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“The Battle We Didn’t Choose – My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer” – A Thought-Provoking Exhibit

Recently the breast cancer blogosphere was a-buzz about a controversial decision made by The Gathering Place to take down the art exhibit of Angelo Merendino. This post is not about that aspect of the story. It’s not about the “taking down.” No, I’m exploring the power of the photos themselves.

Angelo Merendino married his wife Jennifer in 2007. Shortly thereafter, Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her cancer recurred in the spring of 2010. You can read more about their story and view the riveting photo collection through which Angelo documented his wife’s cancer experience on his website.

The images possess an almost mystical aura. They immediately captivate and draw you in. To say they are powerful is an understatement.

The photos are gripping, raw and hauntingly honest.

For some, viewing them is too hard, unbearable even. Others find them to be inspiring, uplifting and yes, encouraging.

When I view the photos (only on-line so far), I am drawn in as well. Like so many others, I am captivated for a whole variety of reasons.

I greatly admire and appreciate the courage it took for both Jen and Angelo to so honestly document and share something so profoundly personal.

Viewing the exhibit is not for everyone, but what art is?

Art is supposed to draw us in and tell a story without the use of words.

Art is supposed to make us think, feel, empathize and better understand.

Art is supposed to move, teach, heal, change, and yes, even disturb us.

Most importantly perhaps, art has tremendous power to unite us in our humanity.

Mr. Merendino’s photo exhibit does all these things and more.

Again, is viewing it for everyone?

Of course not.

However, nearly everyone does agree there is an underlying beauty about the photos because ultimately the photos depict love.

When I view the photos, I see a tug of war going on between Jen’s cancer and love.

Perhaps this is why the photos are so riveting and why so many are drawn to them. They show two very different aspects of life.

On the one hand, you can definitely see the harshness of Jen’s disease in the vivid and stark images of her increasingly frail-looking body. The haunting photos do not gloss over this truth.

But you can also see a whole lot more.

You can see love.

Angelo’s and Jen’s love, as well as the love of their friends and family, was and is, stronger than her cancer. This comes through in the photos.

Even though Jen died in December 2011 from metastatic breast cancer, their love “won” that tug of war.

Love will always win.

Moving to a completely different train of thought, viewing these photos makes me wish I had more photos of my mother’s final weeks and days.

Yes, I wish I had photos from even those darkest moments when metastatic breast cancer had physically transformed her body into a frail, almost unrecognizable version of her former self.

We don’t have a lot of photos of my mother, period.

After cancer, photos became even rarer. After her recurrence, they became nearly non-existent.

Comments were made about wanting to remember her as she used to be.

It seemed loved ones wanted to remember happier times. I understood that. I still do.

It’s difficult to explain, but now I also regret those decisions to not take photos at the end.

Of course, I want to remember the happier days, and I do.

However, a person’s life is not just made up of those happier times. A person’s whole life matters, including the end. And even in that end there is poignancy, even beauty, though admittedly, it can be hard to see at the time.

And so we often hesitate about a lot of things and one of these things is taking photos of our terminally ill or elderly loved ones.

But why are so afraid of documenting the end of life?

Who are we trying to protect?

Some of those last days I spent with my mother are also some of my most treasured memories. Yes, the memories are painful to reflect upon, but they are beautiful and priceless none-the-less.

Do I wish I had more photos of my mother’s last days?

Yes, I do.

Do I wish I had had the foresight and courage to take a few photos on those last days?

Yes, I do.

This is one more reason that when and if I get a chance to view Mr. Merendino’s exhibit in person, I’ll be there.

Why?

Because somehow the photos in the exhibit capturing Mr. Merendino’s wife’s cancer experience also capture the experiences of so many others lost to this disease.

Somehow they also capture my mother’s experience, and I’m grateful to him for this.

Mr. Merendino’s photos are a window into the world of metastatic breast cancer.

A world that is anything but pink.

The photos need to be seen.

Thank you, Mr. Merendino, for daring to take the photos, for daring to document the harshness of breast cancer’s reality, for daring to record and then share a heartbreakingly painful piece of your dear one’s life.

But mostly, thank you for capturing something more, something intangible in your photos.

Thank you for capturing love.

Have you seen this photo exhibit on-line or in person and if so, what was your reaction?

If you haven’t seen it, would you ever choose to? Why or why not?

Do you have photos of a loved one taken during a serious illness or at the end of her/his life?

Keeping it real. Support you can use.

 

26 thoughts to ““The Battle We Didn’t Choose – My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer” – A Thought-Provoking Exhibit”

  1. I love this love story even if it breaks me into tears with each photo & Angelo’s words. The slide show was spectacular, had in tears the whole time.
    I am having a hard time finding someone to view this amazing work with me. My husband has seen some of it online & I am always crying, does not make him want to go. I do know it’s hard. But I have the chance to go this month & I do not want to miss it again! I don’t want to go by myself, even told my husband he could do something else if he did not want to actually go in. I must go before the exhibit ends.

