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Cancer Family: Interview with Nancy Borowick

We are beyond honored to feature our beautiful friend and Touch A Life’s favorite photographer, Nancy Borowick, on our blog today. Nancy has traveled to Ghana to document the work going on at the Care Center more times than we can count, and we are forever grateful to her for capturing the most perfect images of our children, staff, volunteers, and property. Within the last two years, Nancy lost both of her parents to cancer. Today she is sharing her powerful story with us, providing us with so much wisdom and inspiration.

 

We love you, Nancy—thank you for opening your heart to us and encouraging and inspiring us more than you could ever know. How did you first hear about Touch A Life, and what inspired you to get involved with our organization’s work?

I heard about Touch A Life through a stranger on a train! We were both leaving Washington, D.C., and we started talking. I had mentioned that I was working in Ghana building water wells in impoverished community, and nearly the next thing I knew I was meeting Pam at a Jantsen’s Gift book signing in New York. When I was back in Ghana the summer after meeting Pam, I called TAL and offered up my photography services so I could meet the kids the organization served. From that moment on I was hooked; I immediately fell in love with each and every one of them.

You are an extraordinarily talented photographer based in New York. We know that no workday looks exactly the same for you, but give us a little peek into the life of a professional photographer.

I have two types of work days: shooting days and work-from-home days. If I get a call from an editor in the morning or if have a job scheduled, that usually takes up most of my day. I do a ton of different shoots ranging from a big corporate shoot to a feature story for The New York Times. I have photographed everything from the daily life of a CEO to a newly opened restaurant in a hip neighborhood. When I am working from home I’m usually editing photographs, taking care of administrative duties, fielding emails and phone calls, and hanging with my dog, Moses. Not having a typical 9-5 schedule has its perks but one of the downsides is that I never really leave the office! I can’t complain, though—I love what I do and I am fortunate enough to get to do what I love every day.

Howie and Laurel Borowick embrace in the bedroom of their home. In their thirty-four year marriage, they never could have imagined being diagnosed with stage-4 cancer at the same time. Chappaqua, New York. March 2013.

Howie and Laurel Borowick embrace in the bedroom of their home. In their thirty-four year marriage, they never could have imagined being diagnosed with stage-4 cancer at the same time. Chappaqua, New York. March 2013.

 

Tell us about your incredible parents and their equally incredible story.

My parents were incredible human beings. Even though I only had them for 29 years, I feel like I won the lottery. Cancer Family is a photography essay about our family, documenting the experiences of two parents, my parents, who were in parallel treatment for stage-four cancer. The project looks at love, life, and living in the face of death. It honors their memory by focusing on their strength and compassion, both individually and together, and it shares the story of their final chapters, which came to a close just 364 days after each other.

The initial photographs in this story were made out of necessity. I was often at the hospital helping my parents, and I knew that I needed some kind of distance from the reality of the situation. Being a photographer, my camera was the obvious tool with which I created a space where I could be present but also protect myself.

About a year after my mother passed away, I decided that I wanted to create a book that would encompass and embody the story of my parents and the experience that my family went through. This idea came about after my siblings and I began cleaning out the family home last winter. We discovered clues about our parents and gained amazing insight into their love for the family and for one another. Love letters, old photographs, and advice found within these mementos were just some of the many amazing surprises uncovered. The book will tell the story of my parents’ journeys through their illnesses, but just as important, it will also look back on their lives before they were sick, from the moment they met to life with kids. They did not want to be defined by their diseases; they were many other things other than cancer patients. My hope is that this book will not only help people to connect with my family’s story, whether they are going through something similar or not, and also, perhaps, inspire people to think differently about their lives. Why do we only begin to have this awareness and appreciation of time when we become ill or a loved one receives a terminal diagnosis?

Starting new rounds of chemotherapy, Howie and Laurel take a quick trip to Florida. Life is about to change dramatically for the Borowick family, and one quick escape from realty was necessary for the mind and body. Naples, Florida. January 2013.

Starting new rounds of chemotherapy, Howie and Laurel take a quick trip to Florida. Life is about to change dramatically for the Borowick family, and one quick escape from realty was necessary for the mind and body. Naples, Florida. January 2013.

 

Recently, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to the fund the creation of the book and in the first two weeks of its launch successfully reached our goal, allowing us to have the money to cover the production costs of the book. Now I am hoping to raise a bit more, which will allow me to donate many copies of the book to community centers, hospitals, libraries, and schools where the book can be accessible to a wider audience. To accompany these book donations, I also hope to curate a traveling photography exhibition and to continue this ongoing important conversation.

With all the strength they could muster, Laurel and Howie walked with Nancy, their daughter, down the aisle. Howie's disease was progressing fast so he cherished each and every moment knowing time was short. Highland, NY. October 2013.

With all the strength they could muster, Laurel and Howie walked with Nancy, their daughter, down the aisle. Howie’s disease was progressing fast so he cherished each and every moment knowing time was short. Highland, NY. October 2013.

