Fotoeins Fotografie

faces of home & place-story

Posts tagged ‘cancer’

The place where I died again

The mind’s eye slowly emerges, hanging over my shoulder for hours after the official declaration at 850pm.

With the nurses’ gentle request, I comply without a word, and I sign the paperwork.

I walk back into the hospital room where she lies. The only sounds are from her neighbour, another patient in another bed, their laboured breathing as sign of life.

I gaze out the window to the nighttime lights of the city. From a great height, I cannot see individuals, but I see them in motion on the streets, and alive in the lights of their houses.

At her bedside, I hold her hand, cool to the touch. I place my other hand on her forehead: there’s a little warmth as I smooth her skin with my thumb. Her eyes are closed, but there’s no breath or acknowledgement. When I close my eyes, the dream doesn’t go away, and ashes begin to fall. I lean down next to her ear, and whisper quiet words at the close.

I palm her cheek one final time, as I’ve done over the last days and weeks.

At the doorway, I turn around and look at her still body one last time. I will not see my mother again until the funeral.

I thank the nurses, and make my way out of the Palliative Care Unit. To the elevators. To the lobby. Out into the cold night. Inside the car, my hands are locked frozen onto the wheel, and I begin to shake with tremors. I let the jolt and shock pass through, and with the recall of past experience, I glide over giant waves of grief.

For the first time, I enter the family house without either parent. It’s surreal and unsettling.

From 1976, this house has been a busy noisy compact home for us; I remember us as kids racing to the top of the stairs to claim our very own bedroom.

A family of us: once at 4, now at 2.

Alone now, the walls echo with sounds from the floors, wood frame, and the pipes. I ascend the stairs in the dark, navigating the upper curve from memory. I shuffle to the parents’ bedroom. With a flick of the switch, the unmade bed is in the same final state, when the paramedics moved her into the waiting ambulance earlier that day.

In less than 12 hours from house to hospital, she slipped away, peacefully and quietly into the aether.

With my parents’ passing, I fulfilled my promise to them. There’d been new beginnings, layered with new understanding and sprinkles of forgiveness along the way. I was granted an extra-time bonus in years: a son to his parents, and a parent for his Mom and Dad.

And it is here, I died twice, in the city of Vancouver.

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Singular moments: family snapshots over 44 years

In February, a short interval mid-month included Chinese New Year’s Day (12th), Valentine’s Day (14th), and Canada Family Day (15th). Surrounding this auspicious interval on both sides were: my mother succumbing to cancer (3rd), and her funeral and burial (17th). She missed her 90th birthday by a mere 6 weeks.

In the weeks following that massive tremor, a heavy cloak of sadness clings on, interrupted occasionally by aftershocks in snippets of truth containing memory and regret. I get to relive the entire process of a parent’s death all over again; with Dad in 2014 and Mom in 2021, the double is anguish with complete finality.

For a long time, I’ve often questioned how much value there was in a family unit, given our inability to verbalize or communicate forms of positive emotional feedback. This post is a short examination of that question in a selection of images. I have to give Mom and Dad credit: they loved pictures of the family, in clear physical evidence by the scatter of photobooks and piles throughout the house. Few will ask whether a photograph at any given time can effectively capture the idea or mood of the moment. The true irony is the future value of that photograph as a means of time travel, back and forth, over and through giant waves of grief.

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The place where I died

With these pictures, I explored the perspective of witnessing a parent’s unstoppable decline to the end. I didn’t include pictures of my father in this set, but I gave voice to growing distress at his final journey in orbit around a downward spiral. My gaze drifted externally to the space and form of the hospital and to the surroundings outside.

On 19 July 2014, Dad was taken to Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital after he had a minor fall down the stairs at home. No bones were broken, which was remarkable considering his worsening health in the final stages of cancer. He would never return to the house in which he and Mum had bought and lived since 1976.

