Right,
before I die

Photographer Andrew George arrives at the cafe with his beautiful 13-year-old weimaraner and begins the conversation by talking about his dog, all our beloved pets, as a living record of our emotional lives; emotions being what our pets understand through our tones of voice and actions. When they die, we not only lose their companionship, but also the living record of our emotional histories. This idea is a clear analogy to understanding what George has done in documenting, through portrait photographs and text, people in palliative care who are coming to the ends of their lives: he is recording their, and our, human history.

Right, before I die, featured at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, is a collection of portrait photographs, handwritten notes and wall text quoting responses to George’s questions. Combined, they are a brief bio- and autobiographical witnessing. The exhibition first showed in Bruges, in the Musea Brugge, before coming to the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Beginning June 2017, the exhibition will go on a year-long, four-city tour in Korea.

George always aims to show this work in spaces that both allow it to be seen as art and to possibly be seen as spiritual, to whatever that means for the individual viewer, record. Regardless of how we see image and text, they are there.

By Andrew George
Photographer Andrew George is based in Los Angeles. His work has been in 20 international exhibitions, most recently at The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and Musea Brugge in Belgium. Andrew has won numerous awards for his photography and has appeared in The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, CBS News, The Chicago Tribune, DesignTAXI, Art Ltd., Quartz, Daily Mail UK, The San Francisco Chronicle, El Mundo, De Standaard, The New Daily, Le Journal de la Photographie, Russia Today, BuzzFeed, The School of Life, Booooooom and Trendhunter, among others. His photographs are in over 90 public and private collections.
Introduction By K. Vanessa Baish
Right, before I die
"At this moment in my life I feel blessed for all the beautiful people that are with me through this journey. New friends, all friends and relatives who you usually see for the Holidays and now they’re always with me at any day or time of the day when they feel I need a friend’s hand to hold on. Having my dear husband, Raymond, who’s always by my side in good and bad times and for all the patience he has through this hard journey. My beautiful boys, Alfonso, 18 years, and Alexander, 17 years, who are still teenagers and this health situation -It must be very hard for both of them.

Still they’re doing well at school and trying to have a normal life just like their friends! I’m also blessed for having my mother, she’s been there for me through all this, and I want her to know how much I love her and appreciate her help. In conclusion, all the wonderful people who are there always for me like: my friend – Deonna, my brother, Anthony, Tata, Alfonso, my brother’s wife, Gabriella.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I will always love you. And of course special thanks to our Lord for giving me all I have until this day."

EDICCIA

When I was first diagnosed, my world collapsed. The first thing that came to mind was my husband and my children. I knew I might be scared, but they were going to be in a lot of pain.

...

I feel hopeful because I haven’t given up. My faith is big, and I know that whatever happens, God will decide when I’m going, not my doctors.

...

I talk to him like I talk to any person and I use my heart—that’s what I do. I don’t ask “Why me? Why is this happening to me?’”—I’m nobody to ask him that—it just happened and I have to live with it and be strong.

...

It feels good when people who aren’t blood related care about you and they become your family.

...

—What have been some of the happiest moments in your life?

Sitting with my grandmother during the coffee time and just talking—that was one of my favorite times. That was beautiful, and I miss that. Also, when my children were born—when you finally see their faces, and you know, that’s your boy, that’s your child.

...

I love to open my eyes in the morning and hear all these birds by my window, there are so many, singing—that’s the meaning of life for me—and feeling the sun on my skin.

...

I’ve been in love twice in my life. When it’s the right person it is wonderful—when you know, you have found your other half. Finally, you have someone who knows what you’re thinking already because you can even say it. That is beautiful, finding the right person.

...

I’ve learned I’m not the only one going through this and even though I’m in a bad situation, there’s someone in a worse situation who doesn’t have the support of their family and husband, and they are alone.

...

—What does time mean to you now?

Time? I like to spend every minute of the day in the best way that I can, that’s what time means to me.

"I lived at home with my mom and dad until I was 35 years old. I worked for Lockheed aircraft for 39 years.

I met my wife in 1974. We were married in 1975. We were married for 35 years. She passed away in February 2010 of diabetes. She was married and divorced before I met her and her two great girls."

CHUCK

I got depressed because where I worked for 38 years, at Lockheed Martin, in research and development, they tried to productionize us. How can you productionize research and development?

...

I think I received my faith from my grandmother. She was a true Christian lady. She was loved by everybody, she loved everybody, and she loved life. She told me that “Wherever two or more people gather in his name you may call that a church. You could be out on the rocks someplace. Even though you might be sitting out there all by yourself, there’s still two of you; there’s you, and there’s Christ.” That meant an awful lot to me throughout my life. I really believe that.

...

I’ve enjoyed my life. Some of my favorite times were, as kids, me and my brothers used to play baseball, and my mom would join us. Later on, when we got into off-road motorcycling, my mom got a bike, too, and joined us.

