|Bonnie checks out the clouds 8,500 feet up Maui's Haleakala, in February 2019. |
'Time has chosen this year
for me to begin
wrapping up my life'
-- Bonnie Jean Schupp, writing on Jan. 19, 2021
On her 64th birthday, Bonnie Schupp put on a sexy outfit, led me down to her improvised basement photo studio, checked the settings and handed me her camera -- directing a series of shots as she posed, playfully in some and just a tad risque in others.
She picked 64 of the resulting photos, lined them up in orderly rows, and put them together as an image that was then printed on metal. The title: "Will you still love me when I'm 64."
Bonnie's metal print was exhibited in an art show held by the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, on the campus of Indiana University. It wasn't the grand prize winner -- that honor, as I recall, went to the gay guys who posed in fantastic costumes to recreate famous (and one might say, outrageous) Renaissance paintings. And it didn't get a buyer.
But when the show was ending, Bonnie was asked if she would donate it to the institute's permanent collection. She joked that it was another check-off for her bucket list. "I'm in the Kinsey collection."
In January this year, Bonnie was given a diagnosis of aggressive pancreatic cancer. "Well, I've had a good life," she told her grim-faced doctor. "I don't have any regrets."
|Bonnie at Downs Park, Jan. 17.|
Then we went home, and a few days later Bonnie searched through dresser drawers and her closet for another sexy outfit. We drove to nearby Downs Park, to a somewhat secluded wall that provided a background, and she handed me her iPhone to take pictures. She smiled, laughed, raised her arms, lifted a leg, and I snapped away recording the joy of the moment she wanted preserved.
Bonnie's journey ended two months later.
She worried less about death than about me, her soulmate of 42 years. And about how losing her would affect others dear to her heart. Five weeks before the end, so friends would not be taken by surprise, she wrote about her grim diagnosis in a Facebook post -- illustrated by a photo she took in 2005 of the Christo/Jeanne Claude "Gates" art installation in New York City.
"I have had a blessed life surrounded by love from family and friends," she wrote. "How did it happen that David and I know so many kind, loving and talented people? Each of you should know how much I value the time we have spent together over the years."
Bonnie had a lot of friends. Her iPhone stored more than 800 contacts, and on the day she died, I tried -- as best I could -- to pick out and personally call or email those closest to her. Hours of emotionally draining conversations later, I had to abandon the effort and just post the sad news on the social platform.
And then came the response -- 418 comments from friends across the nation and across oceans, expressions of love, of how Bonnie embraced, inspired, taught, or mentored them over the years. Some also put up their own Facebook posts on her passing, resulting in hundreds more. It was an unexpected measure of her life, and the joys she received from her simple acts of friendship and acceptance.
She embraced people in all colors, genders, religions, nationalities -- a global assembly of friendship and love that I was blessed to be part of -- and in our days, weeks, months and years together, hardly noticed how unique and powerful that kind of love had become.
I thought of Bonnie as a Renaissance woman, from the wide range of her skills, knowledge and careers, and her incessant quest for new experiences. She was a teacher for about six years in Baltimore City, and later 15 years in Anne Arundel County. In between, she was co-owner of a camera shop, a freelance newspaper columnist, and always a photographer -- aside from being my wife, and taking the primary role in raising our two children.
We first met in 1968, as neighbors in a Baltimore rowhouse at 2835 North Calvert Street -- Bonnie and her first husband, Scott Caples, living on the third floor when I moved into the second-floor apartment with my first wife. The closest we had to a formal introduction came one weekend morning when Bonnie wandered out of her bedroom in her newlywed nightgown and found me sitting in her living room, reading their just-delivered copy of the Baltimore Sun after my night of working at the newspaper's city desk.
"I was just checking to see if a change was made in your edition," I told her. She nodded, a little sleepily, and continued on her way to the bathroom. And I departed moments later.
Soon after, Baltimore was caught up in the urban rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bonnie wanted to take pictures of National Guard soldiers on patrol, and I -- with a press pass -- offered to drive her around in my little convertible.
The following January, after Bonnie and Scott had bought a little house in the Brooklyn Park neighborhood, a 16-year-old high school dropout named Victor Jackson brought us back together. Young Victor, living on riot-devastated Gay Street, had tried to save the life of an elderly man who had collapsed from a heart attack. A story I wrote about him for the newspaper brought a call from an editor at Scholastic Scope, a magazine widely used in junior high school classrooms, asking if I could write about Victor for the publication -- and get a picture of him.
