Intersecting Circles: Thoughts About a Friend

 Resourceful. A leader. Pretty. Generous. Purposeful. Supportive. Tough. Upbeat. Organized. Self-Assured. Fair.

Our friend Ann passed away on January 22. Maybe she was your friend, too. She pretty much knew everyone.

Ann was one of the first women who volunteered to be photographed for Of Scars. Back then, we had no idea what we were doing, really. We did know it was important to learn a bit about people before asking them to take off their shirts, though, and so we designed this cutesy little questionnaire that we asked models to fill out and bring to their photo sessions. On the first page of our packet was a list of words, and instructions to “Circle the words that describe you.”

Ann was too big to fit in our little list of words, so she added a few of her own: Resourceful. A leader. PrettyAnd on and on…

It was a huge turning point for us. It seems so obvious now, but we learned that day that people are beyond definition. Ann didn’t let our words define her, and she didn’t let cancer define her.

I knew her well enough to tell you just a tiny little bit about the things that did define her. See, her participation in Of Scars was a happy accident. We’d just posted the only open call for models we’ve ever posted, and somehow that resulted in a phone call from Ann to me, but I’d known her before. When I was a kid, I was in a choir, and Ann was our manager. She was an extraordinary leader, and a wonderful mom to her daughters, both of whom were also in the choir. As the years went on, she also became something of a mom to everyone else. If a kid needed someone to chat with, or a ride, or anything, really, Ann would reliably fill that gap. And as kids, we responded to her because she was a leader, and because of that big, pretty smile she so readily shared. Those things defined her. 

Today, at her memorial service, hundreds and hundreds of people gathered to remember her. There were so many things to celebrate. Ann literally wrote the book on how to provide incredible customer service. She had an enviable career. She volunteered for every organization under the sun. She helped people when people needed help. In the wake of the tragedy at Columbine, she founded a program that works to make school a safe and welcoming place for students. She loved the hell out of her husband. She loved the hell out of lots of people, actually. She traveled. She made people laugh all the time. She raised successful and happy and compassionate daughters with smiles just like hers.

As the minister listed each of Ann’s accomplishments and affiliations, he’d ask for a show of hands from the people who knew her in that way. “Raise your hands if you knew her from high school,” he’d say, and a dozen or so hands would appear in the air. “Raise your hands if you know her from work.” Some hands raised again and again.

In closing, the minister said, “Ann lived her whole life drawing intersecting circles, and filling them with love.”

And there we were. In that room were hundreds of the friendships and projects and ideas she’d created, all intersecting at that very same point, in celebration of a woman who made our lives better.

Cancer might have taken her body, but it’s not quite accurate to say that Ann died from cancer. She lived through cancer, defining herself by the things that she wrote into her circles.

Thanks for showing us all how it’s done, Ann. This world is gonna miss you.

Amazing Quote of the Day

Occasionally, someone will approach us and say something like, “I like what you’re doing. But what about the women who don’t survive?”

Today we had a beautiful and profound photo shoot that left both elli and I slack-jawed and dumbstruck with its intensity. During the course of the shoot, I heard this striking quote:

After you’re diagnosed, you are a survivor. Every day that you are alive, you are a survivor. It’s that simple.”

As we reach deeper into our celebration of survival, I wanted to take a minute to honor the survivors who are no longer with us. Thanks for what you taught us, when you were here.

Circle the Words That Describe You.

As we went into our shoot with Ann (see also the previous post about Ann and Frida the wig) we were reading through the notes in her file.  We send each of the models some questions to help us understand how she feels about herself, her surgery, her process, her body.  her image.  One of the things we ask is for them to circle words from a list of adjectives that help describe the way they feel about themselves.  

We read Ann’s list and were just beside ourselves when we found that she had done the exercise but then went one step further by writing in her own list of words.  

We were reading the list in the car on the way to the shoot and as we began taking pictures, her words were echoing and inspiring us.  We have a lot of pictures from that day, but one in particular grabbed my attention – even though i almost passed it over when pulling out the main images i wanted to work with.   I set it aside for a few days until it occurred to me that it needed to be the backdrop for her list.  Her wonderful, amazing, inspiring list.  

I like the photo because you can’t tell if she is laughing or screaming – and paired with the list, it could be either.  I know what she’s doing because i was there, but i’m not telling.

ann-collage2

Hello, Cancer. We Laugh in Your Face.

Cancer isn’t funny, really. It might think it’s funny. Like a bully on a playground, it shows up and demands what it wants.

“GIMME YOUR LUNCH MONEY!” it says, pinning us up against a wall.

“Uh, Cancer,” we say. “We’re not in elementary school anymore. We put our lunches on our cards.”

“Ah,” Cancer answers. “Then GIMME YOUR BOOBS!”

We’re tired of this bullying behavior. It’s time for retribution, Revenge of the Nerds style. Because seriously, Cancer, you can take our boobs. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get the last laugh.

Take Sara Jane Adair, for example. Sara lived with cancer for 13 years, and by all accounts she really lived through the experience. Those who knew her described her as vivacious, feisty, strong–and always funny.

