When I met Kathy for the first time I immediately felt a connection. The only thing I knew about her was that she had lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago and I was going to photograph her for the cover of the Alzheimer’s San Diego Newsletter. As soon as she opened the door her lovely smile made me feel right at home. As she showed me around her place I was drawn to an interesting wall, very different than anything else in the house or anything I had ever seen before. Once I asked her about it she told me her husband built it many years ago. I knew it had to be special and I could see right away the love and care it took to create it. I had to get a photo of her in front of this unique gem and while she sat in her evening chair she held a photo of them together. She mentioned the dress she was wearing in the photo and how he had bought it for her without any assistance…it fit like a glove.
I asked my mother if I could come over one day and take some photographs of her. Her first response was, “Oh Robin I don’t know, I really don’t like my hair right now.” I laughed at her and said that this was not a glamour session or even the traditional photo shoot where she would be smiling at the camera in her best dress. I told her this was something different and more meaningful. I asked her what she loved doing in her moments of solace. I already knew the answer, but I wanted to start the conversation and get her to feel comfortable with my vision.
When I think about my mother I picture her in her bedroom praying and reading her bible because that is what brings her peace. I remember as a child I always loved looking at her rosaries. To me, they were beautiful pieces of artwork, not to be worn but tucked away in a special box only to be used when it was time to worship. As I started photographing her my heart filled with love and admiration. Love for this woman who raised me and admiration for her complete and unshakable devotion to her faith. I then asked her to sit in her spot in the house where she would read her bible. She told me she got the bible when she was 19, 72 years ago...WOW. As I looked through my lens at her fingers supporting the book, they reminded me of tree roots holding up what would be the foundation of my mother’s beliefs for her entire life. The image was strong and I couldn’t wait to ask more questions and dive deeper into my family history.
As we sat together on the couch I asked her if she kept anything of my father’s after he’d passed. She said she had a small box of things and immediately went to get them. I did not know what to expect, but felt a wave of excitement and anticipation. I opened the box and there were 2 trinkets I immediately wanted to learn more about. The first was a pin she kept that was given to my father right before he retired. He worked for Solar Turbines after serving in the Navy and the pin was a representation of a old gas turbine. I asked her to gently place it in her hands. My mother’s hands, although old and fragile on the surface, represented pillars of strength and stability for me. The final objects were from my father’s time in the military. There were various ID cards, certificates and a ribbon badge that came with an explanation as to why he received it. “For outstanding heroism in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea from August 3, 1950 to August 1. 1951. Operating continuously in the most advanced areas , the U.S.S. BANOENG STRAIT consistently maintained a high degree of combat readiness and rendered invaluable assistance in providing close air support for friendly ground forces throughout this period of vital operations against the enemy.” These items were 67 years old and I held them with great care and respect. I loved learning about my father and wished I asked more questions when he was in my presence.
As I reflected on this time with mom and looked at the images taken that afternoon I realized all of this came from one question…”Mom, can I take your picture?” It sounds so simple, but can be one of the most important and profound things you can do with someone you love. After my father died I had many regrets. Regrets of not spending enough time with him, not engaging in more conversations about his history and not saying I love you enough. It took 6 years after his death for me to get involved with Alzheimer’s San Diego and eventually connecting with my mother on a whole different level. I found peace in sharing my listening ear to those who were touched by this disease and capturing the heart of who they are with my camera. I heard a quote by Tony Bennett that has stuck with me for years and feels very appropriate at this time,
“Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough.”
He reached for her during our photo shoot and I was drawn in like a moth to a flame. As they held hands I felt their love wash over me and I smiled. I focused on their hands for just a split second, they looked so delicate...like tissue paper. In that second I also felt their strength because of the ties that bind them together. I wanted to capture their bond with one another because it was no longer about Alzheimer's but about the love they share. It was as if their entire life story flashed before me in an instant, but in actuality it was my journey with my husband many years into the future that I saw.
She has Alzheimer's and he will be with her every step of the way...through the laughter and the tears. As I photographed this lovely couple all I wanted to do was rush home and tell my husband, "I love you and I am here until the end." I also wondered if this is my future, will I have this disease like my father had and will my husband have to watch me whither away each day. I don't know what the future will bring, all I can do is live in the present moment and make the right choices now that may affect me later. I do not want Alzheimer's to rob me of my life and turn me into something I never want to be...an empty shell of a human being. To look into the eyes of someone you have loved for over 40 years and no longer recognize them is absolutely heart wrenching. The future I want to see when I am 80 is holding my husband's hand and reliving all the amazing moments we shared together over and over and over again.
