How do you sum up a life in 20 words or less? This was the challenge as my siblings and I struggled to decide what would be carved on our mother’s footstone. You get a list of adjectives from which to choose: beloved, devoted, loving, and caring—but she was so much more in her 59 years than these simple, predetermined descriptions. She was generous, thoughtful, creative, selfless, curious and so much more.
On birthdays, she would decorate our bedrooms while we slept so we’d wake up surrounded by feelings of love and joy. And each time I came home to visit, there was always a cooked artichoke waiting for me on the stove—my favorite, and she knew it. You can see why this task took us more than a year to complete. The hardest of all, of course, was the bookend the footstone represented, and maybe we weren’t ready to accept this.Death may be a universal experience, but every family experiences it so differently. After the third diagnosis of my mother’s breast cancer, my father learned he had pancreatic cancer. Our family lost its bearings. How could we have both of our parents in simultaneous treatment, together, for stage-four cancer? This reality took some getting used to, but time was not on our side and I think my parents were aware of this.
As a photographer, I needed to find a way to process what we were going through as a family and naturally my camera became that therapeutic tool. It gave me a safe distance from the reality of what was unfolding in front of me—I was losing my parents and there was nothing I could do about it. In a world that was spiraling downward rapidly, my camera became my lifeline and documenting our story brought a different kind of healing to our pain.
Here is when they taught us a lesson in courage. Rather than wallowing in their own sadness and grief, they chose to spend their final months living life. Yes, there was chemo, but there were also family dinners, late night movies, spontaneous vacations, and fireside chats. And I photographed this. I captured every moment because I needed to hold on to each memory, each frame. I wanted to hold onto the essence of who my parents were and who my family was, before the moments passed and they were gone.
There is no cookie-cutter way of dealing with death. Fortunately, my family never quite fit the mold. A spoon full of Fluff to help the chemo pills go down? Mom certainly thought so. Swapping out a traditional Jewish shroud for his favorite Lawrence Taylor Giants Jersey for his burial clothing? Dad pretty much demanded it. And along that same rhythm, there I was, camera in hand, photographing both of their funerals.
When the time came to bury Dad, and Mom 364 days later, almost everything had already been taken care of because my parents wanted to talk about their deaths, a conversation many actively try to avoid. We knew which plots they wanted; we knew their medical requests for their final days. Heck, we even knew what my father wanted said at his funeral because he wrote his own eulogy. Mom spent her final weeks banking blood at the local hospital to be used for future research after she was gone and also made a request for a sustainable wood casket so in death she would be doing what was best for the Earth.And I have my photographs, my record, which hold tight the moments of joy and pain, and together tell the story of what it truly means to live. So, even though I only had 28 years with my Dad and 29 with my Mom, I feel like I won the lottery.