Take a Photo Before I Leave You by Amy MacRae
2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist
Amy MacRae made the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Take a Photo Before I Leave You.
You can read Take a Photo Before I Leave You below.
I'm caught again. My friend beams at me from behind her phone. "You two are so adorable!" she coos.
I push my daughter on the swing, throw my head back and laugh, mouth open, conscious that I am being watched.
Another photo, another option, another angle. In case our eyes are closed, perhaps, or in case the pictures don't capture the candidness of the moment in just the right way.
A mother with her daughter.
A loving mother having fun with her daughter.
I know all the reasons these photos are being taken. I know what these photos will be used for and where they will be displayed. But I laugh and smile nevertheless.
- Facing terminal cancer diagnosis pushed CBC Nonfiction Prize finalist Amy MacRae to find her voice as a writer
My husband, Garreth, rarely used to take photos of me. Usually he was preoccupied with a beautiful view, intricate architecture or an exotic car sighting. I'd often poke fun at him for the ridiculous things he would photograph.
"Why the heck do you want a photo of that license plate?" I'd moan. "Are you really going to look at that later?"
"Yeah," he'd reply defensively, scrolling through thousands of little squares in his camera roll. Gargantuan sandwich, limited edition sneakers, lewd graffiti, blurry shot of a deer in the front yard. My default was always to limit photos. I felt it took something away from the experience, seeing life through the lens of a phone. Saving the experience for later, somehow negating the ability to remain in the moment. But Garreth always wanted to collect photos, to store little jokes and bits of beauty to perk himself up on a later day. A grid of colours to scroll through, validating his experiences, making up for his lacklustre memory.
So when he started collecting images of me, I noticed.
"Is he worried he'll forget me?" I wondered. "Or maybe scared that she will?"
They tell me that I'm different, that I'm stronger, that I'll beat this, that I'll still be here. But they collect photos for when I'm not.
This terrible thing happened to him too. This unbearable loss changed the course of Garreth's life as a child. But this time, he has advance notice. He can make preparations. He can store things for later.
But it isn't just my husband, it's everyone: my parents, my sister, my brother, my friends. I watch them, my senses tuned for the moment when, in the midst of a purely joyful moment, something dawns — their realization that time is limited, but more pressingly, that I am limited — and they reach for their phone.
Mother reading books with daughter in bed.
Happy family collecting berries at the farm.
Two best friends out for a sushi dinner.
Their actions, their use of the camera, betray their words. They reassure hope at every turn, spew out platitudes and attempt to comfort me with, "No one really knows for sure." They tell me that I'm different, that I'm stronger, that I'll beat this, that I'll still be here. But they collect photos for when I'm not.
After my cancer diagnosis, I started smiling with my teeth. I can't explain why, I just did. Maybe I had been too self-conscious about how I looked before. Maybe it had felt too awkward and revealing, too forward, putting all those teeth out there, opening myself up for the world to see, to judge, to dissect. "Look at her goofy smile," I'd imagine them thinking. "And that kale stuck in her upper incisor." So I'd always kept my mouth closed, and turned up the corners of my lips, tucked together and tidy.
But after cancer, once it seemed like everything in my life had been ripped open, when everything I had tried so hard to keep neat and contained came spewing out, I smiled with my teeth. I couldn't control my health, I couldn't control my life, so why control my self-image.
I am 34 years old and I've had a rare, incurable form of ovarian cancer for two years. The doctors say I might have one to two years remaining. My daughter, Evie, is four. My daughter, my whole world, not yet old enough to form memories she will carry into adulthood. Will I live long enough to become someone to her — a memory to link along with photographs and stories she's told?
When Evie looks back at all these photos after I'm gone, I wonder who she will see? I wonder what she thinks about the way I look. I know there was another me, a pre-cancer me, but she doesn't. I feel guilt that for most of her conscious life the mom she has known is a sick one. The mom Evie knows spends most of the day in bed while she is cared for by her grandparents. The mom Evie knows ingests more pills than food, can't lift her up and spends most of her life in pyjamas. For me, this is a bad phase. A dark chapter near the end of the book. But for Evie, this is all there ever was.
