Donuts and Dominos
I have longed to write about my experience with the Fiene's for some time now, but whenever I sat down I always had trouble finding the words. After talking to my mom last night, she told me about a conversation she had with Caitlin recently - and it pushed me to realize that there will be no perfect words. As long as I speak from my heart, it will be enough. Jeanne was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year, and in August I received a message from Cait asking if I would be interested in documenting a night spent with her grandma - doing the things they loved doing most - or things that reminded Cait of her childhood with her 'gran.' I jumped right on it and switched my schedule around in order to to make it happen before Cait left on a trip to Florida. During this time, Cait also explained she wanted to write her grandma one last letter. I convinced her that she did, in fact, need to write it no matter how hard it was. So, recently when my mom ran into Cait, she said that she still hadn't had a chance to write the letter because she just couldn't find the words. My mom told her that there are no perfect words - that the emotions would be perfect from her heart. Those words my mom spoke to me the other night have helped me get the courage to type away from the feelings in my heart. I realized I didn't need to spend hours in my head perfecting what I was going to say. From the very beginning, I knew that this session (if you can call it that) would be hard not only for Cait, but for myself as well. I lost my grandma to colon cancer in 2009. We found out in early October and she had passed by the first week in December. I understood what Cait was going through, and knew that my grandma put me in the position to photograph this for her. To give her memories of her grandparents - something that doesn't have a price. As I walked into Richard and Jeanne's home, I felt at peace knowing I was comforted by these two amazing people - whose love for each other was so undeniable that I felt love from their love. I photographed Cait and her gran as they picked vegetables from the garden, Rich and Jeanne as they stood in their shed together, homemade donuts being made (yes, I ate them and yes, they were delicious), and lastly - a game of dominos played at the kitchen table.
For Cait, donuts and dominos were just a small glimpse of things that reminded her of her life spent with gran.
As I stare at these photos of Cait and her grandma over and over, I cry knowing that I don't have these kind of photos with mine. I have the memories - I have images in my head of my grandma smiling as she handed me ice cream at the Stephenson County Fair. I have the image in my head of my grandpa rolling his eyes when my grandma would tell my brother and I that we would beat him in our ritual morning pancake-eating contests. The image of my grandma's face as she tried to hide the fact that she just purposely let me win a game of Yahtzee. The image when she smiled so big that her eyes were almost shut as she congratulated me on my softball sectional win. And I have the image of her smile as she held my hand and I sobbed while reading her my very last letter in the east wing of Freeport Memorial Hospital.
I'm not quite sure where to start. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I am so greatly thankful for everything you have ever done for me. I just have one problem... the words "thank you" are not enough for a person like you. People like you are extremely hard to come by. The phrase "everything happens for a reason" has been running through my mind - all day, every day, for the past few weeks. As I sit here in this hospital room with you, I cannot come up with one good reason why this had to happen to you. A caring sister, a loving mother, a warm-hearted grandmother.
A few weeks ago, you asked me what I wanted this year for Christmas. I told you I didn't really have anything that I had in mind. But now, I know for sure that I need something. All I need is you. I need you to be healthy again. I want to be able to eat your pancakes bright and early. I want to play Yahtzee. And even though I hate those jig-saw puzzles, I want so badly just to put one together with you. I want to be able to drive a minute from class to your house. Thanksgiving is just a week away, and I'm really craving one of your strawberry pies. When it's warmer in the spring, I want to go for walks with you down Park Crest Drive. I could go on forever explaining how many things I still want to do with you.
Nobody deserves to go through the pain that you're going through right now, and especially not you, grandma. I hope you know that I am nowhere near ready for you to leave. You are such a huge part of my life, and it's so painful knowing that I might not have much time left with you. This all happened so fast... too fast. It would be so difficult to move on with my life without you in it. I want you to know that I've been praying for you constantly. Grandma, your faith in God is stronger than anyone's I've ever known, and I trust that He will make this journey through the rest of your life as painless as possible for you.
I want you to know that when your time comes, you will be so greatly missed by so many people. You always have a smile on your face - a smile that easily brightens up anyone's day and reminds others that there are good people in this world. And although you deserve so much more than a "thank you," I hope that you will accept my thank you. Thank you for being my grandma. I love you more than I could ever explain.
For me, it's ten mini pancakes stacked on my plate in the morning, homemade strawberry applesauce, the sight of her piano, picking sweet corn in the backyard, Yahtzee, newborn kittens in the shed, going to church with her, and the home that I knew and spent so many memories in.
Not long after my grandma passed, I had been finishing up my spring semester at Highland - and it was almost as if I woke up one day and suddenly knew what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I applied to several photography schools far from Illinois, but I ultimately decided to go to Harrington College of Design in Chicago to be close to family. Almost as if my grandma guided me almost completely and opened my eyes to a talent I couldn't deny.
It was a struggle not having my grandma's physical presence for my wedding, and it will continue to be a struggle when Ronnie and I start a family. As our family approaches the fourth year without my grandma, I reflect on how much I know she has watched over us and helped us grow, and I know - if I allow myself to think deeply - that she has been there right alongside me these past four years, and she will be until I see her again.
I never wanted to take photos with my grandma because that wasn't the state I wanted to remember her by - she was sick - she wasn't herself - she wasn't my grandma. She fought with everything she had, but ultimately cancer took her from us. Today, I fully regret not taking those photos. I'm begging each of you - no matter how much you don't want to document it, no matter if your loved one doesn't have the strength to smile or if they are laying in a hospital bed - take the photo with them. If it's an iPhone, if it's a disposable camera, if it's an old 5 megapixel camera - take the photo. Show your strength by holding your loved one tight. Kiss them on their forehead and tell them how much you love them. Cancer can affect the lives of our loved ones, but it cannot affect love.
Take the photo.
Please let these images of the Fiene's be a reminder that you need to document your life... no matter who does it for you, whether it's parents, your Aunt Jane who never seems to put the camera down, or yourself. When your time comes, what kind of story will the loved ones you've left behind have to share? I am beyond grateful that Cait gave me the opportunity to photograph this step in her life, and I am even more thankful that Richard and Jeanne opened up their hearts to me and allowed me to witness the true love they share between one another.
I love you Pauline Rose, and I thank you often for the gift you have given to me.