There are certain times in my life when I am compelled to share an experience because it was so powerful, this was one of those times:)
I have so much gratitude for what I do for a living. I learn with each photo shoot something new that always helps me grow as a person. I had the honor of photographing Len on his 99th birthday last year and to be able to celebrate his 100th this year was AMAZING. The experience of meeting Len and his family and coming into their world to document the love they all share for one another warms my heart so very much. What was most impactful to me on this special day was a speech that was given by one of his grandson's. He thanked his grandfather for teaching him the value of "family" and how there is nothing more important. He let him know that when he becomes a father he will teach his children the same values. These words reminded me of my own mother and how that is her greatest gift to us as well. My mother is 90 now and I am so blessed to still have her here with me. I make sure my children spend a good amount of time with her and learn from her wisdom. I hope to live another 50 years so I can continue to tell those in my life how much I love them everyday!
Thank you Len for being such a beautiful light for me, I am blessed to know you.
My mother turned 90 this month and I am filled with joy that she is with me. I thought about what kind of gift would be special for her and it was my words. There is so much history with this beautiful human being that it was hard to sum it up in a poem, but I thought I would give it a try. I sat down in the early morning hours, only the sound of my pen in hand and began to write. It all came naturally and when it was complete I smiled because I knew it would bring her happiness. When you write about someone you love there is nothing more fulfilling. This gift gave me the opportunity to reflect on her, our special moments together growing up and all the gratitude I feel for her being my mom. Being a mother I know how challenging it can be, you don't want to mess up, you want to do the right thing and sometimes you have to be the bad guy. It is funny that the years between me and my mother are the same as me and my daughter, exactly 40 years apart...WOW!
When I got to the birthday celebration I could not wait to give her this poem, I was like a child on Christmas morning. As soon as she picked it up I was waiting with my camera and watched. She read it with that beautiful smile of hers and I knew I made the right choice. This was something that we would be both cherish forever. I have come to find over the last few months that the roles have been reversed for us. I have started to give her my words of wisdom, I am now giving back to her for all the years she has given to me. My mother has always been a strong and independent woman and it was only this year that she started to have some minor limitations with her hands. When she started showing signs of anger and frustration I knew it was time for me to share some of my knowledge and wisdom with her. I told her I wanted to be there for her and for the first time I felt like we were chatting as adults as opposed to mother and youngest daughter. This was the shift in our relationship and I will never forget it. It means everything to me to stand by my mother's side in this next stage of her life and provide her with all my experience and knowledge that I have gained over the last 49 years. This is a wonderful time in our relationship and I am content.
As we grow up we go through so many changes and it is crucial to remember those that were the positive influences in our lives. It is important to share with them the impact they had on you, always tell them you love them, express to them what you received from them that made you who you are today and always say thank you.
When I first reached out to Jessica Empeno at Alzheimer's San Diego I had no idea where this journey would take me, but I am so happy I made that call. Two years later I have built some wonderful relationships, captured some amazing moments and healed some wounds from losing my dad from this terrible disease.
When this newsletter came in my mailbox this past week I was elated. Seeing this image on the cover and reading the story of Tom and Corrie warmed my heart and took me back to when I had my first photo session with them. They were such a lovely couple and I was reminded after reading this article that I wasn't just there to take photos, but more importantly I was there to listen. Listen to their stories, how they met and what they love to do together. When I asked Tom what he enjoyed doing he said playing the guitar. When he brought out the guitar his face immediately lit up and I knew I was at the right place at the right time! This is part of his story and knowing he was a musician gave him another dimension I would never have known unless I asked the question. Building trust between us allowed me to also see the photos they were working on for their "Life Stories" book, I was overcome with joy. They gave me an opportunity to see images from when they were young, when they met and beautiful moments with their children. The only word I had in my head at the time was WOW, I was witnessing their life unfold right before my eyes.
In going through this process with Tom and Corrie, I couldn't help but want to do the same with my husband. Boyd and I are those two photographers that do other people's wedding albums but never made one for ourselves. I am EXCITED to say I am finally locating all our wedding images and CAN'T WAIT to create our book. As I started looking at my wedding day I would catch myself smiling at all the wonderful images captured. All the love I felt that day came rushing back like a tornado!!! Photographs are priceless and mean the absolute world to me. I recommend everyone goes through their photographs again and again because it is such a gift. Seeing your life story unfold in front of you gives you an overwhelming feeling of love and gratitude for your life and all those who are in it.
I never in my wildest dreams thought how this experience with Alzheimer's San Diego would change my life so dramatically. It has added another layer to this life of mine and I am very grateful and forever changed.