...

One of the happiest moments of my life? At the top of that list would be when I married Sally, who became my wife of 35 years. I had been after her for a year to marry me. I knew when I met her for the first time, but she didn’t feel the same way about me. It took me over a year to convince her... I just kept after her, kept asking, and I said: “I’m here, I’ll keep after you, you’re the one.” One day she said “Yes.” And that was a really happy day of my life. I can’t even remember the details of that day because I asked her so many times for her hand—just about every day I was after her. We finally got married in Ottawa, Kansas and when the preacher asked if “I do,” I shouted out ‘I DO!’ I didn’t mean to yell, but I meant it, I really did. We were soulmates for years and years.

...

Life is what you make of it here on earth and a lot of times I haven’t made the most of it but a lot of times I have.

...

Love is something deep within your heart that you can really feel. It’s a very, very good feeling and very enjoyable when you know someone loves you. Hard to describe... A great joy, love is—can’t help but feel it.

"My name is Josefina Lopez

My mother died when I was 9 years old, I stayed with my grandmother. The old lady made me work taking care of children. Later on, I started to work cleaning houses and cooking - I was earning 12 pesos a month. I had very little left over since I was giving half of my salary to my grandmother. Some time went by and I decided to go to another place called Cajeme - nowadays named Ciudad Obregon. I continued working for a while until I went to another place, Ciudad Morelos - there I got married - I had 6 children. I always worked feeding the field workers and my husband always helped me. We had a restaurant that was called Los Sanchez, we did all right, my children went to school, some studied. Some of the children were very obedient and respectful. I had been married for 23 years when my husband had a car accident and died on the same day and I no longer wanted to work in the restaurant. I didn't feel like doing a thing, I got very depressed and my kids looked after our earnings. My children grew up, the first one Maria Elena and Tiranero the second one went to secondary school in Tijuana and Agua Caliente. When Tiranero left to study Middle School at Aguas Calientes I was very sad. After he finished his studies he got married. I suffered a lot- little by little, I was left alone, all my children moved to the USA but despite everything they still showed and still show their love towards me. I have this long life for one reason.

All my children are married, they have children and all of them are very loving, they show me their love. Maria Elena and my granddaughter Elinda are always taking care of me now that my health is not so good. From the bottom of my heart I am always grateful - I also have great grandchildren and they are very loving."

JOSEFINA

Every single night I dream. People I’ve never even seen, I see them in my dreams...I tell everyone that I’m sleepy all day from dreaming so much at night and I keep on sleeping throughout the day.

I dream a lot about the water, sometimes it’s clear, other times very blurry. I see it coming, but it doesn't come into the house, it stays at the door, at the sidewalk, it doesn’t go any further.

...

Life is the waiting room to death. We are just passing by because you already know that since we are born we are going to die, and we have a specific day and we don’t know when or where or how—I feel calm, at ease, because I already know I am going, so every night I tell God, “You know what you are doing? I’m not scared of dying; I already lived many happy years.

...

—You’ve never been afraid to die?

No, never, never—besides, when I was younger, I didn’t think about life or death, I just lived. Until well deep into my years I started thinking about it, that we all have to die, everything that is born has to die, plants, animals, everything.

...

—What do you think you’ll be remembered for?

Of course, after I pass on, they’re going to talk all the time about the way I was, what I used to do, everything you do or see, you’re going to say, “Oh my mom, grandma used to...” All the time you’re going to be remembering me while you’re alive.

"I’m afraid – scared of being alone- desperate – feel done – Wondering what I did to be going through all of this? – Life is so hard – angry – Not afraid to die – Afraid of what to do to keep me alive – Sometimes dying is easier – Don’t want to disappoint people in my life – Don’t want to be a burden to my kids – they should be experiencing life, not taking care of me- This is not living, this is shit. Depressed. Love life usually- I want to enjoy my kids, they mean everything to me. I don’t feel like I have a soul anymore. Feel like my soul and love of life is leaving. Don’t want it to. I want to be fun, free, loving- no worries, no cares – loose – love.

Want to scream at the top of a big mountain, then dive into a lake and be free of ALL."

KIM

I’m not afraid to die—I’m afraid of what I’ve got to do to get there.

...

First, you must learn to love yourself, only then can you truly love others.

...

—What’s been the greatest love that you’ve had?

A guy named Marcos, we are soulmates. I talked to him today. He’s in a place where he won’t be home for a while. We did everything together when he was home. That was my true love and always will be. It doesn’t matter who I married—I didn’t marry him only because he went away and I will never stop loving him. He’s in my heart, and he’s in my soul.—He’s in prison, so it’s pretty hard. I can’t connect with anybody else...I’ve ben married in between. He belongs with me, and I belong to him. And we felt that connection the first day we met.

...

