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  • 10 years ago – six months and a day after 9/11 – in the wee hours of the morning, a sad scene was taking place on 21st Street in Columbus, Nebraska. Four sobbing children were gathered around their 59-year-old mother who was lying in a hospital bed in what had been her bedroom for the past 34 years. With a tube blowing pure oxygen under her nostrils, our Mom Margie was struggling to suck in her last breaths as her body was finally giving out after fighting a two-year battle against a most aggressive, scurrilous form of cancer.

    Afraid to let go, not wanting to leave her children, the warmth of the summer sun that would arrive in a matter of weeks, her family, we kids tried to help her, each holding one of her limbs, saying, It’s OK, We’ll be all right, There’ll be no suffering in Heaven, You’ll see Grandma and Grandpa, and Rudy, and Ivan and Vicky.

    While some families are brought closer together during a family member’s illness, ours was torn apart.

    The cancer came at a time when all five of us kids were going through transitions in our lives, it disrupted all of our plans. By March 12, 2002, I was only talking to one sibling. But that night in Mom’s bedroom I realized it was time to screw the pride, bury the hatchet, and give Mom proof that everything would be OK. I stood up and hugged my brother and my sisters and told them I loved them, and they echoed those words, and we ran out of another box of tissues. A few minutes later, with all of us bleary-eyed through tears we watched as Mom gasped that last breath and her body finally sank below the water.

    My sister Jan put her ear to Mom's chest. She didn't hear a heartbeat, but saw a single tear roll down Mom's cheek.

    I removed the oxygen tube from her face and threw it across the room then cradled her head in my lap as the others went to call the coroner. Mom’s head was still warm and although she was was clinically dead, I had a strong feeling that night that life doesn't just disappear the moment you stop breathing and your heart no longer beats. I think you slowly leave your body, kind of like drowning. I feel Mom knew I was there. It was wonderful to be able to embrace her - the only time perhaps a child ever holds their parent's head in their lap - without her being wracked by pain. Death, the only thing that could bring her peace.

    I stayed with Mom until two silver-haired men appeared.

    I remember thinking two things as the men somberly entered Mom's bedroom. One: What a weird job it is to be a mortician, to be called at any hour of the night, in any type of weather, to retrieve corpses. Two: Although she’s dead they better treat Mom’s body with dignity and not be throwing her around as they transport her to the morgue.

    That night another thing died: a torporific, spinning-your-wheels stage of my life. After Mom’s death I realized it was time to make some major changes in my life’s trajectory.

    You’ll hear this from a lot of people whose parents die when the kids are in their 30s, 40s or 50s. Children get a wake-up call after seeing firsthand that when it’s over, it’s over. They realize it’s time to start doing those things they’ve been putting off, achieving those goals they’ve been making excuses for not attaining.

    I returned to New York the day after my Mom’s funeral. I was a zombie for the next eight months. I made one big decision though: Move to South Africa, a place I'd been the previous two winters for a few weeks. I found everything about that place pleasant. I needed to escape NYC, my family, my circle of friends, my gerbil-wheel existence. South Africa seemed like the perfect getaway to ponder a new direction in life, which so far had included working at the UN, in advertising and being a flight attendant.

    I told my partner of seven years in December of 2002 that I had bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town and that I wasn’t breaking up, per se, but if he met somebody he shouldn’t hold back, because I was not planning on having any obligations in the foreseeable future. My parents were now both buried, I had a big chunk of money in the bank, no debts, I was going to enjoy my life.

    I had a specific personal goal: writing a book about Nebraska, about my family. (OK, so Cape Town at the height of the summer holidays – beach, mountains, vineyards – isn’t the best place to try to batten down the hatches and squeeze out a book, but I decided I would worry about that in due time.)

    From the day I landed in Cape Town and for the next six weeks I had the best time in my adult life. The dollar was strong, I went out every night, jogged & hit the gym & beach every day, traveled around the area, got to know half the people in town, felt I was living life at the moment, being the outgoing funloving person I knew was inside but had kept locked up.

    Then a monkey wrench was thrown into my plans: I got into a relationship I was not ready to be in. That detour lasted two years. The year that followed the break-up was what I call my blackdress year.

