World without end

As time slips away amid her battle with lung cancer, photographer Lynn Rockwell documents the beauty of life
By LOIS LEGGE Features Writer

LYNN ROCKWELL calls it "making memories." Her pictures of pretty flowers, sunrises or seaside vistas now on the walls of a Halifax coffee shop are "little pieces of time" — glimpses of a life that’s been given a limit.

Memories and time have been much more important to the 52-year-old Halifax photographer since July, when she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given seven to eight months to live, even with treatment.

As scary as the news was, Rockwell made up her mind to drink in the world around her and to accomplish a lifelong wish: a public exhibit of her work. So while her body battled the disease, as catching her breath or even walking for short periods became a struggle, her camera captured the beauty around her. Her photographs are now on exhibit at the Uncommon Grounds coffee house on South Park Street.

"It was really, really hard for me but I wanted to do it because I thought this is the last time I’m going to be able to do this, I’m not going to be around next summer, this is really important stuff," she says amid coffee shop chatter on a November afternoon.

The result — Lynn Rockwell’s Focus on Photography, running this month — is her first show, even though she’s been taking pictures for almost 40 years, since her father gave her a camera when she was 13.

Attempts to take pictures professionally, though, have been short-lived as everyday life — two children, a divorce, working in banking — ticked on.

So the show, she says, is "really, really exciting."

But even more important these days are the stories behind the pictures. Each is "a labour of love" she hopes will last long after she’s gone.

Many of the photos were taken after Rockwell’s diagnosis, on weekend expeditions with her youngest daughter Lyndsay, 22, and Lyndsay’s four-year-old son, Noah.

"I felt like I was making memories to leave for them," she says of Lyndsay, her other daughter Jennifer, 25, and Noah, her only grandchild.

"There’s a little story behind every picture and . . . if it makes me feel better doing it and I can sleep at the end of the day and think I’m going to get up in the morning, then it’s all there and I hope that people who . . . look at the pictures say wow, that’s really cool."

When she looks at the pictures, she thinks of her family, of friendship and of how an ice-blue sky can temporarily erase fear.

"That was taken in Lunenburg," she says, pointing to one snapshot of red and white buoys that hang on a wall at a Lunenburg restaurant.

"A friend of mine called me up toward the end of July, maybe August . . . and wanted to know if I wanted to go for a drive down the South Shore," Rockwell says.

They stopped for lunch and the buoys were right beside their table, so Rockwell took a photo and brightened it up a bit "to give it a little bit of texture."

"When I look at it, I think of Mary and I think what a good time it was."

Another photo, a close-up of Queen Anne’s lace that she calls Parasol for a Mouse, brings back memories of a trip to Upper Clements Park.

"When I look at it, I think of Noah," she says, then chuckles at its title. "Parasol for a Mouse, I thought that was kind of cute."

A photograph of a dock, set against ice-blue sky and water, brings comfort.

"I took that on a little side trip to Peggys Cove, my grandson and Lyndsay with me," Rockwell says. "As soon as I processed that shot, I printed it and it’s at home in my bedroom on the wall, and some evenings when I was trying to fall asleep and was coughing so hard and wondering if I would wake up in the morning . . . I’d look at that picture and it would be very calming for me. It was like my little place to go and sit at the end of the dock."

Her eyes get misty. But she laughs it off, telling other stories of the kind of photographic and family outings she hopes will continue.

Radiation treatments have shrunk the cancerous growths on her lungs, caused by years of smoking. And as of late October, she’s been in remission. But "I’m not cured," she says.

"Some people can have surgery and have it completely removed if they’re lucky enough, but in my particular case there is no cure, so it will be the lung cancer that ultimately kills me unless I step out in front of a bus.

"My tumours were . . . stage 3-B tumours, which technically gives you seven or eight months with treatment."

But she adds: "You really don’t know, you can never tell. My GP has an elderly gentleman patient who 15 years ago was diagnosed with lung cancer, had radiation, that’s all he ever had and he’s still alive. So my remission may last until Christmas or I could go another 10, 15 years."

Right now, she’s concentrating on fighting a recent infection, "looking forward to some good health" and taking pride in the memories on the walls.

Most people looking at the photos "don’t know my story," Rockwell says.

"I hope they enjoy looking at them. Maybe they might put a smile on someone’s face or maybe someone looks at the picture of the buoys and (it) brings them to a place and a time when they saw the buoys in the water or hanging on fishing sheds.

"Or maybe they look at the lighthouse and think of a time when they went to Peggys Cove, maybe it was a good memory, hopefully it was.

"Photography is about relating to people and sharing memories, little pieces of time. And maybe (with) my little piece of time and someone else’s little piece of time, somewhere there’s a synergy."



Parasol for a Mouse

Parasol for a Mouse, a close-up of Queen Anne's lace, is one of Lynn Rockwell's photos on exhibit at Uncommon Grounds on South Park Street in Halifax. (Contributed)

Thanks to friends...

Lynn Rockwell has been a photographer for more than 40 years. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer last July, she decided to document life around her while battling the disease. (TIM KROCHAK / Staff)

November 18/06 Chronicle Herald.