Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories


I photographed a survivorship event tonight at a Cancer support center. All of the attendees either had or have Cancer. There was a beautiful woman who’s hair was just starting to grow back. She demonstrated her confidence by not wearing a wig.

The decor of the center was interesting. Art decorated the interior spaces. Among metal and ceramic sculptures there were poems from small children scribbled into drawings of different shapes and colors all posted along one wall. All of the poems were from children who had died later from Cancer. One of the poems read something about sadness being a blue wave. It had subsided to earthly brown, but once again began to rise up. The poem ended with, “Stay away.” I don’t know if this was a message to the reader, or to the bad feelings.

I remember in High School not being able to handle the fact that a friend of mine got Leukemia and lost all of her hair. She was gone from school for a long time and came back to visit with a wig on. I couldn’t even talk to her or meet up with her. And later, when her condition worsened, and everyone in class recorded a videotaped message to her that she could watch from her hospital bed, I wouldn’t participate. My teacher looked at me knowingly. He was a big jock gym teacher-type and it was interesting that he was sensitive enough to understand what I was feeling. This is one of the first times I remember an “adult” being compassionate toward me. Until then, I was always at war with the adults.

I always felt bad about not doing that video.

Now I shoot video for a living. I made an anniversary video last fall for the cancer treatment center here at my work. It was a huge success with about a dozen Cancer fighters and survivors and doctors and mothers of dead daughters telling their epic and inspirational and passionate and tragic stories. I feel like I’ve “gotten over myself” with a lot of these experiences. The nazis wanted to just get rid of everyone who was sick or different. But people who suffer give healthy people such a gift. A look inside. A view of what is to come for all of us. How will we handle it?

One of the people I taped in that video, one of the best interviews, died a few days ago. I found out two days ago and missed the funeral. Her interview went especially well. She was so upbeat and happy with her growing hair. She was inspired for the future. She spoke of her past the way others speak of their war overseas. Not dramatically, but matter-of-factly. This happened, and it really sucked. And then it got worse. But now I’m here and I’m better. She was a really nice person, an artist, and someone that I’d like to have met because of her art, not because of her disease. When last I spoke with her, she was straining to introduce me to her husband at the anniversary event. She had a glow. This was about 6 months ago. Now she is gone. Just like that.

Our experiences shape us. Maybe she was a cool person because of her struggle. Maybe she just loved life because it felt fleeting to her and it was a waste of time to pay attention to b.s. And like Amelia Burr’s quote at the top of this post, perhaps she wasn’t afraid to die because she had a love affair with Life. I believe that my own comparitively small “hard times” have made me a better person. And I hope to face the end with dignity and peace. Tempering steels the sword. But what would Cancer do to me?

What do you think?