My maternal grandfather passed away in the fall of 2012. It was only a few months after I’d met my girlfriend, now wife, Liz. He had cancer, had refused treatment, and had outlived all prognoses - and so we were not surprised at the end. In fact he probably lived longer than he would have had he elected treatment. I've heard that cancer treatments later in life are a huge gamble regardless - they might kill you before the disease does. I think it’s fair to say that my grandfather was a pretty stubborn man, but in this sense it served him well. The end of his life was on his terms and by his own reports (which may have been understated - he was a product of his generation in many ways) his pain was minimal.
Upon learning that he had been moved to hospice care, I drove to Ohio to see him for one last visit. I can’t remember the exact details, but I know that I saw him during his last days, I think his last week of life. At this time I was more diligent about documenting my family, and even my extended family. This was the beginning of the time where my personal life felt increasingly exciting, unpredictable, unstable, and ultimately difficult to understand. I remember vividly photographing the woods in Michigan while traveling with Liz, and soon after, and possibly on the same roll of film (though I can’t totally recall) making pictures of my dying grandfather in hospice.
As I finally begin to organize a studio space in Ann Arbor, in 2022, almost ten years later, only now does it feel like some of the dust is settling from this chapter - this time when I simultaneously fell in love, joined my life to another person’s and experienced a closing of sorts in my family.
It seems only fitting that as I unearth boxes of prints, half finished projects, ideas, sketches, notes and ephemera that has been boxed up and shifted from one “home” to another - gathering moss as an archive of sorts - that I stumble upon some of the pictures from this time. Many of the pictures I take instinctively are relatively pastoral or calming - many prints I make are done only to see what the print looks like and with no intention of sharing - the stream of paper that the archive consists of is mostly, upon review, worthy of the dumpster.
But there is an orange glow peeking out behind the trees that stopped me - I immediately knew what it was. The hospice room, my dying grandfather with his wife beside him.
I can’t continue to organize the studio now. The present has been ripped out from under me. All I can think about is why I took these pictures, and if I would do that again. Ten years later I am still just as uncomfortable with some forms of documentary as I’ve always been, but I remember that back then I had reasoned that if I were to fairly photograph others at difficult points in their lives, I would have to know what it was to go through it myself, to some extent. This in addition to the inherent value of documenting what matters to you in life, which ostensibly would include the loved ones for most people.
I have many other pictures of my grandfather, but I probably took more in the remaining years after I had learned about his prognosis - as if only when time is explicitly running out do things become vitally important - a truly misguided notion if there ever was one. There were usually a lot of people around, the conversation tended to be flittering and light - he leaves a legacy of 16 grandchildren. I suppose I felt that in some moments making the pictures was the best way to be present - quite the opposite of how I often feel.
The other question that arises is not of the photographing of this moment, but of deciding to print it - and to print it larger than my typical 5x7 work prints that I make. I still can’t answer that. Perhaps it was because I had a sense it would be more likely to rise to the top of a disorganized archival pile than it would a hard drive, and that it would rupture the present and force me to reflect. I wish I could remember.