Born August 1968 | Pensacola, FL
Living with Wet AMD
“I acknowledged each person I have worked for and those I have worked with. I saved a special part of my speech to thank my wife. I told everyone ‘She is my rock and I always took her for granted. Until now.’"
James is a retired patrol officer living in Pensacola, FL with his wife, Geraldine. As a young man, he was the third generation to join the military and he served in the Navy for four years. For the majority of his career, he worked as a patrol officer in California and Florida. When he was diagnosed with Wet AMD, his change in vision caused him to fail the shooting tests for requalification as a patrol officer. He then worked as a correctional officer until an incident with an inmate forced him to retire early. These days, he can be found laughing with Geraldine, enjoying his eleven grandchildren and dreaming of opening a barbeque stand.
On the evening of his retirement ceremony from the police force, James stood squarely in front of the bathroom mirror in his ranch-style house in Pensacola, Florida. His wife of 19 years, Geraldine, had chosen his outfit: a tan, button-down shirt and navy blue tie. He was proud of his dedication to the police force, even as he was forced to retire decades earlier than he had expected. Later that night he would make a speech in front of his coworkers and family. He would thank people for their support. He would receive a plaque. At the young age of 45, he would close the door on his career as a cop.
James wiped his forehead as he leaned in toward his reflection. The mirror, its edges darkened and cracked with tiny fissures, knew so many of his stories. He and Geraldine had held each of their grandchildren up to that mirror, wrapped in fresh towels, clean from their baths. He had laughed in front of this mirror, when as a young officer, he had attempted unsuccessfully to cut his own hair. The mirror observed James coming home each night from work on the streets, brimming with pride from his work, sweat permeating his uniform. And the mirror had witnessed the strange glare one night, five years ago, when James’ vision underwent a change that initiated a stream of events, a cascade of loss.
“I was standing in front of the mirror in uniform one night, practicing for my requalification test. Every two years, officers needed to prove their shooting skills and, as usual, I was nervous. I was never a good shot, so I always practiced my form in front of the mirror. But something was off that night. There was a strange glare. I moved my face slightly away from the mirror: the reflection was kind of warped. Forward and then back again. But then I stopped myself. I had no time to think about that stuff. I needed to practice. So I made sure the door was locked and I drew my gun from my holster, aimed it at the mirror, finger on the trigger. I checked my position. Arms straight, shoulders square. Then I re-holstered the gun. Draw, point, aim, return; draw, point, aim, return; I did this for an hour, not thinking again about the glare.”
On the morning of the requalification test, Geraldine saw his nervousness in the way his eyebrows furrowed together. She handed him a fresh cup of coffee and kissed his cheek. “You’ll be fine!” she said, smiling, and wrapped her arms around him in a confidence-building bear-hug. He had fallen in love with Geraldine when he was 19 and in the Navy, which he had joined just one week out of high school. Under the shining sun in Oceanside, California, he and Geraldine immediately clicked. She was bubbly and inviting, which balanced out his reserved and anxious disposition. She made him feel loved and secure and together they built a large nest: four children and eleven grandchildren, who James worked hard to support. Each one of those children became the apple of his eye, although, as Geraldine jokes, James would never admit it.
James drove to the shooting range and exhaled a deep breath as he exited his car. The sky was overcast and blanketed in grey clouds. Before entering the range, James passed through security and, as was required, made sure the chamber of his gun was empty. There were ten candidates seeking qualification that day. The lieutenant on duty gave them all time to practice a few rounds before the testing began.
James knew he could appeal to the board for another chance. He told Geraldine that he needed an eye appointment. She made one for the following week. Two minutes into the eye exam, the optometrist said, “Something is not right in there.” He turned off the blinding light shining in James’ eyes, leaving him blinking at floating spots, trying to train his attention on the doctor’s words. “There’s blood pooling behind your right eye,” the doctor said. “You need to see a specialist.” A quick fix is what James hoped for: new glasses, eye drops, rest. Geraldine rubbed his shoulders. “Come on,” she said. He focused on her steady and unwavering expression, and relied on the upbeat confidence in her voice. He was too shy to tell her about the wall of light, and how the swirling dust of the bathroom was reared to a menace at the shooting range.
The following week, an ophthalmologist made a quick diagnosis: wet age-related macular degeneration (Wet AMD). James’ thoughts were foggy and distant: the hazy glare in the bathroom. . . is that what this was all about? He paid little attention to the name of the disorder and the science behind it, but Geraldine did. She listened carefully. Blood vessels in the back of James’ eye were leaking and forming a pool of fluid, causing thickening in the tissue around the retina, and resulting in vision loss. She worried he was going blind.
