December and Everything After
I started taking photographs of my parents as a way of understanding the aging process. I couldn’t quite grasp how a body begins to fail, slowly and without grace. I didn’t want to think about how they were becoming insecure and childlike and I was shifting into a parental role that was more difficult than nurturing my own child. The camera provided me a function, and also a distance. I didn’t anticipate the photographs becoming a series until I witnessed my mother’s health unfolding like a bad movie where the heroine predictably dies, slowly and without dignity. It became important to me to document the cruel process of aging and death in a society that seemingly shortchanges older people in the final stages of life.
Over a five-year period, my mother had a stroke that exacerbated her dementia, then a compound fracture to her wrist that never healed properly, then a hip fracture and rods installed for hip support, and finally, she was diagnosed with cancer. She was too weak for surgery or treatment for the disease (or so the specialists said), so the family opted for hospice, opioids, and a painfully long death watch from the slowest growing sarcoma in history.
After the cancer diagnosis and her extreme mental and physical decline in the years following, I had conflicting feelings about taking the pictures. It felt like an invasion of privacy, it made me question my ethics on exploitation, and it made me wonder why the suffering of my mother was something I wanted to remember through imagery. Wasn’t it enough to witness it with my own eyes? After all, human suffering isn’t something you can “unsee,” especially when it’s your mother. Although I had mixed emotions about the project, I felt the issue of mother’s suffering had universal ramifications. I continued to document the tragedy until the last six months of her life when there was too much pain and confusion for both of us.
I have come to see the necessity of dialogues regarding the end of life issues, assisted suicide, and the sad state of affairs in healthcare for the elderly – these are very unpleasant conversations, but they are vital in our aging population. I’ve decided to share the project as a means of questioning human suffering at the end of life – what can we do to make it more humane?
My mother passed away on February 9, 2018, four years after her cancer diagnosis. We don’t know that she actually died of cancer. My father passed away unexpectedly six months later, on August 26, 2018.