When Life is No Longer Precious

What if our lives were precious only up to a point? What if we held them loosely and understood that there were no guarantees? So that when you got sick, you weren’t a stage, but in a process. And cancer, just like having your heart broken or getting a new job or going to school, were a teacher? What if, rather than being cast out and defined by some terminal category, you were identified as someone in the middle of a transformation that could deepen your soul, open your heart and all the while - even if and particularly when you were dying - you would be supported by and be part of a community? And what if each of these things were what we are waiting for?
— Eve Ensler

Every once in a while, if you pay attention and stay open to possibility, your work leads you to unexpected and magical places.

Over the past year I've had the pleasure of getting to know my coworker Pam, a nurse who also happens to have a background in divinity studies. When time would permit we would sit in the break room and talk endlessly about anything and everything ranging from philosophy to House of Cards. It was such a pleasure to sit and talk with someone so engaged and curious about life. Particularly someone with an awareness and willingness to stay open to the opportunity that life lays at our feet every day.

A few months ago Pam was diagnosed with breast cancer requiring surgery and ongoing chemotherapy. During this time we would meet for coffee and each time she gave me the gift of her uncensored thoughts on her experience. I believe this was in part because I expressed both a concern for her well being in addition to a curiosity about her experience. I wanted to know what it was like to be in her shoes - both as a son whose father died of cancer and as a fellow mortal being, as vulnerable to the random outcome of life as anyone.

During one discussion we began talking about our attachment as human beings to our sense of self and how hard we work to maintain and protect this idea. For Pam, as for many cancer patients, illness strips you bare and forces you to confront these illusions. With this on my mind, I asked her if she would allow me to photograph her without her wig.

The day we met she seems nervous and a bit apprehensive. I did my best to reassure her as we walked into the University of Michigan Law Quad, the sun shining brightly overhead for the first time in months. As students strolled by us, I began taking a few pictures of her with her wig on. After a few minutes I gave her a knowing smile and asked, "Are you ready?" She nodded silently and slowly pulled the wig off her head.

As if to highlight the absurdity of how precious we can be about our "appearance", the sight of her bare scalp, it's lines and curves coalescing seamlessly, made the wig suddenly seem like a decadent appendage.  Seeing Pam so vulnerable resulted in a combination of melancholy and wonder as I did my best to stay focused on the mechanics of exposure and composition. This was made more difficult for me as I sensed how nervous she was (as anyone would be having just pulled off their wig in public).

While the other images posted here exhibit varying degrees of serenity and fortitude, the image below is my favorite for another reason.  This was taken just after Pam removed her wig and she began to cry. Despite my concern, she insisted I continue to shoot - as she stood crying, with her head shaved in the middle of a busy college campus.

This moment will always resonate with me as a reminder of what it means to be truly courageous.

Thank you, my friend.