* Welcome to the 126th installment of The Quaz Q&A. This feature—a question-and-answer session with a person from sports/entertainment/politics/whatever—will appear every week on jeffpearlman.com. If you have any suggestions/ideas for people to speak with, hit me up at email@example.com. I’m listening.
Generally, I have six or seven or eight Quazes waiting to go. I usually run them chronologically. Sometimes, if a topic is hot (Super Bowl, terrorism, a particular moment in time), I skip around. Not often, but sometimes.
Which leads me to Quaz No. 126.
A bunch of days ago I was jumping around Facebook when I stumbled upon a photo essay from a man named Angelo Merendino. It was—to understate—phenomenal stuff. Angelo’s beloved wife Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2008 (five months after their wedding), and he decided (with her encouragement) to chronicle the ensuing nightmare. The resulting pictures are … hmm … what’s the right word? Haunting. Beautiful. Stunning. Gripping. Devastating. Amazing. Awful. Piercing. I’m actually not sure—but the images have stuck with me, and also pay tribute to a wonderful woman, whose life ultimately ended in 2011.
Hence, when Angelo agreed to be Quazed, I wanted to get him here as quickly as possible; so you—dear reader—can feel the same emotion and, in a sense, understand what it is to go through something so gut-wrenching.
Angelo Merendino can be followed on Twitter here and Facebook here. You can order his book, The Battle We Didn’t Choose, here. Fifty percent of every sale will be donated to a charity, The Love You Share.
Angelo Merendino, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Angelo, I stumbled upon your photo essay chronicling your wife’s battle with breast cancer—and, well, I was blown away. Blown away. It also reminded me of something from a decade back, when a friend’s father was dying, and she chronicled it all via pictures. The final shot was a tag around her deceased father’s foot. I reacted with a combination of emotions—sad, dazzled, heartbroken, confused. Angelo, what made you think, “My wife is fighting cancer—and I’m going to photograph it all?” It seems like a reaction only a photographer could have …
ANGELO MERENDINO: Thanks, Jeff. These photographs were born and made out of necessity. Jen’s cancer metastasized in April, 2010. After a few months of treatment we noticed that many people didn’t understand how serious Jen’s illness had become and we felt our support group fading away. Our words were failing to communicate our need for help so I turned to the only other form of communication I know—my camera. I started photographing our day to day life and our hope was that if our family and friends saw what we were facing every day then maybe they would have a better understanding of our challenges. We needed our family and friends to be there for us. There were no thoughts about a book or exhibitions, it was really just trying to survive.
J.P.: I would love to know about Jen. How did you meet? What was she like—specifically? What made you fall in love with her?
A.M.: I was applying for a job as a bartender in August, 2005 and Jen was the manager at the restaurant. I knew right away that she was the one … the only problem is that Jen didn’t feel the earth shake like I did! About a month later Jen took a job in Manhattan and left Cleveland. We kept in touch and during a visit to New York City the following winter I finally worked up the courage to share my feelings. We started dating long distance and after six months we couldn’t stand being away from each other so I moved to Manhattan with an engagement ring in my pocket. I proposed to Jen the night I arrived and we were married less than a year later.
Jen was full of life and love and she had a way of making you feel like you were the only person who mattered. I’ve never had a friend like Jen, someone who really cares and would tell you how she felt even if it wasn’t exactly what you wanted to hear—but you needed to hear. Jen truly cared about her family and friends and she always kept up with people to make sure they were OK.
Before I met Jen I was struggling to figure out who I was and why I was here on this earth. Jen encouraged me to follow my dreams and believe in myself. I felt like as long as Jen was by my side, everything was possible. When I met Jen I let go of all the fears of being hurt. I trusted Jen more than anyone I had ever known. It was easy being with each other. We had fun no matter what we were doing.
J.P.: I’m sure some Freud wanna-be would look at your photos and say, “He was grieving by hiding behind his camera.” Is there truth to that? Or, put differently, did taking photos allow you to best manage the decline and, ultimately, death of your beloved wife?
A.M.: After a few months of making these photographs I realized that they would be a bridge back to the most challenging time in my life. While I was taking care of Jennifer I had to stay focused on her needs. Oftentimes I would put my thoughts off to the side. The love of my life was dying right in front of me and I couldn’t stop this from happening. I knew that if I thought too much I would crumble, and Jen needed me to stay strong. Looking back, the photographs were an escape from cancer. That is strange since I was escaping into the same thing I was escaping from. But our life was so serious and constantly “on” and I needed something that wasn’t complete cancer. I could get lost in the light-room or something camera related and sort of give myself a break.