By the 2nd week, he had been moved from to the Palliative Care Unit (PCU) on the 10th floor. The wonderful hospital staff took great care of him and other patients in the unit. Dad charmed the PCU staff by chatting with them in broken English; it was his way of exerting some measure of control. I also witnessed the inevitable “shuffle”. One day, a patient slept quietly in one of the other beds, surrounded by members of his family. The following day, the bed was cleared, cleaned, and prepared for a new patient.

Into week 3, his mind and spirit departed, and he became completely unresponsive to external prompts. Over the following days, his body remained, accompanied by sounds of breathing, often shallow and laboured. He was at peace, and thanks to the meds, in diminished pain. I’d been with Dad a part of every day for 21 consecutive days. Friday came and went, and so did the passing of the sun. As I’d done every evening, I leaned down and whispered: “good night, I’ll see you tomorrow.” The following morning, I awoke to a phone call. The nurse’s voice was calm and gentle. Somewhere in the universe, I heard faint echoes of the death rattle. I said to the nurse: “thank you for your phone call. We’ll be at the hospital in a few hours.”

I ended the call and looked down at my watch: 613am. The date was August 9. He had celebrated his 82nd birthday only a few weeks earlier.

Northern summers, especially July and August, mean something entirely different.


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Thurlow, between Comox and Pendrell: from St. Paul's Hospital - 31 Jul 2014, fotoeins.com

Fotoeins Friday: pointing to the spot

Almost 52 weeks to the day of this very post.

A full year since Dad slipped away into the morning light.

Out of agony comes moments of serendipity and inner splendour, where all the pieces fit together in a single moment’s notice.

On the top floor of St. Paul’s Hospital the view of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula stretches over multiple towers and beyond to forested hills and mountains of the North Shore. Looking down anticipates a convergence at the right time of day, where ideal geometry and illumination conditions unite into a moment of fortune, humour, and beauty.

I made the photo in Vancouver, BC, Canada on 31 July 2014 with the Canon EOS6D, EF 24-105 f/4L zoom-lens, and the following settings: 1/320s, f/16, ISO400, and 92mm focal length. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-5ud.

Palliative Care Unit, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, BC, Canada, fotoeins.com

Fotoeins Friday: “Dear Dad, can you see me now?”

This is my favourite photo of 2014.

It is a picture of a dying man: this man is my father.

He looks terrible as cancer has consumed all the good things in his body on the road to destruction. The ugly bruise over his left eye is from a fall which has led him here to the hospital. He’ll stay for 3 weeks and eventually wind up top-side in the Palliative Care unit. He will never return to the house of 38 years he and Mum bought for us, or to the neighbourhood of over 40 years. He will never see home again.

I remember telling mum at the beginning of 2014 he won’t survive the year, and as weeks progress into months, I also sense that slow creep, that sensation of something big about to happen. That awareness hovers for months, but I guess I’ve been preparing for his death for almost a full year.

The best part of this picture is his smile, and I can clearly see the recognition in his eyes, that I’m his son. This picture will likely always have the power to make me weep.

The day after I make this picture he slips into a waking coma; his spirit departs but his body remains behind.

Days later, I photograph the light of dusk over Vancouver; how was I to know it’d be his last?

Next morning, the phone rings. The call is short and the woman on the other end of the line is gentle but to the point: he’s taken his last breath. I remember saying “thank you for all you’ve done” and “goodbye”. I finish the call. I close my eyes. I’m tired. I hear the rising tide of white noise, steadily increasing in volume. I open my eyes. The noise stops. It’s a little after 615am, well into the light of an August summer morning. Time to begin the remaining time without Dad.

Father’s Day this year is Sunday, which coincidentally is also the summer solstice. Had he survived this far, Dad would have celebrated his 83rd birthday on Tuesday.


I made the photo above on 2 August 2014 at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, BC. I posted a version of this photo on Instagram. The title is from “Release”, written by Gossard, Ament, Krusen, McCready, & Vedder; the final blurb-quote is mine. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-6UT.

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