Our Last Year Together: What My Camera Captured As My Parents Died Of Cancer
There is a whole range of feelings that happen with the delivery of bad news. In my case, like many others, knees lock, the heart speeds up and the hairs on my arms get a funny little tingle. My circumstances, however, were a little less expected.
When my dad told my husband and me that he and my mom wanted to come into Manhattan for dinner, I was excited to see them and quickly made a plan for an 8 p.m. dinner at Café Orlin — my favorite for Middle Eastern food. As soon as we sat down, I knew something was very wrong.
My mom had been in and out of breast cancer treatment for 15 years and had been managing and treating the disease like it was no big deal, even though she was just in her 50s. Were they about to tell us that the other shoe had dropped and she was dying? No, this time it was about my dad. He had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. My 28-year-old world shook. We all knew what this meant.
As a photojournalist, I did the only thing I knew: I picked up my camera and documented my parents' dual cancer treatments for the next 24 months and our lives as they unfolded. From the seven-hour chemotherapy infusions to running errands with Mom according to her to-do lists, I was there with my camera slung across my shoulder.
When I look back on the time I spent documenting these complicated months, I don't immediately remember feeling scared. I remember the pee-your-pants laughter, high-calorie dinners (as per the doctor's request, of course), the late-night dance parties in my parents' kitchen and the never-ending conversations over a cup of Chappaqua roast from Susan Lawrence Gourmet Foods and Bea's Bakery blueberry pie.
Everyone deals with their fears, especially death, in their own way. My family leaned on humor to carry us through this difficult time. I remember one night sitting on my parents' bathroom floor as my father began to cut off my mother's hair, which had become flat dreadlocks tightly knotted against her scalp. The chemo had stopped its growth, but she hadn't been ready to part with her hair for the third time — once with each cancer diagnosis. I remember cursing the universe, asking it to give my mom a break just this once. The next thing I knew, my mother jumped in front of me and my lens, discarded hair held to her face like eyebrows. A fashion show followed suit, as we all wore her hair as costume, including the dog! That she found the lightness and ability to find joy in this moment speaks to the tremendous woman she was.
By confronting what I feared most, using my camera as my shield, I was able to move past the trauma that I anticipated and truly enjoy the time we had left together. Had I hidden away from the reality, I wouldn't have the beautiful photo of my parents holding hands across the chemo chairs as they received their respective treatments. They were the definition of strength and courage, and seeing these images reinforces to me the importance of not letting fear hold me back. It also reminds me to appreciate each day and not lose perspective. As Mom once told me, "There's also life going on here. I am having marshmallows, you know!"
Was it scary? Of course. When he died in 2013, my dad, Howie, was 58. My mom, Laurel, was 59 when she died one day shy of the anniversary of my dad's death. But what was most notable was how those final months were filled with love and life.
Although my parents are gone, my siblings and I continue to feel their love and guidance, as we sift through decades of found letters and notes, including one small stack of Post-it notes from our mother, exemplifying the importance of leaning into fear and taking chances: Courage isn't the absence of fear — it's knowing that you are afraid and doing it anyway. Don't spend your days avoiding risk, being fearful. Act. Live your life on your own terms. Life is precious; spend it without regrets in your own precious voice. For my three angels: If you want to talk or feel my love, look up at the night sky — I am always watching over you.
Nancy Borowick is a photojournalist based on the island of Guam. She has covered humanitarian stories for many organizations including The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. Her book documenting her parents' life with cancer, The Family Imprint: A Daughter's Portrait of Love and Loss, is now available, and the work will be on exhibit beginning Friday in Brooklyn, N.Y.