Seeing the Sky

by Tony Mauro

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I try to see a sunrise every morning and a sunset every evening . In California, it is very possible to see a sunrise and sunset almost every day since there is hardly any day that is overcast. I moved to California mainly because of this. I usually go to bed after the sunset with its beauty on my mind, and I wake up before the sunrise and view it now with my horse, dog, two cats, and bird.

In the past, my family was also with me. Many times, when the moon is full, my children, who are in different locations, and I will view it together, knowing it ties us together. The sunrises and sunsets are always new and unique. The sky is painted with nature’s colors that cannot be reproduced; and believe me, as a painter, I’ve tried. A camera can catch some of it, but what our eyes are able to see can never truly be captured. I feel that if I miss a sunrise and sunset I lose that day. Life is too precious to lose a day of it.

That’s one reason a morning in October 2009 was such a shock to me. I woke up as usual at 4 AM, excited to see a fall sunrise—cooler weather produces varying sunrises. But when I opened my eyes, I had extreme difficulties seeing. Everything seemed to be in black and white. When I closed my left eye, all I saw with my right eye was a huge black spot, blacking out my central vision. It was oval in shape and was somewhat transparent on the edges with spots in the oval. Everything behind it was distorted. I rubbed and rubbed my eye until I realized something was very wrong. I panicked! Not believing what I saw, I jumped in the shower and took a long and hot one hoping and praying the black spot would disappear. It did not. I cried and asked God, “What have I done to deserve this?” I missed the sunrise.

At 9 AM I called the medical center and my ophthalmologist, because just a few months earlier I’d passed an extensive eye examination.

Everything had been fine. I tend to be a bit of a “preventative nut”. I get check-ups on a regular basis. And I was thinking, “I did everything I was supposed to do to be healthy, how could this be happening to me? How could my vision change so much in such a short time?”

Around 11 AM, I saw my ophthalmologist who gave me a quick exam. Then he referred me to a retina specialist who ordered OCT and angiogram scans. The retina specialist’s diagnosis? I had wet AMD.

I had an idea what wet AMD was, but not totally, so I said, “Please tell me what’s going on.” The retina specialist talked to me about what causes it.

I was under the impression, at first, that it could’ve been prevented. That I hadn’t paid attention, hadn’t done what I needed to make sure I wouldn’t get it. He said, “No, it can show up fast, even overnight.” Then I asked him about my left eye, and he said wet AMD could affect it the same way. That really scared me, it really upset me….wow, I could be blind in both eyes. To this day, when I open my eyes in the morning, I thank God I have another day to see.

But my retina specialist told me he was hoping that treatment might help keep my wet AMD from progressing. We discussed the risks and benefits of various options, and together we decided on a treatment that seemed best for me. He told me that as part of his recommended treatment, an injection in the eye would be necessary. That very day, I got my first injection into my right eye.

When I got home, I called one of my daughters, who is a registered nurse. She came over, and after reviewing the situation together, I told her that to me life was not worth living blind. It was a dark time in my life. Not only had my mother, younger brother and two close friends recently passed away, but my partner and soul mate of fourteen years had left me after we survived her cancer battle together. As a way for both of us to cope, I had painted portraits of her cancer battle and its impact. I decided to paint my own journey with wet AMD as a form of self-therapy and to track my vision.

What I did was take a photograph of myself. I placed that it at a certain distance, with a certain light, and I painted what I saw. At first, what I saw was a dark cloud covering almost the entire right half of my face.

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Every few months, I would look at that photograph and paint another self-portrait. I told my retina specialist, “You know, I can’t see your angiogram and OCT scans so well. I can’t see the difference in the lines and the color. So I decided to paint the changes in my wet AMD my own way.”

He asked me to bring the paintings with me to appointments. So, as part of the treatment review, we evaluated how my wet AMD self-portraits changed along with the changes in my OCT and angiogram scans.

I am very conscious of my health and practice both preventative and medical care. I eat a healthy diet with a lot of colorful fruits and vegetables: all different kinds of berries, broccoli, corn, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale. I don’t eat junk or processed food, or foods high in the wrong kind of fats. I don’t smoke; and I exercise every day. I monitor my vision with an Amsler grid in addition to my paintings and vision tests. I believe in doing everything I can to help maintain all aspects of my health, including my eye health.

But as the treatment went on, I became “stuck” in a negative mindset, waking up every morning praying my left eye was OK. It was difficult viewing the sunrises and sunsets. Then a wonderful woman came into my life. The love we had for each other allowed me to get “unstuck” and want to live life with a purpose. I started seeing not only with my eyes, but my heart. Finding support on any journey can be helpful; I really recommend reaching out to others. There are support groups you can join in many areas and online. There’s no reason to go it alone.

As I kept doing the paintings after my treatments started, I saw the dark gray-black changed to a lime green, then a faint lime green, and I’m thinking, “Whoa, this I like.”

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Painting by painting, with every healthy decision my retina specialist and I made together, the cloud lightened and got smaller. I am still fighting the battle, and my journey with wet AMD continues. But lately, I haven’t missed a single sunrise or a single sunset.

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