Cancer is one of those things I never had to deal with, like having braces or mourning the death of a grandparent. In fact, all of my grandparents died of some form of cancer before I was even born. Cancer was one of those things that affected the elderly, the frail, and Mandy Moore’s character in A Walk to Remember. Cancer was a result of smoking, of the carcinogens found in deli meat, of breathing in chemicals like bleach and bathroom cleaning products. So, when I was young, I stayed away from cigarettes, became a vegetarian, and developed mediocre sanitary practices at best.
But I would eventually expose myself to all those poisons, adopting the aloof air of a twenty-something who felt invincible to the world’s dangers and conveniently immortal as a result. I took up smoking, thinking it was cool or something, late in college and would continue for a few years after I graduated. It was during this time, working in a high-stress restaurant, that I would meet Jess, or “Jessie”, and she would graciously reject the American Spirit I offered to her before our shift at work. “I don’t smoke,” she said, and I would later find out why.
Jessie’s mother, Cheryl McCall, made her living as a nomadic journalist, writing long and extensive articles for such publications as Life, Time, and a handful of other household names. Cheryl had been friends with Willie Nelson and Maya Angelou, and she had written long journal entries about the various men she dated and friends she made on the road. She took the pain from abuse she had endured as a child and produced something with it, forming a voice that was fraught with pathos and speculation, altogether wholeheartedly genuine in its delivery.
Cheryl was also an avid smoker, burning through two packs a day at the height of her addiction, and succumbing to cancer at age fifty-five.
I did not know her, but her daughter helps me to feel like I can–I see a traveler with ribbons in her hair; I see a lover who lends her heart out like a cigarette; I see a woman who takes chances on people, places, and things; and I see a mother who is sorry that she had to go.
I would learn about Cheryl’s life in fragments, as Jessie would share bits and pieces of her mother’s story. Jessie was one of a handful of people I knew whose parent had died of cancer, but the whole idea of the disease seemed far away from my life and as a consequence, I don’t think I ever fully recognized Jessie’s grief until cancer would come and greatly impact the life of someone I loved deeply.
I had only been with my girlfriend, Rachael, for a few months when her beloved aunt was diagnosed with extremely advanced kidney cancer at age forty-seven. I was still orienting myself to Rachael’s tight-knit family and Karen was a person that I had met only twice – both times surrounded by her huge and loving family, consistently emanating an air of vivaciousness and audacity.
It only took one month for Karen’s diagnosis to claim her life, on a Friday that was so isolating and bleak that I barely held it together for my shift at work that evening. Why had I cared so deeply that Karen died? After all, I didn’t know her all that well and it certainly did not seem like my place to mourn around the people who loved her most. It only took one month for Karen’s diagnosis to claim her life, but it would take years for my partner to confront the void that her aunt had left behind.
I cared that Karen died because I missed the opportunity of getting to know her. She was a fixture in a family that I had desperately sought out all my life – a family full of people who actually knew one another, a family that shared traditions, a family that felt like home. Karen represented a future, a potential, a promise of stability, and she died within months of our first meeting on Thanksgiving.
I cared that Karen died because for the first time, I saw how blatantly devastating terminal illness is. My only other experiences with death were tragic in other ways – coming to kids my age by way of an accident, a suicide, a very specific moment in time when things could have gone differently. But cancer is different because of its nervous foreboding; on the one hand, you have time to say goodbye, but on the other, you know death is coming – you can sense it in the corners of the room, you can hear it in the voice of the dying, you can feel the extremities begin to harden and grow cold.
For a few weeks after Karen’s death, I often found myself alone while Rachael spent time with family, friends, and relatives, reeling. I felt confused by my emotions and sought help in navigating them. On a cloudy day in mid-April, Jessie came by for a few minutes to talk after I called her and explained what had happened. It had been almost an entire decade since her own mother passed away, and there she was, crying with me at my kitchen table, commiserating in the difficulty of saying goodbye.
I realized then that the slow departure from the world is never really something that is fully grasped or accepted and that the first death casts a shadow on all the life that remains. The poet Dylan Thomas once wrote, “After the first death, there is no other.” Jessie lost her mother ten years before and that death was just the first and most influential metric in qualifying how Jessie would continue to live life in her mother’s absence. In that moment, I was no longer selfish and sad about my own relatively minor loss; I was sad for all the mothers who feared the legacies they would leave behind and the children who would be responsible for embodying them. I was sad for everyone who ever watched a parent wither away, helplessly and hopelessly trying to hold onto whatever elements of a spirit that they could.
Karen lives in the house I share with Rachael now, among the piles of clothes on the floor and the forgotten food in the back of the refrigerator. She visits Rachael at night, hovering over our bed, or in making the full moon the pupil of her watchful eye. There are so many people she touched and cherished, and I get a vague sense of her heritage every time I am around one of them.
