As both of her parents fight cancer, a photographer shares their struggles and joys Photographs by Nancy BorowickStory by Katherine Dillinger, CNN
Many parents hand down lessons around the dinner table or while chauffeuring their children from activity to activity.
Nancy Borowick’s parents shared their most powerful wisdom as they were dying.
Nancy's mother, Laurel, received her first breast cancer diagnosis in 1997, at the age of 42. She spent the next 17 years in and out of treatment.
The disease became “another line item on her to-do list,” said Nancy, a photographer who chronicles her parents’ lives — and deaths — in the new book “The Family Imprint.” “It was just a part of her daily activities; it wasn’t who she was. Cancer gets the same priority as the Girl Scout cookies.”
Laurel’s cancer returned for a third time in 2011. The next year, her husband, Howie, was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and “everything shifted.” Nancy and her siblings, Jessica and Matt, became the caretakers of the family.
“I know it was a really big challenge for them to allow me and my siblings to help them,” Nancy said. “I was there for distraction, and I was there for compassion and a sympathetic ear, and at times, I was there as an entertainer. I remember many times I danced for them. I feel like I reverted back to being their child. And in some way, maybe that helped them.”
The family’s goofy humor sustained them: When Howie shaved his wife’s head after her third diagnosis, she used the trimmings to give the dog eyebrows. Later, the oxygen machine that followed her around became known as WALL-E, after the trash-collecting animated robot.
Howie, who lost his own parents to cancer by age 15, lived by one philosophy: Life is a gift, with nothing promised, so appreciate everything you have and make it count. It was a perspective shared by his wife and their children, who drew some comfort from the fullness of his life after he died in December 2013.
Having watched her husband of 34 years die in a hospital, Laurel made a decision, Nancy said: “I do not want to die in the hospital. I want to die in my home, in my bed, in my pajamas. I want to enjoy the time I have left. I want to drink hot chocolate with marshmallows. I want to watch movies and tell stories.”
The next 364 days were difficult, a whirl of machines, medications and unfamiliar hospice workers. But there was also love, silliness, lots of food — and the comforts of home.
“I don’t know — if we were in the hospital — if we could have the conversations around the dinner table at 10 p.m. about what her hopes are for our futures and why she could close her eyes at the end,” Nancy said. “There’s a fear and intimacy in those last weeks in the home because it was such a personal space.”
Laurel Borowick died — at home, in bed — one day before the first anniversary of her husband’s death. Her ability to think of others and keep perspective to the very end helped her children come to terms with the loss.
To hold on to her parents’ memories and perhaps show others who are struggling with illness and death that they’re not alone, Nancy compiled the family photos she’d been taking for four years — as well as notes, greeting cards and other keepsakes — into a book. But the American publishers she approached weren’t interested, she said: “Nobody wants to buy a book about death.”
She was surprised by the dismissal. “Mine is so obviously not about death and illness. It’s about life and joy and humor and not taking things too seriously. We don’t talk about death in our culture, and it’s really a shame.”
Nancy noted the importance of “talking about end-of-life care and what to expect and how to best take advantage, as scared as you are, of the time you have left.”
She and her husband, a lawyer whose own mother died of cancer when he was in high school, took her parents’ life lessons to heart. In search of an adventure, they moved to the US territory of Guam, in the Pacific Ocean.
“I live a much fuller, more meaningful life because I appreciate things so much more,” she said. “One of the best gifts my parents gave us was not only this awareness of time but what they did with that time. And having that awareness of time is a very special kind of perspective. It shapes my every day.”