 

How have you processed your grief during this incredibly difficult time of loss?

I think my experience was grief was sort of unique because my personal life was shared on a very public level when The New York Times published the photographs of my family—once after my wedding, then a new collection after my father died, another after my mother died, and, most recently, a final piece to sum up and close the ongoing story. So all along the way, as I have been grieving, I have always had a community of friends and strangers from around the world checking in with me, supporting me, sharing their stories, and just being there for me. They lived through this experience alongside me. I mention this because I never felt like I was grieving alone. Rationally, when you are grieving, you know others are familiar with the experience but you are not thinking logically in this time, or at least I wasn’t, so there were certainly moments when I felt alone and lost and wanted to hide from the world. I think that’s natural… and while it hurts, maybe that’s just part of the process towards healing. My mom gave me a great piece of advice that has certainly helped me in my process of grieving. She told me that the people you love live on inside of you because they are already imprinted on your character and your heart. I miss my parents terribly but I think about them every day because I see them in me, and that brings me comfort.

People you love live on inside of you; in your memories, in your soul, the little things you do, the little things you think, the way you think. Then I think you add to them and it grows from there. You have your own experiences. But to take that sort of compassion and sincerity and move forward with it is extraordinary. Mom shared that with us before she died and it was a gift we will hold on to. We don’t need all of the stuff when we have the memories, the feelings, mom’s laugh and dad’s dance moves.

People you love live on inside of you; in your memories, in your soul, the little things you do, the little things you think, the way you think. Then I think you add to them and it grows from there. You have your own experiences. But to take that sort of compassion and sincerity and move forward with it is extraordinary. Mom shared that with us before she died and it was a gift we will hold on to. We don’t need all of the stuff when we have the memories, the feelings, mom’s laugh and dad’s dance moves.

 

Has service to others—whether in Ghana or anywhere else in the world—impacted you in a positive way as you’ve grieved the loss of your parents?

I absolutely believe service to others, like those in Ghana, has impacted me in a positive way as I’ve grieved the loss of my parents. It’s all about perspective I think. I had my parents for almost 30 years, and while I felt like I didn’t get enough time with them, I think of the TAL kids in Ghana who get no time with their parents and families. I think of the kids who were sold into slavery by their parents who were supposed to be there to protect and love them. Working with TAL in Ghana has truly defined for me the importance of having perspective and that reminder helped to make me more aware of how lucky I was with my life here in the U.S., the opportunities I’ve had, and the family I was born into.

Nancy takes a break from capturing photos in Ghana to play a pick-up of soccer at the Touch A Life Care Center.

Nancy takes a break from capturing photos in Ghana to play a pick-up of soccer at the Touch A Life Care Center.

 

Is there any encouragement or wisdom you can give to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one?

It gets easier. Day by day, the pain in your heart lessens and you begin to feel like a normal person again. Its okay to think about the person you lost and remember everything that was so special about them. I think about my dad when I look at the sunset and when I want to share something with him, I tell it to the sky. I think about my mom when I see the stars and what I love about stars is that regardless of the weather and if you can see them or not, they are always there watching over us. My dad used to tell me that life was a gift, and no one promised us longevity. I understand this now and try to appreciate each day I’m given because no one knows what tomorrow brings.

Important phone numbers and information was always taped to mom’s computer. Thoughtful fortune cookie messages and fun stickers also decorated her screen. They were a constant reminder of the reality of our lives, and the joy that we could find even in the times of difficulty.

Important phone numbers and information was always taped to mom’s computer. Thoughtful fortune cookie messages and fun stickers also decorated her screen. They were a constant reminder of the reality of our lives, and the joy that we could find even in the times of difficulty.

 

If someone wants to develop a creative pursuit to honor a loved one (like you’ve done with your photo essays and books for your parents), what advice or input would you give them?

If someone wanted to develop a creative pursuit to honor a loved one, like I am trying to do, I say go for it! I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way, and whatever feels right for you, then that is what you do. Share it with others that you trust and ask for feedback, and keep digging and documenting and researching all you can. I think before someone dies they wonder if they will be forgotten, and if they’ve made a stamp on this world in some meaningful way. Create a memory that holds on to the essence of who they were so later generations can know and love that person even in their absence.

Mom’s to-do lists exemplified the simultaneity of life. Order Howie’s headstone, decide regarding radiation, join the gym and start going, and what happened to the Girl Scout cookies? She tried to maintain a normal way of life the best she could. One task that drew out for weeks was that of deciding what would go on my father’s footstone. I think this was in part because not only was she grieving the loss of father but she was also, in a sense, mourning her own death, which was becoming more and more real.

Mom’s to-do lists exemplified the simultaneity of life. Order Howie’s headstone, decide regarding radiation, join the gym and start going, and what happened to the Girl Scout cookies? She tried to maintain a normal way of life the best she could. One task that drew out for weeks was that of deciding what would go on my father’s footstone. I think this was in part because not only was she grieving the loss of father but she was also, in a sense, mourning her own death, which was becoming more and more real.

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