While Sara was undergoing chemotherapy, Michael Johnson, her brother and a journalist in London, began drawing funny cartoons and sending them to her. On his Web site, Johnson says, “When I realized how much my efforts lifted her spirits I found myself digging deeper into a strange world of roundish shapes.”

The resulting book, 101 Uses for an Empty Bra, is a hilarious tribute to the experience that so many women go through after their mastectomies. It’s available online at emptybra.com, along with sneak-peek images of cartoons contained within the book, and a few minutes on the site will have you laughing until you cry. The images are hysterical. Bras are converted into “Ken and Barbie Bumbershoots”, “Surgeon Stranglers”, and, my favorite, a “Cantilevered Dental Prosthesis for Extreme Underbite”. The book makes a perfect gift for anyone with a slightly devilish sense of humor and deep sensitivity to the experience of women living with cancer.

On the site, Johnson remembers his sister as a wife, mother, sister, calligrapher, and flautist. He notes that nearly 700 people attended her funeral in Denver in 2007, drawn to her by her “irrepressible” sense of humor.

Up yours, Cancer. You never stole her smile.

Thanks to Molly Johnson for submitting the story of her Auntie Sara. You can share the stories of the amazing women you know who’ve defied breast cancer by sending us their stories at ofscarsproject (at) gmail (dot) com.

for todd, to say goodbye.

i met this boy in the early 90s, a friend of a friend. he came into the bookstore where i worked because his friend told him he “met this weird girl with a cat necklace.”  he came in to sort of, i don’t know?  make fun of me?  or see the freakshow.  but what happened was, we became the best of friends.  we hung out all the time – mostly listening to music, going to shows, eating cheetos.   he was funny, with a dry self-deprecating humor.  he was moody.  he hung out in coffee shops to read, or to write sad poems.  we were exactly the same.

at the time, email wasn’t something everyone had, and i moved away to the west coast.  we kept in touch for a while via (*gasp*) letters written on paper.  put into envelopes – with stamps.  remember?  but that faded away and we lost contact.  it wasn’t until a few years after i had moved back to minnesota that he randomly found me (through music, of course) on myspace.  (which actually seems even weirder than writing letters.) one of the first things i discovered as we got reacquainted was that he had a cancerous tumor in his brain.  he apologized to me for bringing himself and his tumor back into my life.  i’m not sure exactly what my response to that was, but i’m sure it was the equivalent of shut the hell up / give me a break / we’ll get through this.

i tried to be a good friend.  in fact, i had to re-commit myself to the task several times because i work more than full time and i have two kids.  it’s not easy to sneak in time in person with friends, and todd wasn’t able to drive anywhere on his own to meet me.  there were things that i would be doing that he couldn’t do, like being at live music (the lights, the fast bright lights) or being in noisy, crowded places.  i would go pick him up sometimes and take him to ice cream or coffee, or we would take my kids to the playground.  even in the midst of intense chemo and with anti-seizure medication weighing him down, he would climb around like a little monkey with those kids on the playground.   it means the world to me that they got to know him, and that he got to know them, and it breaks my heart to think he ever felt he was a burden on me.   but, it was hard to find things to say to him and there was a wall of awkwardness between us.  last year i tried to convince him to let me take pictures of him.  not an elaborate photo shoot or anything,  just a few photos.  his response was, “so you can have something to remember me by?” or,  “what, for my memorial service?”   i mean, what do you say to that?  i’d say no, i just . . . want a few pictures of your face.  your face, right now.  i take pictures of things that i like, it’s what i do.  but he wouldn’t let me.  i used my phone and snapped a shot of him looking down, on a park bench one day as we sat in silence staring at the lake.

three days ago, as i was walking down the very, very long hospital hallways after having gone to see him – i took this picture.  he went into a coma last weekend.  the tumor was growing and causing his brain to move around, and as things expanded, it sent him into a coma.  they said it would keep expanding until it broke his spinal cord, and he would die.  there wasn’t anything they could do, it was just his time.  i stood by his hospital bed and held his hand, and told him how much i cared.  i tried to say goodbye to him but i couldn’t say the word.  i didn’t want him to hear me say that, i know he could hear me.  he squeezed my finger, i know he did.  he did it twice.  i knew all of this was coming but you just never know how hard something is going to be until you are standing in the middle of it.  i took this picture as i was leaving the hospital, knowing it was probably the last time i would ever see him.  i saw this painting of a beautiful tree, it made me stop and stare.  it was hard to focus on through tears but it helped me to feel more calm, and to start to feel the peace of saying goodbye.  i took a picture of it to remember that feeling, and hopefully to feel that peace as i go through this.

taking pictures of things brings a calmness to my mind, a sense that i am doing something right with my time.  this experience with todd has suddenly come crashing into this project about scars in a profound way and i know that as i spend the day shooting for the project on sunday, the day after he is laid to rest, it will be with different eyes.  i hope that what i capture will help ease someone else’s pain, as i will lean on it to help me with mine.