Thursday, March 8, 2018

Change Is Good

I wish I could count how many times I've heard that expression. In the working world, it's often used in the aftermath of some unpleasant occurrence, in which it serves to appease those who may have some lingering uncertainty about the decisions that have been made. "The whole organization one level up from me may be gone, but I guess change is good." I suppose that, in that context, it serves a useful purpose. But one morning last summer, I experienced change on a whole new level.

On January 31, 2017, as part of an optional voluntary retirement program, I left a job which I had held for over 21 years. That's a long time in any position, but for me, there was no question that it was a good move. I had weathered countless reorganizations and changes in corporate direction, many with more than a little drama, and those facts, coupled with the financial uncertainty that the company was facing, convinced me that it was simply time to do something else. I had a wonderful retirement party -- people said the nicest things, and as I left the building that sunny Tuesday afternoon, I snapped a picture looking back toward the entrance and promptly made it my Facebook cover photo.

In those first few weeks away from my job, I found myself having to acclimate to such things as quiet grocery stores, an absence of scheduled meetings, and a noticeable lack of traffic (with seemingly lost drivers). In March, I accompanied my younger daughter Hannah to Washington, D.C., on a job interview trip, and when she was offered the position several weeks later, I helped her move from North Carolina to an art deco apartment in the nation's capital. I felt happy that I had the luxury of time to be part of that experience. She got settled in nicely to her new neighborhood, and along the way, we made some great memories.

Back home, the days were getting warmer. On a Monday morning in June, I headed over to my favorite local coffee shop to browse LinkedIn and Glassdoor in search of another IT position. I was somewhat distracted by a local film crew that was interviewing people to get their views on a hotly contested local election, but after finishing a delicious chocolate muffin and a large Americano, I headed home.

It had been some time since I'd caught up with Words With Friends, so I pulled out my iPhone, and that's when I noticed it -- an object that looked like a tree branch had appeared suddenly in my left eye. I called to my wife Karen, who was upstairs, and told her that something had happened and that I needed to get to my eye doctor. In a strange twist of fate, Karen was home at the time, having been laid off from her job some two months earlier. We got in the car and headed to the optometrist's office.

My eye doctor examined my eye and told me that I had a vitreous detachment, a condition which is not unusual for people my age, and that I should watch it carefully for the next few days to make sure that it did not damage my retina. Quick physiology lesson: the vitreous humor, or simply vitreous, is a gel-like substance which fills the eye. The retina can be thought of like wallpaper that covers the back of the eye and contains receptors for color and black-and-white vision. In the case of vitreous detachment, the vitreous substance shrinks; normally, this is not an issue, but in some cases, the vitreous takes the retina along with it. If left untreated, this condition leads to blindness in the eye. At that initial visit, my eye doctor wanted to make sure that this was not happening.

The next morning, Tuesday, my vision was much worse. Now, in addition to the "tree branch," my eye appeared to be filled with murky water. Also, and this was downright disturbing, I was starting to see a black bubble appearing in the bottom of my field of vision. We returned to the eye doctor, and I was told to head immediately to a retinal surgeon on the other side of Atlanta.

The story gets rather complicated from here, but to summarize, I was indeed experiencing a retinal detachment, and owing to the speed with which it was progressing, I required surgery on Thursday. I could go into detail, but suffice to say that this is a type of surgery which cannot be performed with lasers -- manual intervention is required. The surgery went smoothly, but afterward, my vision was extremely blurry in my left eye. It gradually improved, and after a time, I was able to function fairly normally, although with lingering blurred vision in the left eye. In early September, I had more surgery, this time to remove a cataract which had formed in the eye and to replace the lens with an intraocular implant. For a few weeks, everything was getting back to my new sense of "normal."

