"Whisper of running streams, and winter
The wild thyme unseen and the wild
The laughter in the garden, echoed
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the
Of life and death."
-from Quartet 2, East Coker
Why do we spend so much time preoccupied with the denial of death, while simultaneously the race to prevent and prepare for it?
If you'd asked me over the past month, "What's been new with you, Mitzi?" I'd have said (if I were being honest), "Oh just contemplating the reality of life and death in a new and visceral way. How about you?"
On June 6, I had four beautiful women in the studio for a 3 generations photo shoot. Carol, the oldest, got her hair and makeup finished first, so I started with her individual portraits. When I showed her the back of the camera she joked that the portrait I'd just taken of her would be the one displayed at her funeral. Her daughter and two granddaughters reacted as many of us do when our eighty-something loved ones make funeral comments: laughing it off and shifting the subject. Carol was spry, sharp, witty, and full of life. Her daughter and granddaughters lit up when I photographed them together, laughing and embracing and soaking it in. When we all talked Carol into trying on one of the blue gowns from my closet, she spun around and called herself a fairy godmother.
We scheduled their portrait reveal for an couple weeks later, but when the day came I got a text from Vicky: "I'm so sorry to cancel on you, but I found my mom at home having a significant stroke. Things are declining rapidly. Please know that now more than ever I would love to see these photos today, but I can't leave her just now."
Within a couple of days, Carol passed away at the hospital, surrounded by family and friends. I got a phone call from Vicky that morning requesting I send some of those portraits Carol had already requested be displayed at her funeral.
Stop reading for a second. Stop wondering how long this blog post is and if you can fit in the rest while you finish your coffee or move onto the next thing. Re-read the poem at the beginning of this piece. Stop dead in your tracks for a moment as I did on that day, the morning of my 29th birthday, when I once again was forced to snap out of the illusion that time is infinite and people are with us forever. There's a reason I haven't written about this for an entire month. It's taken that long to process.
In the spring of 2018, back home in snow-covered Canada, I photographed my grandfather. I gently took his big glasses off and smiled at him, waiting for him to look back at me with that predictable twinkle in his icy blue eye. He's nearly deaf so I used hand movements to direct his chin, with its droopy stubbled skin and that Adams apple I always used to poke at when he picked me up. And in that moment I knew it would be the last portrait I took of him. I was right, because in November his body had to give up so his lively spirit could move onto the next life.
And you know, even if I hadn't been right - even if he'd lived long enough to hug and dance with me again, I'm glad I treated that moment as though it could have been the last. Because it was. For me, I was lucky I got to say goodbye. I was lucky that his health declined over several years so I could prepare for what was to come. I am so thankful for that, because for so many people that isn't the case.
When Vicky received the portraits I sent of her mother, she texted me again: "Words cannot express. They are gorgeous. I just met with her [hospital] volunteer buddies and they absolutely loved them. I'm so happy with these and so glad I made the time to schedule!"
Vicky did MAKE the time. It didn't just happen. She booked the session in the early spring, planned the photo shoot a month later, and then scheduled it several weeks out to accommodate all four of their busy lives. But she did it. And I know she and her family are beyond thankful now.
I asked her last week if I could share this with you, and here's what she said, "I am okay with you writing about it now or at any time. It's a powerful message to women to take the time to pamper themselves and their loved ones while making memories that last a lifetime. Timing is everything!"
Thank you Vicky for sharing this journey with me, a time of immense grief embraced by desperate gratefulness. This is not only the reality of my career - it is the reality of all of our lives.
When I think back to my 29th birthday, I will remember waking up to that text from Vicky-- those words that stopped me dead in my tracks. I will pause and remember not only the significance of the career I chose, but the heart-wrenching preciousness of life. I will think of "the wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry," and the way everything, big and small, points "to the agony of life and death."
The reality of death is real and heavy, so the reality of life should be too. Every day is new, every opportunity is a chance for celebration. As one of my mentors says, "You're here and you're breathing and there's no reason not to grab life and run with it."