After documenting their deaths from cancer, one year apart, a photographer decides it’s time to look beyond her lens and focus on the legacy Mom and Dad left behind.
The backbone of this story is my exploration of the compassion and strength of my parents when they were in parallel treatment for stage-four cancer. That version has been published dozens of times across six continents. But, while I’ve shared with the world the reality of Mom and Dad’s final chapters, which came to a close just 364 days apart, I hadn’t examined the impact their experiences had on me and my brother and sister. This is my first attempt to do so, publicly.
I call my project, the subject of a forthcoming book I’m funding through Kickstarter, “Cancer Family” not “Cancer Parents,” for a reason: It’s because my whole family was diagnosed with the disease. Our lives were completely changed as we watched our mother and father undergo treatments and life changes, and our own roles in the family shifted as we became the caregivers, the support, the parents, in many ways. Our experience is an important one to talk about because so many have walked the same hospital halls we walked and have felt what we have felt.
I’ve decided to go back and take a fresh look at the project, featuring many images that I’ve never published or shared before. The process has been emotionally challenging because I no longer have my camera to protect and distance myself from the truth of what unfolded on the other side of that lens. As my sister Jessica told me recently: “I think the project has been cathartic for you, but also a Band-Aid of sorts. I’m looking forward to you finishing the book so you can ‘close the book’ – at least for a little while so you can focus on life without death. And so you will deal with Mom and Dad’s death without the filter of your camera or the project, or the self-consciousness that comes when all of your feelings funnel into your work, which is so public.”
I worry about this, that I am not fully dealing with the depth of this situation. But, every time I read a note from someone expressing gratitude and a sense of comfort in seeing the photographs and hearing the stories, I am encouraged to want to do more with it. Everyone grieves in their own way, and mine has been through photography, and the community that has come together to show their support and love. In some ways I thought my upcoming book was the closing of the chapter but I’m realizing it is also the beginning of a new one – one in which I strive to help others. When I talk about Mom and Dad, yes, I talk about their illnesses and their deaths, but I also remember so much life.
My brother Matt admits that “the pictures helped in some ways but not in others.” In the beginning, he says, “after the story began getting traction in a big way, I resented it and you (I think I told you about this at some point). No matter where I looked I couldn’t get away from it – everything was a constant reminder of what happened and what was still happening. Not that I wanted to forget but I couldn’t even if I wanted to, with the photos on every newspaper, Facebook post, in the news in general. I know this wasn’t your intention, but that’s how it happened for me.”
I hope that while seeing the images was difficult for my brother, he can now look back on them and remember the joy and the closeness we all felt – one of the best gifts that the circumstances left us with. This was my photo essay, but it was our story.
When she got sick for the last time, Mom was a cancer veteran, having been in and out of chemo for almost two decades. Dad was a newbie, learning the ropes from his wife of 34 years as he began the process, and the lifestyle, of weekly chemotherapy treatments. To me, the photo below represented the significance of the individual experience that one has when dealing with cancer and facing one’s mortality: Mom saw treatment as a job, something that she needed to do in order to survive, something that did not define her. Dad, on the other hand, struggled and often slept the entire seven hours hoping to pass the time and get out of there. They were in it together, and that was oddly comforting to me, because they had each other, side by side.
“I remember, it was the beginning of the treatment session and we were probably late (because we were always late, probably because they didn’t want to go/be there),” Jessica remembers of the photo. “Dad was quiet and withdrawn and Mom was trying to engage him and be in a good mood. A bit later, when it was Mom’s turn to get hooked up to the chemo, the great nurse with the straight blondish hair started hooking her up and she got really sad and pissed off that she had to get chemo and started crying.”
“This picture hasn’t changed in my mind from the first time seeing it to now,” Matt says. “I don’t think any of them have for me. From the body postures of both of them and every detail, like Jessie said, about Mom’s hoop earrings and Dad’s shoes being so them, I completely agree with that. I can picture myself there hearing their conversation, listening to the room, listening to Mom’s voice.”
I had a moment of true disconnection from reality when I took the photo. The thought that went through my head was, ‘Wow, look at that symmetry, and the beautiful light,’ and for a second I forgot the gravity of the situation.
I’ve spoken a lot about the camera being a therapeutic tool that helped me process what they – what we – were going through and also allowed me to be by my parents’ sides and have the strength to support and advocate for them. There was only one moment when I stopped taking photographs. Dad was having an IV put into his arm and I thought to myself, “I’ve shot this a million times before. Maybe this one time I’ll put my camera down.” The nurse struggled to find a vein strong enough and all I remember is that the next moment I was being escorted into another room and laid onto a bed. I think I started to faint. How odd, having been in that situation so many times before, but I realized in that moment that not having the camera physically in front of my face, distancing myself from the reality of what was in front of me, I truly felt what was happening and my body reacted.
The below photograph of me exists because a few moments later I heard a giggle in the hallway and out popped my mom, camera in hand, saying, “Oh, how the tables have turned,” and she snapped the photo. For her to feel like she could participate in this process of telling the story meant a tremendous amount to me, even if she captured me rolling my eyes at her.
“Mom was always the alpha in my opinion,” Matt remembers. “At the time, Dad seemed to be much sicker and having a more difficult time and she was always there, showing great strength even if she was struggling.”
“The first thing I think about is love – their unyielding love for each other in such a terrible situation,” Matt adds. “It sucks to say it but at the time I think I avoided going home [from school] a lot because I didn’t want to accept what was happening.”
