Gratitude for Little Gifts

A Haitian friend of Reginale, a 28-year-old mother with AIDS, combs her hair in a gesture of true friendship and love. Chilton St. Hospice, Cambridge, MA, 1994. Jon Chase photo

[Yesterday we published a tribute to Silverback M. Dickey Drysdale who has left The Jungle for the Great Newsroom in the sky. Today we take a different look at the subject of death.

Silverback Jon (Quaker Silverbacks) is a photographer for Harvard University, a small, community college in Cambridge, MA. (As President of the Yale Club of Vermont, I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a cheap shot- SB SM)]

When I lived in Cambridge in the 1980s and 90s, a residential hospice opened on my street, with five patients in a single-family house. I would go past every day as I walked my dog, and wondered what it was like inside. I thought it was probably depressing, and I simply kept passing it by. But eventually I became more curious, and thought about photographing inside.

Rita, a nurse for over 50 years but now dying of cancer, is greeted by a hospice aide holding the young baby of another patient with AIDS, that Rita had been looking forward to meeting, Chilton St. Hospice, Cambridge, MA, 1994. Jon Chase photo

I was aware of another photographer, Nicholas Nixon, photographing AIDS and hospice patients in Boston. And the longer I put off inquiring, the more convinced I became that if I didn’t do this soon, right here on my own block, some other photographer would walk onto my turf and do it instead. So I did inquire, and was told I could take photos if I first would go through a short training session for volunteers. I agreed, and after two weeks I began photographing once or twice a week, which continued for two years. I gave prints to the patients’ families, who appreciated the photos for portraying their loved ones with dignity, even if they were not upbeat, smiling images. So that’s the short story of how this came about.

The sister of patient Joe, a former jazz piano player who has terminal brain cancer, visits him on his birthday, 21 years after he was given 6 months to live.. Chilton St. Hospice, Cambridge, MA, 1994. Jon Chase photo

Instead of finding a depressing atmosphere in Chilton House, I found a place where the interpersonal actions between staff and patients were so caring and personal that the feeling was one of taking joy in the small pleasures of the moment, and though death may have been imminent, the pervading feeling was one of life and gratitude for little gifts and unexpected happenings in someone’s day. 

A hospice nurse holds the young HIV positive baby of her mother, 28-year-old Reginale, who has AIDS. Reginale eventually recovered and walked out of hospice, the only patient to do so. Chilton St. Hospice, Cambridge, MA, 1994. Jon Chase photo
Dying of lung disease, Eileen smokes in her room. Chilton St. Hospice, Cambridge, MA, 1994. Jon Chase photo

One thought on “Gratitude for Little Gifts

  1. Stephen, thanks so much for posting these. Your title, picking up on my own words, reinforces a positive framework for viewing these photos in a wy that can ben instructive for all of us.
    Quakerback Jon

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