My eye problems have turned out to be an interesting exercise in sociology. Today I went back to the Great Falls Clinic for some tests to follow up on the discovery of damage to my retinas due to diabetes and high blood pressure. I’m happy to say that my eyes are okay now, thanks to Dr. Boes who was very emphatic and persuasive in breaking through what amounted to denial. But he still is worried by an old woman who does everything herself alone, including drive herself to eye appointments eighty miles from home.
This is the second time my eyes have been saved by a Great Falls Clinic eye doctor. Dr. Jordan fused holes in my retinas in 1990, damage that had occured in Saskatoon -- I suspect due to environmental contamination. (One can smell the ag chemicals on the wind.) I’d begun having ocular migraines up there (one sees patterns, like TV test patterns) and had gone to the eye clinic. In theory all Saskatchewan citizens and green card holders have access to socialized medical care but the truth is that there are strict gate-keepers. In this case it was a man who mocked me for being an invading American and claimed I was making up my troubles in order to bump deserving old Canadians out of their entitlements. That was part of the reason I left.
Eyes on the prairie have to look far in very bright light at high altitudes where the light contains a lot of ultra-violet. Everyone gets cataracts late in life. We all look out through wrinkle webs from squinting. The eye doctors are very busy. Straw hats and wraparound UV dark glasses are recommended.
When I got back to Montana in 1990, teaching in Heart Butte and therefore insured, Dr. Jordan used his brand new laser machine on me. In seconds he had fused several years’ worth of damage, preventing the possibility of retinal tearing or detachment. In those days the Great Falls Clinic for eyes was in what they called “the Hole,” which was the basement of the old building. Its best feature was a big tank of fish which Dr. Jordan evidently took with him.
This new clinic building is extraordinary architecture. I do not like it. It reminds me of a cross between a sheep shed and a carnival. Many ragged edges, strange shapes, exposed glu-lam and industrial-bolts, tarted up with huge glass walls. The thing must be a horror to heat and cool in a climate that ranges from 110 to minus fifty. None of the exam rooms have windows anyway, so they are as much holes as they ever were. Great Falls is in the middle of a vicious war among medical entities, fueled by greed and symptomatized by these awful buildings.
Sitting there on a waiting room balcony with my magazine stash, I spotted the Valier librarian, the wife part of the team that runs the Blackfeet Trading Post in Browning, and the brother/husband of the two -- the person who was actually having cataract surgery on his eyes. These are all white folks, prosperous and respectable. In short order we’d manage to shake out a number of opinions, a little gossip, and some conclusive facts about white people in our double community. Pretty soon they dispersed.
Now, sitting across from me were a Blackfeet man and his small son, plus Mom, who was having cataract surgery. The man was a Rides-at-the-Door. The woman was a Hall. The boy was bright, handsome, well-mannered and full of beans, as one would expect knowing those two families. We talked about their family tree (Who's your mother?) and the man told me about how the small boy, when he was fifteen months old and the first one up in the morning, had discovered that the ancient granny of the family had died where she slept on the couch. The little guy had been very close to her. As the man talked, the boy became grave and leaned in under his father’s arm, hiding his eyes against the t-shirt that said, “I am a Blackfeet Man!”
In Blackfeet families the oldest and the youngest are assumed to belong together and to want to take care of each other, and that’s the way it works. There have been formal studies into why post-menopausal women are an adaption of evolution, experienced women who have stopped having their own babies so that they are free to nurture the children of the strong young women so they can work -- tan hides, dig roots, bring firewood, or go type (I mean “keyboard”) in an office. The development is not for the good of the individual, but for the good of the community. Seems pretty obvious, but it’s nice to have formal confirmation.
Anyway, old ladies used to keep order on the reservation and the small towns. (Now the younger men dominate everything. They quarrel a lot over money.) They weren’t afraid to give their opinions and they usually had enough family clout to make them stick. They see everything -- if they happen to be napping when something happens, someone is sure to tell them.
My first eye test was about peripheral vision: I looked at a red dot, watching for little white dots that appeared now and then. If I saw one, I had a clicker like a computer mouse. It was a sort of arcade game. The young woman who gave me the test is a Great Falls native who is married to an Air Force guy. She said they will leave pretty soon and move to Mississippi because there is nothing to do in Great Falls but go to bars. I named off the five museums in town (not dinky ones, either) and an assortment of other stuff, like the roller rink, the hiking trail along the river, the string quartet, etc. No sale.
The second eye test was a different young woman and we didn’t talk quite so much. She wore no ring. She concentrated intensely while she measured my cornea thickness (can that be right?) with a little sonar instrument. Then she did the routine about “which lens is clearer, this one or that one?” I never know. In a jiffy Dr. Boes was there, cheerful and willing to let me ramble a bit. He was on schedule! And he had run across me while Googling.
In fact, he’d read some of my blogs and this had rather changed his attitude towards me. (My supervisor when I was student teaching back in Evanston, IL, in 1961 said to me, “You know, you look as though you’re probably really stupid -- but when you talk you seem intelligent.” Yeah, well, he should dump those old stereotypes about overweight women in cheap clothes and bad haircuts, eh?) Dr. Boes said I’d “aced” all his tests and wouldn’t need another exam for a year. That was good news.
It was very hot in Great Falls -- generally is this time of year -- but there was cold air sweeping down from Canada, bringing big banks of cumulus. The winter wheat is ripening to gold. The alfalfa along the road is blooming purple and bales and windrows are drying in the fields. Tall green grass beaded with seeds on the top are swaying in the wind. The still-slender cat tails are forming in the barrow pits. The long view of hill and mountain was fluid brush strokes of green and blue with great masses of purple storm dragging rain and hail underneath. Biblical shafts of light shared sky with the laser wriggles of lightning.
I was very glad I could see it all, thanks to alert and competent doctors. Even so independent an old bag as me sometimes needs help.