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Intimacy with mortality stirs up a lot of emotions, doubts, and deep, dark thoughts. We ask ourselves questions in these moments.
Did I love enough? Does my family know how much I love them?
Did I do enough? How was I able to make a positive difference in this world?
How will I be remembered? How different is that from what I hoped?
When I first came to this work of being a companion to families navigating serious illness, end of life, and death, my focus was on the relationships and how they change and bloom during adversity. I hadn't given much thought to coming back around and seeing what I could do to create a life I would be content with releasing.
As I now say, being with these families teaches me how to live. I absolutely mean that. What I'm now thinking about is the power of these family stories and how they begin far before I meet families. With this in mind I created an experience called "I Want You to Know," which is a legacy interview that culminates in a photo book of the narrator telling stories and sharing lessons - the things she wants her family to know.
You can start simply with a fill-in-the-blank life story. Really! It's a 12-page, free document from Legacy Project that includes basic information. If you are overwhelmed with where to begin, this is the place. Try it for yourself - what does your story look like?
We have tools to tell stories and we certainly have stories to tell. To start, we have to share those stories. We need to talk or write. We need to take pictures, paint, or quilt. We must act to preserve these stories, and we need to also be mindful of where our stories go. Who will tell the stories next? How can we pass them on so that they endure for generations? What are the most important things you want to communicate to your partner, your children, your grandchildren, and . . . we could go on for generations.
What do you want to say? Who will tell your story?
In the past three weeks I've delivered six albums and photo books (albums are photographs only and books include stories or short descriptions). I deliver photographs in person for several reasons.
When I began delivering albums in person, I had recently imposed a self-care rule about accepting only one shoot each day. Being with one family in the morning and a different family in the afternoon was emotionally exhausting. I had no rule about planning sessions or deliveries. Now I see that's also wise to limit this type of interaction.
Viewing photographs for the first time is an emotional experience. I see tears almost every time, hence my growing expertise with tissues. Families who celebrated happy anniversaries are overcome with joy, accomplishment, and a strong connection with each other. Families living with treatment or long-term care see what has become routine in a new and beautiful way. They think about how far they have come and how far they have to go. Families establishing a new normal after death typically have the strongest reactions to their photos. In these sessions there are few words. Lots of hand squeezes, sniffles, quivering smiles, tears, and occasionally laughter.
About half of the families for whom I document funerals and memorials are families I've journeyed with during hospice or treatment. I know them in ways their friends do not because I have seen some very bare, vulnerable stuff. Gosh, I have moments when I realize the intimacy of the moments I witness and am grateful for the opportunity - these families open their hearts and lives to me.
When I visit for a delivery, I bring a basket of goodies to eat and drink along with flowers or another hospitality gift. I am sitting down with friends.
My most recent delivery was one with lots of quivering smiles and sniffles. The photographs told a story of a glorious and heart-felt celebration of life in the middle of the holiday season. This celebration came at the end of 13 years of Alzheimer's and was warmly welcomed. I had visited this man a few times with his family and quickly learned where to stand and how to shoot to help him feel safe. He would take off his shoe and throw it at me when I was too close or too visible. I met them while photographing the Walk to Remember in Tacoma in 2016.
As I prepared to leave their home, this man's daughter-in-law gave me a bear hug as only a fiercely protective mama can do. Her husband, the man's son, extended his hand and pulled me into a hug. "Keep doing this. Please. No matter what." He murmured into the top of my head.
He didn't want pictures. His wife talked him into it. The three visits I made when his father was interactive produced photographs he was absolutely bewildered by. He saw things in his dad's face he hadn't noticed before. He saw his dad in his face in ways he hadn't noticed before.
If this man can warm up to the idea of visual stories in the last season of life, anyone can. The albums he has will make a difference to him. His only regret is that he waited so long to start.
We live in a sea of pictures. In the course of an average day, a social media user sees a steady stream of snapshots of vacations, the irritating guy on the bus, cute expressions babies and toddlers make, dinner, the sofa the dog destroyed, and lots of selfies. Social media and mobile devices have given us the ability to rapidly document and share every nuance of our lives with friends and family, and I admit I enjoy seeing images from people who are important to me.
How much is too much, though? At what point do we transition from images that connect to images that overwhelm?
InfoTrends forecasts that people will take 1.3 trillion digital photographs in 2017, and 87% of those will be captured with mobile devices (that's 79% for phones and 8% for tablets). In 2010 the total number of images was 0.35 trillion. Oh, and these numbers exclude professional photographers, by the way.
Photo technology has become so ubiquitous and simple that we've lost what is most precious about photography - connection. Digital files have become less valuable and more disposable because they lack connection. The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) reported that 67% of people stored their photographs only digitally. About 70% of people no longer create or maintain photo albums and more than half haven't printed a single photo in the past year.
When was the last time you printed photos or created an album to share? Of the last 100 pictures you've taken, how many of them are meaningful to you? How are your capturing the stories that go with those photographs?
We are in danger of losing this generation. We are losing our connections with our past and leaving behind very little that is archival. Digital storage is not archival - technology changes so rapidly that storage methods become outdated after a few decades and the devices that once read and stored those files are no longer available. Museums keep things in hard copy for good reason.
One of my favorite parts of visiting my grandmother is looking through her photographs. She displays many in her home and keeps even more in albums. It seems she remembers every little story associated with those photographs, and she is a tremendous resource for our family's history. I don't remember all the stories she tells, and I certainly don't tell them like she does.
