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

 

On Being Inside the Frame

"Get that camera out of my face!"

The family circus, summer 2010.

The family circus, summer 2010.

Yes, I remember saying that or giving the camera such a searing glare that it wilted and drooped towards the floor. But most of the time, Ben and his camera were like an annoying fly buzzing around the picnic table. You never forgot he was there, but you got so you just quit swatting at it. And because the camera was so ubiquitous, you knew most of it would end up on the cutting room floor anyway. Who was going to watch 60 hours of dish washing, housekeeping and "casserole juggling?" More often, it was "Put that camera down and come and help!" which he usually did, to his credit.

Pool antics, summer 2010.

Pool antics, summer 2010.

Sometimes I was jealous of him and would switch places arguing that it wasn't fair that he got to "hide behind the camera" all the time. Being "in the picture" felt so agonizing that I wanted a reprieve and I would shoo him away and into the kitchen and take a breather "behind the scenes." But not much of what I shot was useable. I never fully understood F-stops and white balancing and my zooms were out of focus. Ben indulged me, maybe because I was his older sister and could boss him around. Birth order is everything, isn't it?

George takes a break, summer 2010.

George takes a break, summer 2010.

But I also wasn't good at staying out of the picture. I couldn't remain detached and uninvolved. If there was a conversation going on, I had trouble just observing it. If someone made a joke, I'd laugh and the camera would shake. If I was interviewing someone, I always made the fatal amateur mistake of giving audible conversation cues: "Mmm-hmm," I'd nod making sound editing impossibly arduous.

Mary Jo in the calm of the storm, summer 2010.

Mary Jo in the calm of the storm, summer 2010.

So this was Ben's thing, and yes, the rest of us allowed it or tolerated it because we loved him and trusted him and wanted to support him and respected his need to process his grief in his own way. All of that is true. But there's more to it. We wanted him to take this horrible thing we were going through and make something meaningful and useful out of it. That's what art does, right? Captures life in all its transitory beauty and then show it to us so we can hold onto it and understand it?

Here was our beautiful mother, full of love and life, a unique and precious human being soon to be gone from us and the world. Here were the beautiful last seasons of her life with the giant, thunderous harvester stirring up dust on the horizon and heading straight towards her. Hurry quick, take a picture before the sun goes down! It's so human.

And so incomplete. Ben's camera didn't capture everything. He wasn't always there, the camera wasn't always on, the moment was lost, my mother's life ended anyway. And even the Google Glass version of her life wouldn't have been the whole thing, would it? Documentary disappoints. All art is inadequate. But how can we keep from trying?

It's July Fourth weekend and I'm writing this in the early morning hours at what is now my father's house, where Ben filmed most of Stage Four: A Love Story. It's all so familiar and so simultaneously strange. There is the same family circus going on. The traditions continue. Stories are told and retold. But we're all older. The "children" are now teenagers. Mom, of course, is gone. Ben's camera doesn't come to the table.

There's a relief in this. Having a terminally ill family member is exhausting for everyone. By comparison, having a camera in your face the whole time was merely annoying at worst. But the realization that all of our stories must one day come to an end makes me sad and understand our absurd impulse to capture them however inadequately. Writing this reflection is another feeble attempt. Then there are footsteps in the hall, coffee percolating, morning voices in the kitchen and the river of another day sweeps me along.