September 4, 2007 Cases In the Blink of an Eye, a Vision of Disaster By LINDA SIMON One night, sitting in the dark in my car, I see, out of the corner of my eye, something flashing. An emergency vehicle has pulled up behind me, I think, the lights on its roof spinning ominously. It has come to retrieve a body, to speed someone to the hospital, to gather the injured. I turn my head, expecting to see a disaster. But nothing is there. Just the flashing. I know this is not a good sign. The next morning, in a room flooded with sunlight, there is another development: shadowy spots tumble and swirl, as if tenacious, persistent flies were circling my head. Eye floaters are common, of course, and I have noticed them before, but never like this. Now I am assaulted by shadows that come and go and come again. They swarm like a plague, like warnings of darkness. I present myself to the doctor for investigation: myself, which overnight has become my eye. First it is numbed, then the pupil is dilated, then it is peered into through a special magnifying lens. I sit in the dark examining room and think dark thoughts. The flashes flash from time to time, capriciously, or maybe urgently. The eye doctor looks intently. How are you doing? he asks; You’re doing well, he answers. I do not reply except to comment, Not so well, really. He is quick to reassure: everything seems fine, he says, as he looks and looks. Here is what he explains: the eye is filled with a clear, jellylike fluid, the vitreous gel, that begins to shrink as we get older. When the gel pulls from the retina, we see flashes. If the gel forms little clumps, we see their shadows as floaters. Everything seems fine, he tells me again, as he gives me directions. Obediently, I look to the left, to the right, to the floor, to the ceiling, to clouds rushing in a storm, to a brambly trail that I’ve never before taken. He is examining the retina for bleeding, for signs of detachment, which would be uncommon, he says. Somehow, in an optical illusion, I can see an image of what he sees: a shimmering web of blood vessels, a map of a landscape laced with rivulets. It may be a map of the soul; that is how fragile it looks, how luminous. This happens to everyone, he tells me finally. This trouble, the flashing and floaters, is normal. It is so normal, in fact, that there is a cheerful handout describing the process. I can take it home as a reference. The handout says: To make floaters disappear, just blink. I am suddenly aware of seeing, and, of course, of not seeing. The drying up, the shrinking, this can be easy, or it can go wrong. The supple jelly within my eye wants to wrest itself from my retina, and it may do so aggressively. It may, in fact, tear something fragile. Usually, in the gradual process of shrinking, no tear occurs. Still, I need to be on the lookout, the doctor says: in rare cases, a veil may descend, or a veil may rise across my field of vision. This will be worse than floaters. I can see past them, after all. I can even get used to them. But a veil is an emergency. Now, I am worried about traveling out of range of the eye doctor, the special potions for numbing and dilating, the magical lens for investigation. If there is an emergency, where is the nearest emergency room? Cities with world-renowned eye clinics: these will be my destinations, just in case. I would like to take charge, but here is another thing I understand: There is nothing I can do. No amount of broccoli, no exercises, no vitamin supplement, no herbal remedy, no wines red or white, not even dark chocolate, will affect the flashing one way or another. Nothing will dissolve the floaters. This powerlessness is a fear in itself. Still, the eye doctor is happy to advise. Perhaps there is something I should avoid: I should not jump on a trampoline. The day before the flashing, anything was possible. Now, although I had never coveted bouncing, a trampoline becomes my heart’s desire. Everything happens to everyone, including death. Along the way, there will be annoyances — from an eye, an ear, a knee, a hip. Like floaters, they will cast a shadow. What was clear will be obscured, what was bright, darker. I can look up, I can look down, I can only look away. I blink, and at the very edge of my range of sight, faintly, almost imperceptibly, a gossamer veil appears. I blink. It disappears, and I blink again. Linda Simon teaches English at Skidmore College. Her book “Henry James: Creating a Master” will be published in the fall.