“So my philosophy on life is, it’s a gift, and any amount of years is a gift- and nobody promised me longevity. No one promised me success. Nobody promised me love. Nobody promised me good friends. Nobody promised me a great career. And yet, I’ve had all these. So, I’m way ahead in the balloting and in accounting. So I have no regrets because without any guarantees of those things, I’ve been able to achieve them and I’ve been blessed with them for a long long time.”- Dad
No matter how many times her cancer returned, Mom finds a way to live her life and not take it too seriously in spite of this reality.
Dad called these “his and hers chairs.” He would sit beside Mom, his partner and wife of thirty-four years, as they got their weekly chemotherapy treatments. He hadjust been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she was in treatment for breast cancer for the third time in her life. For him it was new and unknown, and for her it was business as usual, another appointment
About to start new rounds of chemotherapy treatment, Dad and Mom took a last minute trip to Florida. Life was about to change dramatically for the Borowick family, and one quick escape from reality was necessary for the mind and body. In the face of their own deaths, they felt that living was important.
Late one evening, Dad shaved Mom’s head, knowing that the hair would start falling out on its own in the upcoming weeks as a side effect from the chemotherapy. Chappaqua, New York. February 2013.
Mom had cancer three separate times in her life. With each diagnosis came chemo and with each chemo came a new wig. After she received news of “clean scans” she would donate her wig thinking she would not need it anymore but the cancer would come back, so every time she would go out and get fitted for a new one.
Dad always knew how to make Mom laugh. Even when he was feeling completely terrible after seven hours of chemotherapy, he could still bust-a-move and get a smile out of her. Chappaqua, New York. February, 2013.
When the doctor calls to give you news about your scan results, who takes such an important phone call in the bathroom? My parents did. As I waited for reactions and information, I saw Mom beginning to wipe tears from her eyes. It turned out to be good news for both of them- the tumors were shrinking. But what if one had good news and the other had bad? Do you celebrate for yourself, and mourn for the other?
Having cancer for so long put death on the radar for both Dad and Mom for a long time. It’s no surprise then that they began to plan for their funerals long in advance. Anything they could do to make the process easier for family they would try. Chappaqua, New York. March, 2013.
Dad was losing weight fast and needed to dramatically increase his caloric intake. Doctor’s orders were to eat anything and everything, so our family went on what we called, a “calorie-dense diet.” While dad was the one who needed to gain the weight, we were a family, meaning that we were in this together (and it didn’t take much convincing). If he was going to gain weight, we would help and gain weight right alongside him. Fried chicken, take-out Chinese food, and pizza were some of our go-tos.
Newly engaged, I asked my parents’ doctor if he thought my parents would be around for an October wedding. His response, “Plan it as soon as possible.” I decided that while October was five months away, they were going to make it there. And they did. They mustered all of their strength and walked me, arm-in-arm, down the aisle. Highland, NY. October 2013.
I was at the hospital with Dad because he needed yet another procedure. Camera on the windowsill, I watched as the nurse struggled to find a strong enough vein in Dad’s arm for an IV. My mind went blank and the next thing I knew I was being escorted into a nearby room and laid onto a bed. Did I faint? This made no sense as I had spent so many weeks in the hospital with my parents. This was the first time I wasn’t photographing the reality of what was happening in front of me.
The air felt strange at the hospital that day. This photograph was taken moments after the nurse attached a Do Not Resuscitate bracelet to my father's left wrist. The decision had been made, and if the time was to come, Dad got to make that decision for himself. This brought a sense of relief, in a way, because the pain was almost over, because he was no longer living a life of quality.
Dad never expected to live as long as he did. He wrote his own eulogy, which he had left in an envelope at home and instructed me to hold on to. He always had the final word in any conversation, so it was not surprising that he requested the same, even in death. Greenwich, Connecticut. November 2013.