Don’t worry so much, because worry doesn’t do anything but stress you out and it doesn’t change anything. Deal with it and move on.

...

You think you have friends, but when you get sick like this, people run. And the ones that you would expect to be there for you are so far gone they tell you I’m so sorry you’re sick, we’ll get through this, don’t worry about it and the next thing you know they don’t call you, they don’t text you, they don’t have anything to do with you because you’re sick like they’re going to catch it or something. Most people are like that because they’re scared, scared of I don’t know what—And the people that you wouldn’t even think you’re friends with are the ones who are here and helping you. People that I would have never thought—still trying to figure that out.

...

I’ll be remembered by my mom and kids for how much I care about everybody. And I show it a lot because I think you should. I don’t think you should hold something like that back because we don’t know how long we’re here and if you love somebody you should tell them. They don’t have to love you back, but I think that if you love somebody that they should know it because you never know—you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You can walk out that door, and that’s it, you’re done—You just don’t know what is going to happen.

...

We have so much here to enjoy, and no one enjoys it—God made a lot of things out there, and nobody uses them.

"To my beloved FORE-ward friends, God have them in his hand the freedom of young?
Thank you for everything, Thanks to everyone."

(underneath is a drawing Rene’ made of himself and his granddaughter, Carly, in a sailboat)

RENE

If anything, I try to keep religion at the minimum—but I believe in God, most definitely.

...

The God that I’m talking about is the same God that you talk about when you’re silent.

...

—Do you have any regrets?

Yes...I have a daughter in El Salvador, and I didn’t give her the right to be part of my life.

...

There is no such thing as happiness in life. What we call happiness are contributions; all we have is what we are and what we have given at that moment.

...

The meaning of life is the search for it.

"I don’t understand how one family can all get so sick. It really makes no sense, but I guess the universe never does. I have been healthy my whole life and now I am struck with almost everything.

My hands shake so much I can barely write."

SARAH

When I first heard, I said, we’re going to fight this, we’re going to beat this...I don’t know how much longer I have because I’m not the type of person that likes to think like that. I’m stubborn; I’m going to fight this ’til the end. Whatever happens, there’s got to another option. Maybe we haven’t exhausted all the options? Maybe we can come up with something new? I’m not averse to being experimented upon, but I am averse to being given up on.

...

I’ve always been the caregiver in my family. I took care of my grandmother when I was in high school. I took care of my mom the first time she got cancer...and the second time... and the third time I lived with her for three years and took care of her while I went to school. The hardest thing of all was her seeing me go through cancer and she couldn't do anything to help me. Then, my sister-in-law’s cancer recurred when I was diagnosed, and all three of us were having chemo at the same time. I don’t know how to explain how all three of us were getting cancer treatment at the same time...I believe in something; I don’t know if I’d call it God or the Lord or Krishna...and I know there’s got to be some ultimate plan.

...

I can’t really think about what’s fair—fair doesn’t make any sense. Things are not fair or unfair; it’s just the way life is. Things happen—or they don’t. You take opportunities—or you don’t.

...

Life is definitely not infinite. You never know what is going to come up and you really have to take risks. I didn’t really start taking risks until my late 20s, and I feel like I missed out on some stuff in between. I missed out on relationships. You know, in college, that’s when people always find their true love or have these dramatic love affairs—and I never got to have that... Well, I kind of did—I had a boyfriend for a while, and I really liked him, it was the first time that I really, really felt comfortable with someone. We got along, and then after I graduated from the Fashion Institute, my mom sent me to Europe for a month-long backpacking trip, and I came back, and he wanted to get back together, and I was too afraid, I didn’t know what to do, I have been gone for a month, and here’s someone telling me they love me, I didn’t know what to do with that...

—Have you been in touch with this person?

No, I’ve thought about it. I saw him on Facebook, but he’s married, and I didn’t want to disrupt his life. Like “Hi...by the way, I have cancer.”—It’s been 14 years since we’ve been in touch.

—Do you feel that he was the greatest love of your life?

I don’t know, he could have been, but I didn’t give it a chance. He was definitely a wonderful person, but I never gave it a chance.

...

Yesterday, I said, I’m going to die tomorrow.

...

Time is so precious. God, it’s precious...

"My Life as a Whole

I’m in a stage of my life that seems that everything will be all right. I’m so happy and much contented and I do believe that I do have tomorrow ahead of me. There’s light that’s shining above my head that tells me that I’m beautiful and shining and I do have things to do and finally I’m good and tomorrow is just beginning to me.

Hurray for Life."

