It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Judith and Mark Potter had carefully planned their future, but they would never get the chance to live it together.
The Beginning of the End
Mark didn’t want to retire but the network had other ideas. So here he was, his last day as an NBC News Correspondent. He spent his 41-year career traveling the world, often at a moment’s notice and always to areas under duress. War-torn countries, civil rights struggles, narcotics trafficking, hurricanes, earthquakes and more. He was accustomed to dealing with disasters, but unprepared for the challenge he was about to face. It was at his retirement party that Judith first mentioned the pain. What could it be?
She was the one who was never sick, never complained. So they got to a doctor immediately and exactly one month after that came the catastrophic diagnosis: she had late-stage ovarian cancer.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Potter said. “It was like getting hit by a shotgun blast. The last thing either of us expected to hear.”
The Potters were emotionally shattered, instantly thrown from full-time careers to full-time cancer care.
“I’ve just been given a death sentence,” Judith said. Potter immediately went into reporter-mode, calling friends, colleagues and contacts, desperately wondering what to do. He got ahold of the head of gynecological care at the Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami who agreed to take Judith right away. That is when the Potters received their first ray of hope.
“So many people have beaten cancer so we had high hopes we would, too,” said Mark. “The treatment worked. Judith went into remission, and we saw nothing but blue skies ahead.”
That’s why the next test results were so devastating. The cancer returned and it was aggressive. Judith began to rapidly decline. Mark had just lost his mother, his father was in illhealth and now his wife, his life partner, was slipping away.
“I might not survive, but you won’t either unless you get out,” Judith said.
“I became anxious, I was fearful, I was angry, I was depressed,” he said. “But more than anything else I was exhausted. Cancer care is non-stop and overwhelming, and I was losing my grip to the point that Judith felt she had to try to save me. She looked at me and said, ‘I might not survive, but you won’t either unless you get out of this house a little bit each day to get away from cancer.’”
What could he do – go fishing, golfing, hiking? It was Judith who came up with the answer. “Why don’t you go back to taking photos of the sunrise that you started doing before cancer?” Potter thought it was the only option that could work. They lived just a couple of miles from a beautiful ocean-facing park. He could get up at 5am, shoot the sunrise, post the photos on Facebook and Instagram and be home by the time she woke up, ready to begin another 14-hour day of cancer care. This became his routine, seven days a week.
The Power of the Sun
Mark was astonished to discover how much getting out in the sun, and being around people began to help. “It really did bring me back up,” he said. “I became a better caregiver and husband than I’d ever been before.”
He was even more surprised how much his photos were helping others. His social media pages began to fill with positive comments and reactions. Some said the photos were calming, inspiring, and empowering. They pulled Mark into conversations that began to pull him from the depths of his depression.
“The biggest mistake I made in cancer care was I isolated, I shut everything and everybody else out,” Mark said. “I withdrew into our world alone, the world of cancer, hospitals, doctors, and my wife, and I was slowly suffocating.”
If it is true that it is always darkest before dawn, Mark was soon to find out. As it became clear Judith was not going to survive, Mark was reeling, struggling to come to terms with the inevitable. That’s when he saw a ray of light in the reactions that his photos were getting online. The comments began to draw him out, helped him begin to reconnect, pulled him out of his hole, and most of all, made him feel a sense of purpose. When Judith died it became his lifeline.
Lost, consumed by grief, and alone, continuing his daily sunrise photography provided him with continuity, routine, and a sense of normal.
“I don’t want you to think I’m over the grief because I’m not,” he said. “It hits me every day. It doesn’t go away, but it tells me I must have loved someone a whole lot, and I sure did.
I feel her presence every time I see the sun rise. She’s the reason I put out this book, to honor her by sharing and helping others.”
The book is “Sunrise: A photographic Journey of Comfort, Healing and Inspiration.” It is a combination of Mark’s most stunning sunrise photos and an essay that brings it all into context. Dedicated to Judith’s memory, the book is for anyone coping with grief, depression or hopelessness.
“It’s not a cancer book and it’s not a journalism book,” Potter said. “It’s a book of uplifting photos for anyone who finds comfort in them. I think when the pictures are combined with the story of why they were taken it is empowering.”
Of all the stories Potter has told in his career it is not lost on him that this one, told after his retirement, may be his most significant. It has been four years since Judith died, and Mark still gets up before 5 a.m. to photograph the sunrise. His book,
“Sunrise,” has given him a renewed purpose, a way to honor his wife’s legacy, a chance to encourage countless others, and to share what he has learned about life.
“The message is we all have hard times and have to figure out how to get through them,” said Potter. “I think the best way is to find a purpose in your life that honors the person you’re missing and helps others. You’re never going to lose your grief, but the response you get will help you move forward. And remember, every day there’s a new sunrise and it is always darkest before the dawn.”
This article is featured in the Winter 2023 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.