I wonder if Evie will know that her mom was a stylish dresser who loved fashion and used it as a language to express herself. Perhaps one day my mom will tell Evie about how I begged to wear a suit to prom. Or maybe Garreth will tell Evie about the brown knee-high fur covered boots I wore on our first date. I don't know why this is important, but it is. Because cancer has taken so much from me, has changed me. But there was someone before her. A girl who had her own style and dressed to the beat of her own drum. Who wasn't afraid to stand out and who was beautiful in a way that she isn't now.
Will I live long enough to become someone to her — a memory to link along with photographs and stories she's told?
Recent images of me could be described as "unfortunate" — and that's generous. I am either bald or with hair in stages of sprouting, awkward in length and texture. Despite my love of fashion, clothes are now purchased for comfort as well as their ability to be quickly stripped off, due to the hot flashes surgical menopause has induced. Multiple surgeries have left my stomach bloated and distended, and a lack of physical activity and courses of steroids through chemotherapy have left my body soft. A lack of energy and perpetual naps mean make-up is no longer practical or applied.
However, rather than blocking the camera, rather than hiding or putting up verbal opposition, I allow the image to be taken. In fact, I even smile.
When life is coming up to the final bend, perhaps fashion, beauty and self-image should be the last things one should consider. Dressing well seems like vanity, a frivolousness I can't afford to care about at this point in my life. Yet I have cared. And still do.
It's Evie's fourth birthday party and all of her friends and our family are in attendance. Garreth and I kneel down to align our heads with Evie's, who is poised to inhale her cake. As I bend forward, a curly brown ringlet pops forward and I tuck it back behind my ear.
Made in India, most likely. I read somewhere that that's where most human hair comes from these days. I imagine some poor woman cultivating hair down to her buttocks, sweating under the hot sun for years, only to have it chopped off and shipped across the ocean. My wig is stunning, brunette with shades of blonde and warm tones of honey. It's also excruciatingly hot and itchy and cost as much as a used car. It lives on a stand in my bedroom, tucked away in the corner. There if I need it or want it, which I normally don't.
This particular day, Evie's birthday, it sat ignored while we dressed for the party. Evie and I wore coordinating butterfly print outfits. I despise butterflies, but as far as four-year-old birthday themes go, I suppose she could have done much worse, and I've never been one to shy away from a theme. I made up my face for the occasion and felt a sense of pride as our family of three gathered in the entryway to put on our shoes. Evie looked around to assess the situation.
"Mama, aren't you going to put on your wig?" Evie asked.
I said, no, I wasn't, not today, and that we were ready to go.
"But Mama, don't show my friends your bald head. Put on your wig!"
Garreth went on the defensive. "Evie, Mama looks fine," he pressed.
But I was already dashing down the hallway. "It's fine, it's fine, it's fine, it's fine," was my breathless, calming chant as I wrestled to balance the cap of the wig over my head.
"It's fine," to placate Garreth. "It's fine," to reassure Evie. "It's fine, it's fine, it's fine," to convince myself, my mantra when the life I was living seemed too heavy to bear.
Two hours later, there we were, the three of us, grinning as four candles flickered in the centre of a butterfly-shaped cake. Me, with long, wavy hair, the picture of health. Recorded, eternalized, captured.
But not saved.
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About Amy MacRae
Amy Marissa MacRae (nee Ho) was born in Calgary, lived for several years in Toronto (where she met her husband, Garreth) but spent most of her life in Vancouver. Amy was a passionate educator, teaching behavioural special needs kindergarten. Amy was also a tireless, and immensely proud mother, to her 5-year-old daughter, Evie. Amy recently found her voice as a writer and added prose to her repertoire of skills and passions. Amy touched many lives with her generous spirit.
Amy died on June 1, 2020 at 35 years of age from ovarian cancer.
"I feel so proud that Amy's piece was chosen as a finalist and that her words will be read by others after she opened up so bravely about how cancer affected her and her loved ones. While still grieving every day, my family was thrilled with the news as we know how Amy would have felt about it – stunned and elated," her husband, Garreth MacRae, told CBC Books via email.
The winner of the 2020 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.