Gerie

Born February 1936 | Paso Robles, CA

Living with Wet AMD

“I attended the Braille Institute to learn how best to care for my mother. They would blindfold me and tell my husband to take me around the room. The first thing I would say was, 'not so fast Jacko,' and I remembered when I would take my mother around the room. She would say, 'not so fast.' It really opened my eyes to what she was experiencing.”

Geraldine (Gerie) was born in Chicago in 1936 before moving to Michigan where she married and raised three children. She began painting as a young woman, inspired by the rocky coastlines that eventually drew her to move to southern California. It was there she met Jacko, her second husband, whom she has now outlived. Her mother and sister had both suffered from Wet AMD, and Gerie herself began to struggle with intense visual distortion, caused by the disease. After visiting a local specialist, Gerie began monthly ocular injections to mitigate her condition and has been able to maintain her eyesight. She continues to make art surrounded by friends and family in Paso Robles, California.

The dishes in the cupboard weren’t clean. A residue of tomato sauce coated the enamel like a faded fresco. Gerie shook her head and looked over at her mother sitting in front of the TV. She noted the proximity between her mother’s chair and the television—a distance so close that she no longer needed the remote control. Gerie picked up a sponge and washed the plates her mother had already cleaned. A heavy feeling sank into her chest.

 

Her mother had always kept an immaculate household, going back to her earliest memories from Chicago, before the whole family moved to Michigan. Memories of wonderful Christmases and Easters flooded Gerie’s mind. Memories from long ago; before she brought three kids into the world, all by the time she was 21. Gerie thought of her father, who passed away almost 50 years ago. She became nostalgic for the cornucopia of wonderful foods the family had shared, and the intrinsic care her mother always took to leave each plate spotless, placed gently back in the cupboard.
 

Gerie put away the final dish and turned back to her mother. “It’s time to go shopping,” she announced. Her mother slowly stood up, and waited for Gerie to come to her side. Gerie thought she looked helpless. She gripped her mother’s hand and pulled her towards the front of the house.

“Let’s go, mom,” said Gerie, but her mom was slow to step forward. Her steps were painfully short. Impatience overtook Gerie. “C’mon, you can do it.” They inched past the bookshelf where her mother’s cards and bingo boards sat. Bingo was once her favorite game, but without sight, she no longer played.

 

“Slow down,” said her mother. Gerie was starting to get frustrated. She didn’t think it was possible to go any slower. Her mother looked forward by tilting her head far to one side. She had lost all vision in the center of her eye and could only see in her periphery. This condition, Wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration (Wet AMD), had left her mother legally blind. Gerie was aware of all these factors, but found it excruciating to walk at a snail’s pace. Despite the tension, her mother never complained. Gerie did her best to restrain her impatience, and helped her mother into the car.

“I attended the Braille Institute to learn how best to care for my mother. They would blindfold me and tell my husband to take me around the room. The first thing I would say was, ‘not so fast Jacko,’ and I remembered when I would take my mother around the room. She would say, ‘not so fast.’ It really opened my eyes to what she was experiencing.”  

Gerie put away the final dish and turned back to her mother. “It’s time to go shopping,” she announced. Her mother slowly stood up, and waited for Gerie to come to her side. Gerie thought she looked helpless. She gripped her mother’s hand and pulled her towards the front of the house.

“Let’s go, mom,” said Gerie, but her mom was slow to step forward. Her steps were painfully short. Impatience overtook Gerie. “C’mon, you can do it.” They inched past the bookshelf where her mother’s cards and bingo boards sat. Bingo was once her favorite game, but without sight, she no longer played.

 

“Slow down,” said her mother. Gerie was starting to get frustrated. She didn’t think it was possible to go any slower. Her mother looked forward by tilting her head far to one side. She had lost all vision in the center of her eye and could only see in her periphery. This condition, Wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration (Wet AMD), had left her mother legally blind. Gerie was aware of all these factors, but found it excruciating to walk at a snail’s pace. Despite the tension, her mother never complained. Gerie did her best to restrain her impatience, and helped her mother into the car.

