Ediccia wanted to be remembered as someone who didn’t give up. Chuck said some of his favorite times were playing baseball with his brothers. Joe said he was the luckiest man in the world.
Abel summed it up this way: “You have a one-way ticket. Don’t waste it!”
They were all nearing death. Some were old, some young. In interviews with Los Angeles artist Andrew George, they shared their biggest regrets, favorite memories and greatest loves.
George set out to photograph and interview people who were dying and at peace with it. He called several local hospices and hospitals to ask for their help finding patients. They all said no.
Finally, Dr. Marwa Kilani, medical director of palliative care at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, agreed to collaborate. Whenever she found a patient willing to participate, George headed to the hospital.
He didn’t want to know the patients’ last names, their professions or their diseases. He wanted to know their perspective on their lives, their dreams and their deaths. In addition to asking them questions, he gave each a piece of paper to draw or write whatever they wanted.
The recurrent themes were not surprising. Many talked about gratitude, family, relationships.
And, of course, love.
One man, Jack, confessed that his true love wasn’t his wife, but rather a woman he’d met in Japan in the 1940s who had been sent to a relocation camp. Another, Donald, said he still loved his ex-wife, even though she had married another man.
Sara described the protective power of love: “You can take anything that’s dished out because there’s someone who cares for you.”
George said he was drawn to the project, which he named “Right, Before I Die,” because he wanted people to see death a different way. “This is something people have a tremendous aversion to,” he said. “I wanted to make something provocative … [that] made people pause and addled their brains a little bit.”
If people could diminish their fear of death while young and healthy, he said, they might be able to live more fulfilling lives. George also hopes people will learn from his subjects, who have made sense of the ups and downs in their lives.
The images and words of the 20 people in George’s exhibit — all but one of whom have since died — are on display at the Museum of Tolerance through Oct. 11. Before coming to L.A., the exhibit was at Musea Brugge in Belgium and the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
The framed photos hang beneath large windows just inside the entrance to the museum. Beneath each photo are excerpts from the interviews and the subjects’ own handwritten words.
Many of the photos show people in hospital beds. Some have lost their hair or are attached to oxygen tubes. Stuffed animals and flowers sit beside them. Next to one man is a small framed photo of himself as a child.
In the middle of the exhibit is a tall mirror attached to the wall. George said he wants viewers to reflect on the same topics the subjects did, including their own mortality.
The exhibit is sponsored by the Providence Institute for Human Caring, which works to improve end-of-life care for patients and families. Ira Byock, chief medical officer of the institute, said the photographs and interviews invite people to think about living with illness — and about the dying process.
In Los Angeles and across the nation, Byock said, people often don’t die the way they wish.
“You can get the best care for your cancer or heart failure or liver failure,” he said. “And then in the last months, weeks, days of life, you are at high-risk of dying badly, or having a medicalized death experience.”
One of the subjects in the exhibit was Josefina Lopez Aguilar. In her photo, she’s wearing light lipstick, small hoop earrings, and a sagacious smile.
During her interview, Lopez told the artist she wasn’t afraid of dying, that life was simply the “waiting room to death.”
“I feel calm, at ease, because I already know I am going,” she said. “So every night I tell God, ‘You know what you are doing.’”
Lopez died last year at the age of 105, her granddaughter, Claudia Maldonado, said.
Maldonado said her grandmother had been an orphan and had a tough upbringing in Mexico before immigrating to the U.S. and helping raise her grandchildren. She loved to sew, read Spanish-language newspapers and cook elaborate meals for her family.
Maldonado said that when she first heard about George’s project, she and her family were a little skeptical. But then they realized that Lopez would live on through her photograph.
“It’s an honor to her,” she said. “That smile will always be there.”
KHN’s coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
By Anna Gorman