A Love Story
By Meda Kessler
Photos courtesy of Becky Wilkes
Becky Wilkes documented her parents’ last year together and ended up learning so much about them and herself
Becky Wilkes’ previous photography exhibitions have focused on inanimate objects, including a year’s worth of lake debris — glass bottles, plastic remnants, shoes — collected near her Eagle Mountain Lake home, photographed on-site and again in her studio. Her “Gloved Hands” exhibit showcases bones, skulls and mummified remains of an armadillo, frogs, fish, birds and deer. The collected items were shot on a white background, creating artistic silhouettes.
Now in her 60s with four grown children and a number of grandchildren, Becky considers herself “part archeologist, anthropologist, sociologist, trash collector,” as well as a photographer.
She found different challenges in documenting the subjects of her new exhibit, “Till Death Do Us Part”: her elderly parents, Bob and Mary Behrens. Both 89 years old, they were married for 67 years and lived in Waco.
In 2020, their health began to deteriorate. Robert was suffering from congestive heart failure; her mother was recovering from a stroke. COVID made a difficult situation even harder to navigate.
Becky probably could write a book on dealing with the medical community during a pandemic as she and her siblings — one in Waco, one in Austin and one in California — struggled to deal with lockdown protocols and tough decision-making.
Both parents were in an independent-living facility; Robert had been placed in hospice. The couple found themselves physically separated, isolated from each other and family.
“It was almost a spur-of-the-moment decision to bring them to our house,” says Becky, who had been traveling back and forth to Waco. “My sister who lives the closest to them was working full time, and my husband and I had plenty of room.”
When her parents arrived, the thought was that her father might not be with them much longer. “He looked like a skeleton,” says Becky.
But the reunion was good medicine, and both Robert and Mary began to feel better. Becky, who had taken a few iPhone photos and videos of them, picked up her camera and started documenting what she thought were their final days together.
“I realized I was witnessing something incredibly intimate and special. You think you know your parents, but living with them, especially under these conditions, created a unique situation for all of us.”
When she decided to take photographs, she asked them for permission, and her parents set one ground rule: If they were behind a closed door, Becky was not to open it.
She smiles as she talks about following them around the property, each parent tottering behind a walker, and hearing her father’s musings about the lake view. She took photographs of them sleeping and of them naked in the shower. Becky showed her parents the images along the way. “I do have some regret about not breaking the closed-door rule, as they sometimes showered together, so she could bathe him.”
At the end of the year in 2020, the family decided to gather for New Year’s Eve, having skipped a Christmas reunion due to COVID. “Dad was doing yoga in the living room and fell and hit his head.”
Bob was hospitalized but never recovered and died in January 2021. Mary contracted pneumonia and died a few months later, in March. The last photo Becky took was at their joint memorial service.
Becky has few regrets about the experience, other than wishing she would have taken more notes and better video. “I’ve been working with someone to turn my phone videos into something that can be shown at the gallery. With so many images, I also had help with the editing.”
She’s shared photos with her siblings, and a few are posted on her website, but she’s a bit nervous about their reactions when the extended family sees the gallery show. “They’re funny and sad, but ultimately, it’s a love story.”