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Interview With James Whitlow Delano, Creator of 'The Mercy Project/Inochi'

Giving back to hospice and palliative care

James Whitlow Delano, 51, is the last member of his nuclear family.

His parents long deceased, the only other immediate family member was his sister, Jeanne. In 2007, Jeanne was stricken with terminal cancer. After a courageous battle, surrounded by her family, Jeanne went gently into that good night. She was 49.

See also: 'The Mercy Project/Inochi' slide show.

James Whitlow Delano, The Mercy Project

Photo by James Whitlow Delano

Filipinos at a Benny Hinn Miracle Crusade, a fundamentalist Christian revival, Manila, Philippines.

James had been with her constantly. It was a sad and solemn time, especially for James, but a blanket of comfort provided by hospice care cloaked Jeanne and her family in a pain-free peace.

Feeling a great sense of gratitude, James wanted to repay the gift hospice had given to Jeanne and the family. He emailed 50 photographers he knew, asking them to send a photograph that represented the idea of "mercy." In two days, he had dozens of compelling photographs.

After some fits and starts, the result of James' tireless efforts is a beautiful book, filled with lush photographs by 118 photographers from around the world, many of whom had experienced hospice care with their families. Proceeds from the book's sales help fund hospice and palliative care, specifically the San Diego Hospice and Institute for Palliative Medicine, where Jeanne stayed, and the Japan Hospice Palliative Care Foundation in honor of the country where the book was published.

James discussed his experience with hospice and the loving homage he created for his sister.

Q. What were the best things about the hospice experience for you and your sister?

A. Jeanne and I were always very close and would spend hours deconstructing what had happened to our parents, through illness, and how lucky we were to remain so close. Still we built on this. I had to deliver some tough medical news to her, which forged our bond even more solidly.

Q. Did you alone care for her?

A. Jeanne also had the steadfast care and attention from my cousins, who all live in San Diego. I would come to San Diego for a month or more at a time, but they lived there and were there day in and day out, month in and month out supporting my sister. She was so grateful to have them there for her in a rock-solid fashion. We all were so close during that time of crisis. Sometimes families are divided by such events. We were united.

Q. Do you think hospice helped her have a peaceful death?

A. I am not sure that I would consider any death a good death, but she was able to make this involuntary journey free of pain, surrounded by people who cared about her. Without hospice, she would have had to endure long days in the institutional setting of a hospital. Instead she lived in a room surrounded by gardens in the security of knowing that, if pain got out of hand, a truly committed staff was just outside the door 24 hours a day.

Next: What's the meaning of "inochi"? >>

Q. Now that you are the last remaining member of your family, do you feel like an orphan?

A. Yes, but with a caveat. I am the last member of my nuclear family. It is wrenching to realize that they have all gone before me. I also passed the year-50 milestone, which was territory that neither of my parents nor my sister had passed.

Q. And the caveat?

A. I have a very supportive family of cousins, mostly, that have always been there for me. In fact, I was raised by my maternal aunt and her husband as their son. From them, I received the greatest gift of all.

Q. Why was the book produced in Japan?

A. I tried other avenues for publishing. … No one would go for it. The Japanese understood the power behind the idea and went with it.

Q. What is the meaning of "Inochi," which is part of the book's title?

A. Syunichi Nishiyama of Mado-sha, a Tokyo-based publisher, felt that inochi, which means "life" in Japanese, worked better in the Japanese cultural context, thus the book's dual title.

Q. Do you think photography has the power to send the kind of message you wanted to convey?

A. Photography is uniquely capable of communicating nuance and nonverbal messages. For this reason, it is the perfect medium for this issue. Language never gets in the way, no translation, just common humanity.

Also of interest: Medicare coverage for hospice care. >>

Maggie Steber is a photographer whose work has appeared in magazines around the world, including Life, the New Yorker, Smithsonian, People, Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated. She also contributed an image to The Mercy Project. She is based in Miami.

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