Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Philosophy of Trees -- Retinopathy of Prematurity and Perception

I don't remember much about my undergraduate philosophy course, but I remember that my instructor had been dreadful.  He had assigned a half a dozen books, and I had been excited for the class. I loved philosophy. I loved thinking about what was real or false or concepts of how the world worked.

My classmates didn't feel the same way. They were taking the class because they had to. And they quickly discovered that our instructor was very easily brought along with them on unnecessary tangents. And tangents meant less material to learn and less would be on the test, because our instructor did not live by his own syllabus.

So we started with Rene Descarte's Meditations. A good place to start. And it was the only book we really read.  By the second or third meditation, our class had discovered the aforementioned secret, and they were all about continuing class discussions on topics long after they were dead.

Don't have a picture to illustrate this, so here's a picture
of JAM with a famous philosopher.

Bonus points if you can recognize the philosopher.
(Don't worry, not the philosopher who taught me.)
And so we spent somewhere between three and five class periods -- that's OVER A WEEK -- on whether the color I see as red is the same as the color you see as red, or if what I see as red you would perceive as green or blue or purple.

It was dumb.

I would not be majoring in philosophy.

But a year ago I decided I knew the answer to this ridiculous question from a decade earlier.

Yes. Yes. The color orange you see is different from the color orange I see. I know this, because the color orange I see is different from the color orange I see. At least, it was that afternoon. I was driving home from the NICU. The trees had all turned into a fantastic display of reds, oranges, greens and deep purples and browns. The landscape was a fireworks display. And the display had gotten brighter.  It wasn't because things were sunny.  On the contrary, things were back to uncertain. But these colors -- they were so alive. More alive because I was noticing them. I didn't take sight for granted any more. I wondered if my son would ever be able to indulge in the autumnal feast of colors.

Jonathan a year ago, recovering from eye surgery.
My perception of the world had changed.  And it wasn't just the leaves on the trees.  When the leaves fell off, the very trunks of the trees became not wood, but living vessels.  Some were ROP trees, like the thick gnarly wood of crab apple and oak trees.  Others, like the tall slender lines of the elm trees or the young maple tree, represented the vessels in the eye of normal babies, full term babies.  Those trees knew how to grow into the sky.  They grew straight, with many new twigs coming off each branch. The apple trees tried hard but couldn't find the right path. I pictured them pulling the weight of the earth up with them, detaching themselves because they couldn't grow, couldn't push to the sun.  They'd never be able to see.  You could tell by the lower branches. Dead, if not trimmed. Dying because they saw only shade.

Jonathan was now post-op from his eye surgery. The surgeon had said he'd done a very thorough job, zapping as much of the protein in the sky of Jonathan's eyes so that the branches of the vessels could grow tall and healthy, filling his eye and keeping his retina firmly planted at the base of it all.  They'd be dilating his eyes at least two times a week for a few weeks to see how those vessels grew, to look out for stage four or five of ROP+.

I walked across our beautifully wooded campus at work. I again admired the bright colors of the leaves. Maple leaves are my favorite. But I also loved the leaves that turned a deep purple. My foot crunched on a dried brown oak leaf, and I smiled. This. This was a gift. The trees don't just flame, they crunch.

My son may never see a burning bush. He may never see a hill side dotted with reds and greens and yellows and browns as an entire forest erupts into a symphony of color.

But he will crunch. He will feel the leaf under foot or in his hand. And he will wave that hand and crunch those leaves, and maybe even toss them into his sister's hair.  He's going to live now, you see. I was becoming more and more sure of it. And if he lived, he was going to live a GOOD life. I would see to it.  It would be colorful, even if he would not see color.

The first eye exam post-op was neither positive nor negative. The ROP had not reversed. But it hadn't gotten worse either.  We kept waiting.


Spoiler alert.

This picture was taken a few weeks ago.  Today Jonathan can both see the splendor and feel the crunch of the leaves. He's nearsighted and he has limited peripheral vision from the scarring of laser eye surgery, but his central vision was preserved.

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