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Sunrise for Judith

As journalist Mark Potter’s wife was dying of cancer, she encouraged him to take his camera and keep a daily appointment with the sunrise. This early morning ritual has helped him heal.

By Richard Harris

Like so many couples nearing retirement, Mark and Judith Potter had big dreams. 

They talked of travel to Europe, maybe taking a cruise to the Greek Islands. Already trilingual, Judith wanted to sharpen her French and learn yet another language. Mark considered teaching journalism and hoped to indulge his love of saltwater fly fishing and photography.

A bright orange sunrise with the silhouette of two words. Next Avenue
Mark Potter's photo of two ibises flying in tandem at sunrise  |  Credit: Mark Potter

Judith retired first, as a Miami-Dade County teacher of preschoolers with learning challenges, then Mark signed off in 2016 after a long career as a Miami-based network news correspondent for ABC, CNN and finally NBC News. But one month after his NBC retirement party, Judith got a devastating diagnosis: late-stage ovarian cancer that would take her life three years later.

"I was honored to do it, but it took a toll and over time, I got really tired and anxious, overwhelmed at times that I was going to lose my life partner."

In his new book "Sunrise: A Photographic Journey of Comfort, Healing and Inspiration," Mark writes "for as long as I live, I will never forget the catastrophic shock we both felt when the doctor … told us Judith's abdomen appeared to be filled with gynecological cancer tumors. Hearing that was as close as I've ever come to being hit with a shotgun blast. Judith and I just looked at each other in frozen terror."

Now, three and a half years after her death, Mark reflects on that traumatic time. "It was tough. The doctor advised us to just continue with our normal life. Have a glass of wine, go to the movies. That was easy for him to say. And we tried to do that to a degree. But he didn't have in the back of his mind that his wife might die." 

The Deep End of the Caregiving Pool

Without hesitation, Mark dove right into the deep end of the caregiving pool. "I was just consumed with all the things you have to do. You don't just bring meals to people. You're working with Medicare, struggling with the supplemental insurance, fighting with company insurance, handling all the medications, shopping, juggling phone calls. I was honored to do it, but it took a toll and over time, I got really tired and anxious, overwhelmed at times that I was going to lose my life partner. I was feeling a sense of despair."

Adding to his stress — and he's quick to say that he doesn't blame his wife — was Judith's request that her late-stage cancer diagnosis stay within the family. "Judith was very private and would get really upset with me if I talked about her condition to anyone outside the family. She didn't want anyone to know. It was nobody's business."

Looking back, Mark knew he had taken on too much and it became a cautionary tale. "My big mistake and I urge people [faced with a similar caregiving challenge] not to do what I did — pull in the barriers and isolate myself. One of the reasons I got off Facebook was because I didn't want to answer any questions. I needed to honor her request for privacy."

It wasn't only his wife's serious illness that weighed on him around this time. "I had lost my mother, I had lost my job, and my father was sick." And soon Judith became so concerned her 14-hour-a day caregiver husband (who of course was also on call overnight) was soon going to join her as a patient. She told Mark, "'I may die, but if you're going to survive this, you need to get out and clear your head a little bit each day." 

A couple smiling while standing outside. Next Avenue
Mark and Judith  |  Credit: Courtesy of Mark Potter

So she urged Mark to resume saltwater fly fishing or his newer hobby: sunrise photography. 

Because the photography allowed him to stay closer to home and be back to care for Judith by 8 a.m., he opted for sunrises. Mark rose every morning while it was still dark, made a pot of coffee and took a short drive to a nearby park with his cameras and tripod in tow.

Turns out the skillset Mark developed chasing down drug terrorists and the like as an investigative reporter prepared him for chasing sunrises. "It's the best possible job replacement I could have. I'm using the same three P's that I used in journalism. Preparation, positioning and patience. Lots of patience." 

And he added a fourth "P" now that he's gotten a flood of positive feedback on the sunrise shots he's posted to Facebook (Mark Potter NBC) and Instagram(@markpottermiami): Purpose. 

Mark discovered that taking shots of the sun's first rays appearing above the horizon — the peak of what he calls "magic time" — is not only personally satisfying, but "the new element is that I'm creating photos that other people say they need, that help them. I'm getting a lot more response from people for the work I'm doing now than I got as a broadcast journalist."


'A Remarkable Person'

This summer at his high school reunion in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a classmate who had lost her husband approached Mark.

"She told me she was depressed, couldn't get out of bed. And then started looking at my photos and realized I was a guy she knew and pretty soon she's getting out. I'm not saying she's fully recovered, but she pulled me aside to tell me that story. Those kinds of stories have kept me going. I sure as heck am getting more love and upbeat messages than I did as a journalist. We might get respect, but journalists don't get a lot of love."

