After learning of my mom’s terminal diagnosis a few days before Christmas, I began pointing my camera at subjects more personal than my usual landscapes and nature fascinations. Today I want to share some of my favorite images from this intimate journey.
On Christmas day, objects that had been around my parents’ house for as long as I could remember suddenly glowed with splendor and meaning. I noticed them. For example, I remembered how I loved to play with my mom’s jars of nail polish when I was a child and would line them up and pretend they were shiny, little people.
In the image below, my mom had just received her first lovely floral arrangement from Maestro Charles Dutoit and Chantal Juillet. She and I had been writing her obituary and discussing her funeral arrangements, and I knew that the conducting baton Maestro Dutoit had autographed and presented to her in honor of her retirement was one of three items she wished to have displayed next to her ashes. She took the baton out of its case, read the inscription, and pretended to conduct with it. In this moment of reflection, the wall calendar in the background stands out as a poignant detail.
Toward the end of January, my dad was hospitalized and underwent surgery to improve circulation in his foot. After he was discharged, he needed to keep his leg elevated. My mom was experiencing some clotting in her leg (a side effect of the chemotherapy) and had to elevate hers, as well. For a while, neither of them could drive, and they sat on the couch looking like bookends. My mom was losing her taste for food but went through a phase in which she enjoyed strawberry smoothies that I made for her. Her appetite was very small, and I always made more than she could drink by herself, so this time my dad got the leftovers.
As more medications gathered on the windowsill, the medication schedule became more complicated, confusing, and expensive. One prescription for counteracting the blood clotting caused by chemo cost $1,000 out of pocket and was not reimbursable! My parents regarded chemotherapy as their only hope to keep my mom around longer, whereas I felt chemo caused more problems (i.e. transfusions, painful clotting/swelling, exhaustion, and hospitalizations) and wished my mom would give it up and focus on quality of life. It was so frustrating to watch my parents cling for dear life to something that kept them in a cycle of suffering. I realized the only sane response was to let go of the need for a particular outcome, trust the process, and honor my parents by accepting wherever they happened to be on this shared journey.
I had a dream in which my mom and I visited my grandmother’s house, and she was comforted by what she found there. In waking life, none of us had been inside the house since we sold it to the current owners following my grandmother’s death three years ago. I woke up feeling it was important to get my mom there. I made arrangements that were delayed by another hospitalization, but finally we seized a beautiful spring day and made it happen. We were so pleased to see the improvements the current owners made to the house and to feel all the love that resided there, including a sweet little girl with a passion for horses (whom my grandmother would have adored). It was so good to know that the house in which we experienced so many happy memories was well loved. In this photo, my mom is outside the house with her brother looking at a picture of them with their mom when they were young children.
Alena was my mom’s companion to the end.
The next image is from Mother’s Day. The previous day, my mom had been admitted into hospice care, which couldn’t happen until she had stopped her chemo treatments. This was a very difficult decision, particularly for my dad who had to let go of what he saw as his last hope to keep my mom alive. After my sister and her young children left, the house was quiet and felt very different. A foreboding sense of sadness was heavy in the air. My mom was sitting in her favorite spot on the back porch, and all of a sudden, my 19-year-old daughter knew what to do. She sat down at the piano and played the song, “Hallelujah.” I went downstairs and told my mom, and she made her way to the living room with her brand new cane given to her as a Mother’s Day present. My daughter tried with all her might not to cry as she played the powerful song repeatedly, and as the music flowed, the room filled with light.
The coffee table became my mother’s universe. This was a brand new coffee table that I see as a manifestation of the hope my parents held onto until the tail end.
This last photo is perhaps one of the most personal and powerful images I’ve ever captured. It’s of the sun rising outside my mom’s room after she passed away a few hours earlier. In one window is the image of a universe dissolved – one of THE most profound events of my life – balanced by the pastel magnificence of the sunrise in the other window. The world continued to turn without missing a beat. How could that be? At the same time, I am grateful it did because it is so comforting to know that we are all part of this great rhythm and dance of life. From this perspective, All Is Well.
And finally, the funeral home altar with my mom’s flight attendant hat, Dutoit’s baton, and her guitar – symbols of different chapters of her life. This image poses the question: What objects would serve as symbols of your life?
Accompanying this series of images in my photo library are sunrises and sunsets, frost, woodpeckers, cardinals, icicles, shadows on snow, empty milkweed pods, silhouetted winter trees, ice, tender green shoots, clouds, fog, crocuses, budding trees, moss and lichen, daffodils, grape hyacinths, bees, lilacs, rainbows, tulips, willows, dandelions, maple leaves unfurling, fiddlehead ferns, wild columbines, and chive blossoms. They have been my companions and mirrors on this journey and have kept me connected to the larger cycles of the natural world. This connection has nourished and uplifted me, given me strength and an expanded perspective, and provided me with proof that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. Quiet moments in nature helped me to know what to do and when to do it each step of the way and charged my battery so I could be present with my mother as fully as possible during the final months of her life.
I had followed the hearse to the crematorium in Vermont and stayed close by so I could bring home my mother’s cremains. While that process was taking place, I passed the time walking around the unfamiliar town. I walked past a children’s clothing shop that had pretty dresses on display, imagined my mom would have loved that store, and instantly broke into tears. That was the first acute wave of grief that walloped me. But then I kept walking and ended up alongside a small river that runs through town. The river soothed me. I couldn’t make out what it was telling me, although I knew it had spoken to a part of me that understood river language.
I realize there will be many more episodes of grief arising out of the blue and knocking me off balance. But there also will be rivers and infinite connections with nature to support me throughout the journey and to remind me there is a force larger than ourselves that connects and unites us all – and that the sunrise always follows the sunset, no matter how deep a loss is experienced on the personal level.
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