On the morning of Halloween, I noticed flashes in my right eye's field of vision. Knowing that this was a potential indicator of vitreous and/or retinal detachment, I returned to my retinal surgeon. He indicated that the retina appeared to be trying to detach, but that he would attempt a laser treatment to secure it into place. He zapped my right eye with unbelievably bright green laser beams, and I was told to rest for another week or so. Unfortunately, only four days later, on a Saturday evening, I began to see a telltale black bubble in the eye. I knew what was coming.

The following Monday morning, I returned to my retinal surgeon, and he confirmed that the right eye's retina was indeed detaching like the left eye had done, at a very rapid pace, which necessitated emergency surgery. That evening, I had surgery on my right eye. But this time, my vision was more sharply affected; for about a week following the surgery, I was unable to read text of any type or size. Karen helped me by reading my email, text messages, and Facebook posts. I would dictate replies, and she would send or post them. For all that week, I have to admit that I felt helpless. Objects were just a blur, the problem being that the first (left) eye had sustained permanent macular damage when its retina detached, rendering me unable to read text in the center of my field of vision. Now, the right eye, although repaired to the extent possible, was also a mess.

The recovery for the right eye took about six to seven weeks. During the surgery, a "buckle" had been secured around my right eye to keep the retina in place, resulting in extreme nearsightedness in that eye. I was prescribed contacts to help in the interim and was told that I would need cataract removal and lens implant surgery in the right eye. (I will actually be starting that process in the next several weeks and hopefully will be able, at the end of that time, to see more clearly.)

But enough of the physical details. What I really want to communicate here is how all this has affected me.

When I experienced the "tree branch" effect that Monday morning, I had literally been minding my own business. I was hanging out at a coffee shop, looking for a new job, and generally doing the things that ordinary people do. When the eye problems led to surgery, I became a person at the mercy of others to a degree -- I could not read clearly, I could not drive myself anywhere, and even my favorite pastime, exercise walking, became something of a challenge. In time, I was able to read and work for short periods on a computer screen, and within the last couple of months, I have started driving again, but only to familiar places and in agreeable weather. I'm dealing with it, and in fact, the whole experience has given me fresh insights.

I don't see things quite the way I did before. When you experience something like loss of vision or, to a more serious degree, a debilitating or life-threatening illness, you start to be very grateful for what you have. Little things, and to paraphrase a popular bestseller, they're all little things, just don't bother me the way they used to. I don't complain as much, because I don't see much to complain about -- I'm just glad to be able to see anything at all. I realize that there are many people who are not as lucky as I am, and to say my heart goes out to them would be a vast understatement.

As many of you know, I have always been a rather social person, some would say an extrovert, so I did not know how I was going to deal with a) being away from a work environment, and b) being by myself. Fortunately, on both counts, I seem to have adjusted. I miss my friends from work, but I see some of them on a regular basis, so I stay up to date on what's happening in my old corporate world. And as for the being alone part, I've learned to value peace and quiet. Some days, I utter no words other than asking the dogs if they want to go outside. This is a complete one-eighty from my old persona. Many of you might be surprised (and amused) to know how quiet I actually can be.

We recently were blessed with the birth of our first grandchild, a sweet boy named Brooks Macalister. His parents, our daughter Sarah and son-in-law Tom, are taking to parenthood as if they'd written the book. When I look into Brooks' bright, inquisitive eyes, I see all that is ahead for him, all the experiences, the successes, and the challenges. I want very much to get past my current infirmity so that we can explore the world together, and I know that's just a matter of time.

My wife Karen has been so incredibly supportive of me, listening to my eye stories, helping me read and navigate, and just generally being there. Our daughters and son-in-law are making their respective ways in the world, and I am quite proud of them all. My friends have gone above and beyond to communicate their care and concern. And this is what it's all about. I can forego the pace of my "old" life if this is what I get in return.

Each day that I can look out and quite literally see the world, rain or shine, is a gift. Maybe in my previous life, I took some of those days for granted, but that is no longer the case. Live it, everyone, because nothing is really guaranteed. Treasure the things you see and the days of your life, regardless of what happens, because change is inevitable, and once in a while, it actually can be good.