“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.
The good news was she didn’t pass away.
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