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Scars, Stoma, Ostomy Bag, Portacath
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Making Relationships Visible
In 1975, the year in which I most fully came out, I started making self-portraits that combined my own image with that of a lover. Photographer Honey Lee Cottrell (see Nothing But The Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image) was my beloved at that time, and together we explored ways to make images that “read” as lesbian. In some of these pictures, I am nude and she is partially clothed. In one, I have my hand on her thigh and am looking into the camera as she looks at me.
In the early 1980s, after a separation of a year and a half, I made photographs of myself with Caroline Overman shortly after we became lovers for the second time. The relationship was wildly sexual and, at least to me, the pictures I made of us together, nude in hotel and motel rooms, convey this quality.
Sometime later I came into possession of a photograph of my grandmother Mabel (Carnes, Unland, Meares), taken around 1910, when at the time, she was a widow with a small child. In the picture, she is sitting on the floor leaning back against the legs of a woman seated in a chair. They were holding hands, facing the camera with looks of such complicity that they took my breath away. When I asked her about the other woman in the photo, she told me her name was Gertie Bance (Lance? Vance?). She said that Gertie was a handsome woman who never married and moved to California. I am sure they were lovers.
In the mid-1980s, with Lee Lynch, an author and yet another of my lovers, images which referenced that photograph of Mabel and Gertie, images in which I am shown sitting on the floor with Lee behind me.
My relationship with Beverly Anne Brown spanned the years from 1989 to 2005. Beverly loved appearing in double portraits with me and we often played in front of the camera. Frequently we used a mirror so that the picture would announce not only our lesbianism, but also that one of the subjects was the photographer.
As a rural activist and director of a non-profit organization, Beverly was cautious about allowing nude photographs to be made of her. When she was preparing to have a hysterectomy in 1992, however, she asked me to photograph her body before the surgery, but not print the photographs at that time, and I complied.
In 2003, after emergency surgery, she was diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer. Again, she had me photograph her in the nude. This time she stressed the importance of showing the scars, the stoma where her intestines now opened out of the left side of her abdomen, the ostomy bag which collected her body waste, and the porta-cath, above her right breast, which permitted easy access to her vascular system. She knew these images were important for other women to see. She wanted to show what happened to her body in order to demystify the results of having colon resection surgery, of using a body appliance like an ostomy bag, and of having a porta-cath inserted under one’s skin.
I continued taking pictures of her and of us, clothed and nude. For me, the strongest image in this series I arbitrarily colored blue. In it, we are naked, facing the camera. She is in front wearing her glasses as she almost always did. The ostomy bag is clearly visible. My hands are on her shoulders. It is titled The Saddest Picture I’ve Ever Made.
Almost exactly one year after Bev’s diagnosis, we came to a different kind of crisis. She said she had fallen in love with someone else. That someone was unavailable as a lover, but important as a friend.
We struggled forward, took photographs of one another, talked, argued, cried.
After a while, we reached a point of resolution, a place from which we could go on.
Two years after the initial diagnosis, Beverly decided to move to a city that was four hours’ drive from our shared home. The reasons for the move were complex. Some were professional: the move permitted her to continue working on projects about which she cared deeply.
For the first six weeks, we talked on the phone every day, as we had talked every day during the years of our life together. Then we talked twice a week. Finally, there was a call every Sunday. She was an amazing conversationalist: entertaining, knowledgeable and connected, always interested in what others were doing and thinking.
My Beautiful Friend
Seven months after Beverly left, I drove north to see her. We had visited in person only once since she had moved out. I thought I was going to visit her to say goodbye. What happened was a closure and an opening as well. We had been estranged and we were no longer.
Earlier in the week, I had e-mailed her to see if it was all right for me to come, but she hadn’t responded. The messages being sent out by the organizer of her caretaking, M.B., were dire and implied imminent demise. My friend Jeanne encouraged me to just go, as did Beverly’s brother, Ron, who suggested I arrive shortly after he would. I knew he would help me get in if anyone should try to bar my way.
The drive takes four hours, during which I considered different scenarios. What if some woman met me at the door, arms crossed, and blocked my way? In the past, Beverly had made a list of all the people she wanted to be protected from. Would I now be on that list?
I arrived early enough to use the bathroom at a local coffeehouse and pick up a cold soda. At Beverly’s duplex, Ron and his wife, Sharon, came out of the front door as I approached. They told me Beverly was just then getting dressed. I followed them back inside. K., M.B.’s partner, was sitting in Beverly’s reclining chair holding a drooling infant. Beverly is a cleanness freak and has never been fond of babies. I wondered if she had changed in major ways.
Another friend came in, greeted me, and told me that Beverly was so changed that she had been shocked when she saw her. She told me, sotto voce, that Beverly had told her if I turned up I should be welcomed.
Beverly walked in using a cane. She was much changed and quite yellow brown but did not look nearly as bad as I had expected. Her eyes were bright and excitedly looking around. Her face lit up when she saw me. I can’t remember now if I got up and gave her a hug. I think I did, but relief was my overwhelming experience, relief that she was happy to see me and also that she was not exactly at death’s door yet.
K. went, taking the baby with her. Beverly looked at the tissues left behind and asked her brother to put them in the garbage, wash his hands, and bring her a glass of water. She was so much the same at her core that I almost laughed. Did her eyes really twinkle as she looked at me, a look that was almost conspiratory?
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