If you’re a newly subscribed, hello and welcome. And if you haven’t already, I recommend going back to go read my last newsletter, because it had a lot of interesting things to say about people being eaten by bears.
Now, normally I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with my two daughters, ages 5 and 7. After a year of lockdown it was getting a bit claustrophic, so I decided to take the girls to a farmhouse in Maine. We stayed there about six weeks or so; it was fun and peaceful and good.
Then I had another idea, which was to take the girls to Michigan. Mind you, this is not something I would normally do. Visiting my in-laws in suburban Detroit is a bit like walking into Mordor.
To be candid, I’d been avoiding my in-laws for years. Fact is, I don’t really approve of them. It’s not just them really; it’s their entire generation. Theirs is a lazy, shiftless generation. Hedonistic, irresponsible and idle. Most of them don’t know a hard day’s work. My father-in-law spent his entire career (his word, not mine) as a pastor for a church. Which – and this is what I told him when we first met – is not a real job, just a paid excuse to leave the house for a few hours, once per week.
When I first met the in-laws, I sat them both down and gave them my frank assessment. I told them I’d reviewed their history and that it was high time they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. In short, I recommended they become realistic about their careers – especially if they wanted to join my family. Because, as it seemed to me, my bride-to-be stood to inherit precisely nothing from them. No house, no land. No sheep nor cattle. Nothing at all, apart from a penchant to leaving personal items carelessly around the house.
“It’s all very well being idealistic,” I said to them, “but eventually you have to become practical.”
After all, they’d bleated at me about wanting their daughter to have a so-called traditional wedding. Fair enough, I said. So where, then, is the dowry? Where was my requisite number of oxen?
But sadly, they are not serious people and they did not heed my good advice, so I did the only sensible thing and washed my hands of them. A decade passed, and I’d all but forgotten about their existence. News eventually reached me – if you’ll believe this – that not only did the old man fail to get a proper job but had decided it was time to retire!
(For anyone born after 1970, retirement is a sort of protracted vacation that … look, nevermind. It’s not something we’ll ever be able to do…)
Retired my foot, I thought at the time. They should be put to work. Then it occurred to me. They could babysit my children while I write important novels. And did I mention – not a single head of oxen?
Besides, minding my bairns for me would give their lives some meaning and purpose. In a lot of ways, I’d be doing them a favour.
So, I piled everything into the back of a rented minivan and brought the children all the way from Maine to Michigan. And by the way, April’s entire newsletter was going to be about that journey. I thought about it all the way; it’s a beautiful country. And Michigan is a remarkably pretty state, except for where there are buildings, of course. There are trees and woods and glades, and it’s all lovely. Problem is, some parts of Michigan look precisely like what Sauron would have done to the Shire if he’d gotten his hands on the Ring.
Anyway, about two days after we arrived in the suburbs of Detroit, I was sitting at their dinner table, about to give the old people some advice about responsibility, when a strange shadow strayed into my vision. And then, somewhat ominously, the shadow remained. Right in front of my eyes.
Difficult to explain what it was like. Kelp or seaweed or something, but inside my right eye, obscuring about one quarter of the vision. I pulled out my phone and googled the issue a little.
And let me properly emphasise those words ‘a little’. Because if I’d googled the subject slightly more (like, for maybe ‘a moderate amount’!) I’d have proceeded, correctly, to the nearest emergency room. But I did not do that. And the reason for that is a matter to which I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately.
After all, I have close friends who are medical doctors. I could have called them up in an instant and asked pointed questions. The fact is that I didn’t. Instead, I spent three days with obscured vision in my right eye, waiting for the dark shadows to go away, whilst feeling a slow, dreadful realisation that the situation wasn’t going to improve. A bit like my in-laws, if I’m being honest.