Now, these photographs have been an incredible help in my healing. Something beautiful is growing out of something so horrible and unfair. I’ve received messages from women who are getting mammograms because of Jen. If these things weren’t happening, if something positive wasn’t coming from this, I don’t know how I could make any sense of Jen’s death. Jen was the kind of person who made good things out of what ever life put in front of her, she was an optimist. I want Jen’s legacy to help others.
J.P.: I love that you started The Love You Share, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide financial assistance to women in need while they are receiving treatment for breast cancer. Mainly because, in this age where there are a million enormous, corporate-overloaded pink ribbon cancer efforts, yours seems pure and righteous and uncomplicated. How did you decide to start this? And what are your thoughts on the whole Susan B. Komen, pink-ribbon movement?
A.M.: Jen and I were fortunate to receive help from many people. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without this support. Facing cancer is an enormous challenge. The day to day tasks are what we needed the most help with. A few days before Jen passed I asked her if it was OK to start a non-profit in her honor that would help others. She smiled and said, “Yes.” I just want to do something that will directly help the people who are hit the hardest by breast cancer.
I think there are good things in the pink ribbon movement, at least people are talking about breast cancer. It isn’t an easy thing to talk about. Before Jen was diagnosed we didn’t know much about cancer. I think education is very important and if we don’t talk about the reality of day to day life with breast cancer then people aren’t going to know how to help a loved one who is facing this illness. Love and understanding are two very important things that someone with breast cancer needs from loved ones. Buying a product that has a pink ribbon on it is OK, but we need more than that. My biggest problem with the pink stuff is that it can trivialize what breast cancer is really like. There was something going on this month, something about “Support breast cancer by not wearing a bra on a given day.” Huh??? I don’t know of any woman who has had her breasts removed who would find this helpful. If we just throw a few bucks in the hat and push breast cancer under the rug until next October then we really aren’t doing much.
J.P.: So you’re going about your life … happy, fruitful, etc. Then Jen finds out she has cancer. How did this happen? And when did you realize how serious it was? And would become?
A.M.: Jen was diagnosed five months after our wedding. I’ll never forget the sound of Jennifer’s voice coming through the phone as she told me she had breast cancer. I was numb immediately. I’m still numb. Before that moment, the furthest thought from my mind was that I might be a widower before I was 40. Just after our one-year anniversary our doctors told us Jennifer was cancer free and we started to put our life back together. It was a challenge because everything we thought we knew, our whole world, had been leveled and we felt so different from most everyone else in our life. Cancer was always there. Every bump or bruise, or anything Jen felt in her body, was it cancer? When Jen’s cancer metastasized in April, 2010 things got really serious. We were positive and believed our doctors would be able to keep a step ahead of Jen’s cancer but it kept spreading. When the cancer spread to the lining of Jen’s brain in October, 2011 that’s when I knew things weren’t going to get better. I think Jen knew too. We had to believe in a miracle, it was Jen’s life.
A.M.: My first love was music. I started playing the drums at a young age and toured around the country for most of my 20s and into my 30s. At one point during that time I was taking a break from music and a girl I was dating at the time suggested that I try making a photo with her camera, a Canon AE-1 Program. I still remember the sound of the shutter—I was hooked immediately. Music was still around so I was juggling the two and it wasn’t until I started making these photographs of Jen that I realized the power of photography. I’m a sensitive person and I like to connect with people. I like listening to people as they share their experiences. I want to interpret the things in life that move me, the things I feel to be important.
A.M.: After Jen was diagnosed in 2008 she became frustrated because so much of the breast cancer literature on the web was sterile and clinical. Jen wanted to find out what other women with breast cancer were feeling so she started a blog. If other women wanted to read her thoughts then the info was available. If not, that was OK, too.
Jen trusted me and knew that before I made photographs I was taking care of her—she was always first. At times Jen was using methadone to relieve pain. Whether you are using methadone medically or not doesn’t matter: the side-effects are the side-effects. We were in the hospital one night and the side-effects were kicking in. Jen was waiving her arms in her sleep and I made a photograph. A few days later we were at home and I showed the photo to Jen. I asked if it was too personal and if she wanted me to delete it. Jen said, “No, it’s real. I don’t want to hide what cancer is like.”
J.P.: On your website, you write, “Fear, anxiety and worries were constant.
