The last time I posted to “Cassie Contemplates…” the Wisconsin air was thick with humidity. Summer seemed to stretch on endlessly, and although life was busy, it is a time I look back on as being steady and fulfilling. But as autumn neared, the winds of change began to blow. I think back to a post I made in June about my broken tree, never imagining that a windstorm of visual challenges and equally turbulent emotional struggle would follow.
My birthday was nearing, and I had a lot to accomplish before celebrating that day. I attended a conference over five hundred miles from home and buried myself in rehearsals, all the while ignoring subtle changes in my vision. I thought it was nothing— probably dry-eye, which I had experienced before. But by the time my plane landed at MSP, I knew something just wasn’t right. Three days later, I sat face-to-face with two retina surgeons to receive the dreaded news that my ultrasound had shown a detached retina.
Here’s the harsh reality; retina detachments happen to people every day— people with 20/20 vision wake up one morning to compromised vision and later learn that their retina has detached. Quite often, surgery happens quickly and after two-to-three weeks of recovery, a person can get back to work, driving, and a regular schedule. But my prognosis was not that clear. I have a corneal dystrophy, a birth defect that resulted in severe clouding of my corneas. My right eye has already succumbed to total blindness due to glaucoma and a detached retina at the age of nine. With only my sighted eye to provide me with vision, I knew this diagnosis was not going to be routine in terms of care and recovery. My doctors were extremely kind and compassionate, even allowing a few moments for me to battle through tears in the exam room. They assured me that I had every reason to be afraid, and that it wasn’t every day someone would be asked to risk the only vision they had remaining to agree to a surgery that might result in even more vision loss.
“We will do everything we can to save your sight,” one of the doctors told me. “But we can’t make any guarantees.” Then the doctors proceeded to walk me through all of the risk factors, all of the potential benefits, and what I could expect from a surgery that was booked for the next day— the day before my birthday.
Although my tears were flowing freely, I felt numb inside. I followed my father from the exam room, checking in at the appointment desk one last time for any final instructions. Then we were on our way to my parents’ house. I would spend the night there and then report for surgery the next day. It wasn’t until we were out of Rochester’s city limits that my father turned on some music. He usually only has one CD in the car, and it didn’t surprise me that it was Kari Jobe’s Majestic album. A track was just ending as my dad turned to me and asked if music was okay or if I would rather have quiet. The truth was, I did have a headache and the thought of quiet sounded amazing, but I knew that the silence would press me further into the depths of numb reaction, so I told him to turn it up.
The song that began to play was no coincidence. “I am not Alone” with its haunting piano intro drew me in, and I felt a distinct pull as if desperately seeking water on a sultry afternoon. Without a thought in the world, I sang with Kari at the top of my lungs. Tears streamed down my face, so it definitely wasn’t my best vocal performance; it was raw and came from the depths of my broken heart.
Yes, my heart was broken. The unthinkable had happened. My left eye had been virtually stable since I was a toddler. I had taken its functioning for granted, and now all of that was at stake. I was terrified. I had always said rather flippantly that if I ever had to relinquish one of my senses, I could let go of my vision without any difficulty. I was already partially blind anyway, I reasoned with myself. But when faced with the reality, I trembled with everything that was at stake.
Lifting up my voice in the car that day was the first flicker of hope in the midst of absolute despair. I recalled that moment as I watched the lighting of the Advent candle at church this past Sunday. It was the first Sunday of Advent, and they were lighting the first candle to symbolize hope. I realized with startling clarity why hope comes first when it comes to Advent. There was such despair among the Israelites in the four hundred years of silence before the world was given the promise of new life through the Son of God. In the midst of utter darkness, there was a spark, and the bleakness of the Israelites’ longest winter was broken by a baby’s cry. Without that first glimpse of hope, there would be no reason for peace, joy, and love that follows in our Advent celebration.
As the next few days unfolded for me, I experienced many flickers of hope in the midst of darkness. As I cocooned myself on the porch swing at my parents’ house and cried for everything I might lose, I glanced up and marveled at the beauty of the dappled sunlight as it fell over me. Would it be the last time I would see the late afternoon light like this? I wiped at my eyes and took it in. My vision was already compromised, but I could see enough to treasure that moment in time. It gave me hope that maybe I would see again.
I waited nearly all day to go into surgery; it will probably go down in history as one of the longest days of my life. I had all day to worry, fret, and lose hope, but those surrounding me didn’t let me go down that road. I basked in the prayers of loved ones, Facebook messages, the gentle care of my nurses, and gradually a peace that I couldn’t comprehend stole over me. That’s why I say that there can’t be peace, joy, or love without first having hope. If not for hope, there would be no reason to move forward.
The next glimmer of hope came from the doctors when I woke up in a hospital bed, patched up and groggy from anesthesia. There was good news! The surgery was challenging, but they had found that my retina wasn’t detached. Instead, it had a few tears that they were able to repair. They still didn’t know what my vision would be like in the weeks and months to come, but they were optimistic that the surgery had been a success.
The next few weeks were difficult, but with the help of family and friends, I tried to keep a positive attitude. Through the tears and frustration during recovery, I also glimpsed hope. I was able to take a walk with my mother, help make cookies, play with my nieces and nephews, eat a bit more confidently every day without making a mess, and take my own meds. The first day I was able to read more than just one page in a book, I celebrated that victory by watching the sun set outside my office. A few weeks later, I asked a friend if that was the full moon I saw up in the sky. When he confirmed that it was the moon and that it was bright and large, I said, “I’m so glad I can see that.” His reply: “Me too.”
I might not be able to do some of the things I managed comfortably before, but if I think of all of the challenges I have overcome since those last days of September, I marvel at God’s faithfulness. Though blurry and sometimes distorted, I can see, and it’s an indescribable gift! I am thankful for the little things I once took for granted: reading, cooking dinner, fumbling through a chord chart, walking to and from work, cleaning my house (yes, I said cleaning), and watching God’s creativity in the sky. Each little thing is a glimmer of hope, a sputtering flame that could be taken at any moment. I want to focus on that little spark and the flame that springs to life. I want to latch on to hope even when everything around me is shrouded in darkness. In the bleak midwinter, a Savior came to bring hope to the world, and this Christmas, He is bringing hope to my thankful heart.