I could have offered the photo opportunity -- and its $50 payment -- to a newspaper colleague, but had a better idea: Call Bonnie, who was teaching at Benjamin Franklin Junior High in South Baltimore. It was our first collaboration, with my story and her photo of Victor appearing in the April 11, 1969, issue of the magazine. And Bonnie, in turn, invited me to talk to her adolescent students about newspaper work.
We didn't see each other much over the next decade -- just rare times when we would run into each other in a city many call Smalltimore. I don't even remember when I told her about my buying the large end-of-row house known as Toad Hall at 2937 Calvert, just a block from where we had first met, and how I had painted the window frames orange.
Around Feb. 1, 1979, Bonnie was attending the birthday party of her favorite former student, Darlene Kelley, two blocks down Calvert Street, and -- amid a group of young 20-somethings she did not know -- had the bright idea of walking up to that big townhouse and inviting me to the party. Unfortunately, I was at work that night, so she left a message with a girlfriend of mine that long-ago neighbor Bonnie was down the street at the party and maybe I could join her there after I got home.
It must have been close to midnight when I got the intriguing message, so I walked down the street to find the noisy party going strong in a second-floor apartment. But no one answered my knock on the downstairs outer door. It was cold and windy, and I stood there in my scruffy black leather-fringed jacket, a silly cowboy hat holding down my unruly long hair, waiting, hoping that someone would soon be leaving and open the door.
About twenty minutes later, the door opened -- and it was Bonnie, leaving the party with a young man in tow (she later insisted that she never had done that before). So I got her phone number, her address, and promised to give her a call.
I walked alone, and slowly, back to my house thinking how odd that seemed.
So I wrote her a letter... and she wrote back... and we learned we were both sort of single, awaiting divorces -- she from her first husband, me from my second wife. I wrote some more, and left letters in her mailbox late at night, after work at the newspaper. And she invited me to dinner. We sort of kissed... I was nervous, a little off target. And I felt there was something remarkable about this relationship -- less crazy than the others I'd had over the 11 years since the spring of 1968 -- as it grew into intimacy.
I found myself writing poems, and in love.
And Bonnie opened herself to me. "I'm going to make myself be vulnerable," she said -- and soon after, she proposed. But not marriage. She asked if I would like to have a baby with her.
"That sounds like fun," I said, and promised her a daughter -- and we set to work making it happen. Mostly, that was fun. Our best guess was that the magic happened on my second-floor back porch during a summer thunderstorm.
As her belly grew, my proposal came next -- that we should marry. And on Feb. 10, 1980, days after our respective divorces became final, in the living room of her little Brooklyn Park home with a small group of friends and family in attendance at what I called a BYOS (bring your own shotgun) wedding, we officially embarked on a remarkable 41-year journey.
|BYOS wedding, Feb. 10, 1980|
We sold our respective houses a year later and moved to suburban Pasadena, thinking ahead to schools for our daughter Lauren -- and the likely arrival of the daughter from my first marriage, whose upbringing with her birth mother, step-father and step-sister in Florida was not going well. In third grade, she was kicked out of school for kicking the principal, and my first ex-wife sent her back to me that summer, a deeply troubled child, and Bonnie became the mother of two.
Over the course of the next four decades, the kids turned out fine. Lauren graduated from what is now Frostburg State University in Western Maryland, where she met the man who became her husband and where Bonnie had earned her undergraduate degree in 1967. She now produces commercials for television and radio stations in Salisbury, Maryland. And daughter FL (who legally changed her name from Jennifer) became a nurse at age 40 after years of uncertainty at her direction in life.
Bonnie retired from teaching in 2003, to speed up her multi-year challenge of night graduate classes at the University of Baltimore and, two years later, at age 60, was awarded her doctorate in communications design.
Her focus turned more heavily to photography -- selling stock images through iStockphoto.com, and then Getty Images after it acquired iStock. And she became part of Baltimore's ever-growing arts community, exhibiting and selling photos at gallery shows as we developed friendships with area artists, writers and musicians.
We traveled widely over the years, managing to visit all 50 states and a dozen countries -- and making even more friends with people we met along the way. We were hosts from the beginning of our marriage in an international peace organization, Servas, welcoming travelers to stay free in our home -- and visiting some of them in return. Nations on the map became places our friends lived, and the world grew smaller and more intimate to us.
|Posing as Bonnie and Clyde at an iStock event in Utah, 2018|
Adventure always went hand-in-hand with our journalism and photography. My freelance travel and feature stories were illustrated with Bonnie's photos. We rode elephants in the circus parade. We drove 7,000 miles across America and back in one of our epic road trips, exploring quirky attractions, visiting and making new friends, and blogging about the thrills of it all.
