“If every day is an awakening, you will never grow old. You will just keep growing.”~ Gail Sheehy.
I remember the simple joy of owning a flashlight. Being English by birth, I first knew it as a ‘torch’, but once we moved to Jamaica we soon adapted to the more American name. It was small and silver, but it had many uses. You could shine it on the wall, make shadow animals with your hands, or even hide under the covers and read your favorite book after you were supposed to be asleep. But I well remember the night I did something I had been warned never to do: I stared into the light for as long as I could. And then discovered that I couldn’t see! I stumbled to the bathroom, horrified at my new reality. I was blind! Worse than that, I was going to have to admit that I had done it to myself! I was a disobedient child! I had no idea what my punishment was going to be. You can imagine the promises I made about future good behavior when my eyes gradually adjusted back to normal vision.
A friend once asked me which of my senses I would be most unhappy to lose, which triggered an interesting set of thoughts. I always feel sorry for those who are hard of hearing. We tend to get aggravated when people ask us to repeat ourselves. As far as we are concerned we were talking very clearly! We get to experience how frustrating being hearing challenged must be whenever we have a bad connection on the phone. But what about being unable to smell? Food loses its taste whenever we are unable to use our olfactory senses to deepen our awareness of the taste of food. And when we lose our ability to savor the taste, what fun is eating? But being blind, surely that is the worst. How do you function, without your sense of sight? No reading, no watching TV, but worst of all, no ability to see the amazing wonders of nature, the beauty of a baby’s smile, a loved one’s face. But my friend stopped me in my tracks. ‘I would hate to lose the sense of touch,’ she said. ‘Can you imagine not being able to feel contact with another human being?’
When we hear of a friend’s illness, or the death of a loved one, we are given a sharp reminder of other daily gifts that we take for granted. This week the physicist Stephen Hawking died, after living for 55 years with a death sentence, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Over a relatively short period of time (and having been told he had maybe two years to live) he lost most of his physical abilities, and lived out the majority of his adult life totally dependent upon others for all of his daily needs. He lived this long thanks to access to health care as well as an array of technical devices that permitted him to speak electronically and continue to make a difference in this world. But what kept him alive far beyond the complex support system was his indomitable spirit, the will to continue living despite all of the challenges. One scientist discussing his life this week talked about his courage. A writer who had written of him and with him described him as a lonely man, for just holding a simple conversation with him took forever. It was not easy or quick for him to ‘type’ (by using eye movements) a sentence into the device for it to be then translated into synthesized speech. And yet he persisted.
Last weekend I developed some weird symptoms. At first I thought that my glass frames were catching the light – I could see weird little flashes of light. Then I realized they were coming from within, almost like the aura of visual kaleidoscopic images I often associate with a migraine. But these were different. Just semicircular flashes, intermittently seen off to the periphery of my right eye. And no headache. I (as most nurses do) quickly reviewed in my mind all I remembered of visual disturbances and their causes: compare and contrast: glaucoma and retinal detachment; macular degeneration and cataracts. But nothing that I remembered seemed to match what I was seeing. I went to sleep and woke up in the morning to find them still there, along with a vague ‘floater’. Ok, time for Mr. Google – and I reluctantly (again, like most nurses) recognized that indeed I would have to go and see my eye doctor, for one of the possibilities was retinal detachment, which I knew was not something that I would be able to ignore.
Fortunately (what a blow to my pride) I discovered that the cause of my symptoms is an aging eyeball! Apparently (and I don’t remember learning this in my nursing journey) as the eye ages, the vitreous (a jelly-like substance that maintains the shape of the posterior chamber of the eye) contracts, and in doing so it tugs on the retina, causing those weird flashes of light. Occasionally (and thankfully, not in my case), it can tear or damage the retina, and cause a retinal detachment, which requires intervention. In my case my funny eye doctor recommended that I avoid sky-diving for a while, no boxing, and just observe for any increase in symptoms as that could indicate a worsening of the situation.
Reflecting on my good fortune reminded me of how much time I spend using my eyes. I had recently scrolled through a friend’s photographs – she is an artist, and her paintings are so full of joy, so full of appreciation for the beauty of nature, that even through a computer screen you felt her seascapes splashing you; could see sunlight piercing through a cloudscape. And I knew that as long as I have a collection of memories, of the knowledge of the beauty of the earth, I am still more fortunate than many who have never had the gift of sight. Nietzsche said: “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.” And according to the scientists, the act of feeling gratitude releases the neurotransmitters responsible for a feeling of happiness.
This Friday morning I wish you nuff to reflect upon and be grateful for. Each day we are given opportunities to demonstrate appreciation for the joys of life, even in the midst of sudden destruction. Give thanks!