As a freelance photographer it is not unusual that my computer and external hard drive contains several thousand images. To a stranger they might not mean a whole lot, but behind the scenes I believe each image contains a myriad of emotions. Whether it is one of my own personal family images or one from an assignment such as the first kiss of a bride and groom, each photo holds a special meaning to someone. That special meaning of life is frozen in time, and I often smile when looking at photos from the past. It wasn’t until recently I realized the power of a smile.
Usually while photographing I find myself escaping my own reality and slipping into another’s. With that comes a sense of privilege and joy, and at times heartache. Life is full of the beautiful and unexpected. I have always enjoyed and am grateful being able to capture some of life’s greatest moments, those that last but a fraction of a second. My nerves are often eased by my pure appreciation for life. Despite having a bit of the artist’s curse, which means I am often striving for perfection, I have always carried a strong belief in God. His gift of life is has been the very essence of my work. What I never imagined was that I would have the opportunity to witness his grace first hand. Perhaps it was being at the right place at the right time (with my lens in tow) or perhaps it was a glimpse into something bigger?
On the morning Wednesday, November 27th, 2013 I set forth to fulfill an obligation I had committed to at a local retirement and nursing community. Since it was a day off from my full-time job I opted to bring my best little assistant, my three-year old daughter Madison, (aka Maddie). I was optimistic that her animated charisma, platinum pigtails, big blue eyes, and cherry smile would be instrumental with bringing out the natural delight of our golden friends. The photos I was asked to take were for the “Wall of Fame”, which is designated to honor each of the residents. We were hoping to add additional images to the wall that would display them in a candid and natural demeanor. These images would be on display for visitors and family members to see.
I was truly excited (and nervous) when agreeing to the job and my connections to the retirement inspired me even more to fulfill the request. My first connection is that my best friend works there. She has been the Volunteer Coordinator of the grounds for the past ten years, which is ironic because it is also where she and I began volunteering when we were twelve. Having both been exposed the contributions and volunteer service of our mothers we were intrigued and wanted to do something. After over twenty years of being best friends, I recognize it now as an incredible and innocent way in which our friendship grew.
My second connection is that my grandmother spent her last years there. She was a spitfire, much like my own daughter. Small, yet fierce and the ice-blue eyes that make you want to know more. She and I had shared a special connection. From our love for nature (especially cats) to shopping, she was my buddy. She passed away in January of 2007. It was her time, but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt any less. I was sad and selfishly I stopped visiting the residents or volunteering in any capacity there. There’s not a day that goes by and I don’t think of her. She is a part of me, and I am a part of her. I recently was married in the chapel located on the grounds that overlooks the lake. There’s not a doubt in my mind she was overlooking over us on that beautiful June day.
Since it had been several years since my interaction with any of the residents I was somewhat nervous when agreeing to photograph them. Would I know how to speak clearly to them? Would they be receptive to me? Would they be irritated by the camera or my energetic child? Despite my apprehension I wanted to help with the completion of the Wall. How beautiful I thought it would be to be a part of something that respects the lives of those who live there.
Upon arriving the residents were just finishing up with their daily mass service and Kayla the Recreation Coordinator was ready for us to begin. We began with meeting “Ollie” and Maddie singing Roudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer! He had a genuine smile and deep eyes. At times the technical responsibilities impede the natural beauty of what I am looking at, but on this particular day I was looking further into the lens. I saw past lighting issues or imperfect backgrounds. I trusted my camera to do its job and focused simply on enjoying the lives of those before me. Some welcomed us eagerly and others shied away from the bright flash of the camera. As we greeted and spoke with each resident I instinctively eased into my groove and most of my fears and insecurities subsided. I felt at peace.
Several individuals from that day stood out in my mind xx read my palm …. Xx was proudly wearing her holiday flair, from her hair to her nails. And there was who xx told Kayla and I dirty joke. He made me laugh and it was refreshing to witness the sense of humor and sheer appreciation for life. By now nearly all of my nervousness had subsided, and I was thoroughly caught up in simply enjoying the moment. This is one of my favorite parts of being the one behind the camera, once finding my place I am able to slip away into the oblivion of embracing the gift of life that surrounds me at that given moment.
