Gallery L8, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
It seems apropos that I watched a stage production of the Tennessee Williams play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" for the very first time before I ventured to the museum and saw this portrait. In that play, Big Daddy tells Brick that what sets humans apart from animals is our knowledge of our own mortality.
This portrait of Dorothea Lynch, Eugene Richards' partner and collaborator, is striking because it echoes that knowledge and the myriad of emotions that ride along with it. Terror, despair, and even strange, peaceful resignation... More than that, though, this portrait gives us a glimpse into those moments when the struggle is much more profound. When mortality doesn't just impose itself on you but barges in unexpected, unannounced.
"Fish and visitors smell in three days!" we yell out. "Ben Franklin said that, you know."
"Ah," Death sighs. "But I am no visitor."
This photograph nearly brings me to sob in the museum's loud, reverberating halls. I ponder all those I've known who have struggled against cancer. Some pushed through triumphantly, like both of my parents. Others not so much, like my gramma, a very dear friend's mother, and even Dorothea.
In the museum's audio tour, the clip for this portrait includes a well-aged, grainy recording of Dorothea herself. She speaks to the listener (or perhaps more to herself?) in a tone of voice that is warm but tired. The doctors had told her that tumors can grow for years before they're detectable to the touch. In her smooth but pained prose, she ponders beautiful moments from her and Richards' history and wonders whether the tumor had already started to form by then.
Cancer these days seems more and more like an inevitable brute who stands outside waiting for the "right" time to demand not visitation rights but a room of its own in our already brief and violent lives. It impacts so many people, and its presence in my family history is not lost on me. I understand the implication.
How do we embrace our lives even while the threat of our own mortality looms unforgivingly? Some people have cracked that diabolical riddle even (or perhaps especially) in the immediate threat of terminus. Dorothea lived another 4 years after Richards took this portrait of her. Looking at other candid photographs from during and after her initial battle with breast cancer, I believe that she is one of the few who solved that puzzle before cancer finally undid her.
I only hope that by the time I must relinquish my room to the cloaked figure that I will have had the same degree of success.
It's hard for me to articulate how important this particular post is for me and its significance in my ongoing evolution. If you haven't read it already, please check out this blog's introductory post. In it, I explain why I started this blog and what had prevented me from starting it before now.
This portrait evokes such intense, powerful, near-cataclysmic emotions in me because of how raw my fear of death is (and has always been). Death stands in our way at some unknown point on our path through the universe. It drums a steady beat that moves us forward - always forward - and this drumming only gets closer and closer. It's difficult for me to tolerate sometimes. At least once I week I must soothe the sudden and startling panic that pops up when I accidentally begin to contemplate an infinite expanse of nothing.
The fact that I still come back to this portrait in spite of what it does to me tells me that I am confronting that which I once avoided at all costs. What reward or benefit that will yield me in the long-term is unknown, but it is a sign that I am evolving in some way. And if nothing else, evolving helps drown out the drumming that propels my feet ever forward.