“I attended the Braille Institute to learn how best to care for my mother. They would blindfold me and tell my husband to take me around the room. The first thing I would say was, ‘not so fast Jacko,’ and I remembered when I would take my mother around the room. She would say, ‘not so fast.’ It really opened my eyes to what she was experiencing.”  

The firefighters arrived within minutes of being called—one advantage of living in Paso Robles, a city of less than 30,000. They were polite, even as they  struggled to lift the man. Sweat dripped from their brows as they rolled Jacko, her husband, back into bed—the place he had resigned himself to at this point. Jacko’s weight had never been more apparent; it took five firefighters to lift him. Gerie offered the men water, but they seemed ready to get back to the station.

She turned to Jacko, her husband of almost 30 years. The lung cancer was advanced, even though he never smoked. It had metastasized into his frontal lobe—the area of the brain responsible for emotion. Gerie was afraid to lose the tender, nourishing man inside, whom she knew so well.  

Jacko had always been a provider of nourishment. For years, Gerie woke up each morning to the smell of omelets, crepes, and sausages. She’d eat a big breakfast and before she had finished, Jacko would ask her what she wanted for lunch. He’d make her lunch and ask what she wanted for dinner. He loved food, and lived for it, but for the past eight months Gerie had been the one doing the cooking. It pained Jacko not to be able to cook, and now it pained him to eat. The realization that his relationships, both with Gerie and the greater world, were coming to an end, came into focus, like a distant ship arriving through the fog of the bay. Things were being set in motion toward the inevitable. He looked up at Gerie. He was grateful. Grateful for the fact that he could spend these days with her, at home, away from the sterile edifices and hospital beds.

Gerie was a little shaken from Jacko’s fall. She had been told not to catch him or move him, that it would only injure her to try to intercede. Michelle, her daughter, had come quickly when news of Jacko’s incident circulated through the family. Gerie was grateful for her support through these times, but ultimately knew she was losing her husband.

Jacko sensed the sorrow of the moment and, from his immovable position, reached out to grab Gerie’s hand. “You’ve gotta have hope, Gerie,” he said. “You’ve gotta have hope, don’t ya.” The words hung in the air.

“When I die, I’m going to the ocean,” Gerie mused, still holding his hand. “To Morro Rock, where we used to fish all the time. Do you wanna go there with me?”

 

“Yeah, but I get seasick,” he responded. Their tears dried in the rosiness of their laughter. Gerie and Jacko relaxed and spent their last hours together.

Gerie had 20/20 vision. She could read the fine print in advertisements, and the bottom line of an optometrist’s chart. But today, her eyes felt funny so she took a break from painting to watch some television. It was a simple way to unwind.
    
Her eyes drifted from the screen to the wall and her bookcases adorned with years of her paintings and woven crafts. She smiled at the vibrant blues and purples in her watercolors, the natural fibers of local grasses and vines and seaweed that made up her baskets. Their twisting forms left complex shadows on the drywall behind them.
    
From the the side of the bookshelf the distortion awoke. It warped the straight edges of the wall into spaghetti-like lines. Suddenly angles fused together, and Gerie’s central plane of vision blurred into a fuzz. Her living room appeared unreal. She refocused on the doorway, and again plumb carpentry failed her sight. The doorway danced in the light as if some ghost jazz ensemble had awakened in the walls of her house. A deep fear was aroused, like a sleeping giant in a fairy tale. Gerie stood up and attempted to walk to the kitchen. The floor became impassable—moguls were rising up at steep slopes. She cautiously made her way to the kitchen for a glass of water. Her sore back and knees did not make the walk any easier.
    
