Updated: Jun 3, 2019
Around November of 2016, my father, Guy Whiteman, at 63 years old, noticed a small, hard lump growing on the side of his neck. It wasn't painful, but it was new, and it was worrisome. He had tests and biopsies done, and during that holiday season, the doctors did acknowledge that the lump was concerning, but we didn't yet have a diagnosis. My father was the first to say the C word, out of speculation; my mother, brother, and I wouldn't utter the possibility for fear it would become cold, hard truth.
We went Christmas tree shopping together as a family, a long-standing holiday tradition. I remember watching my father and his lifelong friend, lovingly given the title "Uncle" Gary, tie the trees up on top of my car and his, as I thought to myself "What if this is the last time my father's here to do this?" Once the C word is floating around out there as a possibility, you start thinking about mortality a lot more than you used to. My father's birthday was December 18th, and he threw a big, blow-out house party with about 50 people in attendance, a live, local band (Smokestack) and plenty of Fireball. He said this could be the last time he'd be able to do things like this for a while, so he wanted to make it big, but promised to throw one even bigger if he got a clean bill of health when his test results came back. Christmas day had a pall over it-- we were waiting.
We brought in the new year with a diagnosis of Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma with unknown primary. The words were both terrifying and meaningless. The questions I wanted answers to weren't found in that diagnosis: would my father be okay? What were his treatment options? What was his prognosis? "Unknown primary" was an alien concept-- how could they know he has cancer but not know where it's coming from? The doctors became detectives, using tests to conduct a witch-hunt in my father's body to try to track down the source. They narrowed it down to his throat, and started talking treatment options. Radiation. Chemotherapy.
My father came home that day and said he knew too many people who went through those treatments and didn't come out better off on the other side. He strongly considered going untreated; he was given a prognosis of about 2 years if he let the cancer run its course, and a promise that his quality of life would decrease steeply as time went on and cancer started to win. My mother and I pushed him to pursue the treatment; it seemed like the best option at the time. My father was fitted for a radiation mask-- it became the bogeyman. My father talked in disbelief about how medieval this all seemed, how the mask looked like something out of Saw. He started treatment.
As the weeks went on, my father's weight started to drop. He went from a big, strong bear of a man to a wisp of himself. He lost interest in eating because the treatment caused food to lack taste, and his throat was so dry from radiation that swallowing was extremely painful. He would pick at a steak dinner when he'd usually get seconds. His portion size became a forkful of something. Eventually, his diet became smoothies with Pediasure, and when that wasn't enough, he was given a feeding tube. He talked about the days when he would be better, how he couldn't wait to go to the new Brazilian steakhouse or the local seafood restaurant that had opened. He sent me a text on my birthday saying "Happy birthday sweetheart. I love you. I'll take you out to do something together when I'm better."
He finished treatment, and it became another waiting game for the doctors to be able to run tests to see if he had beaten his cancer. He was ready to throw another party when he felt better, to burn his radiation mask. He attended my brother's high school graduation in a wheelchair because he was still so weak from treatment. A week later, I got a call from my mom while I was at work - she was crying. She said my father had fallen when he was getting out of bed. He was being taken by ambulance to the hospital, and she didn't know what was wrong, but thought maybe it was because he was still weak from the chemo and radiation and had passed out. I asked if she thought I should come to the hospital, and she said she didn't know if it was necessary, but wouldn't mind the support. My then-fiance and I spoke to our bosses and headed to the hospital. When we walked into the hospital and found my mom, she said, with tears streaming down her face, "Daddy's dead."
He was 64 years old, and had died of a heart attack just weeks after finishing cancer treatment. Devastated is too weak of a word for how my family and I felt.
In the weeks after his passing, I began to sift through pictures, piles and piles of 4x6's that had been stowed in big plastic tubs in my parents' closet and rarely looked at. It was an extremely painful process, but I needed to see his face. I needed to know what I still had left of him, to take inventory of my memories. I realized through this process that the photos that were most meaningful to me, that pulled at my emotions and dredged up the most memories, were the photos that captured my father's personality, that showed him doing the things he loved and interacting with my family and I.
About a year later, I decided that I wanted to start over, to create a new photography business that would give families more of the types of photos that I now treasure most of my father: documentary family photography. I wanted the business to have a name that would be a nod to him, but would also have a piece of me in it. He was a huge supporter of my photography business, being an entrepreneur himself, and loved and encouraged my creativity and inclination towards the arts. He appreciated photography, and loved to take photos while travelling. I learned black and white film photography in college on his borrowed Pentax ME Super.
When brainstorming names, I thought about the street name for the cabin in the mountains in Pennsylvania that my grandfather had built, with my father and his siblings' help: Caledonia. We used to go to that cabin at least once a year, every year of my life, and some of my fondest memories of my father happened there. I thought of his interests later in life: music, the blues, motorcycles. I thought of building his name into my business somehow, through his name (Guy Andrew Whiteman) or initials.
In the end, I settled on Finch and Laurel. Growing up, my father gave me a deep love and appreciation for nature. He would help me catch (and release) little frogs in our backyard in Minnesota to try to save them from the lawnmower. We'd go on walks, and he'd help me collect acorns, pretty rocks, fallen bird feathers. He'd point out full moons and sunsets, to make sure we saw them. He taught me to love and respect the outdoors and to really look at the world around me, to enjoy all the little things.
He had binoculars and guides on local birds, trees, and flowers from the Audoban Society, and when we were living in Rhode Island, he got a bird feeder specifically to try to attract goldfinches. We'd watch them together on our porch or out our window, and we'd point them out to each other any time we saw them at the feeder. We both loved seeing them; they were so beautiful, so striking. Now, any time I see a goldfinch, I think of him.
My father also had a love for mountain laurel. It was a fixture of our trip to the cabin in the mountains, if we went up in the right season. My dad always loved to act as tour guide while driving, and he had a very active pointer finger. If you were in the front seat next to him, you may well have his arm whoosh across your face with excitement as he'd brandish that pointer finger to point something out on your side of the car. We'd drive around on dirt mountain roads to look for deer, and any time he'd see a patch of mountain laurel, he'd point it out with fervor: "Look, mountain laurel!" It's another little thing that will now always make me think of him, any time I see it.
Finch and Laurel. I think my father would have liked the name, if we were still around to hear it. I think he would have liked the idea of documentary family photography, as well; he was never a fan of "pose!" or "cheese!"
Finch and Laurel. It's a name with deep roots. He would have liked that.