Chaos, Death, and How 2020 Almost Broke Me

Marissa Southards | 21 August, 2022

            Chaos, Death, and How 2020 Almost Broke Me

This is a post from the Archives - originally written in early 2021....


Hi.  Hello there.  Remember me?  The nerdy photographer that was preparing to launch to new level.  2020 was going to be my year.  I was rebranding, I had contacts in seven new cities that I would visit in the spring and summer, and had booked my first four speaking engagements.  And then Covid happened.  


Yes loveys, I disappeared in 2020.  While a pandemic swirls around the world and forced many of us to The Indoor Times, life continued on for all of us, in a new and bizarre way.  For those us deemed essential, we worked long hours and faced risk that others didn’t have to.  If you are a parent, you learned that virtual school could be incredible (or NOT!).  Our entire world changed.  As a photographer that normally works in close quarters, you can imagine that any photography ideas for this project basically went out the window.  In the post-COVID era, the type of photography I do is nearly impossible.  Add in that I'm also writing on bare skin?  Big hard no on being able to continue sessions.  My speaking engagements - cancelled.  The sessions I had planned to announce - cancelled.  Awakened AF went on hiatus.  And so did I.  


Even as I pondered how to pivot, I was overwhelmed with a healthcare job that moved me from a comfortable position of tenure to working 16 hour days, 7 days a week, for months.  Down time?  What’s that?  A quiet day?  I don’t think so!!  My entire world shifted and I spent months doing nothing but working.  Nurses were needed nationwide and my job was to help deploy them where needed.  In a global pandemic.  From a remote office. 


My home studio transformed into my remote office and became known in the household as "The War Room".  Backdrops and studio lights were replaced by a corner desk, printers, and cables to ensure connectivity to the VPN.  March through May became a blur of waking up, working under a constant state of emergency, shoving a protein bar down my face once in a while, and then shuffling off to bed listening to the news tell me just how awful tomorrow was going to be.  But summer showed a glimmer of hope - the curve flattened and work calmed down enough for me to reclaim my down time.  While shooting in the studio was still out of the question, I was at least able to take my camera out again. I started teaching my oldest how to use a camera, and it was incredible to see that she had a natural eye. I had also started an educational journey at the beginning of 2020 and since I was reclaiming my time, I doubled down and started to take as many classes as I could handle, shortening my graduation date six months.


But there was a darkness around the corner waiting for me and my family.  On July 30th, my mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer.  And on August 12th, she died.  She spent 7 days at home on hospice.  I recognize the privilege of being able to be with her at the end, especially during a year when so many died alone in a hospital.   She wanted to die with dignity and with her family around her, and she was able to do that.  She wasn't in a lot of pain and her and I said everything we needed to say.  Since becoming a mother myself, nothing had ever really been unsaid between my mom and I.  But even in my 40's, I wasn't ready to let her go and felt there was still much in the world that I needed her for.  


We all know we should outlive our parent or parents.  We know this is a bridge we will cross and we will lose them, if we haven't already.  But I wasn't ready.  I had barely got used to the idea that she had a fatal cancer, and then she was gone.  My brother and I, along with my father, had the honor of helping take care of her in her final days.  I recognize that the ways in which we cared for her are an honor, as she cared for us in these ways when we were just babies.  My brother and I were able escort her body out of her home when the medical examiner arrived.  We brushed her hair, made sure she had her shoes on, and had a clean face.  And we kissed her goodbye a final time. 


I was able to spend her last 24 hours alongside her, along with my father.  The evening before she passed, I had helped her clean up a bit and got her comfortable while my aunt, uncle, and father worked out dinner for us all.  I remember wiping her face moving her pillow around, and she looked at me and said "Promise me you'll look over me".  I was nearly undone in that moment, but I promised.  She had done the same for me, not even as a child, but as an adult too.  Mom knew her time was coming.  Hell, she even told us the night before.  She looked right at me and my dad and said "I have to go now.  I have to travel."  Did it make it any easier when it happened?  Absolutely not.  


My father knew when it happened.  I had popped outside to smoke a cigarette (yes, I see the irony and yes I plan to quit) with my mom's best friend.  He nodded at me through the door and I just knew.  She was gone.  I sat beside her and held her hand and just let my heart break.  And I'm grateful that my dad just let my heart break and let me cry.  A small part of her ashes remain with me, and a small part with my brother as well.  But the remainder are in the wilds of Wyoming where my dad and I scattered them a few weeks after her death.   


It's been nearly 6 months and to this day I'm still not ready to be without my mom.  She's my biggest inspiration and was my biggest cheerleader as I started exploring a creative life.  Even when I struggled to find the balance between work and creativity, she encouraged me to just keep going. The idea to just keep going has stuck with me since she died.  I almost quit school.  But I kept pushing.  I finished my second bachelor's degree in November and began work on my master's program.  I quit my job after figuring out it was time to keep on going - with a company that would let me grow.  On days that feel hard to get through - I lean on the idea that mom instilled in me- just keep going. 


So where did that leave me at the end of 2020?  A little aimless at first.  Grieving.  But moving forward. I now lead a global team with a new company that supports me for who I am and appreciates my ideas.  I miss my mom, but I'm starting to laugh more when I think about things she said or did.  And I'm finally, after a year of chaos, finding my creative flow again.  I started opening my social media apps again and picked up my camera for a bridal shoot.  I missed my camera. I missed the intensity of editing photos and writing about the lessons I learned.  I missed so fucking much in the last year. 


What does this all mean going forward?  Covid is still a thing.  A pandemic is still out there.  Can I photograph the authenticity of a community in the midst of a pandemic?  I think there are ways to do just that very thing that need to be explored.  I don't know what that looks like yet.  But I know that the lessons this project brought me along with the idea to just keep going - got me through 2020 in all its chaos and death, even when 2020 nearly broke me. 


Stay magical and just keep going, 


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