A year ago a good friend of mine told me she was dying. I had not talked to her recently and did not realize that her cancer had returned with a vengeance and that she was already in hospice. I rearranged my plans and flew out to California to see her, knowing it would be our last time together. Feeling helpless, I tried to think of some way to support the family, to bring my dear, old friend Sara some joy. Then it occurred to me with a jolt of excitement: I am a photographer specializing in family and lifestyle, and I could photograph my friend with her young son and husband one last time.
I asked her husband, Jayden, how the family felt about this opportunity. Would it be intrusive? Would there be qualms about appearances, altered by the disease and by medical intervention? Would the process of being photographed require more energy than Sara could muster? Would it feel forced–trying to interact naturally as a family, to allow authentic moments of love and laughter to happen while it was all being documented? Would it be emotionally painful knowing that the photographs were capturing moments of joy and connection that would soon be gone forever?
Jayden said yes. Sara was excited. They wanted their parents and siblings to come, too. When I visited Sara I was on a mission. We spoke about her journey from determination to hope to an eventual acceptance of death, rejoicing in her time left, repairing all her relationships, and the spiritual quest to help her 12-year old son, Aidan, accept her passing.
Then we proceeded to do what I do with all my clients: we selected an outfit that Sara liked and felt good in; talked about whether she would wear her wig or not; searched for her favorite jewelry—long abandoned, and now the source of happiness as she carefully put it on one last time. Sara and I worked out a color palette for everyone’s clothing—different shades of blue, while she wore white. Then we scouted out her favorite spaces in the yard, places where she felt relaxed and at peace. She relished having the control to make decisions that were not medical ones.
We took a break and had dinner. She was feeling energized by the project and wanted to continue. I photographed her in her “orange grove”, a cluster of aromatic trees bursting with oranges in her backyard. She sat quietly in the embrace of her garden. She directed me to count “one, two three!” as she turned away and then whipped her head around with a smile so that her hair spread around her like a fan. She was having fun!
When I returned to her home the next day, the entire family was there, dressed on theme. We sat at her patio table, on a bench by the fence covered with vines, on her favorite rock, all the places she loved. I asked her 12-year old son, Aidan, to sit beside her and made them both laugh. Then I photographed her kissing him on the cheek, and him whispering in her ear. Nothing makes a mother more radiant than a kiss from her child. The joy is palpable. I captured it.
Sara died six weeks later. I was happy to hear that she had enjoyed the online gallery before becoming too weak to leave her bed and had chosen the images she wanted to be remembered by. I couldn’t believe she was gone but I felt a real sense of purpose preparing images of remembrance for the family. I created a wall display of four images for the living room, so that Sara’s presence would always be felt, so that her likeness would always be smiling upon her family.
I made a smaller display for Aidan’s room. I then sent the collection of digital images to Jayden, and he shared them with Sara’s mother, who was so grief-stricken that she could hardly function. Jayden later told me that looking at the images provided a catharsis for her and helped her to cope with her unbearable loss.
Jayden now has a picture of himself kissing Sara. Being affectionate in front of the camera made them giggle and I captured that, too. They had an intimate moment, with sweetness and depth. Jayden now has a physical and eternal manifestation of their love, their marriage. It will never fade.
What moved me the most, though, was the hope that Aiden, who lost his mother at such a tender age, would grow up with real, tangible images of his mother. He will remember his relationship with his mother through the images. He will feel his parents’ love for each other through the images. The moments seem mundane but they are rife with meaning: Sara sitting peacefully, laughing, engaged in conversation, whispering in Aidan’s ear, holding his hand, and giving him a kiss. He will have these powerful images forever so that he will never forget what his mother was like or how much she loved him.
And that is why I have decided to embark on a new phase of my photographic journey. I want to seek out families who are struggling with terminal illness and end of life issues, families who are trying so hard to cope with sickness and imminent loss that it would never occur to them to include a “last photo session” in their end-of-life planning. I want to find them before it is too late, so that the survivors—especially the children—will have authentic, meaningful images to help sustain them during their grieving process and for the rest of their lives.
I also want to reach the aging parents of adult children as they move through their “golden age” towards end of life. These are the forgotten photographs, the ones not taken. My friends whose parents have passed often express regret over not having thought to take beautiful photographs of their time together at the end, wishing to have captured their relationship, the love, the often complex bond. I seek to make a real impact on the lives of real people with my photography, to tell their stories, to honor their journeys and create a powerful final, and lasting memory.
For information about Remembrance Sessions and Packages, Please contact me by email or at 512-699-5862.