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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.