A couple of years ago, hospice nurse Mary Landberg started using her iPhone to snap photos of people in their final days, texting them to kinfolk scattered around the country. Many, unable to make the farewell trip to Oregon, expressed profound gratitude for the memories.
Soon, her attention was drawn to the hands of her patients.
"They symbolize so much," says Landberg, of Ashland. "Safety, comfort, love, the hands we held crossing the street as children, the hands that waved goodbye, that gave and received, that we adorn with jewelry, that we promise faithfulness in marriage."
Landberg started posing hands of elders and finding that when images are emailed or texted off to kinfolk, it touches a special place in them, one of "enduring love."
"Love is all that's left in the end," Landberg says. "That's what I try to capture."
Landberg calls herself a "charitable photographer" for this and other good causes. She makes photo-quality prints, puts images on CDs and sends them gratis to family members, paying for it with donations.
"I don't charge a penny," she says, as she sets up shots with patient Angelina Hamlin, 90, at Hearthstone Nursing and Rehabilitation Center of Asante Hospice. Hamlin, a retired secretary for the Medford School District, is seated in her wheelchair with son Rick Hamlin, daughter Sandra Kleha and son-in-law Rick Kleha standing behind her, all six hands lovingly framing hers.
"I love the idea. It's gorgeous," says Sandra Kleha. "It shows the wonderful memories we all share and the true meaning of this moment, which is love."
"It only takes a few moments," Landberg adds, "and the value of it lasts a lifetime."
Because the faces of dying people often are affected by illness and decline, and may not be the familiar faces people know, Landberg found that hands somehow sum up a life — and the character of the person — best.
"It shows far-off relatives that their loved one did not die alone — and they're enormously grateful," says Landberg. "We hear people say they wish they'd done it for their family members when they were alive."
In a hospice magazine article by Landberg (tinyurl.com/8llxjqe), she notes, "The meaning magnifies after their loved one has passed away. ... When a patient's wife tearfully told me that her hand portrait with her husband on the last day of his life was her most cherished object, I knew I had to keep doing this."
Landberg's pictures have won an award from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, and she is seeking to do showings of her hand photos at sites around the Rogue Valley and possibly on a wider scale.
On her hospice Facebook page, www.facebook.com/HospicePortraitsByMaryLandberg, she posts touching photos, not just of hands of spouses and family, but of the patient holding the paw of a beloved dog or playing the piano. One notes that making music kept a man going to age 94.
Her upcoming book, "Capturing the Spirit of Enduring Love," shows hospice portraits and stories documenting the final steps in life's journey. Some proceeds will be donated to hospice programs.
On her online gallery, www.hospiceportraits.com, Landberg tells stories of patients such as Emilia, who had advanced Alzheimer's and would reject the touch of Roberto, her loving husband of 62 years, as he tried to feed her. But one day, she let him take her hand, a moment Landberg captured on film.
"This," he told Landberg, "is my Christmas."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.