Life to Legacy: Documenting and Celebrating Life in Times of Dying

by guest writer Emma Wade

In the last few months of Harry Lazare’s life, he said to me that people freely gave him more love because it was happening — he was definitely, swiftly dying. And he asked me, a little sarcastically, What if we all treated each other as if we were dying? Would we be more generous toward each other? Would we find more meaning in our living?

Two years earlier, in December 2013, all I had known about Harry was that he was an artist who made wall hangings from found objects. I also knew that he was sick. A friend of his had contacted me to see if I would interview him and create a biographical story, so I called him to introduce myself. I constructed my words maybe too carefully, but at age 22, I had never approached a stranger facing a diagnosed death about an interview. He listened and asked to think about it.

IMG_4545Over the course of six months, I visited Harry and we moved chronologically through his life incrementally. I came with an audio recorder and some prepared questions, but the conversation often took organic turns. At times we would get up and take me to see something or greet his dog. Harry had the gift of gab, so I did a lot of listening. Dying was rarely a somber topic in our interviews. To the contrary, in the spotlight Harry came to it with very high spirits. He enjoyed unearthing his own stories for me and admiring his past. He was excited to share with me too what he was thinking about, objects and ideas that were present for him — everything from jazz music to Buddhism. He found ease in talking about himself, but became animated in his thoughts — living now, being fearless, seeking beauty, and taking the time to see new things.

Listening again to the interview recordings at home, I spent many hours marking, cutting, and building what interested me into narrative. I took notes, selected still images I had taken, and scanned old photos. I combined these visuals with the audio to create a simple film we came to title together Mowing the Lawn: And Other of Life’s Serious Side Effects. The film, broken into three parts, moves chronologically but leaves room for the present to play with his past. I had felt compelled to leave in such things as Harry taking a phone call from his wife or getting up to let his dog out, hoping to invite viewers into Harry’s way of doing things. You can check out the film here.

Throughout this time, Harry had been in and out of chemotherapy and various other treatments for Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), the terminal diagnosis he had received in 2011. By September 2014, when I finished the third video, his illness was in remission — truly a miracle — and in June 2015, he turned 69. Later that summer, however, his MDS returned in full force and in October, he left his body.

Knowing Harry Lazare as he lived the last two years of life gave me an unusual insight into the marvel of an expected dying. He kept himself occupied and amused. He wrote poems and started making assemblage art, an obsession that blossomed to over 150 pieces, and I saw him out and talking in community, especially with kids when he had the energy. He attributed living longer than expected to his creative vitality. Much like his body, his artwork was made of decayed and fallen bits, which he put together to make something whimsical, funny, or primitive. Harry seemed entreated to find beauty in his life and work — in the ugliest of things. This principle left its impression on me and made me think about ways I could do the same in my work.

I did not experience Harry’s day-to-day pain of physical decay and psychological struggle. I was instead a kind of visiting sounding board, handing Harry the mic. And I took what he gave me — memories, opinions, jokes, and at special times profound homilies on being human. I saw there was pain too in Harry’s dying, but in our interactions he clearly chose to separate his pain from the event of his death. Encountering someone who fully lived his ending and was nonchalant about the actual end taught me the lesson that life, not death, is what should matter for the living.

Our friendship was unusual, given the polarity of age and personality; I came to his story young and sensitive in my work, but Harry was not those things. I, being an age when mortality is barely a concept, was amazed to meet someone facing death with little fear. I felt both naive and optimistic that I could do something extraordinary with Harry’s life story, to curate with my own discerning eye and share with his family and friends — to build his Legacy. In turn, Harry and his family encouraged me as I worked, generously giving me suggestions. I was very grateful with their patience and acceptance of me as a presence in such a very intimate time as death. Too, I found pleasure in the reactions and remarks I have received since sharing the film and process of making it. Knowing Harry Lazare changed my work and my appreciation of my own life.

Emma Wade is a performing artist and founder of “Carry On Stories,” a service for families and groups to gift an individual with the collection and celebration of their legacy.

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