“And, on the seventh day after eye surgery, I saw a junco on the back patio.” Tom Houlihan describes the joy of seeing with both eyes again after recovering from emergency eye surgery.
And, on the seventh day after eye surgery, I saw a junco on the back patio.
This probably doesn’t sound like a very big deal. Juncos are small ― about 6 inches long ― but not tiny. They are slate-colored on top with a white breast underneath. According to my bird book, they are abundant in our part of Illinois, especially during the winter. As spring arrives they begin their migration to nesting grounds further north.
They usually don’t spend much time on our bird feeder. Instead, they hop along the ground looking for seeds that have fallen from feeding cylinders.
We have seen juncos all around the United States. They may be little, but for some reason I consider them tough, brave and resilient. I like it that when juncos fly away from you, they display an interesting striped pattern on their tail feathers. Whenever I see them, I tend to smile.
Which is what happened on the seventh day after eye surgery. It was the end of January and I had not looked outside for an entire week. Looking outside, according to the rules of my recovery, was not allowed.
Finally, I’d been given the all-clear to do something other than keep my head down after the surgeon replaced the fluid in my left eyeball with a gas bubble. Looking downward kept the bubble in its proper position, pushing my detached retina back into place.
For a week I’d mostly been lying facedown. I listened to an audio version of a great adventure book, “Kidnapped” by Robert Louis Stevenson, and made feeble attempts at minor household chores. All while facing downward.
So looking outside was definitely not part of the program.
Let me say at this point that I am not complaining about anything. Without the emergency surgery I would have lost my eye. I got excellent care – the doctor and hospital staff were first-rate. My wife Patty took great care of me during a recovery that, in its entirety, lasted about 10 weeks. I was able to resume most of my work at the Chronicle two weeks after the operation.
Still, parts of my post-op life were a little weird.
The gas bubble was both my friend and nemesis. I was always aware that the bubble was doing a very big job, and restoring my vision. But living with it could be strange.
Patty took me out for dinner a week and a half after surgery. As she drove north on Kedzie Avenue to a Mexican restaurant in Blue Island, my left eye was filled with new shapes as light filtered through the gas bubble. Sometimes they looked like flowers and sometimes they looked like fireworks. They were everywhere there was illumination ― from automobiles, streetlights and even the moon.
Over time, I was told, the bubble would get smaller and eventually disappear. Until then I was not allowed to do anything that would greatly increase pressure on the bubble, like fly on a plane or go hiking in the Himalayas.
With one working eye, it was hard to judge distances. There is a mug on my desk filled with pens and pencils. When I started working again, I’d reach for a pen and find that I was several inches short of the cup. Once I missed the glass while trying to fill it with beer.
I was not allowed to drive for nearly six weeks. When I got restless I’d go for a walk around the neighborhood. Two or three times, I made one-eyed shopping trips on foot to the Meijer store at Vollmer Road and Crawford Avenue.
It’s not far from our house in Flossmoor’s Heather Hill neighborhood ― just a little more than a mile — to the store. You may have seen me dodging cars on Kedzie and Governors Highway and working my way through parking lots on the way. I bundled up against the cold and brought a backpack, all the while saying to myself that I was something of an intrepid suburban pathfinder.
But let me get back to that junco. When I saw it I knew I was going to be all right. Life was going on outside my window. The birds were fine and I would eventually get back to something that was close to normal.
That became more evident as the recovery continued and the bubble got smaller.
On Saturday of the eighth week we took the train into Chicago to do a few things we like. At first, I was not happy because the vision in my left eye was still not great and some of the sights were blurry. After a while, though, I realized that I was getting the chance to see things again, but almost like they were new to me.
We walked along the lakefront looking for red-breasted mergansers, diving ducks that hang out in the boat harbors during the spring. We found hundreds of them in the harbor just south of the Chicago River.
These are some of our favorite water birds and are always very interesting. Mergansers hunt in groups, diving together and creating a funnel effect to find fish. We watched them do this for about 20 minutes.
To see something like that is truly wonderful. It reminded me again that I am a lucky man ― especially with two eyes that work.