In early December my husband received a call from his brother. M., as we’ll refer to him, was calling to say he’d been diagnosed with the aggressive Mantle Cell Lymphoma, apparently a rare form of the non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas.
M. is extroverted, fun, gregarious, positive, smart, engaging, strong, an incredibly hard worker (‘cause he loves what he does!), and, most importantly, a son, brother, husband and dad (amazing dad, in fact). To receive news that someone so vital and young has been given this grim news is incredibly difficult to accept, but Cancer doesn’t wait for our heads and hearts to catch up…M. and his family had two weeks from the day of diagnosis to the day that he was admitted to the hospital for the start of a very aggressive treatment plan that will require him to be hospitalized for the majority of the next four months (*this is where I applaud the Canadian medical system…people complain about it but it’s damned good and I feel so blessed to live in a place that has the resources to act quickly when someone’s life is in danger, and not at the expense of your life savings, home, etc.).
In 1997 my mom was diagnosed with 4th stage Breast Cancer and I often find myself recalling the many thoughtful gestures that friends and family bestowed on her, and on us, during that difficult time. I remember being blessed with more frozen meals than we had room for! I’ve always been, and will always be, so grateful for people’s kindness and generosity during that time. The conundrum, for me, now, was that I am not known as very domestic (some would laugh that I even said ‘very’!) and so: was I really going to inflict my cooking on my loved ones! Mostly I joke, but it truly didn’t feel like the natural fit when their family and friend network is full of amazing cooks! I really wanted, and still want, to help; but how?
A short time before M.’s diagnosis he had commented, at a family dinner, that they wanted me to do their family portraits. He recalled that their last family photos were done, by me, about eight years ago (long before Bella Faccia!). Then came his diagnosis and I wondered if we could go ahead with the shoot, but there simply wasn’t time. During that week I really struggled with how to help, and you do feel, in these times, a burning desire to 'act'.
My sister-in-law is nothing short of INCREDIBLE…she’s kind, smart, generous, and the poster child for dedicated. She was (and still is) spending all available time with M. at the hospital and, in between, organizing kids’ schedules, attendance at hockey tournaments, book reports, and, during December, Christmas prep, all whilst carrying a burden that simply won’t allow for rest. She is ever cognizant that she must try to manage her own myriad of emotions, as well as the emotions of her children. Their children, K. & C., as we’ll call them, are two of the nicest and most well rounded kids that I’ve ever met (seriously, even if they were no relation, these are phenomenal young people); but they are ‘kids’. We all know how devastating this is for adults; I cannot imagine how scary and overwhelming it must be for them. The fact that M. has to be hospitalized for the treatment was bound to be really hard on them especially, as they are used to him playing a pivotal role in their daily lives; but it is only made harder knowing that if you have any infections at all you must not visit the ward (it is imperative that people visiting the chemo ward not jeopardize the immune-suppressed patients). During the first few weeks one of the kids had a cold and so they were not able to visit their dad and it was at this point that I had an idea…
I suggested to my sister-in-law that perhaps we could do a shoot of my niece and nephew as a Christmas gift for their dad (we were then only about 10 days from Christmas) and I was THRILLED when she said yes. The three of them came over and both K. & C. brought wardrobe and props that most spoke of and to them; it was awesome! We had a lot of laughs, we wore out their mom’s arms as the official bubble machine assistant, we had a big family dinner, the four cousins all played and had fun…it was a momentary distraction, I think, for all of us. And it was my most personally important shoot to date.
Portrait sessions are intended to capture the person’s soul and personality, which is not necessarily easy and which I, personally, consider to be the highest challenge and reward of this work. Yousuf Karsh, acclaimed Canadian portraitist, said, “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” The portraits we were capturing that afternoon would be present in M.’s hospital room and it was imperative to me that he be given images in which he ‘saw’ his kids.
|K&C, Dec 2011|
It is very difficult for, I would say, a majority of us to know how to help when loved ones are in need. There is a selfish aspect to it, in that you simply want to feel like you’ve eased their considerable burden in some way. We all grieve upsetting news and respond to stress differently and so there is the additional pressure of not wanting to overstep boundaries. All I can say, having been a bystander to four Cancer diagnoses in close family members in the past 15 years, is that we all have ways that we can help others…sometimes it’s baking and sometimes, maybe, it’s photography. We must search ourselves for what we, as individuals, can do that will lessen our loved ones’ burdens, gift them with a smile, or provide respite from life’s many obligations that don’t stop just because someone is ill. I was selfishly, and incredibly, grateful that I was able to do this one small thing that hopefully serves as a daily visual to M. why he is fighting with all the grace and courage he can muster (and he’s mustering a lot!). This doesn’t mean that I don’t still wonder where, when, and how we can help more; but it felt good to do something that, I believe, was as meaningful for them as it certainly was for me.
I am not religious, but I absolutely believe in the power of our collective energy. I hope that, if you’ve taken the time to read this post, you will take a few extra minutes to wish M. well.
I will proudly be displaying their family portraits this summer...stay tuned!
Life is great!