Her mind ran from confusion to anxiety. She launched into vivid memories of her mother being led around for the autumn years of life. She thought of her sister, who had recently died in an assisted-living facility. Both of them were blind. They could only see shadows or shapes in their peripheral vision. Both of them were affected by Wet AMD. She thought of her studio, all the blank canvases and the tubes of paint yet to be opened.
 

The issues continued. Gerie’s depth perception became almost nonexistent. Everyday objects became menacing. Chandeliers bombarded her from the other side of the room, automobiles split themselves into twos and threes (so she stopped driving), and her own paintbrush could never seem to find exactly where the canvas began.
    
She called her doctor.
    
“You have to help me,” she pleaded. She told him about her sister and mother. “My head is just going to blow off. I have so much anxiety!”
    
He patiently explained the procedure. It would be an injection directly into her eye. A regular injection. “It doesn’t hurt,” he told her, but she was not easily comforted.
    
“How do you know? Have you tried it?” she asked.
    
“Well, no.”

“They are just there for me. I feel so blessed. Some people, they don’t have anybody. I can’t imagine it—having this condition without help.”

Gerie’s house exudes warmth and welcome. The walls are covered in her colorful paintings, and the rooms are filled with her people. Her daughter, Michelle sets the table with hors-d’oeuvres, and her son-in-law, Dave, opens a bottle of wine from a nearby vineyard. Mary, one of her close friends, has just returned from a shopping trip and packs away the reusable bags. Her grandson stops by with her great-granddaughter to join in on the afternoon snacking. The ceiling fan helps dissipate the oppressive summer heat, and the lightness of white wine soothes the tongue, leading the way to thoughtful conversation.
    
Looking around the room, her eyes fill with tears.

 

“They are just there for me. I feel so blessed,” says Gerie. She acclaims her faithful family and friends who fill her home with love and willingly lend a hand whenever necessary.

“Since the onset of her vision loss, she’s learned to ask for help,” relates Michelle. “That’s new.”

‚Äč

“Some people,” continues Gerie, “they don’t have anybody. I can’t imagine it—having this condition without help.”

Gerie walks into her studio, next to the living room. She pulls a fresh ceramic tile and a selection of tiny bottles filled with different hues. Alcohol painting is her new foray. It is a sign of Gerie’s endless exploration with the art, and her unorthodoxy—a steadfast refusal to become dogmatic in her approach to creativity. Her motivation is necessity. Painting fulfills a need for her, like nutrition, family, and vision.
    
She drips some amber paint on the tile and mixes it with a deep maroon. Then, she reaches for her pressurized duster. She points the long straw at the small pools of paint and gives it a quick blast of air. In an instant, the paint juts in many directions covering the tile in an anarchic pattern. In some spots, the colors combine to form new shades and layers. Next, she reaches for the spray solvent. She mists it over the quickly drying paint and the solid palettes of red and brown erupt into a chorus of transmuting forms. The colors swirl and redistribute themselves, bubbling and bursting. Gerie quickly adds some aquamarine to the tile, and its brightness becomes fantastic among the earthly colors. She blasts it again with the duster and adds more alcohol. There is a fantastic display of chemical reactions between the dyes, the alcohol, and oxygen—the same elements that dot the landscape of wine country in central California: fresh air, bright colors, alcohol…

“Cool,” she says. “I like this one, although maybe I put too much paint on it.” She holds the tile up in the light.

Some of Gerie’s larger work hang in her bedroom. Across from her bed on the wall stands a magnificent scene from coastal California. These were the landscapes that first inspired her to move out west. Rugged cliffs give way to tidal pools and rancorous spray of amorphous waves, releasing their expungement high into the air.

The cool tone of the ocean water clashes with the darkness of the rocks, and the briny surf catches hints of red and purple in the light. She has hundreds of paintings—her basement is filled with them—but this one graces her every morning.

"Seeing and smelling the ocean—that’s all I’ve got to do. I’m going to be a mermaid. I’m going back to the ocean.”
 

BACK   |   LEARN OUR STORIES   |   NEXT