Nancy Borowick is the winner of “Assignment: The Story Behind the Photographs,” a photography contest hosted by Visura, a networking platform for photography and media and judged by National Geographic Proof editors.
One can only truly understand and appreciate life when faced with one’s own mortality. Nobody wants to talk about death, but it is one of the only things that is certain in life, so an awareness of this finitude allowed my family to take advantage of the time we had left together. “Cancer Family, Ongoing” is the story of family, looking at the experiences of two parents who were in parallel treatment for stage four cancer, side by side. The project looks at love and life in the face of death. It honors my parents’ memory by focusing on their strength and love, both individually and together, and shares the story of their final chapters, which came to a close just 364 days apart from one another.
“Life is a gift, and no one promised me longevity.” These are the words, spoken by my father, Howie Borowick, just a few months after he was diagnosed with inoperable stage four pancreatic cancer. Having lost both of his parents before his 16th birthday, he understood the fragility of life. He never wasted a day, thinking each would be his last, and when his cancer arrived, his bucket list was empty. The only thing he was not ready to leave behind was his wife, Laurel, the love of his life, who had been managing her disease—breast cancer—for over 17 years.
Our story looks at the simultaneity of life—the good, the bad, the important, and the frivolous. Laurel and Howie chose to spend their last months creating new memories rather than cowering in the reality of their situation. They were married 34 years, and suddenly their time was up. Howie passed away on December 7, 2013, one year and one day after doctors discovered his cancer. After this, life changed for Laurel. Having been half of a pair for over half of her life, she was now a single. It was in this time that her disease began to worsen, and her quality of life diminished. She wasn’t scared of death—she’d been preparing for it since her first diagnosis at age 42. She was scared of the process of dying, and of losing her ability to think, love, and communicate with her children.
With a 30-foot length of oxygen tubing trailing behind her, Laurel spent her final weeks surrounded by those who loved her, and whom she loved. The pain worsened and the breathing became more labored, and soon she no longer had the strength to get out of bed. Having chemotherapy meant having hope, and chemotherapy was no longer in the cards. Laurel took her last breath on December 6, 2014, just a day shy of the one-year anniversary of her husband’s passing.
I photographed my parents to hold on to their memory, and to capture their essence and strength in such a trying time. Everyone wants to find purpose in his or her life. My parents’ final purpose was found in this moment, in this gift that they gave to me: allowing me to tell their story—a love story—and the story of our family and the legacy they have left behind. When time stops, what was all of this for? They did it for us.
The project has not ended with my parents, however. As the title suggests, the family story is ongoing. I have been looking at the experiences of my siblings and me as we have had to deal with things like clearing out and selling our family house; deciding what goes on Mom’s headstone; taking care of our grandmother, who is still vivacious at 88; and preparing for new life as my sister is due with her first baby, just three weeks shy of the anniversary of our parents’ deaths.
I have been allowed to honor my parents and the lives they lived. I want to pay it forward, and offer that same gift to those who have gone through the death of loved ones but maybe never felt they were able to have that closure or understanding. My next steps will be to begin asking others to share their stories and family photographs, which I plan to include in my upcoming exhibitions and presentations. My hope is to create a platform where people can come together as a community and no longer feel alone in their grief.