Sight is Dimming, Memories are Bright

By Lissa Miles

For a woman as fiercely independent as Nerta, macular degeneration and its theft of her eyesight is one of life's greatest obstacles.

Nerta is feisty and funny and a natural story teller, but finds it difficult to find great meaning each day when she is unable to do most things she loves.

“I can’t read, watch TV or go outside,” said Nerta, during a sunny September interview. “If I went out on a sunny day like this, the glare from the sun would completely blind me.”

The 92-year-old, who worked as an assistant for lawyers and judges her entire professional life, has enjoyed a life spotted with adventure and travel. After losing her husband when she was just 41 years old (he was 51) she was left on her own with three teenaged children.

Nerta has three children, a daughter in Victoria and two sons; one in Ottawa and one in North Vancouver.  All of them are more or less retired.

“When my husband died, it was fortunate that I was already in the work force,” recalls Nerta. “It was certainly a difficult and shocking time, but I just kept working and getting by. It would have been more difficult if I wasn’t working and suddenly had to go out there and find a job.”

Her adventures eventually brought her to Australia for a year, where she worked as a typist, to Europe and to Florida, where she lived on a sailboat for four years and explored New York, the Bahamas and beyond by sea.

“In my day, which was a hell of a long time ago, most women were looking for a man to settle down with and that was the end all, be all in their quest for happiness,” said Nerta, with a smile. “I had a number of men to choose from, but when I got out of school at 16, I went to work in the office of a patent lawyer.”

That initial job set her on a path she would find fulfilling throughout her life; one she remembers now with great fondness. In fact, if she was able, she’d go back to work today.

“I stayed with the law almost all my life. I thought about going back to school to become a lawyer at one point, but I just stuck to it and eventually worked for the federal court as an assistant to over a dozen judges.”

Nerta said she liked the preciseness of law. There was something about the law you didn’t fool around with.

“I loved working with lawyers and judges. They were very intelligent and, generally speaking, very humorous. Most of the ones I knew were polite and clever. The job was rewarding and afforded me a lot of freedom. I could take off and always come back to a job.”

1986, she left Vancouver and moved to Ottawa, where she worked on contract for the Federal Court.

In 1998, she moved back to Vancouver – a difficult decision because her brother had just moved into a home. Now that her eyesight is all but gone, she said visits and phone calls from friends and family have become a great highlight. She enjoys listening to the news, which she often does.

She remembers the exact moment when her eyesight started to fail. Approximately 20 years ago, she was with her brother and when she turned to look at him, she saw a little black spot, The spot was from a hemorrhaging blood vessel in her eye. Her eyesight has gotten progressively worse in the last four months.

“Now, it’s as though I’m walking down a hallway and someone is walking behind me turning out all the lights. Everything is getting dark. Blindness takes away your confidence and shuts the world off to you.”

She said one of the challenges is that she looks well and nobody realizes that she’s practically blind. Even when they see the white cane, they assume she can see most things.

“One of the worst things you can do is grab the arm of a person who’s blind and lead them around. Just show them where your arm is and let them hold onto you. Or, walk in front of them so they can put their hand on your shoulder and walk behind you. That way you break the way for the blind person and protect them.”

Nerta gets a bit of help from Classic LifeCare with things like grocery shopping and errands.

She said she’s losing her short-term memory and “isn’t as swift” as she once was. She watched her mother and her brother suffer from dementia and said she wonders if you may be better off when you’re not aware of what you’ve lost.

Nerta started writing her life story before her eyesight began to fail and made it as far as her husband’s untimely death. She wanted to write about her children, but never made it that far.

“I look back at what I did in my life and I think very fondly of my travels and my work,” said Nerta, who added, with a chuckle. “I took dancing lessons for years too. Ballet, tap, toe dancing. It makes me think of the tune Shuffle Off to Buffalo. I feel like my life would be very different today if I had my eyesight. I would be much more open to join activities and try new things.”

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