The emails poured in by the dozen, day after day after day. They came from parents and children, from violin makers and doctors, from sisters, husbands, colleagues, teachers. Some were spare, just a line or two. Others went on for pages, full of emotion.
I read them all, absorbing the stories of grief, loss, hope.
All these intimate emails — from strangers around the world — flooded my inbox after a piece in the New York Times in late 2013 featured my photos of my parents, Howie and Laurel, and their parallel treatments for stage 4 cancer. They went through this final, sometimes brutal, stage of life side-by-side, and as a photographer — and their daughter — I documented every moment.
Photography gave me a familiar context and a language through which I could understand this terrifying and profound reality unfolding before me. It allowed me to be close to my parents, and at the same time, safe, at a distance, behind the lens.
Now, four years after my father’s death and three years after my mother’s, I’m preparing to publish “The Family Imprint,” a book of photographs, journal entries, conversations, and mementos from that period. As I reflect on that time, I’ve found myself returning to those emails from strangers — all those stories from people who went through similar trials.
I had never experienced this kind of connection before. Everyone had their own experience to share. And the more I heard, the more I began to understand what I had been through.
My photographs don’t tell a bleak story about cancer and death. That was not our story.
My photographs reframe the conversation around death by focusing on the opposite: joy, family, and what it means to truly live. I believe this is what drew so many people from around the world to write to me.
As my story continued to spread, getting picked up and republished everywhere from major news outlets to small-town funeral blogs (they do exist), I got emails written in Spanish, French, German, and Italian. I answered as many as I could, exhaling deeply after every reply I mustered the strength to send. I know I didn’t have to reply, but I wanted to. I needed to. I felt it was a great privilege that complete strangers felt so empowered by my story that they trusted me with theirs.
Many opened their emails: “I’ve never shared this with anyone before …”
There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to email. On one hand, it’s entirely impersonal. The most you can tell about a person’s penmanship is if he or she is the type to put one space or two after a period. The warmth of thematic postage stamps and heart-dotted i’s is missing. On the other hand, email makes the world much smaller; it’s so much quicker to connect and so much easier to share deeply personal stories.
Such was the case with Maggie, who emailed me in 2016. Just a few years younger than I was, she had a similar story, having lost both her parents to cancer at an early age.
Her subject line: Your Story; My Story.
“Your story related to mine on such a level that no one understands,” she wrote.
My heart swelled with a deep feeling of empathy and, at the same time, grief. Again, the paradox runs deep. In reading her note, I wondered what it was about our conversation that made me feel so comfortable and so at ease, though it was pain that had brought us together.
I realized, later, that it was community. I was craving community, a sense of belonging and understanding. Apparently lots of people — like Maggie — felt the same.
It all adds up, really. In high school, I was the person who signed up, and ultimately led, every club and team available: photography, yearbook, soccer, basketball, tennis, peer leadership — you get the picture. I yearned to become a part of these different communities as I began to shape and define who I was at 18. Ten years later, I became card-holding member of a new club, one I had not imagined I’d ever join: the orphan club.
As it turns out, this would be the largest and most meaningful club I had ever joined.
In the years that I watched my parents decline, I felt completely alone. My world was crumbling beneath me and my friends couldn’t directly relate. I had my siblings, which was and will always be a tremendous gift, but they were also dealing with their own grief.
It wasn’t until the emails started to stream in that I was reminded of how connected we all really are. I was not alone, after all.
Subject line: Both parents stage 4… I can’t believe there is someone else out there like me.
This was from my friend Kristin. We’ve been emailing for years now, often with long gaps in between notes, due to the usual distractions of life.
In that first email, back in 2015, Kristin wrote: “I have never heard of anyone else having two parents with cancer, and most certainly not stage 4 at the same time… Just seeing that you went through this has honestly given me some hope, whether or not we even talk/communicate.”
I responded, of course.
Lengthy email after email, we went back and forth, sharing our fears, our joys, updates on family, and our new and shared perspective on life. We became extremely close, which is amazing and completely odd as we’ve never met in person.
I have no idea what my friend Kristin looks or sounds like; all I have to go on is an email address and a personal story in font size 12.
It is a strange and beautiful experience to feel so unbelievably connected and close to someone in this way. Perhaps not really knowing each other has allowed us to be even more open and vulnerable. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
And so we email back and forth. We share our stories.
Nancy Borowick is a documentary photographer based in Guam whose book The Family Imprint will be published this week. Her images will be on exhibit at Anastasia Photo in New York City from May 16 to June 15. Her conversation about life and loss continues on her Facebook page.