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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

Clarice "Classie" Morant, 104, was the primary caregiver for her sister Rozzie Laney for over 20 years until 92-year-old Rozzie passed away on New Year's Eve 2008. Classie moved into her sister's bed the next night, taking Rozzie's place in needing care. See Part 1:'No Greater Love'

So here it was. The reason. The loss of my little friend opened my eyes and taught me lessons. Photography is half of my heart, but the living part gets put aside with the frenetic business of documenting everyone else's lives. I thought this story would be Classie's legacy, but it was her final gift to me.

I looked around at all the other graves, wondering about their occupants' lives. Everyone has a story. I noticed a tattered flag that said "Mom." Then felt the guilt, realizing I had spent more time this year with Classie than with my own mother.

***

Two weeks later, I find myself in vigil again at the bedside of another fading life, holding my mother's frail hand in the hospital where I was born. My mom, my constant, the first who loved me. My heart. Watching her decline in those twilight days of end-stage Alzheimer's means facing the deepest, most primal of losses. At what point do you let go?

I am happy to hear her say anything, even: "Oh, shut up! You're full of baloney." Of course, the proper response is, "I love you, too, Mom." But she also says: "Take me home. I just want to go home and die." And my heart breaks. Again.

So another tenacious little dynamo is quieted by old age. Her skin pale. Her hands cold. All the signs I know so well. Please don't let her pick at her clothes, I pray. She talks to people who are not in the room. She sleeps like she's in a coma. The life review. "I'm so tired," she says. I tell her she can go to sleep now, that we will be all right. The permission.

I hold on to the lessons Classie taught me -- it's not pictures and Pulitzers that are most significant. It's loved ones. I've taken leave from work to walk through another valley during my mom's final journey. She doesn't recognize I'm her daughter, but she is aware that someone is paying her lots of attention. The aides paint her nails pink, and we go to activities at the nursing home. The Elvis impersonator was especially popular! Sometimes she still smiles. Small blessings. I pray that when death comes, it's a whisper.

Carol Guzy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Washington Post.She can be reached at guzyc@washpost.com.


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