Sadly, most people do not want to hear these realities and at certain points we felt our support fading away.” This fascinates me. Why do you think people—almost universally—behave this way? Do you think we talk a good game about support and encouragement, but hate the work involved behind the words? The discomfort of seeing sickness in others and wondering if we’re next?
A.M.: I think people don’t know what to do. This is why I believe it is important to talk about illness. Plus, seeing someone who is ill puts mortality in our face. I don’t blame people for not wanting to think about death. That said, we are all going to die one day. I don’t want to discuss death at every dinner conversation but I think it is healthy to talk about life and death. Accepting that I will die one day has opened my heart to the fact that I am alive right now. I’m not saying I look forward to death but I can’t escape it so I don’t want to let it control me. The thing is, you don’t have to have the answers for someone who is ill, you just have to be there.
A.M.: I don’t know if she accepted death but what I can tell you is this. The day after we were told Jen’s liver was failing we were told that she may live another three-to-seven days. Over the next 12 days our apartment was full of love, laughter and life. Jen would smile and, like she had always done, she showed us through her actions that life is precious.
For the last few months of Jennifer’s life we would ask each other before going to sleep what the best and worst part of the day was. The day after we found out Jen’s liver was failing we came home with Hospice Care and spent the evening with family and friends. Before going to sleep I asked Jen what she loved the most about the day. Jen thought for a moment then turned and looking deeper into my eyes than ever before, she said, ”I loved it all.” I think she did find peace but I imagine she was still frightened of the unknown.
There were moments during Jen’s last day when I felt complete happiness … like I’ve never known before. Memories of Jen and me laughing together would come back in such a vivid way and I would smile and laugh. Then it would hit me that Jen was leaving me, at least on this earth, and I would do everything I could to not lose control. I guess what I’m trying to say is that there was beauty in death because Jen and I got to spend part of our life together. These were the greatest years of my life.
J.P.: Your wife died in 2011. She wanted you to live happily and fruitfully. Is that possible? How does a survivor move on? Can you date again? Love again?
A.M.: My answer today is different from what I would have told you one year ago, and I know the same would be true if you were to ask me this question a year from now. I do my best to take each day as it comes and I try to do the next right thing. Some days are better than others but above all else I am thankful to be alive and healthy. It’s the little things in life keep me between the ditches.
Jen was a widow and we shared a beautiful love. In recent weeks I have opened my heart to the thought that I may find someone again and thankfully Jen left a road map for me to follow, our love story. I’m still putting myself back together and I don’t know what is coming my way. I want to live life to the fullest.
• Yours not included, what’s your favorite all-time photograph?: James Marshall’s photograph of Jimi Hendrix during sound check at the Monterey Pop Festival. This is on the cover of Marshall’s book, which was the first book of photographs I purchased. I can hear Hendrix guitar in the photo … it’s the moment that I want to capture in every photograph I make.
• What sort of equipment do you use?: I’m shooting Nikon cameras, a D4 and a D600. The photographs of Jen were mostly made with a D7000. I like fast prime lenses, my 28mm 1.8 gets the most use these days. I also enjoy shooting my 70-200 2.8.
• There are tons of iPhone apps here to make photography better, easier, cooler. Do you like this? Or is it a bullshit slap to skilled photography?: I think it depends on how you use it. If the light and moment are there, that’s what matters to me.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Beverly Hills 90210, Richard Dawson, Braveheart, Shawn Kemp, Cannon, pumpkin pie, shaving with a blade, Costco, LL Cool J, cranberry sauce, Costa Rica: Pumpkin pie, Richard Dawson, shaving with a blade, cranberry sauce, LL Cool J, Braveheart, Shawn Kemp, Costco, Beverly Hills 90210, Costa Rica.
• Celine Dion calls. She wants you to move to Vegas and work as her personal, 12-hour-a-day photographer for a year. She’ll pay $12.5 million, but you have to legally change your name to Leon Durham and dress in an adult-sized Kermit the Frog costume. You in?: Ha! No way. I’ll stick to hustling for work in Cleveland.
• Five greatest albums of all time?: London Calling – The Clash; Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen; Donny Hathaway Live (1972); Grace – Jeff Buckley; Innervisions – Stevie Wonder.
• What’s the perfect song to whistle?: Heartbeat by Buddy Holly.
• I’m thinking of publishing a book featuring photos of my wrist wart. I’m gonna call it, “Wrist Wart.” Any interest?: Depends on the photographs …
• If you take 100 photos, how many do you delete?: The bad ones.
• One question you would ask Malcolm Jamal Warner were he here right now?: Did he keep all the sweaters he wore on The Cosby Show.