SAN JOSE, California ― Fawn Lee had big dreams for her family. She would enroll her three young children in the best schools, drive them to soccer, piano, swimming and dancing.
Since moving from Vietnam with her parents and 11 siblings when she was 4, Lee had worked hard to create her opportunities. Cum laude graduate from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. A job she loved at Seagate. A husband she adored. She wanted the same or better for her children.
But a week ago, the 35-year-old San Jose, California, mother gathered 4-year-old Ethan, 3-year-old Ellen and 1-year-old Emma around her in front of a video camera to share her hopes and dreams for their futures. And fighting tears, she explained why “Mommie” won’t be there the way she’d planned.
Just days after being diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer, Lee realized she wanted to leave something of herself for her kids, something that captured the happiness of their lives, even telling how Mommie and Daddy met, the joy they felt when each child was born.
With great pain and incalculable purpose, she recorded a legacy video as a bridge for her children to see themselves with their mom and hear her advice for those hallmark moments ahead: finishing school, getting married, making a marriage work.
“I don’t want my kids to feel I abandoned them,” said Lee, whose prognosis is living for two more years at best, only a few months if the cancer moves more rapidly.
Families around the country have turned to videographers for years to film special occasions and 50th anniversaries and birthdays. In recent years, many critically ill people are hiring videographers, too.
“This will be the most precious thing those children own,” said Kate Carter, founder of LifeChronicles, a Santa Barbara, California, nonprofit that has recorded 700 legacy videos around the country over the past 13 years.
“Taping is a very empowering, invigorating thing,” said Carter, who shoots the videos with teams of student interns. “They get to do something for their family, and when Fawn’s children see themselves with her on camera, they will re-experience being in her presence after she’s gone.”
Pat McNees, president of the 530-member Association of Personal Historians, said the videos can capture many things that photos and letters can’t.
If you videotape a mother looking with love at her child, “the child can see that love,” she said. “That’s really what a child wants to know about a deceased parent ― that their parent loved them, that they were important.”
Photos taken at Lee’s videotaping session with her children and husband, Rick Pham, show powerful glimpses of that love and devotion.
Her first chemotherapy treatment was two weeks ago, so Lee has only begun her fight against the cancer. She and her husband pray every day, giving thanks for that day, asking for more days to come.
Fawn Lee with her daughter, Ellen, 3. Lee talked about her life and her illness while being videotaped by videographers from LifeChronicles in her San Jose, California, home, March 26. (San Jose Mercury News/MCT)
After the taping, “I had a sense of closure,” she said. In the whirlwind of decisions she’s had to make since her diagnosis on Feb. 10, the video “is done and I feel better knowing that I’ve explained if something happens unexpectedly.”
Until that fateful day in the hospital, when tests to find out what was causing her cough and making it hard to breathe revealed the cancer, everything Lee did was a payment toward a long happy life with her family.
She didn’t smoke. She exercised religiously and ate healthfully, with fruits and vegetables. Her lung cancer is not the kind that smokers get but comes with the weight of a dire warning as soon as a patient is told by an oncologist that she has it: “You need to get your affairs in order,” the doctor said. “Now.”
In that moment, “everything stopped,” Lee said.
Until then, everything seemed so normal.
“I basically said, I need to get my life in order.” Foremost in her thoughts was what she could do for her children.
While in the hospital, she managed to have an attorney prepare a will, a medical directive and power of attorney in a day.
As she lay frozen by pain in her hospital bed, she Googled videographers but didn’t find what she was looking for. A social worker at the hospital told her about LifeChronicles.
“I wanted to start writing letters to my kids, but I was too weak,” she said.
Until recently, LifeChronicles was able to provide the videos free through donations. But with a bad economy, the group now asks families to pay what they can, though they’d never turn anyone away. Carter and her video teams have also learned not to wait; they go shortly after someone calls.
Lee has written down what she wants for her funeral service. She and her husband worry about whether his income alone can provide all the dreams she has for their children. She tells him: “If anything happens, take care of the kids, quit smoking and live a healthy life. They will need you.”
But mainly they are treasuring every day. Lee quit her job to be with her children every moment.
“If I’m going to have six more months, I want to live my life as best I can,” Lee said. Her two oldest children know their mother is ill. When she has a bad cough, Ethan and Ellen say “go to doctor, Mom, get better.” And Ellen pats her lightly on the back.
“Tomorrow is promised to no one,” Lee said. “Rejoice in every day you have. That’s what I learned.”
See portions of the videos LifeChronicles has filmed for other clients at its website.
The website for the Association of Personal Historians has a list of resources for all kinds of personal videos.
The Mothers’ Living Stories Project focuses on mothers with cancer or other critical diseases and includes information on making video histories. www.motherslivingstories.org.
By Linda Goldston
(San Jose Mercury News)
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)