Celebrating A Second Chance At Life

May 14th, 2013

Wherein our intrepid photographer documents a bone marrow transplant conference in sunny Southern California and comes away with great connections, conversations and coincidences.

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The guy was sitting there all by himself, alone in a crowd. Then I realized that the rest of the people filtering into the first seminar were sitting alone. I understood. I was one of them, even though I was tasked with photographing the event. Welcome to this year’s installment of the bone marrow transplant conference.

This being my second go around, I knew the fears and feelings surrounding a large symposium dedicated to your exact condition. Feeling alone sometimes in a crowd wasn’t new to me or all of the conference attendees. By the end of the weekend, a lot of us broke through the wall that we, ourselves, had constructed.

I remember many fun and fascinating discussions I had during the spaces between my massive undertaking of documenting the entire event and putting together a slide show by the end of it. Conversations usually began with, “Hey, you look great; when was your transplant?”

I ended up doing a series I creatively called “hat guys.” They were a random group of men who went around wearing their hats indoors. I empathized, sympathized, emulated and connected with these dudes.

One evening, I had dinner with a really cool man named John. We were the only ones at our table so I think we both let our guards down. Plus we were equally exhausted. He ate the same way I do, swishing water around his dried-out mouth and we spoke about fear. We shared how we each found out about our cancers, how the transplants went, how it affected our families and what we wanted out of the future. That connection was the reason I went and volunteered my time and photography.

My incredible Aunt Roberta — you may remember her, my “aunt in a cape” — was there as a guest speaker. She was on an Ask The Experts panel so others could benefit from her wisdom. Luckily, I got several one-on-one sessions with her. We even spent ten minutes being interviewed by a local on-air personality and I joked around about how Dr. Roberta spent her whole career studying transplants just in case the need arose in her family.

But the funniest moment I had was late at night, back in the hotel room as I was frantically putting together the slide show. There was my aunt, giving me a much needed break, rubbing her hands across my scalp like a 19th century phrenologist. “Hmmm, there’s a little male pattern baldness …” she said as her hands traced my head whiskers. “But really, with a little cream this all could grow back pretty full.”

Coincidences, the things that follow me wherever I go, also popped like crazy all around me. Stewart Francke — the Detroit singer/songwriter who visited me during some of my darkest hours in the hospital — was the featured entertainment of the symposium. I didn’t know he’d be there until we ran into each other in the lobby. He graciously pretended to remember me, but I’d had a head start; when I was the photo editor for the Features department at the Detroit Free Press, I had to be up to date on all the Detroit area entertainers.

The coolest coincidence for me occurred at the very end as I sat down, bleary-eyed, to munch some lunch and watch as my slide show played across two giant screens. Sitting next to me was Amit, the gentleman with glasses in the red cap atop this blog. “When was your transplant?” we asked each other, as was custom. And we launched into a conversation about our identical cancers and diagnoses.

We got onto the topic of what we did for a living, both now and before everything went haywire. It turns out that he owns and runs Photojojo, an online photography newsletter and store that’s been written about by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and many others. But I didn’t need to be told who he was; I was already on his mailing list. Heck, I’d even purchased some fun items from him in the past (my favorite is the case and magnetic lens attachments that make my iPhone look like an old-fashioned range-finder camera).

His mother, who accompanied him to the event, was impressed that I knew him and asked if I’d snap a shot of them together. She told me she’d buy my book and Amit and I parted as compatriots in the war against a stupid disease that nearly killed us.

As the final strands to Coldplay’s “The Scientist” (graciously given to me by EMI Records and Universal Music) played at the end of my slide show, I’m told there were many a teary eye at the luncheon. I would take that as a compliment, but knowing the type of conference I was attending, it was just as likely that those eyes suffered the same affliction as my own and poured out excessive amounts of tears to combat the ubiquitous dryness many of us experience.

Still, I’ll take my compliments where I can steal ’em. My photos produced tears aplenty. And that’s all anyone needs to know.

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