What this picture means to me: The last summer

“For a few moments, as she floated in the sea, there was no walker or cane, no cancer, just life ….”

Jennifer floats in the ocean the summer before she passed away. [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]
Jennifer floats in the ocean the summer before she passed away. [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

My late wife, Jennifer, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, five months after our wedding. She passed away on December 22, 2011.

No one thinks something like this is going to happen to them. In the blink of an eye, Jen and I went from feeling like the world was our oyster to feeling different to almost everyone else in our lives.

During our first year of marriage, Jen had her breasts removed, she received chemotherapy and radiation treatment and she underwent reconstructive surgery.

Every day of that year brought new challenges. We had to find strength we didn’t know we had, and we had to communicate and be patient with each other.

Life, and being alive, began to take on a new and entirely different meaning to us. We began to question our priorities and how we wanted to live our life. Mortality was a real wake up call.

I took these photographs the summer before Jen passed away. We were on vacation in Topsail Island, North Carolina, with Jen’s family. Jen’s cancer had metastasized to her liver and bone and her body was growing weaker every day. The side effects were relentless. At the age of 39, Jen relied on a walker or a cane to get around, and most days she was in pain.

But Jen loved the ocean and was determined to feel it all around her. On our first day at the beach she sat in a chair and let the waves roll over her feet. A few days into the trip, she went into the ocean while her sister and I each held one hand. The waves crashed into Jen’s body and for a few minutes cancer didn’t dominate our every thought. I knew this wasn’t enough for Jen; she was determined to not let cancer take another thing from her no matter how difficult this would be.

I’ll never forget the moment when she said: “Let go.” I watched Jennifer float – no walker or cane, no cancer, just life ….

My entire life I’ve heard people say: “Every day is a gift.” As Jen’s illness progressed this began to make more sense to us. Little things – passing seconds so easily overlooked, these moments were cherished. These were the moments that got us through our worst days.

It wasn’t until Jen passed away that I really began to understand, embrace and believe that every day is a gift. Little things that, in the big picture, really don’t matter, these things are not worth the energy and effort. Telling my family and friends that I love and believe in them all the time, this is worth the energy. Pushing myself, even when I feel I like I don’t have any strength left; not wasting time – it isn’t guaranteed that I will be here tomorrow; not taking for granted that I can walk and run, that I can see, smell and hear, that I am alive – these things are important.

And the most important thing of all is that I have to follow my heart.

Photogallery: Angelo documented Jen’s battle with cancer

 Jennifer relaxes in the bed of her Manhattan apartment while I was visiting from Cleveland, Ohio. [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera] 

Jennifer, nervous and anxious, waits to meet with a radiologist to discuss possible treatment options for her cancer. Jen’s cancer metastasized to her liver and bone a year-and-a-half after she finished her treatment for breast cancer. [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera] 

Due to her chemotherapy treatment, hair falls out every time Jen runs her hands over her head. [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera] 

Jennifer sits in her dark hospital room, connected to machines that deliver chemotherapy, pain medication, and other fluids into her body. [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera] 

A light snow falls as we follow the hearse transporting Jen’s casket to the cemetery. [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

This article was first published in the April issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.

Source: Al Jazeera


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