“The Sunday after Thanksgiving we got the call my family had been dreading. My oldest sister had been battling with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for about five years, and even after a recent stem cell replacement, her life was coming to a much quicker-than-expected end.
Cathy was supposed to be with our extended family that weekend to celebrate Thanksgiving in our hometown of Rochester, New York. She had been looking forward to living her life again and getting home to see the whole family after many months of being stuck at home, restricted from the stem cell treatment. But the cancer became more aggressive and an infection couldn’t be controlled, so she ended up in intensive care in Albany a few days before the holiday. We were all so disappointed that we couldn’t be with her as we had expected.
Instead of her contagious laugh filling our family’s dining room, we ended up filling a hospital room in Albany to say goodbye to the life of our party.
When we received the call that she was deteriorating quickly, we all frantically packed the car, the kids, and the leftover lasagna (because Italians don’t travel without food). We didn’t even take time change out of our pajamas or brush teeth. After the three-hour drive we unloaded the kids there in the parking garage rather frantically, and I had to decide if I should leave my professional camera tucked away in my car, or bring it up with us to the room. I really just wanted to leave it in the car. This didn’t feel like a time for taking pictures. My husband looked at me and raised an eyebrow, questioning my decision.
We had to hurry — we were racing the clock to get to her in time. I closed the door to the minivan and we started walking towards the elevator. My husband stopped, ran back, grabbed my camera bag out of the car and said, ‘Just in case. You’ll know if you want to use it.’
As a professional documentary photographer, I am used to capturing the day-to-day joys and challenges of my own family life, as well as for my clients. But this was different. I didn’t know what condition to expect to find my sister in. After all, we had just visited her in her home three weeks prior, where she spoke with hope and confidence about a new cancer treatment that had just been approved by the FDA and even then, I couldn’t bring myself to take any pictures. And now, here she was in her final moments of life…
When we got to her room, Cath was back and forth between moaning and sitting up, staring intently at each of us and smiling. ‘Hi! How ya doing?!’ Then she’d look away and groan, ‘GET ME OUT OF HERE!!! I WANT TO GO HOME!’ as she tried to pull herself up out of the hospital bed. It truly felt like we were witnessing a woman in transition during labor, and I realized then that dying looks a lot like birthing. The complex process of facing fear, tightening up, letting go, and finally, embracing new life.
When Cathy’s daughter stood by her side, holding her two-year old up to her so that my sister could say goodbye to her beloved grandbaby Lena, she seemed to snap out of the haze for the briefest of moments. Cath opened her eyes, recognized her granddaughter, and gave her this huge, genuine smile. It was just this final, very brief glimpse of consciousness. I am so grateful that my husband had grabbed my camera for me. ‘You’ll know if you want to use it.’
It felt uncomfortable to take the few pictures I did that day, but I will forever treasure the images I captured in those few seconds. I’ll never forget seeing my sister in her last hours with us — how much she had changed since our previous visit, the back and forth between her moaning and her efforts to escape from the hospital bed, her friendly nature even in her time of dying, and those final smiles that were so characteristic of the Cath we all knew and adored. It was a day of tremendous sadness for our family, but in this great suffering I see great strength. I see our family connected, I see the strength and joy of my sister’s legacy. Even at the very end, she brought loved ones together, and we will never forget that contagious smile of hers.
I didn’t reach for my camera that day for myself. I was compelled to create these images for my goddaughter, my sister’s granddaughter Lena, so that she’d forever remember her GiGi smiling at her one last time before cancer stole her away from us. In these months that have since passed, Lena frequently asks, ‘Where’s Gigi?’ and runs to this picture framed next to her bed, kissing GiGi goodbye when she leaves the house. ‘Bye GiGi! See you later!’
For me, these images provide us with a tangible reminder to love what matters. Family, strength, laughter. That’s my sister’s legacy and I hope it to be mine as well.”
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