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An intimate last goodbye

When death approaches, Eugene Ellenberg says, we hope to have those tougher, deeper conversations that we were afraid to have when in good health.

Ellenberg and his siblings had many questions for their father, but they were left unanswered.

In July, Ellenberg found out that his father, also named Eugene, had lung and liver cancer that had already progressed to his bones. His mobility and his ability to communicate deteriorated very quickly, and he was gone seven days after the diagnosis.

The elder Eugene was a Vietnam War veteran who “lived with a lot on his mind,” his son said. He didn’t like to talk about his past, which included a failed marriage that estranged him from three sons.

“I could have asked and tested it, but I got to the point where I didn’t want to test it,” Ellenberg said. “He had the right to keep to himself.”

Ellenberg said one of his sisters wishes she had those deeper conversations, but he has no regrets.

“All of us knew he loved us,” he said. “It was just done in silence and through actions.”

The night before Ellenberg’s father passed away, he was incoherent and would only recognize his family if they spoke. Ellenberg held his father up and led him around the house.

When his father asked him what was behind the front door, Ellenberg said "the outside." His father then asked him to take him outside, and the rest of the family followed.

Ellenberg’s father sat in silence for about 20 minutes in a rocking chair. With the wind blowing, and his mother looking at her husband, Ellenberg took out his phone and took his first photo since the diagnosis. The family didn't react, so he continued to document those final hours on his phone.

The following afternoon, his father had been sleeping all day in a hospital bed in their living room. He began secreting fluids from his nose as his body started shutting down, and the family gathered around him.

"We took turns wiping his nose and playing him music and talking,” Ellenberg said. “We really spoke to him and said what we wanted to say, how incredible of a father he was. We didn't have to worry about a response."

Within a few hours, he died.

Looking back at the photos from those last two days, Ellenberg is glad he took out his phone. It allows him to re-experience those final moments. Also, comparing it with old portraits he took, he can see the transformation in his family.

Three years ago, Ellenberg had used a large-format camera to take portraits of his family. The portraits are static, serious; each family member looks caught up in their own world.

This was how Ellenberg viewed his family as well - as individuals who loved each other but kept to themselves.

"When we found out (my father) was passing, all our guards came down,” Ellenberg said. “Everything was shed away.”

Ellenberg held his father's hand, something he didn’t think he had done since he was 7 years old.

"To me, the later work shows another side of our family that we didn’t know was there," he said.

His family members still maintain their privacy, but their interactions have changed, Ellenberg said. He now calls his mother more, and they get together more. He has even connected with his father's other sons, whom he met at the funeral.

"I don’t want this to read morbidly and just as something really sad, but also as something really beautiful that happened and is happening," he said.

– Lauren Russell, CNN

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