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Family portrait

It is one of those chilly early winter days when the wind whips through your clothing, reminding you that it's time to start wearing layers.

I pull up at my friend Jane's house and startle a bunch of starlings out of a bare lilac bush. Her front room is a photography studio with bare wood floors and a blue cloth background hanging from high drapery rods. We are waiting for Jen and Nik, a young couple who are coming to have their engagement photo made.

I wrote about Jen and Nik close to a year ago (Personal Space, Dec. 25, 2003), about their perfect friendship and how they had spent a year together in chemotherapy, helping each other through treatment for cancer. Friends since they were children, Jen and Nik have been through more than many couples who've spent a lifetime together. Now they are planning to marry, on Dec. 11.

Jane's walls are covered with her exquisite black-and-white photographs, including those she took in Iraq a few years ago. We walk lightly around our shared sorrow at this moment in time, when my son, a soldier, is headed for Baghdad and Jane's friends there are even more devastated now by the war than they were a few years back by economic sanctions and a rotten leader. We share fear and grief, for the soldiers and the Iraqis alike.

Jen and Nik arrive, cold and flustered, a little late. Since last Christmas, when they shared shiny bald heads, Nik's hair has come back, dark brown and curly. He is cancer free. Jen, whose cancer has returned and who is taking chemotherapy again, has shaved the last of her new hair off and wears a black knit cap. She is as beautiful as any fashion model with her sculpted jaw, her large eyes and perfect lips. Her long fingers are carefully manicured.

Jane sets up the studio lights and warms up her subjects with music and conversation. They talk about wedding plans, about the basement apartment friends are planning to finish for them to live in. They talk about school and chemo. They smile and laugh and pose with ease. They are pros at having their pictures taken.

I sit and watch and think about courage -- about how marrying under any circumstances is a brave act that requires resolution against troubles and difficulty, about how many of us fail because we can't face the difficult parts.

I think of the courage of these two kids, marrying and declaring their love with a potentially fatal visitor in the room constantly. I wonder what kind of minds and souls two young people must have to look cancer in the face and say, "Hey, we're choosing life, all that we can take, for as long as we have it."

Jane puts Nik and Jen in a red chair, Jen's legs draped across his, their arms and hands elegantly intertwined. They relax and smile. Their beauty, accented by the soft afternoon light, fills the room.

Later, we all sit in front of Jane's computer to see what she has shot. A photo comes up on the screen and Nik and Jen immediately agree that this is the one they want sent out with their wedding invitation. It is a portrait of warmth and friendship.

Nik and Jen have to go -- she to the clinic, he to work. They bundle up in heavy jackets; she pulls on her black knit cap. Jane and I watch from the door as they walk out into the cold, facing December and more life together. They are a portrait of courage.

For Nik and Jen's apartment, friends are seeking donations of building materials. Direct inquiries to Brenda Smith, Compassion for Kids, 559-3128.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

  • Family portrait

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