Much as I thought of myself as the writer, Bonnie proved far more prolific with entries in her "Journeys" blog, and self-publishing half a dozen books incorporating her words, poetry, photography and even family recipes for our daughters. The most ambitious book is titled "365 Gifts" and compiles with photo illustrations blog posts on a gift each day brought, beginning on her 70th birthday.
An earlier 365-day project is presented in her book, "Dog Tag Poetry," inspired by a box of metal dog tags, each stamped with a single word, given to her one Christmas by our Baltimore poet friend Shirley Brewer. Bonnie picked a tag at random each day, incorporated its word in a haiku, and illustrated it with a photo.
An example, for the word "machine" she photographed a golden binder clip holding the metal tag to a sheet of paper and wrote:
We need a simple
machine to hold all pieces
of life together.
We had our trials over the years, as our elders passed away and our own health issues cropped up. I nearly died a couple of times -- in a car wreck in 1983, and from an infection and sepsis in the fall of 2019, when Bonnie became part of my nursing team for weeks of antibiotics infusions.
And in early autumn last year, it was Bonnie's turn, with pancreatitis and surgery to remove her gallbladder. There was a spot on her pancreas. The surgeon said it might be a cyst, might be something worse... that a scan a few months down the road would be needed to check on it. But by then, it proved to be something worse as digestive problems were diagnosed in early January as aggressive pancreatic cancer.
The spot now measured four centimeters, and there were cancer lesions in her liver and lungs, and it had reached a lymph node. We took walks together -- which became shorter as her condition worsened -- and talked about how we both had figured I would be the first to go. We hoped that chemo would buy some time, but after the first treatment she became weaker and we turned to hospice care.
Our friend Carlos Zigel, a retired doctor who had been our primary care physician for years before ending his career specializing in palliative care, had told us what was coming... that chemo might work, but eventually would fail, and hospice would be the next step with a goal of achieving a "soft landing."
The last days were difficult. Our daughters were with us every day, and Bonnie's sisters Nancy and Jaymie visited on a Sunday, at my urging -- finding it hard to believe the end was coming so quickly. Bonnie had stopped eating, and was moved to a hospital bed in our living room the next day as hospice nurses and aides began helping us. We had a few other visitors, close friends, come to see her... but by Tuesday afternoon, she was wearing out.
"I want to fall asleep and not wake up," she said. And by Wednesday, she mostly slept. Her breathing seemed labored as I sat through most of that night by her bedside, held her hand, talked to her. About 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, when her breathing eased into a seemingly normal rhythm, I put on some beautiful music by the Celtic group Connemara we had seen perform years earlier, and then I drifted into sleep on the couch behind her bed.
I awakened about 6:30, the music just ending and dawn brightening the sky. The house was suddenly silent. I jumped from the couch, frightened, and found her gone... her journey ended in the hour before sunrise of March 11.
The weeks since have been difficult. I have written about time bombs around the house, perhaps placed by Bonnie in those final weeks where I would find them. The first to detonate: A three-ring loose-leaf notebook on a shelf in her office, its spine marked with our initials in a heart. Inside were the letters and poems I had written and left in her mailbox back in 1979.
Under a pile of stuff on a love seat in my guest room office sat one of the nine large photo albums chronologically illustrating the first years of our journey together as a family. Opening the cover, I found a letter she had written to me dated April 24, 1979.
"Here are some (but not all) of the reasons why I love you," it began. "They are not in order of importance or any other order, but just as they flicker through my head." There followed a list of 20. If I had to pick just one, it would be Number 10:
"You aren't afraid to give and share as many people are. I think sometimes they are afraid that by giving of themselves they may lose themselves. I think the opposite is true. One has everything to gain in giving. It's one of life's paradoxes."
The next page held a photo of her pregnant belly, with the title "Expectations."
Her documentation included a photo of the positive pregnancy test -- a view of a circle through the top of a test tube, dated July 22, 1979 -- and a Childbirth Education Association certificate for attending its course in the Lamaze Method of Psychoprophylaxis in Obstetrics (the shorter name, natural childbirth) dated Feb. 17, 1980.
