D*S Essay Contest: Kate Schaefer

by Grace Bonney

[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]

Eight years. Two thousand nine hundred twenty days since I sat on the edge of my bed with a cloudy head.

“I have something to tell you…”

My heartbeat began banging an uneven rhythm in my chest, in my ears, behind my eyes.

BAM. BAM. BAM. A percussionist inside of my ribcage.

I don’t even think I responded. I tensed up, ready for the blow. Sat down. Prepared.

“I have cancer.”

Then some talk about treatment, probably some tears from the other end. To be honest, the conversation is a hazy mist that hangs in the recesses of my memory. It’s the low-lying fog that is only detectable from a distance; stand in the middle of it and the tangible quality it has seems to dissipate. All that to say, I really don’t remember the conversation when my mother told me she had cancer.

Truthfully, it almost never crossed my mind that I could lose my mother at forty-seven years old. I never thought this disease would kill her. She was the most capable person I had ever known and I strived to be half of the person that she is.

But then the chemo began. Generally speaking, she felt fine. But there were days, unnerving days, where she would cry on the phone. Where she would complain of feeling ill. Where she sat on the couch and said she just needed to feel bad for herself.

And then I saw her. Home from photography school for a visit, I saw my newly afflicted mother; cancer-ridden, bald, skin pale & crepe-y.

What happened to the powerhouse I had always known? Where did the strong, able-bodied woman go? The one who had reared two kids like it was effortless? The one who maintained a marriage, a household and an increasingly successful career? She was frail. She was still positive, still herself, just a little bit weaker. She was shadow of herself, the same shape around the edges, but all of the details were a bit dark and blurry.

[continued after the jump…]

This was the moment that I realized my love could be infinite, despite the finite quality of our lives. This was also the moment that I realized where my home existed. It was in that head of short, spikey, deep gray hair. It was in the newly developed wrinkles, caused by the toxins eating away at her. It was in the sobs of my mother that made me sick to my stomach. I felt fiercely for her and I always would.

My thesis photography project that year revolved around the parallels of our lives. Regardless of distance and space, she and I are connected. In Many Lives, Many Masters, Brian L. Weiss talks about the concept of souls that travel with you throughout you multiple lives. Souls that take on different forms in various lives, but always seem to find one another. My mother and I’s souls are very old friends.

It is because of this that my home resides within my mother. She is where I feel at peace.

My home is not decorated with lavish rugs. There are no luxe decorative accents to adorn my walls. My abode, in many ways, is uninhabitable. But it is my sole source of comfort. It is secure and strong and it protects me from the elements. This is where I go to rest and regain perspective, where I nourish myself, where I replenish my soul when I am starved. My home is one thousand miles away from me.

Despite our geographic distance and our decade of time spent apart, I never feel as “me” as when I am engaging with my mother. We define home as “any place of residence or refuge.” Many places have been residence to me in my adult life, and refuges have been easy enough to come by, but none as unwavering, as protective, as strong as my mother. She has weathered a number of storms with me. We have built a sturdy foundation.

Joni Mitchell says that we “don’t know what we got til it’s gone.” Almost. For me, I almost lost my shelter. But she was ferocious and proved to be exactly the type of home I want; humble and tough as hell. –Kate Schaefer

Suggested For You


  • Katelyn captured this experience brilliantly. Katelyn’s mom, my sister, is an inspiration to me every day and this is supported in her attitude, spirit and faith.

  • I’ve had what can only be described as an incredible life, witnessing this relationship from the very begining. Both of these remarkable women have a bond that so many dream of and so few experience.

  • I work with Katelyn’s mom and have seen and heard of the bond they share. It is one like no other. I, too, have a daughter and can only dream that our relationship will grow and strengthen like the bond these two share and that my daughter can also call me her home. Very nicely done Katelyn! You definitely have a very strong and beautiful mom, inside and out. You are a very lucky young lady.