When you really do just want to sit alone in the dark (a cataract story)

I’m a professional spiritual caregiver and educator of spiritual caregivers, the people we sometimes call chaplains. Idealistic, passionate people are drawn into my field because they have a deep desire to help hurting people, especially to help break the crushing loneliness of the ill person, sitting in a hospital bed or stuck at home. But we also have to recognize that sometimes people really do want to be left alone; they really don’t want our help. Or counsel. Or comforting words.

About three — three very long — weeks ago I had routine cataract surgery on my left eye here in Jerusalem. Well, it was supposed to be routine. Those of us who work around medicine know there is no such thing as a 100% safe surgery. Some percentage will always go wrong. And I came up with the unlucky number this time.

In cataract surgery, they take the natural lens out of your eye and replace it with an artificial one, a process that not only removes the cataract, but can make it completely unnecessary to wear glasses even if you have worn them for decades. That is, unless the artificial lens falls into the back of your eye during the surgery. Then they just have to stop and leave you without a working lens.

So, I emerged essentially blind in my left eye. This was more than just super scary. It was completely disorienting. My brain just didn’t know how to function with one eye having effective vision while the other had just blur. I couldn’t stand to be outside, especially if there was bright sun. I couldn’t even look at a computer screen or my smartphone for more than a minute or two at a time. I just wanted to sit alone in the dark and listen to books on tape (thank you, whatever anonymous British actor out there who reads the George Smiley spy trilogy; you were perfect for me in this time of need). I’ve been almost completely absent from Facebook because it’s so hard to look at screens, which is not my usual way at all.

The good news is that less than a week after the failed surgery (I’m super grateful it only took that long) I had another, much more complicated operation where they removed all the fluid from my eye along with the fallen lens and other debris. Maybe an hour and a half into the surgery the surgeon asked me if I wanted him to continue and put in the new lens. Every part of my mind and body wanted off that table and him out of my eye right away. That is, every part except the part that didn’t want to have to spend the rest of my life in that dark corner no matter how good the audible books were. בטח — yes of course! — I said in Hebrew as firmly as I could. תמשיך — continue.

It’s a long recovery from this operation. A month or more until the sight stabilizes again. My sight in the left eye isn’t much better yet, but I think my brain is adjusting. Two weeks ago I never could have looked at a computer screen long enough to write this blog post. It’s going to be a process. I’m returning to some of life’s work, although not yet to the heart of my work as a spiritual caregiver and educator; that just requires a level of concentration and focus on the other person I can’t do now. I hope, with the help of the Blessed Holy One, to be able to return to regular work in two or three weeks.

Although I really have just wanted to sit alone in the dark most of the time, I am grateful that I have not actually been alone. Yes, it broke my heart to explain to our beloved 3 and a half year old — who thought Abba was all better when we took the bandage off my eye — that Abba was still sick and needed time alone. But I felt her love for me. And from my wife.

So, I’m grateful. Even when I’m alone in the dark.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who make Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their “sabra” daughter Berniki. Alan is the founder of HavLi, a spiritual care education and research center associated with the Schwartz Center for Health and Spirituality. A rabbi, Alan is scheduled to receive a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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