A while back I spent a Summer documenting assisted living in rural America. What did a generation of farmers, blue collar hard working people look like in the last stages of life? Heritage Healthcare hired me to travel to remote locations all around the midwest to simply take photos of their facilities and people working and living there. That's it, that was the direction of my assignment. No matter how many questions I asked, the answer was simply "you do you, we trust you". Now, that was a dream assignment. I had no agenda - if I saw anything that caught my eye, I'd take a photo of it, good or bad. But all I saw was good.
Meeting the residents was my favorite part - listening to their stories, and sharing in the excitement of having their "picture taken!" - it was truly lovely.
I met many, many people, sweet caregivers and even sweeter residents, but one particular afternoon comes to mind, one that is impressed in my memory as if it was yesterday.
It was nearing the end of my assignment, at a facility in Colorado. I was taking a photo of the outside grounds, beautifully manicured lawn and gardens, when a woman came outside, and asked me what I was doing. I explained I was taking photos for a project and she immediately proceeded to tell me that if I attempted to take her photo, she would be really mad. I smiled and said I would wait for her to go by, put down my camera, while telling her that I thought she was striking and it was my loss. We chatted about the wind, and she asked me if I really thought she was striking. I said yes, I could tell how strong and beautiful she was. Her blue eyes sparkled. Something switched in her demeanor and she said she would allow me to take her portrait, but I only had a minute to do so. I took this one.
She looked unsure, doubtful in my ability to take one shot and "get it". So she went on to tell me that if I really, really wanted to, I could take her portrait inside, but she would have her sister comb her hair and make her look more presentable. Now, I took hundreds of portraits of residents by this time, single people, widows, widowers, couples, but hadn't encountered siblings yet. So, I asked. Was she her real sister or a good friend she called sister? Turns out it was her baby sister and they had been living there a few years. Together, but independent. It touched me, deeply. It was as if their lives had come full circle and instead of parents, they now had caregivers who assumed that role, but still, they were together after all these years. She proceeded to tell me how close they were, how a sister is for life, and going through this stage in life together only made them stronger. That she was always the one who took care of her baby sister, as it should be.
A sister knows your dreams, helps you achieve them, makes you a better person, cries with you, celebrates you, accepts you and all your faults, knows your soul, is your mirror, your partner and your teacher. A sister is your friend and is incapable of leaving your side, because the love you share makes you protect her, fiercely, from injustice. A sister is a safe space.
It made me want to have a sister. But hey, I have a big brother I love dearly and that's more than enough for this girl...
So, out came the comb, the lipstick and the "no, you're doing it wrong" and "that's enough hairspray".
And when they sat next to each other on the bed for me to take their portrait, she put her hand on her sister's shoulder and her eyes told me everything her words didn't. And her baby sister smiled, the way you only smile when you know the kind of love that makes you feel so safe.
And in that moment, I understood.