‘The Battle We Didn’t Choose’: The healing power of love and art, in the face of cancer

Posted April 28, 2014, at 7:08 a.m.
Last modified April 28, 2014, at 9:53 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — It’s devastating to see a spouse sickened by cancer. Hair falls away, pounds drop. Pain is excruciating. How does one cope?

One man responded through art. Angelo Merendino picked up a tool he knew well, a camera, to capture his wife’s valiant struggle.

The result, “The Battle We Didn’t Choose: My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer,” a series of black and white photographs, capture the young couple’s fight until Jennifer’s death at age 40. The intimate images of a bright-eyed, raven-haired beauty changed into a bald, weakened woman traversing the streets of Manhattan with a walker went viral on Facebook. The photo narrative is now an ebook.

The images are on display at the Salt Institute in Portland until May 2, when Merendino comes to the school’s Congress Street gallery to discuss his loss and his wife’s life.

“Cancer is something that all of us are affected by to some degree, but the conversation is lacking. It’s not just pink ribbons and fundraising events,” he said.

The power of his artistry was a transformative agent for Merendino, who turned a terminal event into an ongoing, living process. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer just five months after they were married in Central Park in 2007. She died a little over two years ago, but her story is impacting people more than ever.

“Women contact me to say that the photos have helped them. As frightening as cancer is, it’s happening. If we don’t talk about it, it will not make it go away,” said Merendino who now lives in Cleveland.

The intimate images, such as Angelo Merendino shaving Jennifer’s hair in a hospital bathroom, have sparked emotion for the month the exhibit has been up.

“This show more than many others we’ve had has really touched people very deeply and personally,” Salt Executive Director Donna Galluzzo said. “We are no stranger to intense and meaningful work, but reactions have been very strong.”

Couples, friends, family members seem to grow closer viewing the stages of cancer, robbing a woman in her prime, in intense and loving shots.

“When it opened, the room was silent and people were rapt at attention. Couples were arm and arm leaning into each other,” said Galluzzo. “I’ve had people say the show really had an impact on ‘my brother, father, my boyfriend.’”

Merendino was an amatuer photographer at the time he started photographing his wife. Now his star has risen. He has gone on to do TedX talks for the small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading about the art of surviving, and three of his images became part of the permanent collection of the Akron Art Museum in December.

Initially meant to help him process the pain, the photographs have served as guideposts of how to encounter death with grace for countless strangers.

“She was an optimistic person. Despite challenges, these photographs are of love and life, and not death and loss,” he said.

Tapping the power of communication to free people from the cocoon of suffering, Jennifer was an equal collaborator.

“She gave me the photos as much as I made them,” her husband said. “She was open with her experience, she wanted to share this.”

Though the work has propelled the photographer on a national stage, that was not Merendino’s intent.

“During the time I was making these photographs it was an escape in some ways. I knew these photographs would help me to heal and remember things. It was a bridge back to my life.”

During the odyssey of chemotherapy, the ups and downs of illness, when he felt something in his gut, he grabbed his Nikon.

“Things were happening fast-paced. I didn’t want to think too much. I knew it was coming, but didn’t want it to overwhelm me,” said Merendino. “The photographs have helped me go back to that time and heal and remember things.”

To help others heal, he started a foundation called The Love You Share. The nonprofit assists cancer patients with transportation costs to and from hospital and doctor appointments and with groceries. The ebook may become a hard copy one day.

“The book was my love letter to Jennifer. It changes every day. There will always be new thoughts. At that moment that’s where I was in life,” he said. “I don’t want Jennifer to be a product. I want this message to get out.”

And that message is to “embrace life because we don’t know what’s coming around the corner. Love the people in your life and let them know it.”

Merendino comes to Salt Institute, 561 Congress St. in Portland from 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, May 2. He is scheduled to speak at 6 p.m.