First Place Photojournalism II – Picture Story/Series
First Place Photojournalism II – Picture Story/Series
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Anna McCullough embraces her 5-year-old son, Sam, while they work on a puzzle in their living room as the sun sets. Puzzles are a low energy activity that Anna can still do with her son for an extended time period. "These two years have been both terrible and beautiful- the darkness punctuated by moments of light and an abundance of love. Sam is my brightest light and his sweet, snuggling, in the moment love has been my best medicine," said Anna when asked how she would sum up the last couple years and her relationship with her son.
Anna sits in the UNC-Chapel Hill Lineberger Cancer Center while she receives immunotherapy meant to help repair her depleted immune system that was weakened by years of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Anna gets the treatment every few weeks and will spend nearly a full day in the hospital each time getting tests and treatment. She often shows her boredom and expresses how much she misses Sam and her husband, Tim, as she sits for two hours receiving treatment.
Tim embraces Sam in the early morning while Anna sleeps in. Sam has just hurt his finger and normally goes straight to his mom for comfort but with her stuck in bed, he runs to his father who calms him down and gives him love.
Anna has many ups and downs with how her body feels. When she is in her down periods, the cancer and treatment takes a huge toll on her energy and she will often find herself going to bed at 7:30PM and sleeping until noon the next day. On most mornings, Tim is the parent in charge who takes care of Sam, who wakes himself up at 6AM every day (weekends included).
In those early mornings, Tim tries to keep things as fun and normal for Sam as possible. They will build LEGOs together (Sam's favorite pastime), eat cereal and listen to music. "Oh these boys. I almost can't let myself think about how fiercely I love them and how desperately I want to be here for them for a long, long time. After my initial treatment, when I was really struggling with depression and often feeling pretty hopeless, I pulled away from them a lot, largely in fear of losing them/them losing me," Anna said when talking about her relationship with Tim and Sam.
In the evenings, both Anna and Tim work together to get Sam into bed. Knowing how important these little moments are for Anna and Sam to share, Tim will often sit at the end of the bed. He will be present in the moment while allowing Anna to take the spotlight in Sam's life whenever she is able. "Tim is the best. He is my person and he's been (and continues to be) our family's rock through this whole ordeal. He keeps everything going when I'm out of commission, and he keeps life happy for Sam no matter what else is going on. Tim deserves a medal, a parade, or at least a freaking vacation," said Anna.
It is those little moments that keep Anna going. Her relationship with Sam is one of deep love. A connection between a mother and her child is one of the strongest relationships that exist and Anna has a special appreciation for that fact. "I could look at this sweet face for a thousand years and it wouldn't be enough. I was made to be this boy's mommy and I'm going to fight like hell to get as many years as I can staring at this beautiful boy," she said.
Sam likes to be goofy throughout the day but gets especially funny when with his mom. He has taken special interest in his self-proclaimed "golden hair" and loves to keep it in tip top shape. "Trying to get a funny, active five-year-old through the bedtime routine and into bed on time is grounding-really keeps you in the now. Like many parents, I'm often impatient, especially when my energy is low and I'm ready for bed at 7:30. But it's hard to resist fire truck pjs, that little belly, and watching Sam discover vanity," Anna said.
After getting a free pass to stay up a little late on a Saturday night, Sam is finally corralled by Tim and carried up the stairs. Upside down and dangling off Tim's shoulder, Sam could not stop laughing. He loves that kind of physical play that he can only really get from his dad in recent years.
Anna and Tim play a game similar to dominos after putting Sam to bed. When Anna has a bit more energy and is on the upswing, she loves staying up later and spending much needed alone time with her husband. Playing games is one of the ways they bond and keep their marriage strong and playful. "Cancer, as it turns out, is really hard on a marriage. It can feel like a really terrible and unwanted third party. It challenges us at times, but I'm so grateful to have a husband to work through those challenges with and ultimately come out on the other side friends again, ready to keep fighting for a long and happy marriage," Anna said.
Anna coughs while holding Sam in her arms after sharing a laugh. They have a lot of fun moments together, but often times cancer gets in the way. "Sam makes me laugh- one of my greatest joys in life. But laughing makes me cough. Way to ruin a moment, cancer," Anna said.
Anna covers her face in frustration and exhaustion in her hospital room as Tim sits nearby for support. After spiking a 102 degree fever, she was quarantined in a hospital room because of her compromised immune system. All visitors are instructed to wear at least a gown and a mask if possible. This was just one of many hospital visits Anna has endured over the last two years.
Amidst a case of the shingles, Anna's parents come to visit to celebrate her 38th birthday on February 7th. Anna was feeling a bit better that day and the pretense of her beloved parents played a large role in that. Her mother baked her signature blueberry cake with berries grown in their backyard and let Sam help glaze the top. The initial plan was to have thirty-eight candles circling the cake but due to Anna's reduced lung function, she requested a more simple two candle setup.
On a brisk afternoon, Anna sits on the front porch of her family's home and watches Sam and Tim play tag on their lawn. She is often sidelined and has to begrudgingly remind Sam that he has to play more gently with mommy. Naturally, this leads Sam to play more with his father and leaves Anna as merely a bystander watching her own life from the stands. "I want the energy I used to have- to be running around with them instead of resting on the steps all bundled up. I'm hopeful I'll get there one day. It's hard to be patient," Anna said.
Anna takes a moment to take in a deep breath on her first walk in the woods in three months. On November 11, 2018, Anna was in the midst of a big upswing with how she's been feeling and decided to go on a mini-hike locally with Sam, Tim and their dog, Quincy. Sam would often run ahead leaving Tim to chase after him. Anna maintained a slow and easy pace, often behind the group where she simply enjoyed being outside with her boys again.