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Videos capture memories to last beyond a lifetime

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 23, 2010

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AUBURN — Like she does most every night, Karyn Slomski gathered her young children close to her and read to them — first a story about a day of kindergarten for her 4-year-old daughter, Maggie, then Dr. Seuss for 6-year-old Brendan.

This storytime was different than the rest. It was recorded on video, intended as a living memory.

Slomski hasn’t told her children yet, but she is dying and could have only weeks to live. They know their mother is sick, that something called cancer has ravaged her body over the past four years. But they don’t yet know she will soon be gone.

“I want them to be able to see me when I’m gone, to see us all together as a family,’’ said Slomski, 38, as the videographer prepared for the session. “I wanted something more than pictures, for them to remember me. And to remember how happy we all were.’’

So for 90 minutes in front of the camera, the Slomskis huddled close on the couch in their sunlit living room in Auburn. Karyn Slomski read, laughed and talked with her children, reminisced with her husband, and declared her love for her family and the life they’ve had together.

The videographer, Kate Carter, travels the country to record interviews with the dying as mementos for their loved ones. Carter formed the nonprofit group, LifeChronicles, in 1998 after the death of a close friend with three children. She had worried that other children would lose the memories of their parents, and has now recorded hundreds of videos that chronicle lives nearing their end.

The group provides the videos for free and supports itself through private donations. On this trip, Carter flew across the country on frequent-flier miles donated by a supporter of the program.

“I can’t keep your body alive,’’ Carter told Slomski, who has undergone many rounds of chemotherapy and hormone treatment over the past four years. “But I can keep your memory alive.’’

Slomski, who has advanced breast cancer, approached her social worker at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute about making a video as a way for her husband and children to remember her.

“It’s not talking about death; it’s celebrating our family,’’ she said. “It tears me up that they won’t have a mom, and this is a way I can leave a small piece of me with them.’’

The entire family gathered for the beginning of the interview, with Slomski and her husband, Jeff, telling the children the cameras were simply there to record the family at this point in their lives, like a family photograph.

“They don’t know the next part,’’ she said.

Slomski recently began a new session of chemotherapy in hopes of extending her life, but has been told it only has about a 20 percent chance of success. If it fails, her health will decline rapidly. After receiving the prognosis, she decided it was time to put her affairs in order and record the words and images she wanted to leave behind, for the years to come when Maggie and Brendan’s childhood memories fade.

“It’s been part of our lives for four years, and at some point you get past the tragedy of it all,’’ she said. “Now we have the reality of me not being here.’’

Side by side on the couch, the family reminisced about favorite vacations. Brendan recalled North Carolina — swimming in the waves, playing ping-pong, the visit to Washington, D.C., on the way. Maggie remembered Cape Cod, especially the candy fish and campfire s’mores. As the memories rushed out, Karyn smiled wistfully.

Carter then asked Slomski to describe her children, and what she loved about them most. She told Brendan she loved how he was always smiling, always happy, and he grinned shyly. Maggie was the sweetest girl, kind and an expert with hugs.

“Aw, mommy,’’ she said, patting her mom’s head and draping her arms around her.

As the children flopped and fidgeted, she told them she couldn’t ask for nicer children, and reminded them what she had told them: They could be whatever they wanted to be, and she was incredibly proud of them.

Slomski then sang the children a favorite lullaby, “Que Sera Sera.’’

“When I was young, I fell in love,’’ she sang, her voice strained with emotion. “I asked my sweetheart what lies ahead.’’

She stopped, overcome, and her husband gently comforted her.

After the song, the children went outside with her sister, and Karyn wept.

“The thing is, they never see me cry,’’ she said.

Then she and Jeff recounted how they met, becoming roommates when Karyn answered an ad.

“He opened the door, and I said, ‘Oh no, he’s cute,’ ’’ she recalled with a chuckle. They quickly became inseparable, and before long their friendship became more. He proposed on a weekend in Maine, dropping to one knee in a restaurant after hiding the ring in a dessert.

“Then she spent the next two hours on the phone,’’ he quipped.

They talked about what they loved about one another, what drew them together. Karyn said she loved his mind and passion, his confidence in who he was. Jeff said he loved her spirit, her resilience, and her inner joy. Karyn said she wished that Maggie would find someone as great as her father someday.

Together, they talked about how their children had made their love, and their lives, forever richer.

“I can’t imagine my life without them,’’ she said. “It just would have been . . . ’’

“Incomplete,’’ he said.

“Incomplete,’’ she agreed. “They got me through these four years. We love each other, but they are the reason we’re here.’’

It was four years ago that doctors delivered the shattering diagnosis — not only that she had cancer but that it had already spread throughout her body. She might live a year or two, but she would never recover. In a horrible instant, the life the couple thought they had was gone.

“All those things we thought we would share together, it wasn’t going to be,’’ she said.

Karyn said she is not afraid to die, and has faith she will be able to look over her family. She feels lucky, she said, for the time they’ve had together.

But she also worries, in a deep way that nearly resembles guilt, about how they will carry on without her.

“I’m just sad they aren’t going to have a mom, and he’s not going to have a wife,’’ she said. “They are going to struggle, and I don’t want them to struggle.’’

She turned to her husband.

“It’s the most amazing gift I have to leave them with you,’’ she said to him. “Truly, it is.’’

“You are inside me, inside the kids, inside so many people,’’ he said, his voice trailing to a whisper.

Just then, the children reappeared. Ducking under a camera cord, they hugged their parents, then darted to the backyard and the swing set, beside two wooden Adirondack chairs turned toward each other.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

UPDATE: Karyn Slomski passed away at her home on Sept. 5, 2010. Read her obituary here.