I got the call that Julie had passed away in the late afternoon. My daughter and I were packing to go on a quick trip to Kansas City and I remember feeling like someone had punched me in the gut when I thought about Julie being gone so soon. Of course, it wasn’t soon at all…she’d been sick for a long time…but it was soon to me. I only got to know her for six weeks. I had grown quite fond of her. We had plans. She knew my favorite drink. I had just added her to the contacts in my phone. What the hell???
But, of course, it wasn’t about me at all. It was about the universe. What did it all mean? Why did this lady, this amazing person, waltz into my life with all her stories and grace, just to leave six weeks later? Was it because someone needed to document this last stretch of her life, to make tangible evidence of how important she was? I’ll never know exactly why the timing worked out like it did, but I do know that it couldn’t have been for nothing.
Before I left for KC and right after I got the call that Julie was gone, I had a bunch of my photographs of her printed and sent to Julie’s family. I knew they’d all be together for a few days and I wanted them to have the photos in their hands while they were mourning. Three days later, I missed the funeral by several hours, but rushed to the bar where the after party had been scheduled to begin many hours earlier. I was hesitant to go. Honestly, I hate funerals and it was really getting late by the time I could get there. I figured I’d walk in and find a couple of sad, old guys playing Frank Sinatra tunes on the jukebox (“I Did it My Way” was Julie’s favorite,) so who would even notice if I showed up or not? But my gut told me to go and pay my respects, so I put on my big girl pants and shuffled the few blocks down to the bar.
I knew I was wrong about the party when I couldn’t find a parking spot within two blocks of the bar. Cakes, flowers, and framed photos of Julie decorated almost every surface of the bar and its tables. People from all walks of life gathered at high-tops, on barstools, at the karaoke machine, and out back at a fire pit. They didn’t necessarily have a lot in common, but they definitely all shared a love for Julie VonderHaar. I learned from her daughters that this was exactly the party she envisioned as a celebration of her life and deep connection to her friends and family.
Once I was spotted by her family, I was introduced to the out-of-towners, the boys from California who she never got to go visit this Spring, and drinks were put in my hands. Hugs, kisses, and loud whispers of gratitude for immortalizing Julie came one after the other. I felt totally overwhelmed. Just weeks before, Julie and I were sitting in a hospital room where she was describing everything about these people to me in great detail and now here they were, hugging me and thanking me, not just for the photographs, but for making their mother feel special, important, and beautiful at the very end of her life. I told them that it was an honor to have met her, which was true, and that I was the one who owed them gratitude for sharing her with me.
The opening of the AIR exhibit where I last saw Julie VonderHaar was not even two months ago. Since she passed away, I have been trying desperately to make sense of why and how it all happened. Reflecting over my lifetime portfolio, I now see patterns where some of my favorite work has been with people in later life stages. My elderly Austrian neighbor, Wanda, was my favorite person to photograph when I was in college. Her thick glasses, oversized dentures, and the way the sunlight shining through the holes in her woven garden hat made a polka dot pattern across her wrinkled cheeks…I can remember it like it was yesterday. I took rolls and rolls of film in her backyard and she loved the attention I paid her. She, like Julie, felt honored to be photographed and, in the process, taught me a lot about life.
My experience with Julie has renewed my passion for people of every age, and reminded me that I can learn a hell of a lot by just chatting with someone who’s been around the block a few more times than I have. Julie helped me remember that portraiture is about honoring people….about focusing and framing them in a unique way that shows the world they were here and that they were important. She got it. Her family got it. And, I don’t know where I lost it, but I got it back.