Angelo Merendino captured the defining moments of his late wife’s fight with cancer through black and white portraits.
The photos of Jennifer, which he published in a blog and book, garnered media attention on several outlets including Fox News, Huffington Post Live, and NPR. The portraits give a human face to the disease that affects thirteen million Americans in the United States. This year alone, there will be more than a million and a half new cases of cancer, and over half a million deaths as a result of it.
It’s been two years since Jennifer’s passing. Now 39, Angelo currently does freelance work for news agencies.
Angelo recalls the five and a half years he spent with Jennifer as the best time of his life, despite her struggle with cancer.There are several moments that stand out whenever he thinks about her—like the day they first met.
The First Moment: Her Eyes Carried the World
It’s September 2005 in Cleveland.
Angelo is waiting outside a local pub, Fulton Bar and Grill, in the hopes of landing a bartending gig when a black Volkswagen Beetle pulls in and a woman steps out.
She has short hair, with a cutoff black t-shirt and blue jeans. Her face is framed with high cheekbones and beautiful brown eyes.
It’s the eyes that grab ahold of Angelo.
“Her eyes carried the world,” is how Angelo describes it.
This was the moment they first met.
The Second Moment: Numbness
They get married two years later in Central Park. They are both living in Manhattan and spend five happy months as newlyweds in the city.
It is February 2008.
Angelo’s phone rings while he’s at work. It’s Jennifer.
The sound of Jennifer’s voice as she tells him what he’s about to hear still echoes in his mind today; the sound of the words and the way she said them.
“I have breast cancer,” she tells him.
Angelo’s body goes completely numb.
The Third Moment: Beyond Words
They stand together facing the mirror in their bathroom. Angelo grabs the clippers and runs them through Jennifer’s head.
At this point, Jennifer had gone through a double mastectomy, and now without hair, would look in the mirror and not know who she was anymore.
“She lost many things that identified her to society,” Angelo recalled. But all he ever saw was how beautiful she looked without hair.
Their first year of marriage was spent battling the disease. On October 2008, doctors tell them that Jennifer is cancer-free.
And they try their best to re-enter life and a sense of normalcy.
The Fourth Moment: Put a Helmet On
The cancer returns and it metastasizes.
Their life consists of treatment and healing time, treatment and healing time. When he can, Angelo plays in his punk rock band that he got back into when Jennifer was cancer-free.
But on this night, he doesn’t want to. Her hip swells and the doctors want her to stay overnight at the hospital to check it out. Jennifer has her sister with her and insists that Angelo play his gig.
But Angelo has a strange feeling. And on the train ride home, he sits there, uneasily.
“Put a helmet on, things are about to get crazy,” is the thought that he cannot shake off.
He was right. Jennifer’s swelling spreads to her legs. She would never walk without assistance again.
In October 2011, the doctors tell them the cancer is now in the the lining of Jennifer’s brain.
The Fifth Moment: Look Into My Eyes
On a night Jennifer is admitted to the hospital, her pain is too much to bear.
Angelo stands there helpless, wishing he could take it all away.
But then she grabs his arm, looks up at him, and says, “You have to look into my eyes, that’s the only way I can handle the pain.”
Angelo’s gaze meets hers.
It’s a moment he will never forget.
The Sixth Moment: One More Morning
Angelo and Jennifer are at the hospital, awaiting her brain treatment.
Her legs rest on his lap. She drinks tea and he drinks his coffee while reading the paper. Angelo absorbs every second of this moment. He knows that after the treatment, she will feel too sick to move.
He feels her presence. She feels his. He loves being near her. They don’t need to use words to communicate.
Later that night, they both go to bed and Angelo lays still.
He hopes for one more morning with Jennifer.
The Seventh Moment: I Loved It All
There is one moment that Angelo believes defines Jennifer and the person she was. It happened a few weeks before she died.
It was on the night they come back home from the hospital with hospice care. The doctors had told them that Jennifer had three to seven days to live.
When they arrive home, there were friends and family over for a get-together.
Before going to sleep, they would sometimes ask each other what the best and worst part of the day was. On this night, Angelo asks her what she loved most about that day.
Jennifer pauses. And says,
“I loved it all.”
All Angelo can think of is how graceful she is. Even in her last days, she loved life.
The Eighth Moment: Flashbacks
It’s December 22, 2011.
For the last eight hours, Jennifer’s breathing is heavy and inconsistent.
The nurse tells Angelo her body is preparing to die.
They spend their final moments together in their apartment. Angelo holds her close. As he watches her, there are moments when he feels completely crushed. But then there are moments when he remembers her laughter, the touch of her skin, the smell of her perfume.
Then she takes her last breath. He feels relieved.
But at the same time, he is devastated.
The Present Moment
Jennifer is gone, but the images of her fight with cancer live on. Angelo shows them at exhibitions and has been invited to speak to medical students and professionals on humanizing the treatment of the disease.
He knows this is something no one should face alone. When Jennifer and Angelo were looking for hospitals after Jennifer’s first diagnosis, many doctors were cold and seemed annoyed at all their questions. Today, Angelo strives to make the medical community more aware of how they treat cancer patients.
Angelo started a non-profit organization, The Love You Share, to provide financial assistance to women receiving treatment for breast cancer. He also published his collection of photographs in a book, The Battle We Didn’t Choose. Half of the profits will go to the foundation.
For Angelo, every day gets a little better. He wants to help others and make Jennifer proud.
Life is precious, he says..
“I can’t waste time.”