    In 2005 I mourned a lot of things - my lack of career direction, the end of an energy-sapping relationship, the unfairness of how my Mom died, my inability to move forward. I became deeply introspective and resolved to finally figure “it” out – “it” being life. I was at the point of desperation; if I didn't figure out my life soon, I didn't want to live anymore.

    At the beginning of 2005 I got Zen advice from a Chinese lady named Edza in Frankfurt where I worked for two months unloading and loading semis and using handtrucks to move freight into and out a tradehall for a friend. Among loads of other insightful things, she told me about the constant struggle between Ego & Self within us, and explained how the best times to listen to your heart are just as you wake up or just as you fall asleep when your mind is freest and closest to its natural state. She also said to figure out any problem you must go to the very beginning. So one day while waiting for a shipment, I graphed out my entire education and work career and realized I wasn't as fucked up as I thought I was.

    Back in New York I got a lot of patience & sweetness from a girlfriend, Syd, who had me buy my first (and only) self-help book: "An Adult Child's Guide to What's 'Normal" by John & Linda Friel. (Syd even came into Barnes & Nobles with me so I would buy it.) That book, whose premise is that all the problems we have in our lives were learned as children, was a key to changing my life. It showed me the path that had eluded me for so long. It made my brain think in different patterns.

    One exercise went like this:

    Book: What is one thing you’d really like to do but have been holding back on?

    Me: I’d like to be a photographer.

    Book: Name 3 reasons you can’t achieve that goal.

    Me: 1) I have no formal education in photography. 2) I have no money for equipment. 3) I’m too old.

    Book: Now from the reasons you just wrote down, give answers that rebut them.

    Me: 1) ….Well, I could see what affordable photography classes are available and try to get financing. 2) I could try to borrow money to get some basic equipment and work my way up to better cameras and lenses. 3) I ain’t dead yet.

    That little exercise was enough to push my brain into a new direction.

    I started googling photojournalists whose work I admired and emailing them, asking them what equipment they used and what tips they might have for getting a first job. I went to all photojournalistic art exhibits in town; got involved with Aperture, a foundation in NYC that helps beginning photographers; and started networking like hell.

    I got out of a deep and dangerous comfort zone that I'd spent years digging around me. I forced myself to do things that scared me and that I was sure I couldn’t do. I learned how to swim. I bought a black Huffy bike for $40 on Craigslist and used it as my sole means of transportation in New York for 6 months. I climbed mountains by myself after a lifelong vertiginous fear of heights. I went to Switzerland with less than a $160 for a month and ate dandelion leaves in the yard of the chalet where I stayed for greens. I finished a couple drafts of books. I started living in the present and looking forward to the future, instead of groveling in the past, where I used to find safety and comfort.

    In 2006 I vowed I’d only take a job that dealt with photography. And I got one. On the Circle Line’s World Yacht that goes around Manhattan: I took pictures of tourists and made $8/hour + commission. A few months later a friend & fellow grad student from George Washington University, who had become a big reporter in Boston, asked me if I’d join him in Afghanistan for two months to help him with movie camera work, and there I found my calling: as a bonafide photojournalist.

    Today, March 12, 2012, was a positively gorgeous summery-springy day in New York while we are still technically in winter for another 9 days. How different this day is from 10 years ago in Nebraska, where we were blasted by an ice storm the night before and the streets and sidewalks were so crusted over with marble-hard snow and black ice that you could hardly walk without falling down. Then as you heaved yourself up, you were assaulted by freezing gusts of wind.

    That night, after Mom’s body was slowly rolled down the hallway of the house where I grew up, her face covered with a white sheet, I went to bed numb, confused, sad.

    Tonight I feel such a glow of joy. I’m so happy with the people in my life, old friends, new friends, strangers, family. I know what projects I want to do, I just have to make time to do them. I feel only optimism and although I don’t have that much financially, I feel so free and unburdened by the confusion and fear that held me back and weighed me down for so many years. If I were to die tomorrow, I could say at least I found my path in life, as a photographer, writer, photojournalist, and that for me is worth more than money. Yes, really.

    Thanks Mom for always being there when I needed you when you were here and still being there now that you’re somewhere else. Love, your oldest son.
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