Self-portrait by Mary Jo Steger. 

Stage Four: A Love Story was filmed over the course of five-plus years while Mary Jo and her family rode the emotional roller coaster of her precious last years of life. Almost four years later, the Stage Four Team, siblings Benjamin Steger (Director/Producer) and Kate Steger (Outreach and Marketing Coordinator), intend to contribute to and manage this blog as a way of generating support for and to dialog with others in similar circumstances. We are interested in thoughtful and articulate contributions that enrich our collective understanding of sickness and health, love and forgiveness, life and death, and in the role that film, and other art forms, can play in helping us reflect on and tell even our most difficult stories.

We welcome your voice in this dialog! Please feel free to leave your comments below each post. If you would like to make a longer contribution in the form of an essay, a poem, a photograph or another work of art, or if you have suggested links to other online reading material or resources, please contact us

 

A Phone Call From Mom

Mary Jo and Benjamin, 1973.

Mary Jo and Benjamin, 1973.

In the spring of 2005, I got a phone call from my mom telling me that she had been diagnosed with cancer. After hanging up, I had a good cry and then decided to move back home for the summer. I was freelancing in video production and teaching college part-time at the time and didn’t have a family of my own so, luckily, I was able to do so. I had left home when I was 18 and hadn’t lived there since. Reflecting on the scenario, I realized that, although my mom and I had been very close when I was a child, I had neglected my relationship with her in my adult life and hadn’t been as close with her as I should have been. I guess I had assumed that I would always have time to make a stronger connection. Knowing that her diagnosis was stage-four emphasized to me that time was indeed precious and that I needed to make the most of it.  Fortunately, I was able to reestablish the connection to her that I felt so strongly as a child and be close to her over that last five years of her life.

Over the course of making the film, I lost four friends to cancer. All were younger than my mother and all had less time than she from the time they were diagnosed until their deaths. Jennifer Sullivan, a family friend who lived a very healthy lifestyle and never smoked, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a little over a month later. Susan Stursberg, my favorite bartender from my favorite Chicago watering hole, Gold Star Bar, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died at the age of 45. My girlfriend's cousin, Beatrice Bodzinksi, passed away two weeks ago at the age of 44 from colon cancer, leaving behind a partner, Paul,  a daughter, Diana, a mother, Tamara, and a grandmother, Cecilia. Dan Stock, father to a four-year old daughter, Charlie, and husband to his high school sweetheart, Angie, died of melanoma at the age of 37. Dan was the sound designer on my two previous films, Great Bend and Left Field. When I began this documentary, I always assumed it would be Dan who would be mixing the post-production audio and it makes me so sad that he will not.

Death is a hard teacher but it is also one of the best. I learned many things from my mom’s passing and the passing of my friends. One is that cancer does not discriminate; it takes the old just as easily as it takes the young, and both women and men alike. Further, life is short, time is precious, and it’s important to make every moment count.  My mother was graceful in dying and I can only hope to emulate her whenever that Grim Reaper decides to call me home. She didn’t spend her last days battling death or wallowing in anger or fear. She enjoyed the last years of her life, even while knowing that death was imminent. For her, it was a time of reconciliation, joy, and maintaining dignity. I hope that by sharing her story others may share in that joy, make opportunities for reconciliation in their own lives, and find solace in the fact that all of us will some day pass through that door.

It is my hope that this film and blog can help foster a community of people whose lives have been affected by cancer, terminal illness, or death. We’ll be posting weekly here in the months to come so, if you’re interested, please check back often. We also invite you to be a part of this community and its discussion. Please post comments and contact us if you have a post, story, or artwork that you’d like to share on the blog. If you wish, you can also contribute to the film’s completion by donating to our Indiegogo campaign. Thanks for taking the time to read this. Wishing you all peace and joy.