A Photographer's Notes

Photos by Anne Fishbein

In the beginning of my working relationship and subsequent friendship with Dorothy Travis, we started an ongoing dialogue about the pictures I should take during what turned out to be the last four months of her life. She knew better than I did how she spent her days, what her illness had done to her life, where it had brought her and where it was taking her. Slowly, a photographic story began to take form.

There were a couple of false starts. I had planned an elaborate group photo session of Dorothy and some of her fellow residents at the Carl Bean House, the hospice where she spent most of her last days, but when I arrived, Dorothy wasn't there. She had been transported, abruptly, for one of many subsequent trips to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Early on, Dorothy would dismiss me for the day after maybe one or two photographs, feeling tired and hesitant about the stranger with the camera. But over time, a routine was established. She would tell me something about herself, then ask about my life and give me advice (and the next time I'd see her, she'd always ask if I had taken her advice).

The camera, though always present, was quietly incidental -- or so I thought. Though photography had not previously played a role in Dorothy's life -- there were maybe four or five existing pictures of her before we met -- she came to expect the camera on my visits, and almost require it. If I sat too long without documenting her day or, even more inexplicably, attempted to leave without taking a picture, she would make suggestions about possible images of interest.

There was only one time Dorothy said, "Not today, Anne." It wasn't during a graphic procedure or on a day of especially intense pain, but during a quiet moment one morning toward the very end of her life. She was simply exhausted.

The parts of Dorothy's life she most strongly wanted emphasized were her religion and her faith, her ambivalent relationship to treatment and medication, and her last birthday, which took place on a rainy March 5, in a room at Cedars-Sinai.

Unfortunately, the location, the weather and the weekday timing of the event prevented her family from being present. When I arrived in the evening, it was unexpectedly quiet. I was Dorothy's only visitor that day. But the remarkable Cedars nursing staff had arranged for a birthday banner and cake. I took pictures of the celebration.

During Dorothy's last weeks, it became increasingly important for her to experience moments of normalcy. She was fed through a tube, but on a whim one Sunday she asked her older son to bring her a hot dog and chili fries. Despite the comments from the nurses' aides about the inevitable mess it would later make in her bed, Dorothy ate her meal with what seemed to be a sense more of determination than of enjoyment.

Although Dorothy was always clear about the need to protect the identity of her children in the photographs for the story, we agreed that I could take pictures of them for her family (I gave her both the prints and the negatives). She placed the steady infusion of her children's images around her room to mitigate the pain of her absence from their lives. But during the last two weeks of her life, when Dorothy was too weak to leave her bed, the hospice staff meticulously placed a large set of these images behind the headboard of her bed. They were viewable only to those entering the room.

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