Talk about love. Mark will never forget how Judith took time during her own cancer battle to focus on the toll that caretaking took on him. He says it was typical of Judith to always think of others. "It meant the world to me. Judith was a remarkable person." 

A vibrant orange and pink sunset. Next Avenue
Credit: Mark Potter

Judith Rodriguez was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States in 1970 at age 22. But her parents and two brothers stayed back in Cuba. Her father died in 1977, but she didn't receive the news until two weeks later since the family wasn't allowed to call the U.S. But in 1980, the historic six-month-long Mariel Boatlift brought 125,000 Cubans to this country, mainly to South Florida. 

Thinking this may be the last chance to bring her mother and brothers to the U.S., Judith got in her car in Los Angeles and drove the entire breadth of the country to Key West, Florida where she got in a boat with some other Cuban exiles and made the treacherous trip to Cuba, nearly capsizing in a storm, but eventually made it safely to Mariel Harbor.

Upon arrival, and with the family there in the dark, Judith tried negotiating their release. But Cuban officials refused because Judith's younger brother had not yet served in the Cuban military and ordered her to leave the country. But before she left the island, she gave some money to a Cuban official and asked him to get her family out of Cuba. 

"She got back to Key West in a boat, drove all the way back to Los Angeles wondering if she had failed," said Mark. "But when she got to Los Angeles, Judith got a call from a sailor, saying her mother and youngest brother had made it, and her other brother got out on another boat." The family was reunited in Los Angeles and eventually settled in Miami.

Daily Appointment with Sunrise

On the back cover of Mark's book, there's a sunrise photo he shot that has a special place in his home and in his heart: A pair of ibises flying in tandem in an orange sky, a freshly risen sun creating a strip of orange reflected in the water below. 

"The first caption I gave it was 'It's always nice to have a wingman,'" Mark said, but then I realized the photo meant a lot more to me. It was Judith and me. I didn't shoot it with that in mind. Birds were coming at me from left and right and I was just firing away. Of all my sunrise photos, it's the most meaningful to me personally."

That shot is among 25 sunrise photos that Mark donated in Judith's memory to the Lennar Medical Center, the Coral Gables outpatient facility where Judith received her chemotherapy, and where cancer patients today tell Mark his sunrise photos lining the walls help calm them.

Mark will be forever grateful to Judith for steering him back toward his daily appointment with the sunrise, a hobby that has included a few surprises along the way, including a very rare, recent sighting.

Remember how Mark talked about patience being one of the three P's. It recently paid off one morning when he was looking through his viewfinder as the sun was just about to push above the horizon. For just a few seconds he captured four frames of the so-called green flash, a rare enough optical phenomenon during sunsets, let alone sunrises, when the sun's very upper rim appears green in color. 

An orange sunset with a green flash. Next Avenue
A rare "green flash" at sunrise  |  Credit: Mark Potter

"When I posted it on my Facebook page, all kinds of people lit up about it. They didn't believe it, thought it was an urban myth." Now that Mark has captured the green flash, his next quest is to capture the Florida Panther in the wild. "That's my big goal."

Mark had a different kind of surprise when he saw a compliment on his Facebook page from Nick Ut, the Associated Press photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo of the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl who had torn off all of her burning clothes after a mistaken South Vietnamese napalm attack on her village. That photo ultimately helped contribute to the end of the Vietnam War. 

"When I saw his name on my page, I said 'Oh my God, are you kidding me?' For a guy who's an amateur photographer, that's pretty big stuff," Mark said.

Sometimes on the back of books you'll see well-meaning endorsement quotes. But Miami novelist Carl Hiaasen's quote is both poignant and personal, as his brother Rob was among the victims of the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland in 2018. Hiaasen says Mark's book "is more than a memorial to his remarkable wife; it lights a path forward for everyone who has experienced the darkest weight of grief and it reminds us to cherish every sunrise."

For four years now, through his wife's illness, her subsequent death and with no plans to quit his morning ritual, Mark Potter has kept a daily, early morning appointment at the park, on the beach or anywhere he can capture the sky as it "explodes into a kaleidoscope of exotic shapes and breathtaking colors."

He asks, "Why would anyone ever want to sleep late and miss seeing one of the best light shows on earth? You got to be willing to wake up in the dark. You got to get up early. You got to get out of bed.  You can't help it. The sun comes up at sunrise."

Richard Harris is a freelance writer, consultant to the nonprofit iCivics, former producer of NPR's "All Things Considered" and former senior producer of "ABC News Nightline with Ted Koppel." Follow him on Twitter @redsox54.  Read More
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