I've been wanting to write a blog for a while about the importance of existing in photographs, but just hadn't gotten around to it. Which is incredibly ironic. But first, a little back story.
Back in 2011, my Nana passed away. Or as I sometimes prefer to think of it, she crossed over. Next to my Mom, she was my best friend. She was 100 years old when her time came and I was very fortunate to have her in my life until I was 28. And to be honest, I'm still confused where those 28 years went.
Nana had always been an incredibly active woman, a typical Aries on the go. But a severe stroke left her wheelchair bound for the last decade of her life. And you'd think the frustration of having limited mobility alone would have killed her, but it did not. I used to visit her every week once she moved into an assisted living facility, and right up until she crossed over she had little pieces of wisdom for me, always. Something that will forever stick in my mind was when she told me, “"The days drag on, but the years just fly by. Stay present in your life because it will be over before you know it."”
Nana left this planet in 2011. And as we continued to grieve one year later, my family would receive another blow. My Aunt Bettijean, Nana's daughter, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. It was in both lungs and she was only being given a few months to live.
I remember not knowing exactly how to react. I was about to go work on a cruise ship for several months to save money to start a family. I was scared she would lose her battle to cancer when I was gone. But somehow, she didn't. In fact, she kept fighting the cancer for the next four years. At one point, it spread to her brain but she kept fighting. And as she fought, the tumors kept shrinking. I visited her about a year ago when my youngest dog Gus was still a baby. And I made sure to photograph her, even though I only had my phone with me.
I kept planning on seeing her more times after that. But that's the funny thing about putting off plans: sometimes you do it for so long that you run out of time. A few weeks ago, I was doing things around my parent’s house when suddenly my Mom stopped me. Through tears, she said that she had something difficult to tell me: my Aunt's cancer had grown. There were new spots in her brain...and there was nothing the doctors could do. Tears flooded my face as I realized that my family was slowly shrinking and that just like my Aunt's cancer, I couldn't stop it from happening.
I was very protected from death as a child. My paternal grandfather died when I was a baby and my maternal grandfather, who I was not particularly close to, died when I was in the 2nd grade. Then a long time passed and l didn't have to deal with losing family again until 2007 when my Uncle unexpectedly died from an undiagnosed heart problem. Then my Nana…who was my whole world…died in 2011. Then my other grandmother died in 2012. Then I lost my son to miscarriage in early 2015.
This unstoppable avalanche didn't seem to rest for even a second, as just after the miscarriage my beloved beagle Rocco crossed the Rainbow bridge. I still vividly remember the first day I brought him home and I could never forget feeling him take his final breath in my trembling arms. But the 14 years that led up to that moment are all a blur. It's just insane to me that Rocco's entire precious life exists in between the following two photographs:
Not too long after my mother gave me the news, she informed me that she was going to visit my Aunt. I sat on my bed for a long time, telling myself that I should photograph her. But I didn't know how. Photographing Aunt Betty and having the images stare back at me would mean facing the inevitable: time was no longer on her side. But something finally came over me and right as I knew my mother would be heading over, I asked if I should meet her there. I wanted to photograph Aunt Betty one final time. It felt like such a choice that I was in control of and that I had so nobly come to the conclusion that yes, I suppose I could do that.
"Oh Mark...I don't think she would allow you to photograph her. She has barely let any of us see her because she feels unrecognizable. It's a lovely gesture, but she's not going to let you do that. I'm so sorry." I swallowed hard as my mother's words echoed in my head. I felt a knot in my stomach. I was finally ready to do what I knew I needed to do and it didn't matter. It didn't matter.
A few days passed and there came no news of improvement. As Thanksgiving day approached, I was awakened from my continued denial when my father asked me to help him with old photographs of Aunt Betty for the funeral home. The funeral home? How is this real life? It seemed like a very bad dream that we would all wake up from. But taking a deep breath, I agreed to help my Dad. And as I sorted through memories of his baby sister, I felt like I was being handed the gift and privilege of her life all over again.
I was now seeing the story of her life unfold before me through photographs.
As I was finalizing this blog, two notable things happened within 24 hours of each other. I received a text message from my best friend that her baby girl was born. And my family received a phone call from my Uncle that Aunt Betty's life on Earth had come to an end. I had planned to finish this blog saying that I was going to do everything to convince her to be photographed one more time, but it was too late. And even though we knew her time was almost up, there is still nothing that can prepare you for that kind of phone call. You do not realize, until that moment, how much of a luxury it once was to consider whether or not you should go visit her.
Whether or not you should go photograph her...
Death is a process that I am still working on making friends with. It's inevitable for all of us and it's not going anywhere, but until it comes I will look to, and photograph, life. Just like every sunset is followed by a sunrise, every life that comes to a close is followed by a life just starting. The photographs that we are left with of Aunt Betty are now priceless treasures to me. As I look into her eyes, I feel the photographs come alive again. As I move through my grief, I look at her as an innocent child and feel joy in my heart that the little girl in the photograph is now free from the adult body that brought her so much pain. And as I gently cup her childhood picture in my hands, my tears turn into a soft smile, as I suddenly feel I am rocking her in my arms. That is the power of a photograph. While I wish I could go back into time and create more images of her, I can't. Instead, I can only look forward and photograph the family that is still here. My family...
...and the countless number of families who will allow me to serve them in the years ahead. For them, it is not too late. For them, I can still stop time with my camera...
...and if I can, I will.