Macular Degeneration: In the Eye of the Beholder


I hear the wild laugh of the pileated woodpecker. I turn off the Mixmaster and peer out the kitchen window. She lands on my suet feeder and pecks away, pieces of suet flying, as she ratchets the frozen tallow. This is a mature female. She does not have the red stripe from her bill back to the throat and her crest is perfectly coifed — not the immature feathers that stick up on a juvenile like the hair of a teenage boy.

I was putting together my mother’s recipe for refrigerator cookies, but it will wait. The woodpecker’s black, white and red markings are displayed flamboyantly against the snow. For a moment I forget there may come a day when I hear the raucous cry, but the red crest and markings of this huge Woody Woodpecker may not be seen by me. I may not be able to pick out the undulating flight as she meanders through the woods to my feeder.

My most recent routine eye exam revealed macular degeneration. I was told that “I should have years” before any symptoms are present. That, however, has not been the case. I see wavy lines in the grid with my right eye and years have not passed — only six months. Straight lines of window frames and art pieces have sharp angles where there are none.

As I continue to marvel at the bird, the sun reflects through the window and reproduces my image. In my 69th year, I have taken on many of my mother’s characteristics. My jowls sag, I wear glasses, and my body frame is similar to hers.

I remember Mother’s diagnosis of macular degeneration. She was 82 and was losing central vision of both eyes. I took her to a specialist to determine if there were any treatments or assistance for her.

Yellow drops were inserted into Mom’s eyes and tears ran down her face.

“It only hurts for a little while,” said the nurse.

Mom had been hurting since her diagnosis, and that would not cease when burning from the drops lessened. She had already grieved the loss of her garden because the physical labor was too much, but not being able to see the perennials bloom or her daily newspaper had suffocating implications. Losing her vision would be like a killing frost in August.

I watched the pupil of Mom’s eye grow, the blue part getting darker as though the tears were washing out all but the darkest color. With that much blue, she should have been able to see the world.

The doctor prescribed a basic eye test to be given by the nurse. She moved about eight feet in front of Mom, and instructed her to cover her left eye with a hand-held plastic shield.

“Can you see this?”


She moved closer — to about four feet.

When the nurse was four feet away, Mom could see a shadow with her right eye. She could not see the nurse’s arm or the fingers held up to be counted.

I watched her eyes, the large black pupil and dark blue around it, the sightless beauty trying to see, trying to please, and trying to discern the place where a face should be. Is this what will happen to me? No birding, reading, or golfing, and will I not be able to see the beloved face of my partner of twenty years?

Since Mother’s diagnosis, I have been taking supplements — Vitamin C and D, beta-carotene, bilberry and lutein — having yearly eye checks, attempting to ward off what now seems inevitable. I’m signed up for an intensive acupuncture program, and I’ve read about stem cell research for eyes, but apprehension flutters into my daily activities.

The cookies are baked, and once again I hear the rough cry of the big woodpecker two times in one day; I am blessed. I go to the window, ignore the wavy line of the sill, and peer through my binoculars. This is a male, because it has a red line from the bill back to the throat. In this moment, the bird is all there is.

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  1. Elaine
    Well said! My mother also has macular degeneration. I worry for her – she was such a reader all her life and has commented that it is the one activity she misses the most. I also worry for me – I love reading and writing – hummm… will the same fate await me? I will think of you often as you work through this. Thank you for sharing this site and it was my pleasure to be reintroduced to you through your brother (my brother-in-law, Larry) – best wishes. Keep writing!
    Enjoy Life

  2. Wonderful writing, Elaine. I’m glad I got to read it. What a hard thing. My mother also had this condition and I suspect I will too, but damn, there’s so much to see until then! Sending light.

  3. Hello to someone from Primrose who remembers your beautiful mother and is sorry to hear that your family, like ours, suffers from macular degeneration. It sounds like you have a beautiful life in the cities with lots of friends to support you.


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