I am on a mission to build bridges to history so families can cross to the other side together, any time they choose. These stories are important, and they are almost gone.
I Want You to Know is a new service I offer that is a session to collect family stories and wisdom that results in a beautiful book of these stories and pictures of the narrator telling them. Every book is archival and guaranteed against fading and discoloring for 100 years in active use (200 years if kept in dark storage). These are engaging, emotional sessions where I or a family member interviews the narrator, much like NPR's StoryCorps with photographs.
What do you want to leave behind? What do you want your family to know? What lessons and stories do you want to pass to your children and grandchildren? What do you want to document for the love of your life? What do you want to ask your parent?
The last time I saw her, she was pedaling away from me on her way to her best friend's house. I watched her thin legs and frail knees and ankles propel her forward on her bicycle. The wind she created with her speed would have blown back her hair had it been long enough. She looked like she felt free.
Two years earlier, she had hair down to her waist. She shaved it to prepare for her first surgery. After six rounds of chemotherapy, she had another surgery. Then eight rounds of chemotherapy. Then another surgery. More treatment.
The last time I saw her, her hair was maybe two inches long. It wanted to make waves over her head and didn't quite have enough length. Instead it wiggled and stood awkwardly at attention. She was so happy to have it, and it was beautiful.
She was overjoyed to be home from the hospital. Six months prior, she and her family traveled to a cancer treatment facility 1,300 miles away for a three-month experimental treatment. It looked promising.
The cancer returned. For nearly three years she had lived the life of a cancer patient with its grueling schedule of injected poisons and evaluations. She found beauty and joy every day.
Her parents told me repeatedly that her refusal to live anything other than a full life was one of the most difficult aspects of her journey. They were heartbroken to know their daughter was living with immense pain - headaches, joint pain, jumbled thoughts, digestive distress. They were elated to see her embrace as much of the carefree life of a 10-year-old as was possible and simultaneously crushed to know that kind of freedom in childhood would not be hers.
She made it herself. She took it. She owned it.
The last time I saw her was her last day. She visited with her best friend for a few hours. She rode her bike home and enjoyed dinner with her family. She played her favorite board game, Monopoly, with her sisters and parents, while her cat sat on her lap.
She went to bed. Her parents kissed her goodnight.
More than 300 people attended her funeral. It was a moving service with stories from her teachers, friends, and family. They hugged and wiped away tears. They stared at their shoes. They talked about how much she would have enjoyed riding her bike on that day, which was unseasonally dry and warm. They looked at the pictures of her on display and replayed the moments in their lives they were fortunate enough to share with her.
I saw all these things, and photographed all these moments. I captured the confusing emotions people struggled to find ways to express. I made art of their love.
This family invited me to be a part of their journey shortly after her diagnosis. I was a part of their "after." I attended family events and celebrations. I was there for school plays. I came to doctor's appointments and visited during treatment. I saw her last bike ride. I photographed that, not knowing it was her last day.
It's been two months since her death. Her mother called me this week and asked me to visit. She and her husband were ready to look through her final photographs - from her last day, funeral, and cremation.
I wish I could find a way to describe how it feels to sit with parents in this way. I wish I could find a way to describe how much it means to be to be invited. I wish I could find a way to relieve the smallest bit of suffering. I wish I had a number to count the tears that fall.
I wish this place didn't exist, and yet I can't imagine myself anywhere else. I know from the backbreaking hugs I received that I am in the right place. I know from the clammy pressure on my hand that my view of their lives means something to them.
I wish I didn't know, and yet I am grateful I do.
Last year I donated more than two feet of hair to Pantene's Beautiful Lengths. This is a sacrifice for me (and my husband) every time because there is so much about short hair that just doesn't feel right. My hair can look quite a bit different in five months of growing and trimming, and this weekend it was time to update my headshots so people recognize me.
I am a deeply compassionate and empathetic person. Truly seeing people is one of the things that comes naturally to me and I believe it saturates my photography.
I am also known for my enormous laugh and wry sense of humor. It's hard to represent all of these things in a single photograph.
For a long time I've carried the expectation that in order to serve families living with grief I needed to be . . . someone a little different from myself. That part of me who is joyful was getting stuffed away by the part of me who is nurturing and compassionate. The big-hearted, loud version was told to shush by the big-hearted, quiet version.
Today, they shake hands. They will be working together from now on.
This won't change my behavior. My work is to serve families as they need me. I match the energy and the vitality they need to experience in someone, and I am really good at doing that.
This does change the way I see myself, and in this view I feel like I can breathe. I feel like I can be authentically me without apology. I am goofy. I'm also pretty polished about it. I know that in order to be the most connected I can be with my client families, I need to feel that way about myself.
So here I am.
In color, because that's how you'll see me in person. With zero retouching, because that's how you'll see me in person.
In fact, I can see I have a little something stuck on one of my teeth right at the gum line.
I'm gaining more wrinkles by the moment. These are lines of a life well lived. I think it's fantastic that my smile lines from my eyes and mouth overlap at my cheeks because my smiles are so big and so frequent. I am grateful for my grey hair, which is one more sign that I have the privilege of aging and with people I love.
This is a photograph of someone who lives, laughs, loves, cries, and struggles. This is someone who sees beauty in life, until the very last breath.
This is someone who sees you and your family in the best ways. This is someone with whom you can celebrate life and love.