Most of the residents were on their way to eat their lunch and this is where I captured a few of them. As we left the dining area we entered the last resident room for the day. Upon entering the last room I had little reason to suspect that anything could be different from the rooms, but it was different. Kayla explained to me that this was where their young residents live. Young residents I thought?? Here I met two young ladies who are both living with minimal physical and cognitive abilities. This was a result of them both sustaining severe injuries in separate automobile accidents. Tabitha is 39 (only six years older than me) and Sara who is 23. I thought wait, “This is impossible, I am in a retirement community there cannot be young women in here”… and suddenly it became real. Everything became real, the sound of my own daughter dancing and laughing around me and the silent empty gazes where deafening. How and why does this happen? I had so many questions and initially felt there was so much to feel sad about. My immediate pain is for the families of these beautiful young ladies. While typing this I feel as though a part of me is frozen in that moment, forever praying that their pain and burdens may be lessened.
As I watched my own daughter playfully bounce, in and around the room I felt guilty and heartbroken. Then it happen before I ever saw it coming, Madison snuck in between me and Sara. Sara’s head had been propped to her left side, and she had a “Tangled” blanket on her lap, Tangled is one of Madison’s favorite Disney movies and she found that immediate connection with Sara. As Madison appeared before Sara’s tilted vision Sara smiled. It was an honest, but a very real and prominent smile. I clicked the shutter as quick as possible, again forgetting my own pain I had transitioned into realizing that I was witnessing a state of pure beauty. For me was comparable to seeing the smile of my own child for the very first time, it was that real.
When Kayla and I resumed our conversation she explained to me that this was Sara’s first smile in some time. Immediately I felt even incredibly blessed to have been there by her side. Having the camera was simply a bonus. For me seeing Sara smile not only made my day, but it gave me a deeper appreciation for life, new hope and a sense of renewed faith. She reminded me that things may not be as though they appear, and that we all can become distracted of what really matters in life. I don’t know that when we return if she will smile again, but I do know that moment has been forever engraved deep into my soul. Her smile was exactly what I needed to see and feel, on that day before Thanksgiving. There’s not a doubt in my mind I left there a better person.
Thursday morning as we awoke, my family decided to go to the Thanksgiving mass, which was a new tradition for us. I will readily admit that I was excited to be the instigator of this new tradition in our quaint family of three. Although we sat in a different spot than we would for our normal Sunday services, I felt such a deep connection to the Lord and to what our, Priest Father Ritchie, was saying. He spoke firmly, but with purpose reminding those in attendance of our obligations to simply be thankful and be appreciative. One point in particular he made was that we begin to feel “entitled”. He couldn’t be more right. It was all I could do to keep from crying, and apparently I didn’t do that great of a job of fighting the tears back because at one point my husband asked if I was okay and I nodded. I was okay because they were tears of humiliation, appreciation and joy. While trying to complete a wall of memories and honor… I had let down a different wall and had let God in. As much as it hurts and as hard it is to accept that there aren’t any guarantees in life, I would much rather feel it all love and pain – than nothing at all.
The pleasant combination of having had the opportunity to take photos with some great people and being blessed with the seemingly-personalized gospel on Thanksgiving has resulted in a happier me, inside and out. As a young adult and parent I am learning that life in itself is the biggest uncertainty we are faced with. There is so much joy and happiness, but with it comes grief and pain. This has been an obstacle that I’ve yet been able to fully wrap my mind around. Having spent many years struggling with anxiety and worry, I am slowly beginning to accept that it is not my purpose to understand life. And through the guidance of my faith I am quite optimistic that my purpose is to: appreciate life, be grateful for it, and simply smile for all the blessings. Call it cliché or whatever you wish, but I would have never imagined that something as small as a smile could brighten even the darkest of days, or make such a profound change in the life of a complete stranger. Whether you have lost someone dear to you, have followed a broken path in life, or perhaps have even lost yourself then I will share these few words with you …..SMILE because if Sara can smile, then so should we all!
Love and peace be with you always – Maureen Rizzo
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