We spent so much time at the hospital, thinking about Mom and Dad, and their mortality. Late one night when we went to the hospital garage to pick up our car and drive home for the night, we found that the battery had died. It was like we couldn’t escape death, and for some reason that circumstance led to us bursting out in laughter, but the sort of nervous, exhausted, frustrated kind of laughter.
Home hospice was a complicated and scary time. There is a lot they don’t tell you, and a lot we didn’t know to ask. It was a whirlwind of medications, medical equipment and phone calls that only added to the chaos and confusion and emotional exhaustion of the situation. My sister bravely administered pain medications, which was more difficult than we expected because Mom resisted the oral solution. The doctor said it was an involuntary response, but we were in a difficult position: She was clearly in pain and needed medication, but every time we got the medication near her lips, she would tighten them and turn away, or groan. You don’t want to see the person you love in so much pain but at times we felt so helpless and alone. I watched this, in shock and fear, from behind my camera.
“The candle in the background of this image reminds me of how chilled out and calm her room was during those final days,” Jessica remembers. “It was awful but special and profound to be able to be there for her, so close to her, literally feeling her breathing when I was laying next to her the night before she died. The remote control in the background reminds me of watching ‘Pitch Perfect’ with our cousins earlier that night.”
Over the course of their illnesses, we took turns living at home and being with our parents. Being a freelancer, I had the ability to really take time off and be there more full-time, which was a blessing but a challenge. Fortunately, there was a lot of silliness and joy among the sadness and pain because that’s how the Borowicks cope with a difficult situation – we turn to humor. Having a dog around was a bonus for us because Nova, pictured here, brought so much lightness and love into the mix that only a pet can provide. It helped that Nova didn’t care that Mom had little hair and even less energy; she demanded to play. And then she demanded that Mom snuggle.
Practically living in the hospital didn’t stop us from watching one of Dad’s favorite sports teams, the New York Giants. We would try to make the hospital room feel less alien, with snacks and drinks, and we would hang out around the football game. On Thanksgiving we brought real plates from our house. And on Hanukkah, we brought an electric menorah so we could observe the holiday together.
Dad died on December 7, 2013. It also happened to be the fortieth anniversary of his own mother’s death. He was no longer in pain, and so many people he loved came to visit him in those last two days at the hospital. Just like that, he was gone, one year and a day after his diagnosis of Pancreatic cancer. He lived longer than most do with the disease, so we were lucky we had that extra time with him.
The drive from our home to the temple for Dad’s funeral was a unique one.
A big snowstorm had come through and the roads were pretty terrible so we took our time getting to the service. Along the route we saw a stranded motorist and decided that we should offer him a ride. Boy was he surprised and hilarious when he got in and we told him where we were headed. I can only imagine what he was thinking in those moments. A long stream of cars followed ours with their hazard lights blinking in unison as we made our way to the cemetery. Dad would have laughed if he had seen this unfold.
Dad left instructions for his funeral. He requested to be buried in his favorite Giant’s football jersey (Lawrence Taylor, #56), his favorite pair of jeans, and his baseball cap with his “HB” initials. Even in death he was alive in a sense and brought a smile to Mom’s face. Dad was always the center of attention, and here he was, front and center, surrounded by everyone he loved and who had loved him in his life. If he could have, he would have attended his own funeral. That’s why I think he wrote his own eulogy, which was fourteen pages long and told us, in part: “I have outlived each of my parents by decades and lived well beyond what I had predicted or ever bargained for. Longevity aside, you should know, if you do not already, that I believe that I have been the luckiest man to have ever lived on this planet, so I am comfortable with the time and quality of time I had.”
During Shiva, the weeklong Jewish period of mourning, the doorbell was always chiming. I can still hear the sound in my head. At a certain point it just became too much, so we put a sign outside and encouraged people to just come on in. This was also tiring for us, especially for Mom, who had to go to chemotherapy the day after Dad’s funeral. She arrived home to a house full of people, which was overwhelming for her because she always felt pressure to be a good hostess.
Mom’s to-do lists exemplified the simultaneity of life: order Howie’s headstone, decide whether or not to begin radiation, join the gym and actually start going, and, most importantly, “What happened to our Girl Scout cookies?!” She tried to maintain a normal way of life the best she could. One task that drew out for weeks was deciding what would go on my father’s footstone. I think this was partly because in addition to grieving the loss of Dad she was also, in a sense, mourning her own death, which was becoming more and more real.
Mom died on December 6, 2014, after battling breast cancer on and off for eighteen years. That was exactly one day shy of the one-year anniversary of Dad’s death. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It felt like déjà vu to be back in the temple, seeing the faces of those who loved Mom and our family, and mourning the death of our last parent. While it was unbelievably difficult to be there, I looked around and realized how surrounded by love and support we were. We were not alone.
It is amazing the things you uncover when you begin to clean out a house. One of the first items we found was the cake topper from our parents’ wedding, still intact and extremely delicate. The process of clearing everything out was scary but it revealed itself to be both therapeutic and beautiful as we discovered clues about our parents we never knew.
It was surprisingly easy for me to say goodbye to my childhood home. Once it was empty, there were no signs of who had been there and the memories and experiences that had unfolded. It was no longer our home, it was just a house. My room was a blank slate and a new family would move in and create their own memories, perhaps have their own joys and sadness, just like we did.
As with life and loss, you have to say goodbye. And you have to move on.
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Nancy Borowick is a humanitarian photographer based in New York City. A regular contributor to the New York Times and a graduate of the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography, she was recently awarded second prize in the World Press Photo Long-Term Projects category as well as the Arnold Newman Prize in New Directions in Photographic Portraiture. Visit her Cancer Family website and follow her on Instagram at @nancyborowick for more on her project.