1. The encroaching darkness
I am not sure when I first noticed it. Rings appearing around lights. The figures on the Union Station departure boards doubling. Not so much blurriness, but darkness.
One’s eyesight declines with age. It happens. It was happening to me. I would have to live with this existential angst as I approached my fiftieth year. “You are aging. But your health is excellent. You should rejoice in that. Others have it much worse.”
My biannual eye exams detected nothing other than a growing need for reading glasses. Nothing more.
One evening, standing in the shower, I got soap in my left eye and shut it. I realized that my right eye was worse. Drastically worse.
Making eye contact had never been easy for me. Now, when I looked up, I felt my wounded right eye staring into blurry space, and I avoided it even more. My confidence plummeted. My work suffered.
2. The shadows of my mind
When I was younger, I had rituals to keep away the darkness. At night, I would recite a mental prayer to keep me safe from all manner of diseases. There was a rhythm, a ritual to these recitations, a liturgy to give me comfort from the horrible things I read about every day. When I was a little older, I added nuclear war to the things I prayed would not happen to me. My vision of the future was limited to what was safe, what was nearby. The love of others had always been hard for me to obtain; best to go with the sure thing.
3. Let there be light
As I crossed into my 20s, I began to question the fundamental premise of fear I had built my life around. The world itself was opening, the Berlin Wall falling, the Cold War receding. I made new friends, ended relationships, began others. I survived—no, I thrived. I turned my focus from the minute and precise to the large and expansive. The mysteries of life no longer frightened me; to the contrary, I embraced them, drinking deeply of newfound springs of knowledge. The liturgy of fears was forgotten, and with them, my old faith. The world could be an awful place, but a beautiful one as well. I chose the light, a light bright enough to banish the shadows. I resolved to never let fear grip me again.
4. The world is getting better and better
Bathed in light, warding off the shadows, I took the better illuminated path, the easier way, the one presenting the least difficulties. I could not fail. I would not fail. Instead, I would find another place to prevail, to be resilient, to pivot, to adapt. I would pick my battles. I would always see the best in any situation. When the towers fell in 2001, I rejoiced in the coming together in its aftermath, the heroism of ordinary individuals, the unlikelihood of a repeat. I could lend my strength to the weak.
Until I became the weak. Until I began to doubt myself, seeing myself in another’s eyes as less than. The last time, I had pivoted away from that challenge, chosen not to fight, to take another path. This time, I could not. This time, I had to face myself. The shadows were again growing, threatening, looming around the corners. But I looked for the light, and I again found it, seized it. Beat back the shadows again, denied they existed at all. Confidence was regained in the speed at which the new doors opened, and I stepped through.
The world was bright and shiny again. The election of Barack Obama underscored the possibility that the world truly was changing for the better. I was in a job I loved, learning, growing, flourishing, standing astride the path I had chosen, making it mine. I could even turn back, pick up threads dropped long ago, such as my passion for the music of Rush, weaving them into a bright tapestry. My father’s death, the financial crisis—nothing darkened my soul for too long.
1. The encroaching darkness
Around 2014, I began to notice that the light seemed to be dimming. In the midst of some signs of progress in the United States—the passage of Obamacare, the legalization of same-sex marriage—increasingly an undercurrent of anger seemed to be rising to the surface. But the light still seemed bright enough to sustain itself. After all, the United States was a shining beacon of some of the finest ideals the world had ever seen; by no means perfect, these would carry the day, would they not? The high road would be taken, the truth would prevail…yes?
Driving around Hamilton on the evening of November 8, 2016, hearing the results come in from the election, I knew early that it was not going as expected.
I had, like so many, taken the light for granted.
Months later. My doctor was on leave. I put off making an appointment until when she returned. By then, I was fairly sure I knew the source of my problems, and she confirmed it: I had a cataract on my right eye. Six weeks later, I saw an optician, who noted that I actually had cataracts in both eyes. The type I had were typically seen in people who had been on steroidal medications. I never had been.
The office said they would call me within a few weeks to set up the pre-surgical exam.
All I could see was shadow. I questioned my abilities, my intelligence, the fundamental perceptions of who I was as a person. I looked for the light. But for the first time, I was not encouraged by the world I saw around me. In the past, I had always been able to find joy. I had no use for grief, for sorrow, for anger. These were things to be overcome. They were darkness. They were not to be indulged. I had no language for them.
Outside, I kept up the façade. Inside, all was grey. Numb.
In August, I contacted the optician wondering when I would be hearing from them. It was as if they had forgotten me, but within a few days, I had—at last! —an appointment for mid-September for the pre-surgical assessment. I even had a preliminary date for the surgery, September 23.
The light flickered encouragingly.
And then went out entirely. I heard a few days after the appointment that my surgery was cancelled, and that I was to see my eye doctor at his office. September 25, 2017 was one of the worst days of my entire life, as I sat in his chair hearing that my cataract was so bad that they were unable to operate. I would have to be referred to a surgeon with experience in complex cataracts—a process that could take months.
I came home and had a panic attack. What if I lost my drivers’ license before I could have surgery? What if I lost my job? What if what I had could not be fixed? What if the darkness were permanent? What if?
8. A door opens
But in the midst of that darkness, that very afternoon, my doctor called. He had found a doctor in Mississauga who dealt with complex cataracts. And within hours, I had an appointment for one week later.
One year ago today, I had the cataract surgery in my right eye. The left eye followed at the beginning of December.
The physical problem was corrected. But this—and the world—had broken me—old, long-healed fractures had opened up. To someone looking in from the outside, there would have been little evidence of this. Like a cat, I had learned to hide my pains very well out of fear of those who would prey on them. I do not confide easily in others. The depth of my feelings is somewhat embarrassing, and I tend to minimize them. After all, I came from an intact family with loving parents, am financially secure, have been married for 27 years, possess an outstanding education, and privilege in many ways. Materially, I have never wanted for anything.
What had I to complain about? What had I to fear?
I know the answer to that question now. I fear the future, a future where I might be deprived of these things, a world mourning what I once but no longer was, of potential squandered, of joy taken for granted now slipping through my fingers, a future where despite my best efforts, people turned on each other. A world diminished.
Fear paralyzes me—unless I can find the language to name that fear, and then the courage to persist, to prevail despite it. I have spent a full year searching for that language, and, like learning any new language, it has been at times overwhelming. But there is strength in understanding that others have passed this way, and have left signposts for me to see, to hear, to read…but most importantly, to feel.
To name the fear, I must first accept that there is no light without shadow, no shadow without light. Those shadows cannot be willed away. They are part of the light, exist in balance with the light. They are part of a whole. If I turn from the shadows, they do not disappear. They grow, unattended, no matter how much I want to believe they are not there at all.
But what I fear most is also true. Shadow has the power to fully obscure the light. This has happened before. I will see it, and the instinct will be to recoil, and insist it cannot happen again, and refuse to name it. But it can, and it will.
It is easy, so easy for me to slip into the shadows. To become numb. To succumb. To not have to feel the hurt and pain. To take the path of least resistance. To avoid failure. To shrug it off. To wait for the great burst of light to dispel the gloom.
What I fear most is this: that I will accept the shadow as light, accept that a life diminished is acceptable because it causes me less conflict, less pain. Because it is more comfortable.
Let there be light and shadow, and let me know the difference.