Through the Gas Darkly: While Waiting for Susan and Derek, Contending with the Bubble
When I received the gas bubble for Christmas, I thought it more a lump of coal than gift. A snarky New Yorker, at Christmas I anticipate root canals and boiler breakdowns. Now I can add a detached retina to the list.
Six months ago at my annual eye exam, my ophthalmologist catalogued the natural shocks my mid-life eyeballs were heir to. Since then, I was content to blame everything on aging. Finally, the black shadow that crept into the lower left quadrant of my vision field forced me to return to the doctor. Right as the holiday closed in, of course.
Before dawn, on the morning after Christmas, I cabbed it down to the New York Eye & Ear Infirmary. Urgent care was empty at 6 a.m., as I had hoped. To my credit, I came armed with lots of info and surgery-ready (as I’d put myself on NPO since the previous night).
The second-year resident referred to my retinal tear as “a big boy,” and gushed over the expert laser staples which were intended to try to keep it from worsening. They were placed on Christmas Eve by a mensch of an eye surgeon who neither took Obamacare nor charged me (and had me in his office for a follow up on Christmas morning).
By 10 a.m., I had fallen into the care of the most wonderful retinal fellow and attending eye surgeon. My surgery was scheduled for 2:00 that afternoon. I was overwhelmed.
Though the surgery was unremarkable (to the doctors, that is), my eye pressure was high and my bruising, by medical standards, considerable. Twenty-four hours out of surgery, the bandage was removed. My left eye looked like an overripe tomato that had met with a most hapless end.
As anyone afforded fellowship in this society of particular misfortune knows, attention must be paid to the gas; that is, the gas bubble, inserted in the eye at the conclusion of retinal reattachment surgery. She holds my retina in place while lasered tissue reaches maximum strength over the course of her doomed 56-day life.
She will rule for the foreseeable future. Refuse to recognize her exalted status and she’ll give you a cataract, sabotage your recovery and deny you a good outcome. She can even blind you permanently.
She allows me to capture sources of light and distinguish some color. But they are blurs and blobs; they do not help me navigate the world. Until she’s ready to reveal what’s behind the thick Vaseline veil, there is, as Samuel Beckett says, “nothing to be done.”
Timed for destruction, she is very much, as Beckett also says, born “astride of a grave.” While eight weeks is all she gets, I’ll be able to discern her diminution beginning at about week four. Moving on, there’ll be less and less of her. But what will be left in her wake is the big mystery. No one can tell me what my vision will be. Some patients require additional surgery to reattach the retina. Since I fell into the minority who had their retina detach in the first place, I am on edge.
My ticket to see Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule at the Beacon on New Year’s Eve was the first casualty. No, I couldn’t manage it just a few days out from surgery. Then there was Steve Earle at City Winery. Listen, I’m there often and even with the lights on and two functioning eyes, I can barely see the bill or make my way around that place, it’s so dimly lit. I had to let it go.
When the Tedeschi Trucks Band takes the stage of the Apollo Theater in just a few weeks, in tandem with release of their third studio album, it’ll be exactly a month to the day since I was given the gas bubble. I’ve no idea what my world will look like by then, or if I’ll even be able to use my second row ticket. With one eye and little, if any, depth perception, how will I navigate a theater packed with people? Get to the bathroom? Get home on a dark winter’s night? Will there be enough cabs for everyone? Will I have enough confidence by then to take the train? What about the weather?
This compulsive New York City schlepper is not to walk more than five blocks nor carry more than five pounds. Hell, my pocketbook alone, stuffed with “just in case” necessities that no paranoid Gothamite can live without, weighs far more than that – forget the additional weight of the roast chicken and bag of bialys from Zabar’s.
I’m not to exert myself, bend over, get water in my eye, or sleep on my back. I sport a wrist band informing medical personnel that she is there, in my eye, the gas bubble, so no do-gooder administers nitrous oxide to me.
I am absolutely forbidden to fly. My father is 93. We recently reconnected after decades of estrangement. Between now and the end of February, if something happens, I cannot even attempt to get to him. The bubble is forcing me to quickly make a more profound and thorough peace.
I rely upon my clients for a living and they rely upon me for services. I was smack in the middle of complicated dental work which I’ve waited years to finish. My creative business was scheduled to be launched soon.
Oh, we make plans; the gas bubble laughs.
My doctor advised against too much analysis of the bubble. Fickle and out of all predictable bounds, the bubble can make you crazy with fear, confound and exasperate you. Come to think of it, the doctor never said a kind word about the bubble.
I am not analyzing so much as reconciling, I explained to the doctor. Like it or not, the bubble knows what we, who are truly in the dark, don’t. (I wonder if she knows she’s being used and will slip into the ether.)
The other morning, I closed my good eye and tried to enter her gassy haze. It was chartreuse, so close to the color of Chanel 19, I could smell it. Khachaturian’s Spartacus Adagio was playing and the bubble seemed to warm and pulse, and meld with the strings. She seemed happy.
I fumbled to click on Derek’s Swamp Raga/Little Martha intro to “Midnight in Harlem.” Upon the bubble’s undulating superior border lapped a luscious violet pool. In sync with Derek’s guitar, it stretched seemingly behind my head. Since vision is inverted, this is actually the bottom, not the top, of my eye. That ridge of the bubble dipped down to nearly mid-eye, just as Susan’s voice soared during a video of “Until You Remember,” a song that, sadly, she rarely does anymore.
I imagined little people from the television show Land of the Giants climbing up, struggling to grip a mutable ledge, and peering over. The teeny fools trying to cling to a shape-shifting mantel might end up like the miniaturized medical team in Fantastic Voyage: threshing about in an eyeball flooded with tears.
In late February, exactly eight weeks and one day out from my surgery, Susan and Derek will end a string of nights at D.C.’s Warner Theatre with a sold-out, two-set show. I have my hotel room, my Amtrak tickets and my fifth row seat. The gas bubble should be gone by then, but with what will she leave me? Will I be going to D.C? Will I be heading for more surgery?
I implore the bubble to let me marvel at Derek’s fingers, sliding about on his Gibson. Please, please allow me to focus rapt attention, with awe as always, upon the nuanced ways by which he orchestrates the band: with his eyes, a head nod, a contemplative sway of guitar, and a gentle but deliberate chop.
I wonder how I’d react if Susan and Derek performed “I’d Rather Go Blind,” as they did (with Warren Haynes) at the White House. Oh, Scarlett, I’ll think about that tomorrow.
If you are in the D.C. audience that Saturday night in February, and your head is whipped around by the sound of a hoot and holler, and you see a middle-aged lady unabashedly jumping up and exerting herself with such unfettered joy, and dancing out to the bathroom with such brio, you’ll know: The Christmas gas bubble came and went, but the gift endures.
I’ll honor her in my heart, and try to keep her all the year.