Grace Before Dying/Lori Waselchuck: Reflections

Friday, June 14, 2013

By tomorrow afternoon I'll be walking the streets of New Orleans, a city I've long yearned to see. My dear friend Ruta Sepetys set her second novel, Out of the Easy, there. Katie, my student, has been living there this past year—absorbing the culture, bringing her compassionate heart to triage work, and lending her name to a leading character in the novel I finished first-drafting last week. And for a few important years, New Orleans was home to my new friend Lori Waselchuk, the award-winning documentary photographer and fellow Pew Fellow of whom I have written here and (in conjunction with the launch of Anna Badkhen's The World is a Carpet) here.

Today I dedicate this blog to Lori's deeply moving book, Grace Before Dying, a photographic essay inspired by the three years Lori spent documenting the hospice program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Lori was invited to do this work by the magazine Imagine Louisiana. She could not, after the assignment was done, imagine walking away. For within the walls of what was once the most notorious prison system in the world—cruel, overcrowded, filthy, murderous—Lori had met men caring for men in their final months. She had met double murderers with a gentle touch, coffin builders with loving hands, laborers waking early to sit in vigilance for their dying best friends, prisoners who had become expert quilters. The hospice program at this prison, also known as Angola, had gentled, and lifted, spirits. It had eased men—some of them locked up for life on drug possession charges—out of bitterness and toward love.

Lori documents the day to day in the hospice program with black and white photographs that are wide angled and intimate and exceptionally personal and true. She shows us the needle in the hands of the quilter, the name on the foot of a sock, a man's last moments, a procession of mourners. She shows us Lloyd Bone, "incarcerated at Angola in 1971 for murder" as he "guides the horse-drawn hearse carrying the body of George Alexander to Point Lookout II, Angola's cemetery" and the "procession of hospice volunteers and friends" as they "walk and sing behind the hearse."

I had looked through Lori's photographs the very day she gave me this book. Today I sat and read her moving introduction, Lawrence N. Powell's essay on the prison's history, and every single caption. I read, too, Lori's acknowledgments in the back, where she writes, in part, "My words of appreciation come up short, so I will express my gratitude through living a life and producing work that emulates the humanity they show for each other."

I haven't known Lori Waselchuk long. But I've seen her throw a party for a friend, lift a friend's child to her hips, talk about the neighbors she loves in West Philadelphia. I've heard Lori talk, and I've seen Lori carry the good flame forward.


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