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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.

 

megan

Friday 24th of August 2012

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.

Nancy

Friday 24th of August 2012

Megan, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I'm sorry to hear about your aunt. My sympathies.

Alli

Sunday 12th of August 2012

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...

Nancy

Sunday 12th of August 2012

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.

Jan Baird Hasak

Saturday 11th of August 2012

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

Nancy

Sunday 12th of August 2012

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.

Being Sarah

Friday 10th of August 2012

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

Nancy

Sunday 12th of August 2012

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.

Anne

Friday 10th of August 2012

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

Nancy

Sunday 12th of August 2012

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.

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