Why did I not go to hospital? Well, remember how I mentioned I live in the United States? My health insurance only covers me in Massachusetts. Oh, they cover emergencies – grudgingly and with extreme reluctance, as you’d expect – but the key issue here is that it wasn’t clear that this was an emergency. I mean, yes it was, but I had to be cautious, which is another thing about the non-existence of universal healthcare in the United States. You really want it to be an emergency when you turn up at a hospital because – and let me be very clear about this – people like me have lost their houses, simply from getting it wrong!
Then there’s the other issue. I’m an Australian, you see, and like many of us, I can err on the side of stoicism. For example, I can spend three days telling myself that I can live with obscured vision in my right eye because, after all, there are people out there who don’t even have eyes….
But after three days, I decided maybe I was going blind, and that perhaps a doctor ought to look at it. So, with all due disapprobation, I allowed myself to be persuaded to go to a nearby hospital. They assured me when I arrived that they had an ophthamologist on call, then I was led by a nice nurse to a room, told to put on a gown, and wait.
So that’s what I did – I waited. After two-and-a-half hours of waiting, alone in a hospital room, a pleasant doctor arrived. He apologised about the fact they had nobody at the hospital who could help me and that was that. Before being discharged, I was handed a piece of paper with a phone number.
“Now listen, Kris,” said the doctor. “What you have sounds to me like a detached retina. That requires emergency surgery. Today is Friday, so call this number on Monday and make an appointment, okay?”
It was confusing. I stood outside the hospital wondering if the world had gone mad. If it’s an emergency, shouldn’t I be operated on right away? Yes, manifesting logic in inappropriate moments is another medical problem of mine, but let’s not get into that now.
When I got back to the in-law’s house, my phone rang. It was a retina specialist. At first, I thought he said he was a ‘wellness specialist’ and I just about lost my temper, because if I needed emergency eye surgery, why was the bloody hospital getting yoga experts to call me up?
But the bloke on the phone was speaking with a voice inflected with intelligence and competence, which calmed and reassured me. He was a surgeon, he explained, and would see me on Monday morning at 9.30am, and would operate immediately, if I needed it.
Very well. I would wait restlessly through the weekend. My vision was not improving. It even seemed faintly worse. Was I going blind?
I arrived at a clinic at the specified address, at the given time. The medical receptionist explained that she’d have to call up my health insurer to check the coverage. What was needed, she explained, was a faxed copy of a promise to cover my surgery. Without that, I wouldn’t be allowed in to see the surgeon. Hard smile, only a little apologetic. Very well.
I paced the waiting room for a while. Then I sat down and waited, and more timed passed. The waiting room emptied out and by noon, I was the room’s only occupant.
My health insurance company finally faxed over a document, a little before going to lunch, I think. So, more than two-and-a-half hours after my arrival, I was sent in to see the surgeon. He was pleasant and bright. A cool sort of individual. He looked at my eye with some special medical equipment, then proceeded to explain my options. He could repair my retina with a laser, and eventually, he supposed, my brain would adjust to all the blood drifting around inside it….
At this point, I swear, I turned and stared into the eyes of a nurse. I’d have to live with dark shadows drifting across my right eye for the rest of my life. Maybe she could give me a hint about how I should react?
The surgeon then said, “Alternatively, I could do something completely invasive and …”
“Invasive, thank you, Doctor,” I said, cutting him off. I’d had enough. It was all getting too depressing.
I was then directed to another waiting room. The medical receptionist there told me that, even though the surgery was covered by my insurer, I’d still have to pay a co-pay. One thousand, nine hundred and seven dollars. I stared blankly at her for a while.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Yes, sorry. I’m just thinking about how unsurprised I feel right now…”
I gave her a credit card and watched her do the transaction with an odd sort of detachment. If the card was declined – which seemed like a distinct possibility – well then, there’d be no surgery today. I would have to accustom myself to blindness in one eye.
The United States is the hardest western country to live in, make no mistake.
By some happy miracle, my credit card was not declined. I would be allowed to see. I was then led into a surgery room, and invited to lay down on a gurney. Suddenly I was surrounded by doctors and nurses, so I immediately set about making jokes. I suppose I wanted them to like me a bit more than their regular patients, and thus hopefully more inclined to concentrate a bit harder through the procedure.
