The downward spiral
Three days ago my wife Lisa started seeing flashes like lightning in the peripheral vision of her right eye. Then she started seeing black specks like gnats. Years ago she nearly had a detached retina, which doctors bolted down with laser surgery. So she has always been on the lookout for symptoms like this.
We went to the emergency room around 8 pm, shortly after the black specks formed a 'curtain' in the middle of her field of vision. Standing just yards from a mirror, she said: "I can't even see the color of my eyes."
In some ways we're all waiting for something like this to happen.
We're all going to die... or at least, most of us: some 'transhumanists' optimistically freeze their brains in hopes that future generations will revive them, but even if this hope comes true, most people can't afford that. I've gotten used to the idea of dying, so I'm not going to extraordinary lengths to prevent it. The harder part is slowly walking down the stairway of old age: getting used to worse and worse health, slower wits, less energy... down to nothing.
It's a journey of renunciation. Wise old people don't talk about this much, because they know it annoys and (secretly) upsets the young. It's better to let them live in their happy self-absorbed world: no point in spoiling it.
This must be one reason people like having children and grandchildren: as you falter and fade, they (with luck) are still growing stronger. The spotlight nicely shifts from you to them... so when death pulls you off the stage with its hook, nobody pays much attention: overall, the show is still a happy one.
Since I don't have children, I don't know exactly what this feels like. I tend to use math and physics to create that happy dreamworld where everything keeps getting better and better... though I also have students, who will carry on when I conk out.
When I switched from pure math and fancy theoretical physics and started thinking hard about global warming, I had to accept the extra emotional burden of facing a world that was not all bright and beautiful. I think some of my fans left at this point: it turns out they wanted my science explanations to cheer them up! But I've got a lot of built-in pep and happiness, so I don't need a diet of pure candy.
Anyway, it seems that Lisa had a posterior vitreous detachment
, where the vitreous membrane separates from the retina. It's not a disaster: three quarters of people over 65 get this condition! Here eye bled a bit when this happened, so she has a bunch of red blood cells floating in her vitreous humor - the big purple 'eyeball' in this picture. Supposedly in a month these blood cells will go away, decomposed somehow by the magically self-repairing body.
So, it's not so bad. I know that this is just one more step down that spiral stairway to darkness that Lisa and I are walking, hand in hand. But that's just how it goes.
Lisa seems less perturbed by this than me: while I'm writing this little essay, she's packing her suitcases. At 9 tonight she's taking a shuttle to the airport and then flying to Singapore! I'm going to a conference in Banff for a week, on computation with chemical reaction networks. Then I'll join her in Singapore, where we will spend the summer working.
So life goes on. Until it doesn't. And even then, it goes on.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posterior_vitreous_detachment