There have been so many teachable moments in my experience with Alzheimer's San Diego. It was this particular day that was very eye opening not only as a photographer but more importantly as a human being. For the first time since I started working with Alzheimer's SD over two years ago, I was faced with the real possibility I may get this disease and I was scared. All my sessions up until this point were with individuals that were in the early stages of the disease, still very coherent, articulate and enthusiastic to share their stories with me. What made this experience so emotional was that Nabile's mother was farther along and struggled with every word she tried to share. I kept my sadness hidden when all the while all I could see was myself much older and my daughter trying to care for me the best way she knew how...with laughter. As I watched Nabile and her wife interact with mom all they wanted to do was bring joy to the present moment. As a witness to such devotion my sadness turned into pure gratitude. Once again I was reminded that this was exactly where I should be and documenting this beautiful relationship was how I would bring value to this family and to many others like them.
We took a stroll outside to get some photos of everyone and it was wonderful. Love was ALWAYS present and it was that love that took me to another place in my thought process. It was no longer about me and my fears of this disease, but of the unbreakable bond between these three individuals and it was absolutely amazing. As we started to wrap up the session I asked them to hold hands and walk down the path in front of them. This became my favorite moment and image of the day. It was like seeing a work of art being created right in front of me. The significance of seeing them take this path together and knowing that they would always be there to love and support mom with every step was breathtaking. As a mother I did see myself with my daughter and felt completely at peace. As we get older there is always that feeling of never wanting to be a burden to our loved ones, but it's those people we want with us when you are feeling the most vulnerable and scared. I will do what I can to educate myself regarding this disease because it is the right thing to do not only for myself, but for my family.
Ahhhhh, to be 21 again. I just had a great shoot with the lovely Paige, a recent college graduate from my Alma mater SDSU majoring in kinesiology. We walked and talked and of course laughed as we strolled around Balboa Park with camera in tow. Whether you are 21 or 91, all my shoots are about having fun and enjoying the present moment wherever we are.
Paige represents a magical time in a young women's life, a time of accomplishment and an excitement for the amazing journey ahead. She took me back to that period in my life over 25 years ago and I couldn't help but smile. If I could go back and meet myself now what would I say to that young woman? I would say how proud I am of her and to never stop learning. I would tell her to stay curious. I would tell her to find her true purpose in this world and when fear comes and faces her head on, shake its hand, hold it tight and walk together as friends not enemies. Fear is just a reminder that there is amazing growth ahead of you and it will be fabulous on the other side.
I only have a few photographs from that very special chapter in my life so I am very grateful that I can do this for others now. It took me until I was in my mid 40's to REALLY tap into my true value in this world and now I am proud to say, "I am a purpose driven photographer!"
If you were to look at this image you may say to yourself...why? How could this photo be so significant? When in truth, this may be one of the most important images I have taken in my life.
I was sitting at my desk about an hour prior to this photograph being taken suffering from a terrible headache. I continued to work while allowing it to change my entire being. I got up and headed for my bed to lay down hoping it would be an easy fix. Only a few minutes had passed and my discomfort and impatience grew. I finally realized this was not going to be a moment of instant gratification. I would need to create an intention for myself so I decided to change my environment and go outside. "I will relieve this pain" is what I said to myself over and over again! I sat down on my patio chair, faced the sun, straightened my back, closed my eyes and focused on my breath. There was a movie going on in my head, I was the star and I was aging rapidly. I could see how the discomfort I was experiencing was taking over my mind and body. My pace was slow and labored, my back was hunched and my voice sounded defeated. I was allowing each thought control every outcome in a negative way. The scene was definitely telling and powerful.
As I began to breathe deeper and deeper I felt a sense of relaxation start to take over me. I became conscience of the sound of the palm trees gently flapping in the breeze, the birds chirping near and far, a distant car as it drove down the street and the warmth of the sun blanketing my face like an old friend trying to nurse me back to health. I was experiencing consciousness without thought and it was amazing. Before I knew it my headache had subsided and it was my intention that changed the story line. When I opened my eyes this was the image and final scene I saw before me. I loved witnessing the sun as it was setting, my neighbor's grape leaves peeking over the fence and the wispy clouds that resembled brush strokes in a painting. I was at peace and full of gratitude.
This moment was significant to me for one reason, I was able to witness the power of intention unfold before me and I was astonished. We are truly the master of our fate, choose wisely.
As a San Diego native you would think I had seen it all in my beautiful hometown, but there are so many jewels I have not experienced yet. Yesterday I went to Lake Hodges and couldn't believe I had never been there before, it was absolutely gorgeous. The colors were brilliant, the air was fresh and I could hear the birds chirping up a storm. I even saw my first snake in the wild, whoa!!! Boyd and I had a wonderful time, me with my trusty camera and him with his drone, we walked and reveled at the beauty around us.
As I walked along the dirt path I was reminded of how much time I spend in front of my computer and not enough time outside enjoying mother nature. When there is this much beauty in my own backyard why would I deny myself these simple pleasures. The camera has given me a window into a world I took for granted. When you take the time to focus on using all your senses the word "peace" comes to mind, I am home.