Feature article published October 2010

by Shannon Bacon

In our lives, where our to-do lists are chock-full and can become larger every day,why would local fine art portrait photographer, Randy Bacon and I, his wife and creative partner, take a plunge into the world of filmmaking? What stirred us, and an enthusiastic group of producers, to create a full-length documentary film about the meaning of life?

For years, being passionate about touching people through film has been the dessert on our plates that we were too full to consume. But the filmmaking bug kept after us, so we jumped out in faith and took the plunge.

The Last Days of Extraordinary Lives follows hospice patients and their families through end-of-life coping and healing. Randy and I had been creating videos and films for about two years when the concept of creating The Last Days of Extraordinary Lives blossomed. Simple seeds spurred our imaginations as we conversed with two of our photography clients: Good Shepherd Hospice Medical Social Worker, Angela Ricketts, and Hospice Compassus Patient Care Supervisor and Admissions Coordinator, Jan Roselman. Randy and I became engrossed in the stories they shared about their hospice patients who were literally facing their last days of life. The conversations we had with Roselman and Ricketts were surprising at times—the stories they shared were mainly joyous, inspiring, tender, and even downright hilarious! This was Hospice…really? We were intrigued, and we couldn’t get the stories out of our heads.

After persuasive nudging from Ricketts and Roselman, we knew we must craft a film and portrait exhibit to relay these wonderful stories to the world. “We wanted to fashion rousing stories of living life to the fullest until God says we are done,” says Randy. “If we are to look at life simply as if point A is birth and point B is when we leave this world, this film is about the touching stories, inspiring insights, thoughts and feelings people have when they are approaching point B looking back at A.”

The project started as a simple plan to create photographic portraits with corresponding videos of only a few people. However, within a span of four months of filming, the idea had spawned into a full-length documentary film and exhibit that encompasses the amazing stories of over 17 individuals, ages two to 94. We filmed people of many walks of life and included stories from doctors, chaplains, nurses, and social workers who put their hearts into helping hospice patients every day. The Last Days of Extraordinary Lives Film Editor, Pat Misterovich, says: “One of the things I love about the project is how these are just regular, ordinary people. They are not celebrities or the powerful, rich, or famous. Their stories are no more extraordinary than the next guy. But that is why their stories and voices are so powerful and meaningful. Death is something we all have in common. It comes to us without mercy and without exception. It is perhaps the most ordinary thing of all.”

Once we began filming earnestly in February 2010, it felt like a flower blooming in spring: fresh, beautiful and free. Simultaneously, we were experiencing other feelings. We knew in our hearts we were designed to create the film, but our subjects were either living out, or facing the possibility of living out their last days. How would we handle the emotions we soon knew were to be revealed? As we began filming, little did we expect we would be uplifted beyond belief!

Randy and I were genuinely transformed as we explored diverse and magical stories. All moved us profoundly in different ways. One such story is of precious 2-year-old Pearl Hollan. We entered her impeccably tidy home, and out came Pearl, a little wobbly as she had only been walking a week. Dressed in a favorite pink dress, she had a huge grin on her face—a deep contrast to her thinning hair from chemotherapy and the large scar on her tummy. “My boo boo,” she says with a happy smile as she pulled her dress up for all to see. Her parents’ testimonies of what life is truly about were heartening!

Garret Wittman has had AIDS since 1989. At the age of 43, his story is not one of giving up, but rather of the perseverance of the human spirit. We walked into his mother and grandmother’s home in Diamond, Missouri, to find a buoyant and animated spirit. His Pink Floyd pajamas and head scarf bearing peace signs were a tell-tale sign of his personality. What keeps him hopeful? Wittman says, “If I gain 30 pounds and get my t-cells up just a little bit, my best friend John is going to take me to Greece.”

Then there was Cheryl and Robert. Their trailer was nestled in the country in Verona, Missouri, and kittens and dogs followed our every move. Cheryl lovingly sat on 43-year-old Robert’s lap as he tried to talk coherently, without much success. The Amyotrophic Lateral Disease (ALS) he suffers from had almost taken his speech, but not the sparkle in his beautiful blue eyes. The couple sat together and giggled like teens in love. They spoke of the stresses and high points of their relationship. They had been married to each other three times and divorced twice. They snuggled like newlyweds and discussed how his illness had strengthened their marriage and family life. Cheryl interpreted Robert’s words. He says, “Live each day to the fullest as tomorrow may not be here.”

The Last Days of Extraordinary Lives movie trailer was a huge success when it made its debut for a special limited showing. Viewer Nikki Nisly says: “Watching the film made me think about how our society has a tendency to believe we are going to live forever, and that dying is a bad thing. I’m 25, and the film tugged at my core as to how I should be living my life today, this day is all we have…not pondering tomorrow or even next week. As I finished watching the trailer, I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry on with my life as normal.”

The Last Days of Extraordinary Lives is also an eye-opener to what we think Hospice is… and isn’t. Hospice is finding the perfect robe, chair or snack to make someone happy. Hospice is playing Bingo and sitting around the table in deep conversation with family and friends. ”We are energy with hope behind it,” Ricketts says. Whittman adds: “Hospice is a group of angels. Hospice isn’t a judge, but a lifetime friend, encourager, support system and more.” Roselman feels that to be invited by a family to assist in a loved one’s care in the last stages of life is really not much different than being invited to attend a period of labor and then the new birth of a baby. She says, “It is a very intimate time that is usually reserved for family and close friends, so to be included in this inner circle is both an honor and a sacred trust. A family and patient will often share their most private thoughts and wishes with me.”

The film is not about dying as much as it is about the real reasons for living. According to Roselman, “It’s a film about dying to live and not living to die.” It’s also a film about joy, fun, peace and contentment. It’s a film about the fact that we live in a death-fearing nation, where many of us need to prioritize things while we are alive. I figure my family most likely isn’t going to remember how clean my house was, what designer clothes I wore or how much money I made. I know my family will remember when I turned off my computer to join in silly dance time, when we went bowling or snuggled under the covers together on a sleepy Saturday morning. My family will remember that I laughed instead of yelled when punch spilled on the new carpet. They will remember me taking the time to sit down to a family dinner instead of talking on the phone or surfing Facebook. Abraham Lincoln best sums it up: “In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."