Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Done Hunting"

From the StarTribune comes the following essay:

Before my retina surgeon could finish his thought, I rudely interrupted him.

“Doc, I don’t care what you have to do to me, I just need to be ready to go in two weeks,” I said. “I’m going on a duck-hunting trip and I’m not missing a second of it.”

My surgeon — an ophthalmologist whose drab office walls were adorned with framed degrees and other scholarly accolades — wasn’t fazed. He fired back, and for effect.

“Son, you’re not going anywhere,” he said, his right hand grasping my left shoulder. “You have a detached retina. It’s a serious injury. We need to schedule surgery for tomorrow. It can’t wait.”

His voice trailed off before he delivered the gut punch: “You have a long road ahead of you. A long road.”

My surgeon’s words have proved eerily prophetic. That long road he so candidly promised still lies before me like a bad dream more than five years later. My life has changed so radically I often struggle to make sense of it. I’ve had more than a dozen surgeries on both eyes (roughly a year after my left eye detached, I inexplicably had a massive retina tear in my right) and untold months of solitary, sometimes maddening, convalescence.

Today I’m blind in my left eye and have enough vision in my right to get a driver’s license. More surgeries are promised down the road. Chronic pain is a fixture in my life, as common as breathing. I often feel intense fear, real or imagined, that my good eye will tank, that my entire world will fade to black. Worst of all, I’ve been forced to let go of the outdoors life that gave me an identity (both personally and professionally) beginning 40 years ago when I started squirrel hunting with my father. The loss — including my seminal passion, waterfowl hunting — has been devastating.

I often ask myself a simple question: Who am I now? I’m still not sure that I know.

Putting the pieces back together has been the crucible of my life. I’m still under construction. My vision loss, I’m just beginning to understand, is similar to losing a loved one. You go through stages of grief — from denial to anger to depression to, finally, acceptance. But acceptance does not necessarily equal peace — yet that’s exactly what I seek and struggle to find each day, especially now during hunting season. Autumn always has been my favorite time of year. But now its crisp mornings and golden hues provoke a tempest inside me, an emotion without a name. I long for what was — the joy of so many marvelous days afield — when I know my past has no chance of prologue. It’s a bitter pill I’m still learning to swallow.

This entire odyssey began innocently enough. I was dove hunting in North Dakota, where I used to live. My black Lab and I were hunting a small-grain field that was loaded with feeding birds the night before. New over-and-under shotgun in hand, I pulled up on the morning’s first dove and immediately lost track of it. A splash of black dots (in my left eye) took over my field of vision. Disorientated and confused, I rubbed and blinked my eye repeatedly. The microscopic dots would go away and then reappear, then go away again. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. This was a first.

The following day I got examined by an optometrist. He assured me the black dots — which are called “floaters” in the eye business — were commonplace for people in their late 30s and early 40s. “It’s part of getting older,” he said. “You’ll be fine.” Two days later my retina detached. I woke up and felt like I was staring into the ocean on a stormy day. The horizon was hazy, charcoal-gray and wavy. The floaters, I would learn from my surgeon, were the result of my retina fraying, then finally detaching.

Six weeks after my first surgery, my retina detached again. The second surgery was the most brutal of all. My eye looked grotesque, like I had been pummeled in a street fight. The pain was so intense I vomited regularly and occasionally passed out. The term “pain management” became part of my lexicon. I became a chemist of sorts, staying ahead of the pain by mixing my meds with three fingers of Irish whiskey or red wine. My approach was neither advised nor wise. But I did what I had to do to survive.

Adjusting to my vision loss has been an exercise in humility. I’ve had to retrain my brain to do just about everything — from pouring a glass of water to walking down a flight of stairs. I have very little depth perception, particularly when I’m walking. I’ve stumbled and fallen on more hiking trails than I care to admit. Everything that’s old is new.

My new normal caught me by surprise a few years back when I was in the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, covering the aftermath of the BP oil spill and its impacts on migratory waterfowl. This was the first time I had been in a boat since my vision loss. But getting in the boat, like I had done hundreds of times before, was terrifying. The step from the dock and into the watercraft felt like falling into a canyon. I couldn’t do it. Instead, I got on my hands and knees and backed in. This remains one of the more humbling experiences of my life.

Despite everything I’ve been through, my vision loss has given me ample time to reflect on my life. I’ve learned a lot about myself. What I know today is that I’ve had an extraordinarily blessed life. By virtue of my job and my passion for wild places, I’ve had more good hunting, in more beautiful places, than most. I’ve been fortunate enough to chase ducks in the most iconic waterfowling venues in North America — from the Chesapeake Bay of Maryland to the bayous of south Louisiana to the Central Valley of California and across the prairies of the U.S. and Canada. I’ve had a good run, and I’m grateful for it.

Still, I admit, I miss everything about my old outdoors life. I miss seeing vivid colors. I miss identifying ducks on the wing, a skill that took a lifetime in the marsh to hone. I miss feeling bone-tired after a day afield. Few will admit the most compelling reason for hunting: It’s satisfying. Killing an animal is emotionally complex, but I miss the satisfaction of taking a life with my own hands and assuming responsibility for it. I miss the ritual of giving thanks for nature’s bounty and preparing it for family and friends — a holistic experience that no amount of money can buy.

It’s been said that fear is faith that it won’t work out. But I have a deep faith in God and I know in time that it will all work out. I have faith that God will guide me on this long road to finding peace and helping me rediscover who I am. I patiently wait to be whole again.

Reading this prompted me to send the following letter to the author:

"Via a friend's Facebook feed I found your "Done Hunting" article on the StarTribune website.  The timing of encountering your writing was fortuitous for me, as I have been feeling sorry for myself for not being able to be in the swamp this year.  Like you, I'm a hardcore waterfowler, and my wife's recent breast cancer diagnosis has kept me from the pursuit I love the most.

My wife's prognosis is good, although surgery, treatment, and care giving will conspire to make the 2014 season like it never happened.  While I should feel thankful for our state (so many families have things far, far worse), I still couldn't help but have a private pity party for myself over my lost season.

Then I read your article, and gained an invaluable perspective.  Now, in addition to missing duck hunting, I feel like a jerk.

Thank you for your well-penned, personal, and heartfelt article.  While perhaps your physical condition changes things, I hope it offers new things as well, and inspires you to share as you most eloquently did in the last article.  It certainly touched me, and know it must have had the same impact on others.  For that, thank you."

A little perspective can sometimes equate to a hell of a lot of humility and thankfulness.

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