The opthamologist prescribed a medication that would need to be administered as injections directly into James’ eyes every few months. Geraldine stayed by his side for all of these procedures. The injections made shapes on the walls of his vision: flies, worms, blurs, spots that lasted for an hour or more after each treatment. Following each injection, his vision improved, but was never completely restored. He could not pass the shooting test, which was a monumental blow. He tried twice more, skipping the practice in front of the mirror, as if the very act of it had cursed him. He scored a 34 and then a 32. His career on the streets was over.
The review board gave James a choice between working as a corrections officer and finding another career. He chose corrections and began working at the county corrections facility. The inmates were aggressive. James felt out of place confined within the jail walls. He felt, not unlike the prisoners he policed, as if he had lost his freedom. During his first year there, James also developed diabetes and high blood pressure, which made work extra difficult.
“One day in the prison I hear, ‘Mayberry? Can you help?’ An inmate had confiscated a razor blade by hiding it between his teeth, and was standing there flexing his arm and slicing his skin in long thin lines. Blood was dripping everywhere.
“They called me because I’m good at talking these guys down. I listen to them and let them blow off steam. ‘I need you to put that down and walk away,’ I said calmly. But this guy barely even acknowledged that he heard me. He growled, and then he lunged toward me. Before I knew it, he grabbed me on my side and my hand was covered in blood.”
Days after the assault, the board told James he was no longer physically fit to be a corrections officer, or any type of police officer. It was a devastating moment: his career was over. Defeated, James drove home and collapsed on his couch in total fatigue. He no longer recognized himself. What began as cloudy vision, a strange light in front of a bathroom mirror, led him down a difficult path. His career was ruined; his health was deteriorating, and adding onto that, he was grieving his beloved mother and grandmother who both had recently passed. There were days when he felt he couldn’t go on, but Geraldine wouldn’t let him think that way. She reminded him daily of his family who loved him, of his parents, who had dreamed for him. She was firm and James listened.
On the evening of the retirement ceremony, James thought of his father, who had served in the military and, through example, had taught him the values of honor and dignity. The vision loss, diabetes, and high blood pressure may have brought James’ career to an end, but his dedication to leading a dignified life was what would carry him to his retirement ceremony with his head held high. Once again, he faced the mirror. He turned on the sink and let water run over his hands, splashed it on his face, and dried with a towel. He buttoned the last button on his tan-colored shirt and pulled his tie straight. In the mirror, he saw a man who would retire in style. He clicked off the light in the tiny bathroom, and his reflection disappeared.
“I walked into the hall and everyone I ever worked with in law enforcement and corrections was there. My wife and four children were there. I didn’t have a lot to say, but I meant what I said. I thanked everyone for the privilege of serving as an officer of the law, and I acknowledged each person I have worked for and those I have worked with. I saved a special part of my speech to thank my wife. I told everyone ‘She is my rock and I always took her for granted. Until now.’”
Five years later, on a cool day in March, James opens the front door of his house wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Inside, the hallway is lined with dozens of children’s shoes in every color: sneakers, sandals, Mickey Mouse flip-flops. “Grandchildren,” he laughs. “My wife, she likes to buy them stuff.” James slowly lowers himself onto the leather sofa in his living room and grasps his knees with his wide palms. “What would you like to know? Like a prisoner, I got nothing but time,” he says. He belly-laughs and then shifts in his seat and pauses, looking sideways through his light-filtering glasses. He speaks in spirals: the stories of his life come out easily, but repeat, and circle: A woman in Oceanside, rough days on the streets, a firing range, a prisoner, a razor, blood. The ceiling fan spins like his tales. He looks up at it a moment, organizing a memory, remembering the events in his life as if they were strange dreams.
“Why this was my life, I don’t know.” he says. “My grandmother said my heart is in God’s hands. Everything happens for a reason.” A giant flat-screen TV is propped up high in one corner of the living room and next to the couch, the shelves are filled with thousands of DVDs that James treasures. “I have good days and I have bad days,” he says, “but I stay positive when I think of things to come.” He talks about planning fishing trips and about his hopes to one day open a barbeque stand. “Everyone loves my barbeque!” he laughs, clasping his hands together. Geraldine comes home from work, carrying a bag full of groceries. James’ eyes light up and soften. They kiss and she cocks her head and smiles at him, making him giggle like an embarrassed teenager. “Did you go shopping again?” he teases. “Maybe a little,” she says. Moments like these remind James that though he has endured loss, the most essential part of his life, his love for his wife and family, remains largely intact. “We’re still young!” Geraldine says, making James laugh again. Despite the challenges, they have a lifetime ahead of them.