terminal illness

My Sheri

I’ve done everything that I can to distract myself for the past three months and avoid posting on this subject, anywhere on the internet, or to wait until I’m able to do it justice and not embarrass myself or rush it or drag it out either in frustration or emotion.

This new WordPress.com blog will not be a place for posts of this kind. I promise you that. 50lux.com is about moving forward for me. The idea and opportunity of it and how it all came together for me now is something I will go into at a later time.

But there’s no question that what’s going on in my life right now, which I address below, is triggering a maybe instinctive survival mechanism that has created a need in me to put something out there that’s positive and hopefully beautiful, something that allows me to contribute anything at all worthwhile to the conversation about photography as well as broader subjects such as beauty, politics, and life.

I met a girl 17 years ago out at the Mobil station near my apartment here in Los Angeles. Her name is Sheri Wilson. Her mom calls her ‘birdi’. I used a nickname some people called me combined with Sheri’s nickname to make the internet username ‘jammerbirdi’ that I’ve employed for the last 16 or so years online.

Life with Bernadette, my significant other for 37 years, has never left me any time for friends but Sheri was instantly a huge part of our lives, in drama and in bliss, from the moment we met.

Bernadette and I are opposites. The dichotomy is that after all these years we are as one person, almost, but we are at the same time as different from each other as two people can be. It’s been a lifelong conversation between people who are like alien beings from different planets. It’s just a chemistry thing; we love each other like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s been that way now for most of our lives.

Sheri, on the other hand, is not my opposite. She was from the beginning like something that had sprung from my own subconscious. She was the little voice inside my head. I used to call her Dr Phil in a weave and from the first moments after I met her she was already in my head snipping wires and moving things where they really were supposed to go.

I was a boy of 37 when I met Sheri and I’ve said many times that she made a man out of me.

Three months ago, Sheri called on a Monday night from her car and said she’d be home in a few minutes, to be sure to answer the phone. When she called back she told me that she had just left UCLA and had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Sheri didn’t have lung cancer, that was a misdiagnosis. The largest tumor was in her mediastinum, the cavity where the lungs and heart are, but it had already collapsed her left lung, which I’m sure contributed to the initial misdiagnosis.

The cancer was stage 4 and lesions were also found at two places on her spine, as well as on her pelvis and on her ribs. It has since spread to even more places and it’s obvious now to everyone that Sheri never really had a chance.

So that’s where it is. The first three weeks I thought I was going to lose my mind. I felt like the cancer was inside my own chest. I was depressed and I told Bernadette that I was going to go about another day of being in that place before I’d call our own doctor and get referred to someone for some professional help.

But then I hit a plateau and I got strong. Sort of. Many of you probably know what I’m talking about when I say ‘sort of’. Because things progress, you’re always being hit with something new and it’s always something terrible.

I love nothing nearly as much as Bernadette. But I’ve often wondered did I love Sheri more than my own mother, my family, my best friend from home. I don’t think you can actually know the answer to some of these things.

My emotional trigger for the last three months, and Sheri’s, has been … we just can’t believe this is actually happening. Not to us. I know that sounds less than admirable but we were both thinking why is this happening to us? To our tiny circle?

I lost my mom 9 years ago and that’s a very very hard thing. I’ve never had children, something I’ve never been more glad about than I am right now. It’s said to be the worst thing to lose a child. But I’ve personally never experienced anything as bad as listening to my best friend, younger than I am, sobbing and asking why, why, why. She was so brave and strong initially. But at some point, I guess when the finality of what she was facing hit her she became a devastated person.

I knew that this would be the most difficult situation I’ve ever faced in my life. I knew that I might not survive it myself. I’m determined to survive it, though. I thank whatever forces put certain things in my world at this precise moment because I’m using them all to help pull me out of the hell of this reality and distract my attention and thoughts to other, much better realities, that are about moving forward and trying and doing something good with the time and gifts and people you’re given in this world.

Long before this news, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the two kinds of people in all of our lives. The people who are in this world, among us, and those who are no longer in this world and among us. I’ve got a lot in that second group, and other than my mom in 2003, they’ve been there for a long long time. My father died of cancer 30 years ago. My two older brothers are dead 30 years or more. I guess when you have so many that are no longer here you think about them and how much you’d give for just a five minute phone conversation. I can make a pretty good cup of coffee. What I would give to just make my father a cup of that coffee and sit down and talk about everything we never talked about when he was alive.

My best friend is in this world, among us. So for me, with this distinction working in my mind all these many years, the last three months of knowing that she is still here right now but will soon and forever be gone has been a very destructive place to be inside my head. I can’t sleep. I don’t care how sleepy I am. I lay down and think about something else and start to drift off but the instant my mind falls on the situation, as Sheri and her mom call it, it’s like the front of my brain shoots off like it’s strapped to the front of a rocket. It’s just like that. You’re not seeing anything. At that point it isn’t even thinking. It’s just like a rushing sensation. And the adrenaline jolt is the only thing that’s real. In an instant you go from almost asleep to up on your elbows trying to breathe.

Sheri’s in the hospital now. I don’t think she’s going to be coming home. But with things so close now to where they are going I’m at times, not now but this morning for a few hours, at peace somewhat. Like I can almost see who I will be when this is over and how I can and will move forward. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t getting that glimpse of relief.

You know, I never thought of this until this all happened but… one of the most real and painful realities is that I’m losing one of the few people, honestly, in this world, who loves me. Like an asset in my column. A vote for me. Sheri has always loved me and gotten me.

Sheri spent most of her life in health care in some capacity or other. She felt deeply for aids sufferers and worked in HIV for 15 years at Pacific Oaks Medical Group in Beverly Hills with some of the most important aids doctors in the country, including President Clinton’s one-time aids czar.

When Sheri was hired untrained as a drug and alcohol counselor decades ago she was offered the job 30 seconds into the interview. You had to see it all to believe it, the charm, the eloquence, the savvy, the talent and beauty and glamourous flare that is Sheri.

Everyone who met Sheri loved her because she was just the most different chick you’d ever known. I’ll be posting more pics and some video and sound files. Because I want people to know what kind of a person she was and what a unique character she was and what this world and her family and friends and especially me are losing.

This is a hard thing for me to post this here. I appreciate anyone who took the time to read it.

She’s 53, but she never looked a day over 37. She has a boyfriend in his 20s. And he is devastated. This picture was taken three years ago.