We feel like hooligans, parking along the dusty gravel road and sneaking up to the neglected remains of an old Ontario farmhouse.
The house has been empty for many years. Farmland encroaches on what was once a well-tended garden filled with robust fruit trees, lilac bushes and rows of vegetables. A cement cistern, covered in moss, sinks into the green tangle of wild grapevines and butterflies swirl around blooming milkweed growing at its base. The air is mellow with the dank smell of earth and living things. We stick our heads in the door-less entrance and see that almost the entire main floor has collapsed into the dirt-floor basement. The stairway to the second floor is angled precariously like a broken spine, rib-like joists jutting out painfully through what’s left of the crumbling plaster wall. There is no glass left in any of the windows. Their gaping frames are taken over by creeping plants and strewn with dead leaves. The house is letting go.
Related: A Letter to My Son's Brain Tumor
We make our way onto the property, squeezing around the faded “No Trespassing” sign on its ancient gate post, pushing aside rusted barbed wire and gingerly picking our way through the tangled undergrowth of wild raspberry, tall weeds and prickly burdock. We both yelp when our heads of curly hair are snagged on a crab apple branch and giggle while we free ourselves.
It’s clear to us that we shouldn’t be going in.
“I think it might be a better idea to try and get some shots from the outside of the house,” I say as though there was any question.
“Ya, as much as I love a challenge, I’d rather live through this one,” my niece laughs.
Our voices startle a blackbird nesting on the top of a window frame which in turn spooks us.
“Ghosts!” Heidi shrieks.
“It’s haunted!” I howl back.
Shooting outside from an opposite window, I begin directing her. “Put your hands on the sill and lean back.” Click. “Now rest your head against the side of the frame.” Click. “Great! Now, head down and hands clasped, relax your shoulders.” Click. “Excellent. OK, be careful, but try and lean forward a bit into the house and look up. That’s perfect!” Click, click, click.
Related: When Grief Is Your Mirror
As always, she enjoys being photographed effortlessly striking the poses with natural grace. We trade creative ideas for more shots as the lighting ripens to golden.
Our time is limited.
Heidi. The daughter of my older sister, Sharon. An adorable chubby baby with thick dark curls and big brown eyes who first grew into the princess never wanting to wear anything but her purple satin dress, and then into the self-expressive teenager who could pass for twenty at sixteen. She experimented with the usual temptations of youth and developed her talent towards design, art and fashion with a twist. She abhorred materialism and created her own clothes by reinventing thrift store finds and up-cycling everything from table cloths to grandpa sweaters, crafting them into unique expressions of her own style. Her choice of clothing, tattoos, piercings and dread-locks rattled more than a few traditional cages and raised many an eyebrow, especially among the older generation of the family. But Heidi’s endearing and loving personality soon silenced the clucking tongues of disapproval. She would be her own person, and we would all be better for accepting her and her unconventional ways.
We’re becoming braver.
“Would you just move inside the doorway so I can use that great lighting coming from that side? ” I ask.
“Oh, sure,” she obliges.
Heidi kicks away some debris with her black Doc Marten boots and swats at the dirt-caked cobwebs hanging from the ceiling.
She steps into the door frame, suspended dust sparkling around her long dark curly hair and settling on her tanned arms. She relaxes against the wall and lifts her face up. Click. A setting like this forsaken house is not new to her.
One of her many travels took her to Europe, where she lived out of her army knapsack, stayed in hostels and squatted with the street-level people she met. She was robbed, given support, abused, protected, hungry, fed, taken advantage of, shown overwhelming kindness. All this in order to better understand and identify with people on the edges of life, forgotten, discarded, abandoned. Her heart and compassion for those on the fringe of society eventually led her to volunteer with a humanitarian organization in Ireland. At a little cafe in the centre of Belfast, a city notorious for its history of hostility, she served coffee and snacks. Here was a safe, neutral place for youth to hang out and be accepted by the welcoming staff.
It was during her time in Belfast that the headaches started. Never one for complaining, Heidi did not fully reveal, even to her mother, the intensity of the headaches or how she had become bedridden for two weeks. When her alarmed parents discovered what was going on, they immediately had her flown home. Within days of her arrival back in Canada, an MRI revealed a large cancerous tumor in her brain, a Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), and the roof of our world collapsed.
Heidi referred to it as Seamus and would make drawings of it in her sketchbook.
Being a family with a history of brain tumors, we were relieved that advances in medicine gave Heidi a very successful surgery, and after radiation and chemotherapy she went on to live her life. She married her high school sweetheart. Adopted a great dane named Stella. Began her own cottage industry creating up-cycled vintage dresses, and she continued to paint.
Then, around the four-year post-tumor mark, the symptoms returned. A week before her little brother’s wedding, Seamus was back. Aggressive. Unrelenting. Heidi and her husband moved into her parents’ home where she could be cared for and monitored. She began chemotherapy again, and her friends and family rallied with love and support.
After only eight months at home and one week in a beautiful hospice, Heidi died.
Her parents and husband at her side.
Whimsical, reckless, compassionate, carefree, flamboyant, artsy, Heidi, chose a clear pine coffin for people to sign. Or draw a picture. Or share a memory, with the box of markers she provided. A final farewell autograph book to a most quirky, gutsy lady who lived more in her 28 years than most people do in a lifetime.
Click. I take a final set of photos of Heidi outside the abandoned house. She stands in the wild overgrown yard, turns away and then with a dramatic flourish, she tosses her long curls in the air and looks back at me with her dazzling smile. Click. The farmhouse will be bulldozed and plowed under within a few years. Corn and soybeans will begin to grow in seasonal rotation and the house will vanish from memory. But today, we made it immortal.
Heidi gave it one last life.