There's a photo of her hand on her belly, captioned "Tiny kicks," and another of me in blue jeans and tee-shirt lying on that back porch and titled "Beginnings." From Feb. 10, there's photos of our wedding, and from March 22, photos of Lauren being born -- some taken by Bonnie herself as she was pushing. Talk about multi-tasking! (One image -- showing Lauren's tiny hand visible between Bonnie's legs, the doctor reaching down, me aiming a camera from a more-graphic angle, and some guy watching from the doorway -- won an honorable mention many years later in an online photo competition of Women in Photography International.)
Creating a life, witnessing it come into being, changes one's perspective. There is time before existence, and not just our time -- billions of years of time in a cosmos with billions of suns, and odds far longer than hitting the Mega Millions lottery in becoming. We had experienced our time before Lauren, but could only wonder at the chain of cosmic events and couplings stretching back generations, millennia, epochs, to some starting point scientists call the Big Bang.
And there is time after us, after Lauren, after everyone alive at this moment is gone. The universe doesn't end. We are part of it, in being and as dust... stardust dating to the creation, blessed at having had a relative speck of time to comprehend its beauty, blessed at being part of it for eternity.
'Building a temple stone by stone'
Bonnie thought about existence as she sensed her journey ending. She wrote about it in a few diary-like entries I found a few weeks ago in her desktop computer, perhaps also left there for me to discover -- much like the loose-leaf notebook of my letters and poems that she had preserved for 42 years, or the letter explaining her love for me.
On my birthday, January 16, she wrote about her reaction to learning just four days earlier "that my body has been invaded -- by cancer."
It is interesting that since I turned 76, I've been thinking about death a lot, partly in remembering Mom's death when she was 76. I thought that if I could make it beyond age 76, I might have a chance to go on more adventures from my bucket list
And even stranger, while in my bedroom, often stretching and meditating, I would feel a clump of my hair move by itself, with no help from wind or me, or the shifting of light and shadow on the wall. It almost felt like a ghostly presence trying to comfort me. Call it what you will -- an altered state or imagination -- I felt it and thought of my father and his last journey with Parkinson's Disease.
My life has been full of journeys and I am about to embark on the final chapter of mine!
She wrote on January 17 about that trip to Downs Park:
Today I decided I wanted to dress up and have David take some pictures of me. I had bought a sexy skirt a year and a half ago, knowing I'd find an occasion to wear it sometime. Then, I thought "sometime" would be soon, maybe an art opening. It didn't come. But Covid did, along with various medical problems that David or I faced.
I spent time applying makeup for the first time in many months. Then I put on a black top, the long skirt (it fit when I bought it, but today I had to use two safety pins in the waistband) and tall black boots. We drove to Downs Park and chose an unused racquetball court. Then, before it got too cold, David must have shot 40 pictures.
This was a photo shoot I needed to show what I looked like today. And it helped me feel better today.
The next entry, dated January 18, she wrote:
Yesterday, in her sermon in a (South) Carolina Methodist Church, Darlene (the Rev. Darlene Kelley) mentioned me and encouraged people to pray for me. I appreciate the connection to human spirit and it touches me. If there is an omniscient being, I doubt that it/she/he is a micromanager of human lives. But I do understand how belief in a God can give a person strength. And I understand how the love of others can bring strength to agnostics and unbelievers.
What is the purpose of my life? I never saw it as a leader who affects millions of lives. I've always seen it in a more humble way. The purpose of my life has been to make a difference -- not in a large way but in many small ways, like building a temple stone by stone.
I know for sure that people have changed me in the best of ways and I hope that my spirit connects with others to make a good difference. Perhaps this is immortality, not in a place called heaven, but here, now, on earth. When our spirit has melded with another human spirit, it exponentially grows and continues.
In 1975, as a 30-year-old, Bonnie felt a need to change her perspective on life by jumping from a perfectly good airplane -- in those days a solo parachute jump after a five-hour training session on the ground. She alluded to that jump in her entry on January 19:
This is the time for reckoning. Time has chosen this year for me to begin wrapping up my life. It has been a good life, but is anyone really ready to leave? Maybe my letting go from the airplane strut and trusting my journey downward was practice for this time in my life?
(In her last weeks, Bonnie completed writing a book-length memoir that will be published in time for a celebration of her life, most likely in October. For anyone wishing to make a donation in her memory, Bonnie would have suggested Planned Parenthood of Maryland, Creative Alliance or the American Visionary Art Museum -- but any worthy cause would be lovely.)
|At home with daughters FL (top of stairs), Lauren and her husband Matthew.|