Bob Behrens was 6 feet 1 inch tall and had a trim build for most of his life. As he stood on the scale at age 89, he weighed in at a mere 106 pounds.
Behrens was placed in hospice care after suffering from congestive heart failure, and his wife, Mary, was recovering from a stroke. They had been married for 67 years but were separated by the differing levels of care they required. On top of that, the ongoing pandemic restricted their family’s ability to visit in person.
“It was almost an instantaneous decision that it was not sustainable for them,” their daughter, Becky Wilkes, said. “My siblings agreed, and two days later they moved into my house.”
The image of her dad standing on the scale made an impression on Wilkes. And, with her parents’ permission, she began to take a series of photos that are now on display in an exhibit titled “Till Death Do Us Part.”
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Address: 1300 Gendy St.
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Exhibit: Now – July 30
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Monday – Saturday
“I said, ‘This is just so unbelievable. I think I need to record this,’” Wilkes explained.
Over what would become her parents’ final months, Wilkes shot hundreds of photos of them doing everything from taking naps together to getting their blood drawn.
“I kept finding beauty in the way that they positioned themselves,” she said. “I wish that I had taken way more pictures of them because the ordinary was so extraordinary. But I still have more pictures than I know what to do with.”
Just two months prior, the couple had moved from their longtime home in Waco to an independent living facility.
“Facilities advertise as aging in place, and, to my knowledge, there is no such thing,” Wilkes said. “Aging in place requires you to move from unit to unit to unit to unit as you move from independent to assisted to skilled nursing to hospice. Those are four separate beds within the facility that might be half a mile apart in pathways.”
The health scares and the short period of time when they weren’t able to live together reignited their love for one another, Wilkes said. Throughout her adulthood, she hadn’t known them to be outwardly affectionate in front of their kids, but when they moved into her home they were rarely separated by more than a few feet.
“It’s fun to see the love, the true love that people have for each other, knowing they’ve been together for so long, and they just genuinely loved each other and cared for each other,” Renee Gleason, a home health aide who worked with the family, said. “They were just always (asking) what they can do for the other one, even though both of them (used) a walker. And what they could do for each other, they would do.”
Seeing strong relationships like that is one of many reasons Gleason enjoys her job. But even though she shares a lot of joy with her patients, the job can be heartbreaking.
“I see new patients all the time, and the families have no clue what’s ahead of them,” she said. “When they’re finally through, they’re just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We didn’t know this was going to be the way it happened.’ I mean, everybody has their own unique story, but it follows a certain guideline.”
Wilkes’ parents had openly discussed their health with her before they moved in, but the new vocabulary, medications and specialists still required adjustment.
“The first couple of nights were really scary. We slept with the doors open, and at one point Mom came in. She was like, ‘Becky, we need to check on Daddy.’ And it was kind of like a new baby,” Wilkes said. “You roll with the punches. You don’t know if you’re ready for it or not, but you just keep making amendments.”
So while she and her husband kept making changes around the home like removing rugs — a tripping hazard — and installing a shower bar, she also took out her camera and kept snapping photos.
At the time, Wilkes wasn’t sure that the photos would have a reach that extended beyond her own family, but after speaking with consultant J. Sybylla Smith, it was clear there was something there.
The independent curator, consultant and educator helped Wilkes cull the images and organize the show.
“I was so excited to be able to work with her as a creative collaborator and come up with ways that allowed engagement in this (subject) that were not maudlin or overwhelming or gut or heart wrenching. They were really uplifting,” Smith said over the phone. “We have such a limited viewpoint of beauty. And that image of her mother toweling herself off out of the shower with this beautiful blue and the soft folds of her body and the beautiful light, it’s like a painting.”
Smith sees projects like this one as a portal to a safe space for conversations that tend to be taboo in American culture.
“It’s like a mirror, right? You’re not related to Becky’s parents and you’re not having personal grief. But you’re walking into that space like I, too, am going to walk this path,” she said.
Those conversations are something that Dr. Janice Knebl, the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine’s interim chair for internal medicine and geriatrics, embraces.
“If you look at the media, it’s very youth culture focused. We have this anti-aging kind of dialogue,” Knebl said. “Why should we be anti-aging? I’m anti getting sick, or not having good health, but wrinkles are going to happen. It’s a natural aging process.”
The hallway near her office displays several photos that she has collected, showcasing older adults.
“I feel that as we age as humans there is such beauty in that face. There’s all that history and all those experiences and wisdom,” Knebl said. “So from my perspective, I think it should be equally represented.”
As an educator, she tries to encourage the next generation of medical professionals to gain a better perspective on aging through a program called SAGE that connects seniors with students.
“I think people get discouraged if they think they have no control,” Knebl said. “Each person’s journeys are different. And maybe some people have less control because of some genetic illness, but more have control than they think … So whenever I give talks in the community, I focus on what we can do and try to make a difference.”
Wilkes’ photo exhibit, which is free and open to the public, is one forum where people can see the ups and downs of the aging process.
“What has surprised me is the response from people who don’t know my parents or know me and relate to it,” Wilkes said.
In the gallery, two 30-somethings stopped her and told her how much the exhibit meant to them. She hopes that this exhibit can open up more of those conversations among people of all ages, but also among health care providers.
Her mother died two months after her father, but before she passed they were able to look through many of the photos together.
“She just thought they were beautiful,” Wilkes recalled. “And she said, ‘It’s a beautiful story.’”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.