Dad left instructions for his funeral. He requested to be buried in his favorite Giants football jersey (Lawrence Taylor, #56), his favorite pair of jeans, and his HB baseball cap. Even in death he was alive in a sense, and brought a smile to Mom’s face.
Dad was always the center of attention, and here he was, front and center, surrounded by everyone whom he loved and loved him back. He would have really liked to be at his own funeral, which is why I imagine he wrote his own eulogy, which was 14- pages long.
Mom’s to-do lists represented the simultaneity of life: Order Howie's headstone, decide whether or not to begin radiation, join the gym and actually start going, and most importantly, what happened to our Girl Scout Cookies?! One task that dragged on for weeks was deciding what would go on Dad's headstone. I think this was partly because in addition to grieving the loss of Dad she was also, in a sense, mourning her own death, which was becoming more and more real.
With tumor growing in her liver causing distension and pressure in her stomach, Mom struggled to breathe with ease. An oxygen machine became a permanent fixture in the home and helped her when she felt she needs it. She began using it more and more as her movement and speech became more labored and her health deteriorate.
Like clockwork, Mom always picked up the mail at the end of each day. This full mailbox signified to me that something was very wrong as it was clear that she had not gotten the mail in a week. Ordinary tasks were becoming very challenging for her.
Family friend Judy Fuhrer took Mom through some restorative yoga in the foyer of the home, hoping to help ease her strained breathing. Tumors were pressing on her organs, making everything more difficult.
Jewelry was never all that important to Mom. We decided that we wanted to talk to her about some of her pieces though, because we wanted to know if any of these had an unknown story, history, or association. She was excited to go down memory lane with us, showing earrings from our great grandmother, and trying on old costume jewelry from her high-school days. We knew that once she was gone, the stories would go with her, and we wanted to hold on to whatever we could.
As Mom got weaker, she did not want to be touched. However, she wasn’t bothered by Moses, a five-year-old Pug-Boston Terrier mix who belongs to a close friend. He lay by her side, and often on top of her, bringing her comfort and many laughs.
Laurel rests her eyes on the couch while her mother, Marion, reads to her. It has been decades since Laurel has allowed Marion to play mother to her.
All eyes were on her chest as she took her final breath. And then it was over. No more breaths. Mom’s brother, a doctor, checked her pulse, then a friend, also a doctor, followed suit. They called it: she was gone. There were tears of sadness, tears of exhaustion and tears of relief filling her bedroom that afternoon.
Like a scene out of a movie, Mom’s body was wrapped up, put onto a stretcher and carried out of our home. After eighteen years with her disease, she was finally at rest.
For many it felt like deja vu. Just one year ago, most of these people gathered in the same location, at the same time, to remember Dad. Now, they reconvene in the same location, at the same time, to remember Mom. She never liked to be the center of attention and now here she was, front and center, surrounded by so many who loved and cared about her.
Mom requested to be buried in a sustainable wood casket. It was no surprise that in death, she was thinking of others. That was very much an example of the selflessness and thoughfulness with which she lived her life and cared for those around her.
The house was filled with friends and family who came to support our family. Food began arriving, boxes of babka were opened and served and conversations about Mom filled the rooms. All eyes, however, were on us kids, and our grandmother, Marion, who had just buried her daughter.
During the cleaning out of the house, a cherished memento was found- the cake topper from Mom and Dad’s wedding in 1979, a time when their lives were just beginning.
Thousands of photographs were uncovered from every corner of the home, reflecting a lifetime of memories that we will hold on to forever.
On the final day in the home, few remaining hints of the family and the life that had been lived within those walls were left. It was no longer our family home: it was just a house. It was a house that would become a home again, however, for a new family and a place for their memories.
On their wedding day, they vowed to be together, in sickness and in health and until death would they part. Upon death they may have parted, but I believe they are now back together, side-by-side. Two years after Mom’s death, we gathered to honor both of them, and leave stones as signifiers that we were there and that we remembered them.