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From Long Island to the Virgin Islands: Photographer Reflects On Love, Loss and Life on St. John

Laurel and Howie Borowick, at their wedding on September 3, 1979, on Long Island, NY (Photo courtesy of the Borowick Family)

The year: 1979. The place: Long Island, New York. The hair was big, the sideburns were long, and the dance moves were electric. It was Labor Day weekend, and my parents were tying the knot. 34 years later, they continued to build a beautiful life together, taking adventures and spending time with their three children.

Nancy Borowick with her sister Jessica, brother Matthew, dad Howie and Mom Laurel on a family vacation in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy of the Borowick family)

It was late 2012 when I sat in a chemotherapy room with my dad, Howie, and my mom, Laurel, and watched them as they received treatments for stage-4 cancers at the same time. Dad had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Mom had breast cancer, a disease she had become familiar with over the 20 years she was in and out of treatment for it. There they were, side-by-side, and this was our new normal. I needed to be there with them and photography allowed me to do just that. This set off a multi-year journey in which I documented their lives, and our family; we faced their mortality and learned what it really meant to live.

Dad and Mom sit in their chemo chairs during tandem treatments for stage-four cancers. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)
Dad and Mom had matching port-a-caths beneath the skin on their upper right chests. This is where they had their chemotherapy injected and these are a daily reminder that they are sick. Despite this, they found moments of joy and connection together. (Photo By Nancy Borowick)
About to start new rounds of chemotherapy treatment, Dad and Mom took a last-minute trip to Florida. Life was about to change dramatically for the Borowick family, and one quick escape from reality was necessary for the mind and body. In the face of their own deaths, they felt that living was important. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)

This photographic journey was originally meant as a personal journal for me. It was something I could use to help make sense of my reality. I was not yet 30 years old, and my parents were dying long before I could have ever imagined. Documenting our lives—and ultimately, their deaths—was not only armor for my heart but also cathartic for my soul because I needed to be there with them. Documenting that moment in time gave me that ability. Learning their stories and who they were, not just as my parents, was one of the many gifts cancer gave to me.

A New York Times clipping of the first publication of the Borowick’s story.

 

When the opportunity arose to share our story in the pages of the New York Times, my parents felt that there was nothing to lose, but we couldn’t have imagined the impact it would ultimately have around the world. Luckily, they were alive to see the first run of the story and while going through something like this can feel very isolating, we soon felt the most comforted and connected we had ever felt. They saw how their story actually helped people going through something similar and, in a sense, gave their lives and deaths greater meaning.

With all the strength they could muster, Mom and Dad walked with me, their daughter, down the aisle. Dad’s disease was progressing fast, so he cherished each and every moment, knowing time was short. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)

Today, December 7, 2023, marks 10 years since my dad died, having been sick for just shy of one year with his disease. My mom, Laurel, succumbed to her disease just 364 days after him, marking yesterday, December 6th, as 9 years since we said goodbye to her. As I reflect on life over the last ten years without them, I am reminded once again how unpredictable it can be.  I remember my father’s words from his 14-page eulogy. He wrote, “Remember what we Borowicks already know: the universe never promised any of us longevity. I have outlived my parents by decades and lived well beyond what I had predicted or even bargained for.”

Dad was always the center of attention, and here he was, front and center, surrounded by everyone whom he loved and who loved him back. He would have really liked to be at his own funeral, which is why I imagine he wrote his own eulogy, which was 14- pages long. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)
For many it felt like deja vu. Just one year ago, most of these people gathered in the same location at the same time to remember Dad. Now, they reconvene in the same location at the same time to remember Mom. She never liked to be the center of attention and now here she was, front and center, surrounded by so many who loved and cared about her. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)
On their wedding day, they vowed to be together, in sickness and in health and until death would they part. Upon death they may have parted, but I believe they are now back together, side-by-side. Two years after Mom’s death, we gathered to honor both of them and leave stones as signifiers that we were there and that we remembered them. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)

Life determined the end of the photographic part of this project, but I wasn’t done telling the story. While packing up our family home, I discovered diary entries, cards, old photos, and the odds and ends of everyday life. Doing this was highly therapeutic for me since it enabled me to celebrate their lives and not just mark their deaths. I wanted to memorialize my parents’ story in some way – to give it the gravitas and lasting legacy that I felt it deserved and to share it with the world because I figured that if diving into my parents’ lives after I documented their deaths helped me process my grief, it just might help someone else. So, I started to create a scrapbook that could contain all of the wonder and joy, and love they shared to the very end. And it wasn’t just a book–the story became a traveling exhibition. It was about starting a conversation and it has become a mission of mine to reframe the conversation around illness and death and to try and help others in the process.