    Wonderful post Nancy!! Sometimes I wish my husband would have taken photos, I have taken my own, what compells me is that I only have one photo when I am “breastless” … hard time for me, I suppose.
    I take pics all the time, I want more, I wish my husband liked to take ‘still shots’ when I was not aware, those are some of my favorite kind of photos. Maybe one day when we get a camera he likes…

    I am not fearful of end of life, of course I want to live until I am 95 with a good quality of life. But I would not have taken photos of my grandmothers when they were dying. They would not have wanted it, instead I cherish the photos I have, and hang them on my wall to see

    1. Laura, I know what you mean. These photos do certainly stir up lots of emotion don’t they? I’m glad you plan to see this exhibit. It won’t be easy, but I think it will be worth it. Your husband’s hesitation is understandable. He’s probably just worried about you and what your reaction might be. I wish I had taken more photos, too, of the process. But at the time, that wasn’t something my husband and I were thinking about. I do wish I had one or two pictures of my mom at the end, not to put out or share even. I just think I would like looking at such a photo from time to time. Maybe that’s odd, I don’t know. Anyway, thanks so much for commenting. Let me know how the exhibit viewing experience goes for you. Wish I could go with you!

  2. The photos are amazing and their time with each other was so short. I admire greatly where they created something raw and beautiful that will convey their love for each other as long as these photos exist. In a sense making their love timeless. That is why the words of your point Nancy are so powerful “a person’s whole life matters, even the end”! Like you I do not have pictures of my mother just before she left this world. My mother was on a respirator near the end. She was conscious and aware. I knew she loved to read but she couldn’t anymore so I brought in a cd player and would pay classical music and her favorite cd soundtrack, “Somewhere in Time”. Now, I listen to that music and it brings back fond memories of our time together at the end. Through the arts I too have something to hold on to and remind me of our love for each other.

    1. Tess, Thank you for sharing that beautiful memory about your mother. It must be very comforting to have such a special thing to remember and reflect upon every time you listen to that music. I think this photo exhibit must be an astounding thing to view “in person.” As you said, Jen and Angelo created something very powerful and very lasting, just like love. Again, thanks so much for sharing.

  3. At the end of life everyone discovers that they are not in control of what happens next…and I think that reminder is more than we can bear.

    Everyone has to do what is right for themselves at that time. It is a deeply personal time. I would not want pictures for the same reason that I do not want a funeral. I do not want people looking at me. I want to be remembered, and plan to have my ashes put in a hole with a lilac bush dropped on top of them. There will be a remembering with only one rule…no one can speak unless they have one good story, and one bad story. The fact is, if you don’t know a bad story about me, you did not know me well at all. I never was perfect, but I was good.

    1. Debby, You’re right of course, the end of life decisions are very personal indeed. Each person/family must do what feels right for them. It sounds like you know what you want! I think there just might be some very interesting stories told about you some day – and that’s a good thing! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Debby. They’re always insightful ones.

  4. Very well put, Nancy – your post captures so many side of these images, but most importantly I appreciate your focus on love. It’s undeniable that they showed a deep and strong love between this couple – and, as you say, that ripples outwards to our own loved ones.

    I’ve only seen it online, but yes, this is a power and beautiful (despite also being hard for many) exhibit.

    1. Catherine, Yes, the loves shines through and “wins” out over cancer for sure. Would you want to see this exhibit in person? I’m curious. If you happen to stop by again, let me know. Thanks so much for commenting.

  5. Beautiful post and so insightful about art, which can capture things that even words cannot. I’m curious to see this photo exhibit, but right now I’m too frail emotionally. However, I admire the man who documented his wife’s experience and their love in these photos. It takes true courage to do that.

    I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to take the photos of your mom toward the end. That is so hard to do. I don’t think I could do it.

    I’ll respond to your e-mail as soon as I’m able to…..

    1. Beth, You know about the power of art as an artist too. I think that must be so grounding and calming. I’m envious of your artistic talents. A person needs to be ready or in the right frame of mind to view this exhibit. I understand that. I admire this couple a great deal for documenting something so difficult and so highly personal. Yes, I wish I had one photo of my mom from that time, but I don’t. I can’t change that now…I do have a lot of “good” memories from that time which are very special, though painful too. Don’t worry about responding to the email. Do so whenever you’re able. Thinking of you. Thanks for commenting.

  6. I’ve read all of the blogs devoted to the controversy over Angelo’s work and yours is exceptional.

    I knew Jennifer personally through our support group and she was one of the first people I met after my bilateral. I was still scared, confused, and had trouble processing my feelings. I was unemployed and so preoccupied with insurance issues (as I had exhausted my COBRA benefits) that I had become my own caregiver rather than the patient.

