‘The sun shines not on us but in us’ ~John Muir
We went to the woods
We breathed the air
Supported by the earth under our feet
She is beautiful
She is unique
She is strong
I showed her how perfect she is
We’ve been known to open a bottle of wine.
Things that really happen at our book club? Sharing ideas, challenging our own view of the world, listening to each other’s stories–the struggles, the celebrations and everything in between, laughing that kind of wet-your-pants, tears-streaming-from-your-eyes, can’t-stand-up laughter, and crying when no words are needed – only hugs, and bonds of friendship begin to take hold.
Oh yes, and we eat.
All this doesn’t happen in one night, but over time.
Except for the eating part. That part happens each time.
I was in a book club and even after moving across the country, joined that group on a trip to celebrate our 100th book. Oprah started a wonderful trend both in getting people to read and in creating a special gathering to share thoughts. After I moved, I missed my girlfriends and book group and started to ask people I met about book clubs…”are you in one?” The responses I heard were across the board–some groups had a waiting list for entry (I was amazed), one woman told me she gets stressed-out a week prior to her meeting – each member was required to write a book report and present it to the group (no…no, thank you). Many groups limited their selections to one genre – historical fiction is very popular.
I was on my own — until I wasn’t. I met some interesting women and invited them. The requirements: you must be smart, fun and like to read. Pretty simple. Any one of us could invite others…most of us kept coming back. We share hosting in our homes and everyone brings “something small to nibble on” (but that’s it’s own story). And there’s wine.
Over the years the confines of book group expanded from just once a month to gathering as friends. We’ve celebrated graduations (not only the kids’), art shows, holiday sweaters, teen agers doing well and the home team winning it all. We’ve shared in sympathy the struggles of losing a parent. Together we learned new things like how thrilling it is to launch a potato into a crisp Fall evening, that watching a baseball game played in football weather can create lasting memories and that when magic happens on ice we share “good curling” and celebrate with the opponent.
Book club isn’t really about the books for me.
It’s about people who touch my soul and make me a better person.
I honor and celebrate one of those special people today. Ali came to book club highly recommended (and rightfully so!) with a wonderful sense of humor and a Scottish accent which made everything she said even more endearing. One Valentine’s Day, Ali shared with us her love and expertise of curling, coaching us onto (and off of) the ice. Her enthusiasm for hunting down the perfect prop for a high school drama performance was contagious. She helped us all learn a little more when she studied for and passed her USA citizenship test. Every time I color my hair at home I hear her voice in her beautiful accent, “you’re doing yourself a box job“. It always brings a smile to my face, and yet, a tug on my heart. Ali would smile all the time which just made her even more beautiful as a woman.
One year ago tonight we gathered again at book club. Everyone intuitively brought chocolate. Our hugs were longer, tears flowing gently. I have no idea what the book was. It didn’t matter. We were all numb. Ali’s struggle ended in the early morning hours, one year ago today.
Our book club gathered at her funeral. There were no words.
It wasn’t about the books.
Today I will celebrate all the good things that Ali brought into my world as I mourn the loss of a beautiful person. I will remember the happiness she brought wherever she went. I will remind her children of how much she talked about them and how proud she is of each of them as they find their way in the world. I know they miss her and I can’t imagine the void. For her husband, we will be there to share memories and try to help fill the empty day.
Good Curling, Ali~
“Those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand”.
I’m scratching my head, wondering how I missed the signs? How did I not get it? What had I been thinking?
You see, I thought I was the giver of a gift.
Now I realize I’ve been wrong this whole time. Instead, I have been on the receiving end of a beautiful treasure. There were no streaming ribbons, no pretty gift wrap or colorful tissue paper arranged a certain way, no special delivery.
I should explain. Last week I was given an invitation to photograph a beautiful woman one week before she passed away. She had cancer and was in hospice care. Several years ago as a fledging-photographer-wanna-be, I offered to take her twins’ high school photographs. I was grateful for the experience and provided the rookie “shoot & burn” experience. She loved the photographs and talked about having family portraits taken “some day”.
I learned a lot.
Fast forward a couple years. I received a tear-filled, barely audible phone call about family portraits:
…”are you available this weekend?…the cancer is back…in my spine…everywhere”…
She wanted more than anything to leave a legacy for her kids. She wanted them to remember her, smiling and happy, healthy-looking and laughing.
The gift-giver in me said, ‘yes, of course’.
Two frigid, winter days later, I drove to their apartment with my heart in my throat. I felt such pressure and nerves, hoping I could do an acceptable job for this family. I arrived to find everyone in their boxy white shirts, little available light and a woman with the pain of cancer so bad that she could not manage to sit down.
We shared a lot of special moments that day.
I learned a lot.
My photography business continued to evolve and on occasion I ran into her in town.
I saw her in March this year and asked if she would help me. I was adding a different style of portraiture, would she bring dress up clothes and would she mind curling her hair…I wanted to practice the posing, natural lighting and more importantly, the connection with the eyes.
She shared with me how good she felt trying on outfits the prior night. Her husband enjoyed her enthusiasm, she said. She was thrilled to dress up and moved into various poses easily, willingly giving me what I asked of her. I asked her to connect with my camera. To connect with me.
It was a wonderful session.
I learned a lot.
Her kids wanted to surprise her for a mother’s day photo this year–the surprise was getting two 20 year olds and a 7 year old in the same room! She laughed and enjoyed each frame with her children. I noticed their relationships differed slightly. Her son who towered over her made her laugh easily. His twin sister brought out the honest beauty of her mom, while the 7 year old mostly devoured the hugs. I remember her presence and laughter behind me when I asked her kids to jump on the trampoline that frigid day in May. She loved every second as we created memories. Her final Mother’s Day on earth.
Photographs make moments freeze in time. Assembling the people and allowing the experience to unfold then capturing it at the right moment is extremely powerful.
August. After a few weeks away from an internet connection, I wrote a blog post…hesitated for one split second then changed the entire thing*. I wanted to add a portrait and chose one of her and wrote about our session. I pressed ‘publish’ then sent her a message….
“hi! check out my new blog post, you’ll recognize a beautiful woman on it!”
Then I looked at her facebook postings. I called her. The cancer was everywhere.
She read my blog post then cried as she read it again. At 48 years old, she told me she finally felt beautiful. She didn’t have to hide behind someone else’s idea of “beauty”. She is beautiful and carries it with her. I was able to show her. She believed it one month before she passed away.
I visited with her in the last days of her life. She thanked me for all the photos over the years and mostly for the words I had written on my blog. She invited me to take more photos of her. I returned the following day to her hospice bed with my camera and a full heart.
She was exhausted, yet looked into my lens with the same invitation to “come in–visit my soul”. I went willingly and respectfully.
Later that night, a sense of urgency flooded me. I realized I had to go thank her for the gift she has given to me.
We hugged. We laughed and cried.
I thanked her from the bottom of my grateful heart.
I felt honored tonight as I left the funeral home. Her portrait – the one where she gave me that connection to her soul, the one I intuitively put on my blog, was enlarged and prominently displayed next to her ashes at her request. Her eyes invited everyone in that room to see her beautiful soul. My words about her were read as a eulogy.
My original post: *the invitation, WAVphoto.com, August 14, 2013 http://wp.me/s3rHYI-390