The Family Imprint was published by German publishing house Hatje Cantz in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Borowick)
The Family Imprint was exhibited on a street-long vinyl-print presentation in Brooklyn, NY, for five months in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Borowick)
The story was picked up by CBS Sunday Morning and a feature ran on Mother’s Day in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Borowick)

I am often asked how my family and I landed here on the beautiful island of St. John, as it is quite the stark contrast to our previous life in Brooklyn, New York. New York State was always home for my husband and I. It was where we grew up, but after losing my parents, we began to feel untethered. Without my parents, we weren’t sure what home really looked like anymore. We had also just learned an extremely valuable lesson in the fragility of life. And so, we decided to make a change, to take advantage of whatever time we have left on this planet.

In the fall of 2016, we moved 8,000 miles away to  “where America’s day begins,” the U.S. territory of Guam. In a past life, my husband Kyle was a lawyer and heard about an opportunity to clerk for the Supreme Court of Guam. After a successful interview for the job, we packed our bags, stored away our winter boots, and took a chance. Not knowing a single person, we quickly found our community and fell in love with the pace of life in our new island home. A few months in, we adopted our dog Einstein from the local shelter, who, like clockwork, would wake me every morning at first light ready for his walk. We would walk the loop of our neighborhood, breathing in the warm air to the tune of local church bells singing in the breeze. This was our simple routine, every day, and I believe the active meditation of walking Einstein is what brought me back to myself.

Nancy and Kyle enjoying the local tourist attractions early on in their lives on Guam. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Borowick)
Einstein poses for a portrait at sunrise on Guam. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)

After nearly three years on island, we decided that we wanted to start a family. To do this, it was important for me to be closer to the family we still had left. We said goodbye to Guam and headed back to New York, where, in the fall of 2019, we welcomed our first son. Deep in newborn land, we were just getting used to our new role as parents when COVID-19 struck the U.S. and life was changed once again.

While living on Guam, it became a tradition in the Grimm household to have a Christmas aloe plant, and Levi couldn’t wait to touch its decorations. (Photo by Nancy Borowick)

Parenting a toddler in lockdown and terrified of what was unfolding in the world around us, we began to reminisce about our life on Guam. Surrounded by the concrete of New York City, we found that we missed being in beautiful nature and yearned to go back to a simpler, slower pace of life.  Agreeing that we would look for something closer to our family, a friend recommended St. John as she had gotten married there years earlier.  She spoke about the kindness of the people, the gift of the slower pace and the magic she felt being able to celebrate such a big event in such a special place. I had always known the U.S. Virgin Islands but had not had the chance to visit St. John.  And so, we decided to make a trip down to the islands in the spring of 2021 to see what we might find.

Left: A glimpse of Trunk Bay on St. John. Right: Levi Grimm wandering the beachside in Redhook, St. Thomas. (Photos by Nancy Borowick)

When we landed on St. Thomas, we were immediately reminded of Guam as we stepped off the plane and took in our first breath in of the thick, warm air. We felt at ease and knew we were on the right track. Moving from NYC, the bustle and activity of St. Thomas felt almost too familiar, so we decided to ferry over to St. John to check it out. As a tourist, you are only able to catch a glimpse into the life of a place but upon docking in Cruz Bay, we knew we had found something unique. Having spent only one day on the island, we were hooked and after a few months back on the mainland, we packed our bags once again and took another big leap.

The Grimm Family poses for a family photo at a friend’s wedding on St. Thomas. (Photo by Theresa Rellecke)

Life on St. John has been everything we had hoped for and more. It took a moment to get used to driving on the left side of the road, and I had to accept that sometimes you can’t always get certain things the same day you want them, but these things are far outweighed by the many joys that make this place so wonderful. I cannot wait to see what year three holds for our family and our home in Love City.

Nancy Borowick has been documenting life and events around St. John and St. Thomas for the Virgin Islands Source since April 2023. A few of her favorite photos are below; more of her work can be seen on her website.

Archaeologist Brittany Mistretta points out a sea turtle bone uncovered on St. John. (Photo by Nancy Borowick) Full story here.
Rabbi Julia Margolis, 42, stands on the bimah at the beginning of the installation ceremony in St. Thomas. (Photo by Nancy Borowick) Full story here.
The St. John Carnival Princess gets ready to cut the ribbon to officially open the Village. (Photo by
Nancy Borowick) Full story here.
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