You're Not Alone | Pt. I

Today's post is the first in a new series very near and dear to my heart. You know how you're scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, looking at endless photos of happy families doing fabulous things, and - if we're being honest - you start to feel a little grumpy? Blame it on the fact that you haven't slept through the night since you became a mother 5 years ago, or on the fact that your marriage has been particularly thorny lately, but whatever the reason, it sure feels like everyone else's lives are going SO. much. better. than yours.

You're not alone.

Pictures never tell the whole story. When you scroll through my blog and see all the happy families smiling and enjoying each other, it's easy get stuck in comparisons and come up short. I created this series because I know that behind the smiles and snuggles there is a story, and it's never an easy one. Whatever you're going through, whatever you've come through, however isolating it feels - you're not alone.Today's post is by one of the dearest people I know, my friend and client and fellow photographer Melissa McMasters. I had the very great honor to photograph her and her mother two years ago, and it was one of the most memorable sessions I've photographed to date. Enjoy.________________________

by Melissa McMasters

This is one of my favorite pictures of my family. Our smiles are genuine, the crape myrtles in the backyard are still showing their autumn color, and the dogs are looking at each other with barely-restrained suspicion. This is the photo that hangs over the fireplace, the "quintessential" shot of everyone together. It's the kind of shot you post on Facebook that makes everyone respond "Beautiful family!"We took this photo in the afternoon of November 21, 2013, but there's a picture in my mind of the morning that's just as vivid.Two weeks earlier, my mom had finally convinced a doctor to investigate the heartburn she'd been having. OTC meds weren't touching it, and after having gone through breast cancer, she knew when something was wrong with her body. None of us had any idea how wrong until an MRI showed a mass on her pancreas. A week later, she was in surgery to remove what the doctor thought was a benign cyst, but that turned out to be two types of cancerous tumors fused into one. We Googled: the five-year survival rate was less than one percent. Life as we knew it was over.The morning of the day we took this photo, we sat in the same cancer clinic where she'd had 16 months' worth of infusions, waiting to hear exactly how bad the prognosis was. The exam room door had a full-length mirror, and from my seat near the back wall I could see the whole tableau: my mom, my father, my brother, my sister-in-law, all of us silent, heads bowed against what we knew was coming. Would our beloved Kathy, the center of our world, have one month left with us? Two? How soon would she lose the ability to do the things she loved? Would she ever be a grandma? Go to Paris? From what we'd read, her remaining time would be hard and it would be short.It turned out that because of her persistence with the doctors, they'd discovered her tumor far earlier than is normal for pancreatic cancer patients, who are often sent home with antacids and told to return in a couple of months if the pain doesn't get better. By that time, the cancer has taken hold, devouring much of the tiny pancreas and jumping into other organs. Though her diagnosis was still terminal, my mom was lucky: they'd been able to remove the whole tumor surgically, and chemo could buy her a year, maybe more.As her first request for the rest of her life, she asked us all to take a family picture as soon as we got home. My brother and sister-in-law would have to go back to Virginia soon, and she was terrified that she'd lose her hair to chemo a second time. So we scrubbed the tears from our faces, picked out some reasonably color-coordinated outfits, and drifted into the backyard. My brother was ready first, so he commandeered the patio furniture and did some pinup-girl poses. Then everyone came outside, and we laughed at how many different apathetic expressions the dogs could offer. I put a remote behind my back and snapped away, trying to stay in the moment and not think about the reason these photos felt urgent.It's rare and wonderful in life to have a completely uncomplicated relationship with someone, but that was how our relationship felt. My mom and I were best friends, travel buddies, confidantes, foils. I was living out of state when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and when the doctor told us it had spread and she would need treatment for the next year, I moved home. In my whole life, I'd never seen my mom scared. I'd needed her forever; now she needed me. I always expected her to beat breast cancer, so I had no expectation that those would be our last years together--that I would be thankful every day that we got to spend that time in person instead of on the phone.My mom encouraged me to take photos from an early age, so I have a treasure trove of memories of her. Besides the usual vacations and birthdays, in 2009 I started doing Project 365--taking a photo every day and writing a caption for it. It became my journal, and I never missed a day. After I realized my mom wasn't going to make it, I wondered when I would quit. There was obviously going to come a day when I couldn't bear to record reality, and surely I'd know the point at which I wanted to start forgetting.The thing is, that day never came. Knowing that I had only a short time left with the person I loved most, I wanted to remember more, not less. In the face of her death, my mom shined light outward like a supernova. She laughed at the image of Goody Two-Shoes Kathy looking forward to her daily delivery of medical Mary Jane. She made friends with all her nurses, and she shared stories of how her faith sustained her. She drove through a DC snowstorm to be there for the birth of her grandson, my red-headed nephew, who she adored beyond all measure. She and I skipped through the streets of Paris at last, consuming unholy amounts of pastry and marveling at how much of the high art in French museums is just depictions of boobs.And we took so many pictures. Pictures that I bound into albums she would show to the friends who came by to visit her, and pictures that never saw the light of day. Photos from her first trip to the Pacific Ocean and from a random Wednesday in the chemo room. Because in the end I didn't want to forget the hard parts either. That would mean missing out on so much of the wisdom she shared, and the strength she conveyed, and the open-heartedness with which she approached an unthinkable situation.It's kind of a truism that we only take photos of the happy moments in our lives, and since we all got on Facebook and Instagram, our "happiness" is in each other's faces 24 hours a day. It all moves so fast that it sometimes takes a while to notice when one of our friends has gone silent. I felt an unspoken pressure not to "bring down the room" by posting too many sad Facebook statuses, but in the end, what would be the point in pretending? There comes a time when curating what you show people starts to seem ridiculous, and you need to reach out and let your community lift you up. Chances are, there are others who need to hear what you're saying so they'll know they're not alone.For the last month of her life, my mom stayed in a hospice bed in the room that had been my nursery as a baby. As I sat with her, I spent hours going through my grandpa's old slides and photo albums. I would show her photos I thought were especially funny or poignant and ask for the stories behind them, knowing this was my last chance to hear them. Neither of us needed a story for this photo, which could have been replicated a million times over our 33 years together. "Mom, I have something to show you!" It's the first time I used a photo for Project 365 that I hadn't taken the same day.Not being able to share things with my mom is the greatest pain I've ever experienced. We just marked the two-year anniversary of her death, and while I now remember who I am outside my grief, it never gets easier to think about all the things she's missing. She'll never know how much my nephew, with his sunshine smile, reminds me of her. She won't meet my niece when she's born next month. If I ever meet someone to share my life with, she won't know that person (and he won't know her). Every happy moment for the rest of our lives will be tinged with the knowledge that she would have been more overjoyed to witness it than anyone.But I have so, so much of her still with me. And that's partly because we made the choice to remember. On the day she passed, I cheated again and used an older photo--this one, where we are holding hands, as we did on so many road trips, just happy to be together. I will always be grateful to Emily for somehow knowing to ask for this pose, and for all the photos she took of us that sunny day during my mom's last winter. This is how I will remember us--unbreakable even across time and space, always ready for the next adventure._______________

I’m super stoked to hear from you.

 Emily Lapish is a lifestyle photographer in Chattanooga, TN specializing in all things family-related. She spends her time fending off wild animals raising three boys with her husband, and enjoys long walks through Target while cradling a hazelnut latte. To book your birth, beauty, or family session, or to schedule a free consultation, click here