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Losing Miss Classie: Photographer Carol Guzy set out to capture a 104-year-old's last journey -- but along the way was captured herself
I tried to portray the honesty of Classie's decline yet maintain the dignity of her humanity. And I had managed a professional distance of sorts initially. But when I was asked to stop taking pictures and no longer had my lens as a shield, I completely lost my objectivity. Even hardened journalists would be challenged to hang on to that detachment in the wake of a Miss Classie. I became vulnerable to raw feelings; I, too, was losing someone I loved. I was left exposed, like film in the back of a camera that is opened too early.
My other senses became keen now that I was not on professional autopilot: feeling the texture of Classie's paper-thin skin, hearing her breathing change, growing aware of the ache of my heart breaking. My role changed. Lines blurred. I became more of a caregiver, even pitching in with diaper duty.
But, most of all, I was her friend. And she was like the grammy I never knew. She would say, "Good night, honey. I love you. ..." And I would cry all the way home.
Pictures not taken are records gone forever. Indelible images of her are etched in my mind: blowing kisses with an impish grin; the butterfly that landed on her arm as she sat on the porch with a magenta rose in her hair and the sky reflected in her eyes; the gentle hospice chaplain calming her with prayer; Ann's tears as she viewed her in the lavender coffin. But no one will see them.
The little things gave Classie the most pleasure: her porch, a nearby dove's nest, a bowl of grits, Ann's jokes. "Just sit here and hold my hand, honey," she said to me. And then her soft voice, "Have mercy on me, Lord."
The last night of Classie's life, she tenderly touched her niece Gloria's face, as if to imprint the image on her soul. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful picture that I couldn't take. Later, as I sat at her bedside, she reached up and also touched my face so lightly that it was like the kiss of a butterfly. I didn't realize then, but it was her goodbye to me.
The next morning, as Marilyn went about her routine, she tenderly hummed a lullaby and murmured, "Love you, baby." Color was fading from Classie's skin like an ancient family photograph. Her feet, usually cold, had a different kind of iciness. I pulled up her covers, for she had been frantically picking at her clothes, as if trying to shed her old weary body. Then Gloria and I began chatting. As Gloria started preparing lunch, I went to hold Classie's hand, and there it was -- the stillness. After all the ruckus of the past months, all the "Oh, Lordys," she passed quietly. Death came like a whisper.
But she died hearing the sounds of everyday life, and she got her wish, to just fall asleep like her sister, in the same bed. It was June 10, 2009, five months after Roz. "She floated away like a dove," Thelma said wistfully.
Just as I had held vigil at Classie's bedside all those months, I continued at her gravesite. I oddly worried that she was cold. She had always had the heat cranked up to sweltering heights. And it was hard to go and leave her all alone. Silly thoughts. But spending time at the cemetery proved to be cathartic, my therapy. I lay down in the grass for the first time in forever. A gentle evening light caressed the landscape, giving the flowers an ethereal glow like the one Classie had in the casket. I didn't need to photograph her body, I thought: This was the reflection of her soul's essence. Hope.
I grieved for Miss Classie and for the images that were never made. But the torture of those missed moments had led me to this place of serenity, and to what my shrink calls a "sacred pause." It all came into focus, as if a camera lens were turning to a point of clarity. So I started taking pictures -- of everything. The sheer joy of making images was irresistible, and no one could tell me to stop. Were the photos cliched? Yes. But you can't choose your epiphany. I would still have preferred to document her entire journey, because that's what we do: We tell stories, and Classie's was special. Yet graveside epiphanies are infinitely cheaper than a shrink.