It amazes me how you Humans can take tragedy and squalor in stride, cheerfully going about your daily lives as though nothing of import had happened. Old age, for example, really horrified me for the first couple of years that I lived on this planet. It’s hard for me to watch people hobble along, imprisoned in fragile bodies with impaired senses and magnified pains. You might say I’ve gotten used to it, but my compassion and indignation remain. If only we could do more to help speed Human medical progress!
Homelanders get old, but thanks to the benefits of civilization, we don’t deteriorate with age.
Elderly Humans aren’t the only ones who suffer, of course. Even where Human medical science is fairly sophisticated, it often fails the people who need it. It’s a net with a wide mesh that lets the little ones slip right through.
This was made vividly clear to me just this past week.
I didn’t think that anyone else but me was in the pet shop, since it was the mid-morning lull, but I was mistaken. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, it’s just the fact that he was there at all that surprised me. I had gone charging down the aisle with my broom without even looking and nearly knocked him over!
“I’m sorry,” I said as I gulped for air, “I didn’t even see you there!” I silently congratulated myself for mastering the local custom of apologizing to people for almost having touched them.
He looked up and gave me an amiable, 100-Watt smile. “Hey, man, that’s okay!” he said, and returned to his observations of the hamsters. Delight sparkled in his eyes, although the hamsters were only sleeping in a little huddle in one corner of the cage.
A real hamster connoisseur, I thought, leaning on my broom. This was a long, lanky black kid, nearly twenty years old; with an ugly face only a mother could love. He looked like he was a neighborhood basketball star, but his clothes didn’t speak well for his neighborhood.
Two of the hamsters engaged themselves in a miniature battle over sleeping space, and my customer laughed at their antics. “Look there,” he said, pointing with his long, skinny finger, “They’re just like people!”
“Except for one thing,” I observed, “People don’t sleep in huge heaps like that!”
“That’s almost true,” he conceded, not taking an eye off those hamsters, “We got eight people living in my mother’s apartment. Last one home sleeps on the couch!”
I just looked at the floor.
“Would you like to hold one?” I volunteered. He smiled eagerly, so I reached in the cage and gingerly pulled one out. I placed it gently in his cupped hands. He was fascinated with this tiny animal, and handled it as gently as I thought he would.
“Ouch!” he yiped, “This one bit me!”
“That does happen,” I said, and placed the hamster back in the cage. We checked his finger very carefully, and found that the hamster’s tiny teeth had only pinched the skin, not pierced it.
“Hey, it’s okay if I look at these hamsters, isn’t it?” he asked politely, anticipating a question I would never dream of asking. I knew he had neither the money nor the space for a cage-full of hamsters. “You see,” he explained, “I don’t have enough money to buy them, I just like to look at them.”
“That’s fine with me,” I answered. I started to tell him that he could come and look at them to his heart’s content, but I didn’t finish my sentence. Suddenly he stood up real straight and slapped his right eye. He swayed back and forth silently for a while. Then he took his hand away and smiled at me.
“They got me again!” he said, as though he were playing a game.
“What got you?” I asked.
“Those floaters.” Seeing the puzzlement on my face, he explained, “Most of the time I see these little things swimming in the air; only they aren’t in the air, they’re in my eye. I know that, because I see them in the dark sometimes. Every so often they make me dizzy, like just now.”
Somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, an alarm went off. I don’t have any medical training, but this sounded all wrong.
“Come with me into the office for a minute,” I said, deciding he was the trustworthy sort, “I want to talk to you.”
“But what if a customer comes? I mean, a paying customer?” he objected, “Somebody could come in here and rip you off!”
I pulled on his arm insistently. “Have you ever heard of a hold-up at a pet shop?” I asked, and he nodded solemnly. “Anyway, the electronic bell on the door will let me know if someone comes.”
He agreed, and we went through the door next to the fishtanks to the office. I sat down at Chau’s messy desk and started rummaging for the telephone book yellow pages, but my customer was admiring the stockroom in awe.
“Gosh, you sure got a lot of stuff back here!” he exclaimed in the hushed tone of voice tourists reserve for cathedrals.
“We have to,” I said, fumbling around in the stuff on the desk, “We can’t close up shop just because the truck comes on Wednesday instead of Tuesday!”
The lanky fellow finally sat down on the other chair. “What are you looking for?”
“The yellow pages,” I said without explanation. “Do you live in Maryland or the District of Columbia?”
He said the District, so I set the Maryland book off to one side. I turned through the yellow pages to “Physicians and Surgeons” and searched out the heading “ophthalmologists.”
I noticed that he was getting bored, so I explained as I searched. “Look, I’m no eye doctor, but I do know that those ‘floaters’ you see aren’t normal.”
“Heck, I knew that,” he said, “so what’s the big deal?”
“I think it’s very serious,” I answered, finding my place. I looked up from the book “Do you sometimes see flashes of light?”
“Yeah, I used to think they were UFOs!” A big grin spread over his face, “But nobody saw them but me!”
I reached for a utility knife—the kind that has a razor blade in it for opening boxes. I began cutting pages out of the telephone book.
“What are you doing that for?” he asked.
“These are eye doctors,” I explained, showing him the pages. “Promise me you will call one and get your eyes examined. It doesn’t cost that much money. Call them up, tell them what you see, and ask them how much it costs until you find one you can afford.”
We had a lengthy conversation about health care, finances, and the seriousness of floaters; and he left an hour later with the pages from the phone book in his hand.
I just sat at the cash register in the front of the store, somewhat drained. He had described the symptoms of detached retinas; without treatment he would eventually become incurably blind.