Memorial services are never an easy event to cover as a photographer, especially if they are for someone within your own family. My sister Johannah fought her cancer bravely for three solid months. And yet it seemed to be over so quickly. She seemed so strong all through the end. These three days of services seemed so out of place that it didn’t feel right to be meeting relatives and family friends under such circumstances after so long in such a quick time frame. None of this made any sense.
This collection of photos are the only sixteen of the nearly four hundred I took across three days of services for my sister that I and, I’m sure, my family feel most comfortable with sharing to the world; images of a place seemingly frozen in time where loved ones do not want the passage of time to commence – a sort of limbo from the outside world where the most precious of memories of our own lost loved one linger around the halls of the chapel and the green lawns of the mortuary. And while most of them only show the backs of my relatives and our family friends, I can only hope that these photos do justice to show that my sister was well loved and nurtured, even beyond her life on this earth.
In the last few months leading up to her hospitalization, my sister spent most of her time at home with my parents. Which is why this image of the sixteen I am able to share strikes me personally as the most emotionally moving one. My parents, hands locked and looking over their daughter just as they were when they took her in a year or so ago; those with children can probably fathom some sort of internal thought process or feeling for what was going through my parents minds and hearts. Soon-to-be parents and those yet to have children can only hope to imagine, I’m sure.
Almost in the same composition as the first image that I thought was the most emotionally invoking, this image is of my father with his grandson, my nephew, and possibly the second most emotionally charged photo from my collection. In reality, he was pointing to the slideshow on the nearby monitor, saying that was his aunt and himself on the screen. If we didn’t know any better, we could easily assume he was pointing to her up in the sky somewhere as if she was watching over us in that moment.
Another one of my favorites, this is a photo that must be captured in the moment and I’m glad I was there to obtain it. The minister had just entered the chapel as I finished taking photos outside and I instinctively yet quietly followed him to take this photo. To me, it symbolizes the wave of hope that parted the highly emotional seas of sorrow, despair, and hopelessness that stirred the air those three days to make way and give light to hope, faith, and happiness. In the last few days of her life, my sister grew ever closer to our family’s original religious upbringings and sought comfort through it. It only seemed fitting that as we celebrated her life that we continued to share that comfort in her memory.
Personally, this photo of my boutonniere and pin resting on the bouquet of roses that stayed with my sister throughout the services speaks volumes of my participation. Just a week prior, I was being offered a chance to share a eulogy and be a pallbearer (a clearly Western-style funeral for a family of Asian decent as I probably would not have participated otherwise). As the services commenced, little did I know I would so easily volunteer to be the one to tuck the decorative cloth and blankets into her casket and close it one last time that I couldn’t even recall the sobs and cries for my sister that ensued from behind me as the lid slowly shut. When it was all said and done, I had realized that this single boutonniere was the last thing physically tying me to the services. Thus, it felt natural to leave it behind with the rest of the flowers (and by some respects, superstitiously proper). It all seemed to happen so fast; I’m glad I captured this beautiful image of the single decoration among the others, a symbol of the unique bond I had with my sister amid the other beautiful moments in her life.
Life’s memories and the history of ourselves as individuals are often best described not through journals or letters or shelves full of encyclopedias but through the timeless images we capture by any means necessary that cannot be described in words. This collage my aunt created for friends and family to remember my sister by are an amazing example of that. Johannah was well-loved and well-respected by many, which is something that we all lose sight of within ourselves more often than not when it comes to our family and friends and the passage of time. She had her ups and downs, and I felt extremely privileged to have been a part of each day that I shared with her as her little brother. Even though it felt like quite the opposite in the later years of her life where I was giving her more life advice than she did for me, she still continued to inspire us and keep us on our feet so that we would hope to continue inspiring and motivating her. She was an amazing person to be with and will always have a special place in our hearts. Johannah, you will be missed but never forgotten; loved and never misunderstood by those who knew you for the amazing potential you always had. May the journey you have now embarked upon be without pain and suffering and full of nothing but warmth, peace, and happiness. I love you always, sis.
[ LiSA – Ichiban no Takaramono (Yui ver.) ]
If we see each other’s faces, we always fight.
That’s a good memory too.
You taught me that; I’m not afraid anymore.
No matter what kind of impairment I may have, I can grasp happiness. That’s why…
Even if I’m alone, I’ll go, even if it’s difficult.
I’ll definitely bring the dream I had with you.
I’m glad it was with you, and nobody else.
But when I woke up in the morning, you weren’t there.
I was always playing; that’s the feeling I got.
That was just a feeling I got, that was it, I know.
I don’t regret that I was born anymore.
Like the end of a festival, it’s lonely, but we’ve got to go pretty soon.
I’ll go anywhere with the things I learned here.
I’ll show you that I can make the dream called happiness come true.
Even if I’m separated from you, no matter how far away we go.
I’m going to live in a new morning.
Even if I’m alone, I’ll go, even if I want to die.
I can hear your voice, saying I shouldn’t die.
Even if it’s difficult, even if I cry from loneliness
I can feel warmth from deep inside my heart.
Going ’round-and-’round and flowing, time is ever-changing.
I can’t remember what happened anymore, but
If I try and close my eyes, I can hear someone’s laughing voice
For some reason, now, that is My Most Precious Treasure.
Johannah Marie Rivera Rafanan
July 17, 1981 – July 18, 2013