One nurse revealed her fondness for keeping chickens, so we spent a while exchanging enthusiastic anecdotes about hens. Then the general practitioner asked me a series of probing questions about my health and, in particular, my history of recreational drug use. I apologised and confessed that there hadn’t been any such history, and blamed my children.
Anyway, we all had a good conversation, and at length, they had to sedate me. I supposed at the time that I was completely conscious, but now, in retrospect, I’m not sure particularly sure. I went into a bit of a weird place for a while. It might have been the anaesthesia, or it might have been my brain disassociating me out of what was ostensibly a worrying situation.
But then, after what seemed like barely fifteen minutes, the surgeon was done. He informed me that he’d repaired the retina and removed the blood from my eye. Then I fist-bumped him, or punched him – difficult to tell, I couldn’t see a thing and was feeling odd about everything. My eye was all bandaged up. I was asked to sit up carefully and get myself down into a wheelchair.
The room began to move a bit oddly and I nearly fell over. Of course, I congratulated them all for moving the walls around in funky angles, and admitted it was exactly the sort of trick I’d play on people if I was in their shoes.
An elderly nurse pushed me in a wheelchair out to where my mother-in-law was waiting. I hugged her – the nurse, not my mother-in-law, I’m not mental – and said farewell to everyone and offered my best regards to their chickens.
Back at the in-laws house, I lay face down on a day bed in an upstairs room, that has been filled with artefacts and memorabilia from the 1980s. The surgeon had instructed me to stay face down for 3/4s out of every hour. So that’s what I did. I wedged my head through a gap in the headboard of the day bed, to prevent myself from accidentally rolling over while I slept. And I stayed in that position all day and night.
And that’s how it was. I had to lie, jammed painfully, hanging my head out of a bed, forehead resting on a low table, for roughly eight days. Was it as uncomfortable as it sounds? No, I believe I’m underselling it. It was considerably worse. How did I sleep, then? Well, exhaustion will triumph over discomfort. You know, given enough time.
Meanwhile, the in-laws looked after my children. Good thing I was in Michigan, eh? I know, that’s not something most people expect to find themselves ever saying, but my life has always been a little strange. So I had nothing to do but stare at the carpet and wait for eight days to pass.
I could have watched shows on my laptop but for some reason, I didn’t feel up for it. Can’t explain it, I felt too oddly withdrawn. I did somehow manage to watch three movies though. For reasons I’ll never be able to explain to myself – each of those movies was about a woman named Bridget Jones.
No, I’m serious. That’s what I watched. Maybe I somehow knew that I was suffering, and that nothing was going to make my situation any better. What’s more, and for the first time in my life, I think it seemed that a Bridget Jones movie couldn’t possibly make my situation any worse.
Because, I’m mortified to say, I neither liked nor approved of Miss Jones. Troublingly, I spent most of those eight days, face down, suffering, and mulling over the myriad ways in which she is a terrible human being. On the other hand, I greatly appreciated Colin Firth, somehow. And at some point in my delirium, I felt a strong resolve to be more like him, whilst exercising better judgment vis-a-vis women, of course.
Then the eight days passed. I was up on my feet, finally. But I still don’t feel completely myself. My vision has worsened a little in that eye, and the shadows are gone (modern medicine is wonderful), but I don’t feel abundantly well. After eight days of discomfort, I am starting to suspect that what is missing from my life is a yoga instructor.
So here we are. I’m sorry about the delay of my newsletter; I do enjoy writing them and yapping about my adventures, but things were a bit grim. I got myself into a bit of a bad place. Bridget Jones, would you believe? And I also underwent emergency eye surgery.
Is there a moral to this newsletter? Of course there is, but I’ll leave it to you to unravel it. And if you don’t mind letting me know what it is, we can both pretend that that’s precisely what I’d meant it to be. Farewell for now, and remember; I love you all.
With chaste affection,