NELLY

After I received my diagnosis, I stopped taking my medications—I just wanted to die. I cried every day and didn’t want to do anything anymore. I gave away all my stuff. That feeling lasted a year—6 months ago, it stopped. I started praying, and I said ‘God, help me because right now I want to end my life and I want to stop thinking this way.’ The next day, I said ‘God, give me something so I can change my life.’ I finally said ‘OK, I know how to sing and I know how to teach.’—Those are the only things I know well in my life, so I said I’m going to sign up at the senior center, and I started working there and singing for the elderly. I chose the senior center because there people are dying and losing hope in their lives. One day I realized I was making people happy and also I was making myself happy, so I started my life at that time.

...

I don’t know how long I have to live—maybe today? Maybe tomorrow is my last day? I’m not sure. I am very happy, actually, and I don’t have regrets even though I’ve been through hell. As far as I know, I’ve accomplished what I’ve had to accomplish in my life.

...

I wish I could help more people than I have. I love people. I think the only reason I’m on this earth is to help out in any way I can. For the last few years, I’ve been cooking for homeless kids that are sick in bed. I cook Filipino food—6-course meals—for them at the Moose Lodge in Lancaster—I’ve chosen to work with disabled kids now because I think they’re the only ones who don’t have any chance in life and now that I’m very sick I can understand them more than I used to. Very seldom do you see people who want to help people that are mentally and physically ill. My goal in my life now is to help them even more.

...

I don’t believe in heaven in that way. I believe that heaven is what you are in this life and if you did good, you’re happy, and if you didn’t do good, then you went to hell.

...

I want to believe in reincarnation. My last husband was blind and wasn’t able to have sex during our 16-year marriage. One day, I discovered him cheating on me! I want to be a prostitute in my next life!—Kidding aside, I want to just be floating in the air, as happy as that.

"Not very happy the way things are, but after almost 85 years, why not say it’s almost over? I’ve had some good times and some bad times, but no complaints.

Goodbye for now."

JACK

Death?—Eh, just something that happens.

...

I believe in a lot of things but not everything. I take after my dad who said we can be religious but we don’t have to go to church and listen to the preacher.

...

My wife wasn’t the greatest love of my life. A Japanese girl was, back in the 1940s. We got along; she was a lot of fun to be with. She enjoyed everything; she enjoyed going to the beach fishing, walking in the woods, she enjoyed a whole lot of the times I did. Well, that was back when we were 17 and 16 years old. But then during the war, they moved all the Japanese out of here and into camps scattered throughout the country, and she was out by the Mojave for a while. We were going to get married out there, but then the government said no because neither of us was of age, even though her parents said it would be alright and mine didn’t even know about it... So I didn’t get married, and next time I went out to see her, she’d been moved to Utah. Her brother Greg, who I’d gone to school with, he’d joined the army, and he was killed over in Europe with the Japanese unit in Italy... I would have followed her to Utah, but I couldn’t get enough A stamps or B stamps for gas... Thought about her the other day because I had a Japanese nurse.—I haven’t thought about her for years.

...

Usually, a regret is something you’re pissed off about to start with and then a week later you can’t even remember what it was.

...

There’s only any meaning to life when you’re here.

...

I’m proud of some of the work I’ve done and my reputation. I was always the ‘fix it’ guy. When someone needed something done, they used to say go see the wizard, and they’d send them to me.

...

I should have paid more attention to my dad, but we split apart. I should have been more caring when he was sick. But I ignored it, and that’s because we had bad relations somewhere along the line.

...

Hundreds of little things give me joy. Mostly, getting out by myself sometimes and just roaming around in the mountains. I used to do that every once in a while. Sometimes I’d go out by myself for a month with a fishing pole and a shotgun, and I’d have some quail and fish and just wander around and see if I can find my way back.

"Today is Wednesday, September 25, 2012. I am in the hospital today. Today is the day I’ll be going home. But, I was hoping that I didn’t have to.

I still don’t feel too good. It means more work for my girl, but the doctor said to go home, and I feel so helpless. Unable to help myself. All I can do is pray to God for her to help, so I won’t be too much trouble at home. God is always with us. I hope I don’t come to the hospital again for a long time."

SALLY

I have always been in control. I was the one in change, and when I got married, I took care of everything; the bills, everything—When my husband passed away, I continued working to take care of my family, even when they got sick. My brothers and sister, they are sick and always something is happening to them. So I continued to take care of all the bills and everything. Then, I developed cancer...Sometimes I look at the cross and say “Dread God, is this what I have to go through?”

...

When you’re in pain, very, very bad pain, and you can’t stand it, sometimes you say, “I wish, I wish I could die’ but then all of a sudden, something enters my brain...why should I wish that? If He wanted me to go, He would have taken me long ago—

...

Being in love is like being in a different world. You can take anything that’s dished out because there’s someone who cares for you—

...

Happiness to me is when you feel good, and you make somebody else feel good. You don’t even know what you’re doing, and you’re making someone happy.

You can see more of the collection at RightbeforeIdie.com. This collection also exists as a book. You can purchase it by visiting George’s shop or Amazon.com.

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