She is not, as we say in the surgery world, an ideal “operative candidate.” She has emphysema. She’s on home oxygen. Washing her hair makes her short of breath. When she gets riled up watching the news, that makes her short of breath, too. Mostly she reads books and watches birds at her bird feeder.
Still, cataract surgery is common, and it doesn’t require general anesthesia, which is probably the biggest risk for someone with lame lungs like my mom. Instead, patients get numbing eye drops, and then a whiff of intravenous sedation, and the whole thing takes maybe 30 minutes. When I asked my anesthesiologist friends whether I should worry about Mom having cataract surgery, every one of them shook their heads.
“She’ll be fine,” they reassured me. “Everybody’s old, and they all do great.”
My parents had a secret plan for Mom’s cataract surgery. The plan was to go by themselves. They even did a dry run, driving up to the surgicenter one Sunday to make sure they could find it. Not asking me to come was their way of minimizing the whole thing.
“It’s just an outpatient procedure,” Dad said when he sprang the plan on me.
I nixed it fast. Sure, cataracts are minor surgery, and sure my anesthesia pals were reassuring, but what if Mom died getting her cataracts done? What if her emphysema flared up and she had to go to the hospital? Or the sedation was too much for her and she forgot to breathe? Or what if the operating microscope fell apart and stabbed her in the eye? Or Godzilla came to the building to attack my mom?
I was anxious. Get it? I mean, Joan Rivers died from “minor” surgery, and she was in much better shape than my mom.
In her cubicle at the cataract place, Mom looked frail and cold. The gentle pre-op nurse wrapped her up in a blanket. With her white hair and no makeup, Mom was barely visible against the white sheets and white blanket and the white walls of the cubicle. It was hard for me to see her so pale and shivery.
The woman in the cubicle next door was ahead of Mom on the cataract schedule. The nurse noted her vital signs though, and she had a heart rate of 140. For a while, as I sat with Mom, I could hear doctors and nurses yakking about the heart rate. They called her cardiologist, who decided she had to go to the emergency room. That was good for my Mom, who moved up in the queue and didn’t even know why because she hadn’t bothered to bring her hearing aids. It was less good for me, affirming my suspicion that catastrophe was just around the corner.
Mom surprised me by doing fine. To celebrate, we picked up some big fat BLT’s on the way home. Cataract Number Two was a couple weeks later, and that went well too.
Mom can read without her glasses now, which is just fantastic. Last Tuesday, I went over for prime rib night at their senior citizen community. Mom told me triumphantly that she’d been able to see the eyeline on a Carolina wren.
Now that it’s all done, I can confess the truth. I didn’t want her to do it. Even the small risk seemed too risky to me. I wanted Mom to settle, to simply accept her limitations. But that’s not who she is. Even at 85, with bad lungs and oxygen, she isn’t someone who settles, and in the end, I am glad to be reminded of it.
In 2008, Mom cried as she watched the inauguration of an African-American president. Now she’s hoping that she hangs around on planet Earth long enough to have a woman as her president. She doesn’t want to hear about it either. She wants to see it with her own eyes.