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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Godspeed, Sweet Hellat - Maris Ehlers Photography

What an emotional couple of days.  It has been simply amazing to see everyone's responses to Zoe and her journey.  To see so much love and support has been truly humbling.  I am so proud of her, and so lucky to know her (and her family).

While it would be such a wonderful thing if every cancer story could have a victorious ending as we know Zoe's will, tonight my heart is also in Moorhead with another beautiful girl, Hellat.  

I met Hellat in August of 2011, and there isn't a sweeter, more gentle loving girl around.  Hellat's parents are from Kurdistan, which is in Northern Iraq.  If you can believe this, she was born here in the United States on September 11th, 2001.  I can only imagine what that experience must have been like for her family. I've learned in life that intense sadness and happiness can exist at the same time, and one doesn't take away from the other.  I would think that the day Hellat was born had fear and sadness for what was unfolding in NYC and around the world, but also unbounding joy in her birth. Such a gift she has been, born at a time when it was and is so important for the world to remember the preciousness of every life, from every corner of the globe. Politics and other beliefs aside.
My sister-in-law, Stephanie, has been one of Hellat's teachers, and I heard for years how much Steph adored this little girl. I felt like I knew her long before I met her. When Hellat was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2010, I remember how hard it was for Steph to even talk about it.   

Hellat and her family have now gone through so much since then, most of it trying, exhausting and overwhelming. But just like how Zoe's journey has given so much to others, Hellat's has, too.  Steph, of all people, has learned to eat and LOVE all sorts of Kurdish foods while sharing many meals with Hellat and her family this past year.  People from opposites parts of the world have become like family to one another, and that is such a beautiful and wonderful thing. Hellat did that. 

Steph asked if I would photograph Hellat and her family while I was visiting in August.  I was nervous of what it would be like, but what I didn't realize was how difficult it would be to keep smiling while working.  Such a lovely family they are, and their love and care for Hellat was so touching.  Her father, Breen, carried her from room to room, attending to her vigilantly.  Sana, her beautiful and kind mother, was like a gentle breeze with Hellat, touching, rubbing, smiling and loving.  It broke my heart.

The biggest surprise for me was that Hellat, as sick as she was, LOVED having her picture taken, and had a mental list of pictures she wanted.  Her kissing her Dad, her Dad with his arms around her, snuggled with her mother, with her siblings and with her favorite stuffed animals on her pink bed. We did laugh and smile through most of it, and the wisdom in her endless brown eyes said so much more than any language ever could.  

Near the end of our time, her mother had a pink scarf on her head.  Hellat didn't want to wear it because it itched, but she did because her mother wished her to.  Suddenly, Sana kept pulling the front of the scarf over the bottom half of Hellat's face.  At first, Hellat would have none of it, and I wondered what Sana was trying to do.  She would pull it over and then look at me and nod her head, as if to say "Take the picture before she pulls it off!".  Though my attempts to understand were awkward at best, it finally dawned on me, and my hands shook as I lifted my camera. 

I asked Sana, "Would Hellat wear a veil on her wedding day?" 
Sana looked at me solemnly and said "Yes. Yes."  

 It was at that point, perhaps for the first time, that I realized the true power of a photograph. Images stop time, but I had never been asked to create a memory of an event that would never take place. The responsibility of that was enormous, a bit overwhelming, and oh, so very humbling. I am so grateful to have captured this beautiful girl. So although she didn't know me, Hellat and her family gave me a gift that I will treasure forever, to be able to truly understand the importance of documenting a memory, and knowing that it is so much more than capturing a moment.

Tonight, sweet Hellat nears the end of her journey here. Surrounded by people she knows and loves, her family's Kurdish customs as well as their new found American ones, I imagine she is in the same hospital she was born at in 2001, and once again, they find themselves awash with intense grief and fear of the unknown. Yet the joy they have in their hearts from having, knowing and loving Hellat for these short ten and a half years cannot be denied.

Godspeed, Sweet Hellat. May these next hours bring you much peace.  

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