Cheryl lives in pictures now. You can see her, grey-toned, smoking, and looking so very much like the daughter who has grown to be my friend. Jessie has devoted the past year to memorializing her mother by attaching journal entries with the photographs that document her life and sharing them on social media. I did not know her, but her daughter helps me to feel like I can – I see a traveler with ribbons in her hair; I see a lover who lends her heart out like a cigarette; I see a woman who takes chances on people, places, and things; and I see a mother who is sorry that she had to go.
Below are selections of Jessie’s Instagram devoted to her mother (@felicitybuckwinder) and the journal entries she has chosen to accompany them.
Jessie and her mother, 1991
“I lost my mother to a rapid spreading cancer called Small Oat Cell less than a month before my sixteenth birthday. Over the last 10 years I have clocked countless hours going through the boxes and boxes of articles and photos she left behind. This Instagram account is a place to display her many adventures and catalogue a story I’m slowly piecing together about the woman she was before I was born. Imagining the stories she may have told me once she felt I was old enough to be a friend as well as a daughter.”
Jess McCall, 2015
“We all went out to find some air conditioned bars as the temperature and humidity were in the 90s. Went to McSorley’s only because it had previously banned women and then to some typical East Village bar. Taylor and I went a little later to the Whitehorse bar where Dylan Thomas reportedly hung out in his day. Had a lot of character and an unknown benefactor who sent cognac over to our table.”
“After a few hours of driving around the city looking for a toaster in 2nd hand stores and getting the car washed, I’ve spent most of the day in bed because it’s so fucking cold in this apartment.”
“Back in New York only a few days and I’m already itchin’ for the road – some story somewhere. It’s crazy after all my longing to be home.”
“A week ago we were eating dinner and getting drunk with Maya. I immediately loved her and forgot all my apprehensions and fears about meeting her. I expected to be overwhelmed or politely tolerated but instead found myself embraced by her warmth, wit and caring. We spent three days in non-stop talk it seemed. Staying up much too late, drinking too much wine, laughing and sometimes crying together. We talked from the heart.”
“Perhaps the worst sight of the day for me was just after this, Kathy from Save The Children had gathered about 20 patients from her wards outside in a circle to give them their kita bread for the day. The people from the “open field” silently gathered behind them in a concentric circle, sitting on the ground, and watched the food being distributed with tears streaming down their faces. Not begging, not making a sound. They were given nothing. It was one of the most inhumane acts I’ve ever witnessed. It is not the fault of those distributing the food. The gov’t forbids them to give these people anything because they want to starve and freeze them into accepting resettlement in the south. If Save The Children or MSF went against the gov’t orders, the agencies would be shut down.”
“Willie and I got along really well together. I hated to leave today. This morning we drove out to the country club to see the set there and his new cabin. I sat on that front porch and never wanted to leave. I had the feeling that he didn’t want me to either. Whenever we’re together, without Connie, there’s a real male-female attraction that we both sense and ignore, or at least don’t ever mention. If we were ever to touch it there’s no telling what would happen. We do hug and kiss a lot, but only as hellos and farewells. But he sure packs a lot of feeling in those and I tend to draw back, panicked a bit. I don’t think we’ll ever get together in this lifetime because of my friendship with Connie and the vast differences in our lives. But I guess that’s why I always feel sad when I leave him. But I also know that the feeling passes because I’ve been there before.”
“My friend and old lover, Pete Axthelm, died yesterday at the young age of 47. It was liver failure. No surprise, I guess, but a shock nonetheless. I rather expected Pete would die but I didn’t expect to feel so bad. It all hit me last night, a wave of grief I didn’t know was coming. I remember his kindness to a fledgling reporter at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Our two different affairs almost a decade apart, and the enduring friendship that somehow survived the disappointments. His last message on my machine was only a little more than two weeks ago, while I was in Texas. He said simply ‘this is Ax, I got your lovely Christmas card. I love you.’ And I never called back. I figured he was caught up in the Super Bowl and I’d talk to him later.”
“I’m so grateful I have Jessie. She’s the absolute center of my existence and a pure joy to me. I marvel at her emerging personality, the feistiness, the independence, the stubbornness, and her pure delight in the little things. She walks and climbs and explores everything. She loves to be outside and she loves animals. She’s fearless and brave and she’s awfully smart already. We have battles of wills and she laughs when she loses. So far she’s a good sport about it but I know the day will come when we’ll lock horns and she’ll hate me for a little while. I hope I can show her how much I love her even in our bad times. I worry sometimes that I’m so busy just feeding and bathing and clothing her and doing the chores and my job that I don’t spend enough time just playing with her.”
Jess McCall is a photographer spending time between Portland, Oregon, Nevada City, California, and the rest of the world. She is the mind behind Little Green Eyes Media and her work can be found online (https://www.littlegreeneyesmedia.com/) and on Instagram (@littlegreeneyes) (@felicitybuckwinder).
Mamie Stevenson was born in Denver, but has lived in Portland since graduating from Reed College in 2012. She makes her living as a freelance editor and bookseller for a small, local used bookstore. In her spare moments, she works on her novel, writes for Hypocrite Reader, and spends long hours staring at her Chihuahua mix Edie.