Witnesses to life: Plains exhibit captures lives of hospice patientsFARGO – Marilyn Jordheim had a hesitant thought when she was approached about placing her elderly mother in hospice care.
By: Dave Roepke, INFORUM
FARGO – Marilyn Jordheim had a hesitant thought when she was approached about placing her elderly mother in hospice care.
“I was concerned she would give up and not try to live,” Jordheim said of her mother, Ethel Aarhus, of Walcott, N.D., who died last year at age 96.
Jordheim instead found herself grateful for the end-of-life care, honored to have another year and a half to become closer to her mother with welcome respites from her caregiving duties to go outside for a walk.
Acknowledging she would soon pass didn’t sap her mother’s will to live.
Embracing the idea that dying doesn’t mean death is precisely what Mary Lou Dahms hopes is driven home in an exhibit of photos of Hospice of the Red River Valley patients called “Witness to Life,” opening Friday at the Plains Art Museum here.
“We talk so much more about living than dying at Hospice of the Red River Valley, and the photographs show that,” said Dahms, the nonprofit’s marketing and public relations director.
Taken by students in a Minnesota State University Moorhead online magazine class, the images of Aarhus; Evelyn Gilmore, a current hospice resident; and Gauge Niemeier, an infant boy who died of metabolic disorder after 12 months, pierce the wide berth often cast around families at a life’s end. The candid photographs capture personal moments, often finding surprising calm, joy and routine.
“The images are gripping,” said Kris Kerzman, the Plains Art Museum’s communications manager. “There’s so much complex emotion that comes through.”
That emotion isn’t exclusively delivered via human form.
One of Kerzman’s favorites in the exhibit is a shot of the remote control that operates the television for 105-year-old Evelyn Gilmore. It shows the cardboard that covers all the buttons but power, volume and channel.
Another displays the daily journals kept by Aarhus tiled against one another, with curling pieces of paper denoting the year taped to each one.
Knowing the context in which the photos are presented often magnifies their impact, such as the scenes of Gauge and his parents interacting with quiet contentment in their living room.
“Looking at those pictures just tugs at your heart,” said Regene Radniecki, an MSUM professor who teaches the online journalism class for which the images were used.
The exhibit will be on display in the Plains through early February, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the local hospice group and also giving the one-time MSUM students – Morea Steinhauer; former Forum photo intern Chris Franz; and Heidi Shaffer, The Forum’s business editor – a rare chance to show work in a main exhibit at the Plains Art Museum.
“They deserve to be recognized for their work,” Radniecki said. “They did a powerful job, and they did it without any pushing.”
Colleen Sheehy, CEO and director of the Plains, said it was also an opportunity for the museum, fitting her philosophy of partnering with local institutions to broaden their audience.
“I was eager to do it,” she said.
The photos in the exhibit were featured on Horizonlines.org, a magazine produced each spring by Radniecki’s online journalism course, taken in repeated sessions over the past two years.
It wasn’t a steep challenge to find subjects who would consent to the project, but there were several prospects that fell through because of the inherent logistical problem, Radniecki said. Some participants-to-be simply died too quickly.
“Their hopes would be raised and be dashed, raised and dashed,” Radniecki said of the students. “That’s part of the learning process as well.”
The ease of finding families willing to open up their homes at such a sensitive time surprised Radniecki, but none of the three featured in the exhibit said they had any reluctance.
Gauge’s mother, Brandi Niemeier, said she and her husband are grateful for the photos, hundreds of candid documentary shots that have enriched their memories of his short life.
“We were so consumed in the moment,” she said. “There was no hesitation. That’s all we wanted, as many photos as we could get. It really added a lot of purpose to Gauge’s life.”
Gilmore, still in hospice care and relatively healthy, was all for being part of the project, her son says. At 105, she’s still a lively character with blood pressure and cholesterol numbers nearly as good as his.
“People really find it hard to believe she’s as old as she is,” said Jack Gilmore, 80, who lives in the San Francisco area.
For Jordheim, it was far from intrusive to have a photographer around in her mother’s last months. It was helpful in revealing old stories and memories.
“It brought things out in the open more,” she said.
Dahms said she hopes the openness the families offered the photographers provides nuanced insight into what dying entails.
“You can read way into the hearts and souls of those families through those photographs,” she said. “I sure hope people see this is not a scary time; this is not a lonely time.”
The first thing I noticed during my first visit with Brandi and Trent was the love they had for their son, Gauge.
They both showed it in different ways. Brandi would be emulating pure joy and kindness while holding Gauge, and Trent was Gauge’s “playmate,” as Brandi would say. My goal throughout the project was to photograph just that: the love and care these parents had for their child.
Right away I was a little worried. I felt like an intruder, which came from my own apprehension, not Brandi and Trent’s. Those two were so welcoming and willing to have me around. I quickly got over my own nervousness and started learning about Gauge, his parents and what made them tick.
I visited them over the months as Gauge’s illness accelerated, but Brandi and Trent were so positive about everything. They were inspiring to watch. What hit me most was when at Gauge’s wake, Trent said, “We’ve learned a lot from Gauge.”
This project was a learning experience for me as a photographer. While photographing the family over the months, I came to the realization that being a “fly on the wall” is not the right way to be a successful documentary storyteller; rather, that being able to share as much as is given to you is paramount.
– Chris Franz
One of the most exciting parts of journalism is meeting new people every day. My short career has put me in touch with thousands of people, but never as intimately as my time with Ethel and her daughter Marilyn. Each visit wasn’t an assignment. It was a special time in which Ethel shared her life stories and daily delights despite her dwindling health.
Her sweet voice recalled almost a century of memories – from her time living in Canada with her siblings through her late-in-life sleepovers with five generations of her family. Some days Ethel shined and moved around as though she didn’t have any pain, but during other visits, her age and suffering showed as she quietly sat, allowing me to photograph her everyday tasks. Ethel and her daughter welcomed me into their home during social and family gatherings and made me feel as though – even for a short time – I was part of their wonderful family.
The relationship between Marilyn and Ethel is a wonderful gift every mother and daughter should work toward, and their devoted extended family is enviable. Ethel’s legacy is a long line of strong women who care for and about each other.
– Heidi Shaffer
Working with Evelyn has been an incredible delight – so much charm, charisma, insight and spunk. Each visit came with great anticipation and was viewed as a special gift within my week to spend more time to be able to bask in her lively energy, listen to her insights and share in a small part of her life’s journey. The process of documenting her daily living was filled with powerful simplicities – all the joys, sorrows and complicated shades of grays of everything between. And she consistently shared profound insight as an example of a woman who is grounded in living in the moment.
With more than 105 years of life, there are so many things that Evelyn has taken witness to. As an artist, it was fascinating to hear her describe stories of her early memories as a child with her family and imagine what those experiences looked like – especially then to have those mental images juxtaposed to our shared experiences of her showing me photographs of her 40-plus-year-old great-grandchildren, her pastor reading her Scriptures from a digital copy of a Bible downloaded onto his iPod, or all of the technological advances that she learns of while watching television.
The experience of working with Evelyn reaffirmed my belief that all of life, especially the end of life, can be approached with dignity, love and appreciation for the complexities that exist – and with humor.
During one of our visits, she was being teased by her hairstylist that she was going to “chase boys” after her weekly hair appointment. Her response was, “Oh, I don’t know about that. But men – at my age, they better be men.”
– Morea Steinhauer
If you go
- What: “Witness to Life: A Photo Exhibition of Hospice Care”
- When: Opens Friday, on display through early February
- Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo
- Info: (701) 232-3821
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535