(A full version of this story has also moved. This is the shorter version.)
* Photo essay: https://reut.rs/3fTyEKB
By Darrin Zammit Lupi
KAPPARA, Malta, April 15 (Reuters) - Reuters photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi documented the final months of his teenage daughter's life as she and her family struggled with both the coronavirus epidemic and the cancer that eventually took her.
I took the first photo of my daughter, Rebecca, moments after she was born on August 3, 2005.
Barely more than 15 years later, I took the last photo of my daughter moments after she died on January 3, 2021.
I'm a photojournalist. It was only natural that I documented just about every moment of the beautiful life of Becs, as my wife, Marisa, and I called her.
Harder, much harder, was documenting her illness and death from a rare and extremely aggressive form of bone cancer.
Last autumn, Reuters published a Wider Image photo essay of our family's struggle with Becs' illness, which had been made even more impossible by the coronavirus pandemic that had reached Malta, the island where we live. That essay ended with a moment of hope, after she had been released from hospital following months of grueling treatment.
Hope was still a thing then, something I still fervently believed in, always choosing to believe the best-case scenario.
But just two months after she was discharged, we had to take Becs back to hospital. It was Sunday, the 27th of September. None of us knew it, but Becs was seeing our dog Cookie and cats Zippy and Zorro for the very last time, she was seeing her bedroom for the last time, she was leaving home for the last time – she would never return.
Becs passed away, very peacefully, with no signs of distress at all, on Sunday morning, January 3, 2021, at 9:20. Mars, as I call my wife, and I were both with her.
At the end, her breathing just got shallower and shallower, till it became very light gasps, with the gaps in between them growing longer. Then there were no more.
I kept talking to her, convinced she could now hear me and understand me better than before, telling her not to be afraid. I told her I'd keep holding her hand as long as I could, but now she'd find others to take her hand, and whenever she felt she was ready, she should go with them. I kept looking up toward the ceiling – don't people who have died and then been revived in hospital say they were watching everything from up near the ceiling? So was Becs watching from there? Was she confused, or did she know exactly what was happening and was calm and peaceful about it all?
All the nurses had filed into the room and were standing around her bed in silent respect. I'm not sure if they understood what I was doing, why I was whispering to her while looking away from her body, but I didn't care.
Now, every moment that I'm thinking of her (and that's a lot of moments), I'm desperately looking for the signs that people said we would come across, just like I'm desperate to dream of her, and yet I don't. Maybe I'm trying too hard, and I need to just let things happen, and I'll recognise them when they do.
In the months before she died, Becs had been playing a game on her iPhone – "Sky Children of the Light." She wanted me to join in with her, so I upgraded my ancient iPhone to a newer model. I loved the game and loved playing it with her. As our avatars travelled together, soaring through the clouds and landscapes on a variety of quests, in different realms – which I eventually found out symbolised the different stages of life, from early childhood to death and beyond – she was my guide, my mentor, my teacher. She (her avatar, rather) would hold my hand and lead me everywhere, and that's the way I wanted it.
Throughout her life, I tried to guide and teach her, and now she was doing the same to me. I can't tell if she was seeing this game as a sort of allegory of her own life – even if just on a subconscious level.
The only part of the game she didn't show me was the bit where your character has to die in order to move forward; she said I wasn't ready for it. Did she know she was going to die soon herself? She certainly never talked about it, or asked about it. We had earlier decided we wouldn't tell her unless she specifically asked. How are you supposed to break that news to your child?
To me, the game developed into a metaphor of what would happen once I eventually pass myself – she'll be there waiting for me, to take and hold my hand, act as my guide and guardian, take me where I have to go.
(Reporting by Darrin Zammit Lupi; editing by Kari Howard)