Although there are only a few days left in October, you can still spot the pink ribbon that so famously stands for Breast Cancer Awareness. Yet despite the awareness and ever growing knowledge of this terrible disease, it continues to take the lives of and wreak havoc on individuals and their families all over the world. Not so coincidentally, I'm sure, a friend of mine called me unexpectedly one day several weeks ago to ask a favor of me that would ironically and unknowingly take place during Breast Cancer Awareness Month . However, this favor wasn't really a favor at all. In fact, it has offered so much perspective and has taught an invaluable lesson of grace, love, humility, and faith.
This friend of mine asked me to photograph a family that she had developed a very close relationship with, because they would otherwise never be able to afford it. She briefly told me their story, how much they had impacted her life, and that the wife and mother had terminal cancer. To have a photograph of the whole family and something to remember Simone by before the inevitable happened would mean more than you or I could possibly imagine. My friend also asked me if I knew anyone who could potentially do Simone's hair (a wig) and makeup for the shoot. Again, not so coincidentally I'm sure, I have a friend who is a brilliant hair and makeup artist that I met on set of my own photo shoot a few years ago. Like me, my friend, Faizah, agreed that to give Simone and her family this opportunity wasn't really a favor but more of an honor.
Eventually, I learned Simone's full history:
- In 2010 she was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and went through the respective treatment for it
- In 2012 she was recovering well, BUT then learned that the cancer had metastasized and was now in her cervix.....again she went through the appropriate treatment
- In 2014 she was once again on the road to recovery until she was told the devastating news that the cancer was now in her bones
Simone is a wife of 21 years, a mother of three, and she has battled cancer not one BUT three times. This time, it is in her bones. The amazing thing though - you would never know it. She and her family live their lives with such joy, love, and humility that would almost never expect that in actuality they are struggling.
When Faizah and I arrived at their house, Simone came outside to greet us. The first thing she said...."I'm a hugger so y'all are gonna have to come here and give me a hug." It was as if the warmth of her personality flowed out of her....You couldn't tell that she was in pain at all. She was calm yet so enthusiastic. Her family - exactly the same - more quiet than Simone, but they didn't really need to say anything. You could feel their love and excitement, but most of all their faith. As Fai worked, I found the perfect warm evening light - a warmth that paralleled their personalities. I was touched, but in that moment still didn't even know to what extent. I took their photos and they turned out beautifully...how could they not when you have a group of people this genuine. The best part of the shoot was capturing the love that Simone's family has for her - the way her husband still looks at her after 21 years of marriage and the way her kids are ready to help her in any way they can.
Simone confessed that for a while she had given up hope....she didn't want to go through any more treatments. She would lie awake at 3 a.m. crying over this battle that she had to endure. Simone's husband told me that if it wasn't for the friend that asked me to photograph their family, she would have lost all faith. Because of this friend, their family now has a renewed sense of hope despite their every day fight with the cancer. Their fight doesn't end there though, and it isn't just Simone who is the fighter. Simone has to travel out of town for treatment every 3 weeks. The only real thing that the doctors can do for her is to try and "trap" the cancer in the area of her body that it is now in. There's no cure for this form of the disease now...even still, these treatments are incredibly expensive - so expensive that Simone's husband selflessly works two jobs, her oldest daughter works, her son works, and her youngest daughter sells baked goods at school and in their neighborhood. Unlike many teenagers though, Simone's kids don't keep the money they earn, they all put it towards their house note, their groceries, their gas, and of course, Simone's treatment. Simone told me that her kids don't care about anything name brand - they just want to see their mom get better. They lived simply before her diagnosis, but now they live even more strategically and frugally.
And although she knows he will never complain, Simone also knows that the multiple jobs are taking their toll on her husband. She doesn't want him to be stressed out and compromise his own health, but she also knows that something's gotta give. She confessed that every day is a struggle and even said,
What really got me though were her final words to Fai and me as we were leaving. She wrapped us both in a huge hug and said:
Faizah and I rode in silence most of the way home....
It didn't hit me until I put my bags down and flipped on the light in my own home. I stared at my most favorite Bible verse hanging on the wall directly across from where I was standing. The same Bible verse that by a literal miracle I flipped open to while at a coaching loss last cross country season. The same Bible verse that for whatever reason seams to be so finely threaded throughout the lives of the souls that I have discovered in my still young life.
I knew why Simone and her family had touched me so much. It wasn't because of their financial situation or really even because she is battling cancer again though I certainly feel compassion towards them because of both. Simone inspired me, because if I met her on the street, I never would have known anything was wrong. Because when she could have felt sorry for herself, complained, and worried about herself, instead she continued to worry about her husband and her kids and they about her. Instead of staying inside, she came out to hug Faizah and me. Instead of being timid she is fearless. And according to the family, it wasn't always this way....and to overcome the fear and the pain and the sadness, well, that takes an insane amount of courage. It takes guts to fight the good fight, and it takes toughness to keep running the race, and it takes loyalty and commitment to have faith in something when all the odds are against you.
The reality is people everywhere are affected by cancer. In fact, Simone makes the third person that I have known on a personal level to be affected by Breast Cancer alone. The first of those three is a former teacher, a fellow study abroad chaperone and travel buddy, an incredible influence on high schoolers at one of the largest Catholic schools in the state of Tennessee, and a now friend. The second of the three is my cousin, a sister, a wife, a daughter, and a mom...diagnosed just a few short months after her first child was born. Again, with the same courageous spirit that exudes from Simone, both of them never stopped living life or putting others before themselves. In my experience, it always seems this way the people in the toughest circumstances are always the toughest individuals.
Above all though, I sensed the same fighting spirit that I knew in my own grandmother, the woman who I like to credit my own determination (sometimes stubbornness) to. Aside from battling bone marrow cancer for 8 years, she was a Navy wife, a mother of six, widowed during the Vietnam War, the first woman to ever sing an opera aria at the Miss America Pageant, and by far the strongest person I have ever known. She served others until the day she passed away. What does that have to do with Simone, her husband, and their family? Honestly, not a lot except for the very fine common (or not so common) thread that seems to have delicately yet purposefully connected certain lives in this story together. For whatever reason, I was lucky enough to tell Simone's story with my camera. And for whatever reason, her strength, courage, and faith hit home with me. So just as Simone and her family humbly admit that every day is a struggle, yet they still do not lose hope, I have decided to humbly ask for help for them.
As the month of October draws to a close and we enter the Holiday season, I hope that we won't let that be the end of Breast Cancer Awareness and Cancer Awareness. Share Simone's story, because it deserves to be shared - not just for her and her family, but for all those that are fighting a battle against cancer and may need a bright spot in their lives - a little bit of inspiration. In an attempt to relieve the external and financial stress on Simone and her family, I have set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for her treatment with the intention that this go directly towards her medical expenses. This way, her husband can solely focus on every day living expenses. I truly have no doubt that every little bit will help this become the financial blessing that she has so tirelessly prayed for. And if you can't donate towards Simone and her treatments, then you can pray. Pray for a miracle and that she will be healed. Pray that she will be there to watch her youngest daughter graduate high school. Pray that her son can have a mother-son dance at his wedding one day. Pray that her oldest daughter can hug her after she receives her college degree. Pray that 21 years is not the end of she and her husband's marriage. But above all, pray that she will touch whatever lives she is meant to touch and that she will reach all the people she is meant to reach, that her story encourages in the midst of despair, and that despite the circumstances with all odds against her, she will remain a person of great faith.
P.S. Thank you Faizah for working your hair and makeup magic. You already know this, but you are an artist to the core not just in your work, but in how you live your life!