    Jen took me under her wing and I was finally able to start to deal with the enormity of my own diagnosis and treatment. Jen was just one of those people that you meet that have a profound effect on you. I was always grateful for her friendship and for guiding me through some rocky times.

    Yes, the images are difficult to look at, especially knowing both Jen and her husband, Angelo. But it’s also a beautiful love story and a portrait of strength, grace, and dignity.

    I’m very grateful to you Nancy, and all of the other bloggers who have brought attention to Angelo’s work and kept this important dialogue going. Jen wanted to make a difference and we can all be a part of honoring her legacy and continuing to be her voice — because Jen could be any one of us.

    1. Blonde Ambition, Thank you for your kind words about my post. I wasn’t entirely sure how this post would be received. It’s very special to hear from someone who knew Jen personally and who also knows Angelo. I’m sorry for your loss. You must have some wonderful memories of Jen. Thanks for sharing. It gives us more of an understanding about what kind of person Jen was and helps us further realize what a great loss every single life lost to MBC is.

  7. I viewed some of the photos and I thought they were very well done, beautiful and emotional of course and very, very sad. A nice tribute to his wife and their love.

    1. Lindsay, I agree. Beautiful, sad and emotional is exactly what they are, and that’s also why it’s so important for them to be seen. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Nancy, your statement that, “A person’s whole life matters, even the end.” really strikes me as central to the value of Angelo’s photo collection. Cancer was a dimension of their lives that shaped everything else. From the everyday experience to their hopes and dreams, to the end of their time together on earth. And the two people at the center of this story held something that was separate from cancer too. It all comes through so powerfully. I hope their story, and Angelo’s visual documentation of it, is shared far and wide. — Gayle Sulik

  9. Beautiful! Thank you! I was fortunate enough to be with my mother the last 11 days she was on this earth. What a gift! I have many memories of that time and not one picture which I regret. I knew Jenny through my best friend and only met Angelo for the first time in Westlake at this exhibit. He is amazing! His work indeed is about love, life, hope and the face of cancer. For me, his work grounds me ,humbles me and reminds me to be grateful on a daily basis!

    Love and light

    Anne

    1. Anne, Thank you so much for sharing. I’m sorry about your mother, but glad you were able to spend time with her at the end. It’s good to hear I’m not alone in my regret about the photos at the end of life. I completely agree with your feelings about viewing Angelo’s work. It must be extra emotional to view them in person and not merely online. I hope some day I’ll be able to.

  10. Thanks Nancy for this post. I have seen Angelo’s work (online) and just feel that it represents so much about the illness narrative that we so rarely see. And is also a very powerful record of love.
    I really liked your reflection on remembering everything about a person’s life – even the end. I very consciously took photos of my father after his terminal (lung) cancer diagnosis in 1999. He lived for another six months and I have lovely photos from that time, including one of him in his coffin. They are still ‘Frank’ to me, and I’m very glad I have them.
    Best, Sarah

    1. Being Sarah, I completely agree with you. We shouldn’t be so afraid to see this part of the illness narrative. I’m glad to hear you understand where I’m coming from about my regret over not taking photos at the very end of my mother’s illness. I think it’s wonderful you made the decision to take some of your father at the end of his life. Somehow just having them seems as if it would be comforting. “They are still ‘Frank’ to me,” that sums it up. Thank you so much for sharing.

  11. Thanks for bringing this controversy to light. I was very moved when I saw the exhibit online. Why it created such a firestorm is beyond me.

    I have a picture of my Mom and me two weeks before she died of metastatic lung cancer. It’s a precious possession that I will treasure my whole life. Why such pictures scare people is beyond me. Like you, I wish I had more pictures of my mom in that stage of life.

    Keep on with your great writing to expose the fraud of pinkdom. xx

    1. Jan, Well, as I understand it, the firestorm pretty much centered around the venue chosen for the exhibit. I’m so glad to hear you have that precious photo of your mom. I completely understand how you find it comforting to posses. I sure wish I had one or two like that of my mother. Thanks so much for sharing, Jan.

  12. Nancy
    This is such a testament of love and devotion to someone with insurmountable odds…The photos are painful, exquisite, sad, so many different levels to anyone who sees the display.

    FYI Quite a back lash to my Tata cupcake posting…. Don’t ya just love controversy… lol

    Love Alli…

    1. Alli, I completely agree. The exhibit is first and foremost a testament of love. Guess I’ll have to revisit your post! Thanks for the comment, Alli.

  13. Thanks for sharing this story and photos. Looking at the photos they were very sad and it made me remember my aunt who had to go through the same things.

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