Tuesday, September 15, 2009

why does it take a brush with death to have a brush with life?


cancer connections has a travelling exhibit downtown halifax, and i stopped by the opening last week for CC.

Liam Hennessey stepped up to the microphone intending to deliver a witty speech. The Halifax photographer got five words into it before volcanic sorrow erupted in him, and he had to step back to wipe away tears and gain control of his trembling voice. The hundred or so people gathered in front of the Daltech building on Spring Garden Road and Queen Street waited quietly in the sharp morning sun.
He managed to get out a funny story about him and his mother, before losing his voice as he repeated news from a terrible day. “It was stuff like that that flashed before my eyes when Marcia and I and mum sat in the doctor’s office and they came in and (told his mother), ‘You have stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’ I was terrified,” he said. “I don’t do very well with this stuff, as you can see. I don’t talk about it, I don’t talk about it with my wife, I don’t talk about it with mum. So I hid behind my camera, not as a photographer, but as a son.”
Behind him were walls of black and white photos of people who had been hit by cancer. Hundreds of faces, some shining brightly with optimism, others darkened by pain. The hardest to look at were those crushed by grief.
Also behind Liam was his mother, Judy, who had battled through her cancer and emerged the other side to see her baby granddaughter Lola grow. Liam’s photos of Judy, a collage of intense images during her treatment, are on the Barrington Street side of the Cancer Connections exhibit. The collection of 500 photos is travelling across Canada and will be in Halifax until Sept. 27.
Judy Hennessey said “time stood still” when she got the diagnosis. “I remember standing in my living room, asking myself, ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ I felt like a tsunami of terror had hit me in the gut.”
The family, from Boutilier’s Point, supported her as best they could. For Liam, a part of that was getting out his camera and documenting the struggle.
“(The doctor) went on to explain that I was fortunate to have the slow-growing type, and that my diagnosis was excellent. Ten to fifteen years sounded pretty darn good to me,” she smiled.

Cancer Connections is a draining piece of art, a black hole of pain. Fortunately, some light escapes from the images: hope from those who beat cancer, and for everyone else wandering past with their take-out coffee who suddenly realizes they, too, are alive.
By coincidence, I recently saw One Week, the great Canadian indie film about a young guy who learns he has cancer and will likely die soon. He rides cross-country on a motorbike, chased by regrets that he’s wasted his life.
So, my thought: instead of waiting until you actually face death to discover the meaning of life, why not check out the potent photography in Cancer Connections, and then dive joyously back into life?
You are going to die, and rather soon. You may as well live first.
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