Kora is the first in the Faces of Fortitude: Metamorphosis Series: a series revisiting Faces in this project, who had their portraits taken in 2018/19 – and since have had major life altering transitions.
Kora and I had an immediate connection because of our toxic mothers. When we met for her first portrait session, I saw a young, overwhelmed and unseen mother – and she reminded me so much of myself. In my experience, when we have major mother wounds, it’s VERY often we reminded with powerful blooms when we become mothers ourselves. They show up in our choices, how we set our priorities, and how we treat ourselves vs our loved ones. These can sometimes be heartbreaking realizations. Kora and I shared tears and I felt how dark and closed her heart was, so badly wanting to find some light.
“I look at that person, and I don’t know her. I remember looking at the pictures and thought that I looked soulless…my eyes had no light in them, my kids were really keeping me alive at that point.”
In her session we didn’t speak much about her then husband and family life. In fact I asked her a few times, trying to get a feel of the dynamics, and got, “it’s fine” types of answers. Looking back, that should have been a red flag, but I had no idea the abuse she was experiencing inside the home. Her suicidal ideation had all been connected to (or so I thought) to her toxic mother storyline.
After her photos were released, we tried our best to stay in the loop with each other but 2019 came and went. Then COVID happened and I lost touch – only to see her come back online with a very different energy.
Kora – was just fresh out of leaving an abusive husband, and in the middle of a messy divorce – when she was diagnosed with stage IV Endometrial cancer. In that moment her life, the reality of her mortality, and her desire to stay – all changed forever.
As I have been navigating my own fears around death, dying and that type of sudden trauma – Kora’s story has been very close to my heart as I’ve watched her entire being transform during this process.
The day of her shoot, I did my usual cleansing of the space, and journaling to ground myself and get any feelings out that may be lingering. I had some light music playing and P!nk’s “Thats all I know so far” – a mothers message to her daughter – came on and I immediately thought of Kora, this young beautiful mother, and her children. Specifically her daughter – who she is so close to – and I began to sob. It was an OLD root, it was so deep – and I know it was connected to my own mother wound, as well as to the work I have been doing around my fear of death. I sat with myself as I cried, listening to the care I needed in that moment.
When Kora arrived – I immediately saw a light in her that was not there the first time. It’s hard to explain – but it feels like her diagnosis, her reality with her own mortality – showed her how to live. As we moved through her session, I found myself hanging on her words, listening with laser focus and not wanting to miss a moment. I began to listen to her story unfold.
Here is a cliff notes version of Kora’s journey, in her own words, since her photos were released 5 years ago, as well as notable quotes from her Metamorphosis shoot:
Kora – In her own words:
When my first portraits took place with M, back in 2018.. I was expressing how I had “overcome” the darkness of suicidal ideation and prior suicide attempts. The truth, however, was that I DID, in fact- conquer the constant feeling of needing to use a permanent solution for a very temporary problem.. but where was the lie? In overcoming the darkness. That was bullshit. Always was and always will be. The darkness is a part of me- I know that now. And when I try to pretend like it’s not, it consumes me until I find the strength to remind it who’s in charge. I’m working on that. Truly.
first few months, realizing how sad I looked. I knew then I didn’t want to die,
I just didn’t want to feel the things I was feeling anymore.”
In 2018-in the midst of trying to “get better” I was still in a marriage that was beyond toxic (for lack of a better word). I know that word is thrown around so easily these days, but that relationship, that human and that setting-were literally toxic to my well being. I was dehumanized daily. I was shaped into a frail, weak, desperate human just HOPING that someday, somehow, things might change. I was hopeful, but not in a ‘willing to bet on it’ kinda way.
“After my portrait came out, I would just sit and stare at them. I didn’t see myself in those photos. My eyes-were so sad, so empty. They pained me to look at but I found power in the pain.“
Because of those initial portraits, I knew the change had to start with me, but the version in the photos. It had to start with that girl because she knew deep in her soul, she wasn’t made to be controlled. She wasn’t here, Earth side, to be sad and lifeless. She knew the universe would have her back and when the time was right, that girl was going to have to take herself back.
Months went on..6 to be exact. 6 months from the day those photos were taken to the day that I TOOK MYSELF BACK. *inserting my gratitude to M, and the Faces of Fortitude project which will never ever be enough. I love and adore the shit outta you.* That day, while being bullied by my abuser, I felt something come over me. I stood up, and I felt whatever was left of that frail, broken human-leave my body. I looked directly into my abusers eyes and from the tips of my toes, through my body, I felt the words come out of my mouth and told him to GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY. He laughed, of course. But I made my way out, I left him everything and I never looked back. A fierce human was born that day. One that will forever PUSH BACK.
Fast forward, while still actively working on my mental health, healing from the divorce and adhering to my new normals as a single, working Mama.. I was diagnosed with stage IV Endometrial cancer. During the pandemic. This allowed me many opportunities to bitterly scream out “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?!” but instead, the universe supported and encouraged me in this phase and I chose, and still actively choose to scream out “Why is this happening FOR ME?”. That’s taking the power back. THATS CHANGING THE NARRATIVE.
Getting through all of this; an abusive husband, being a single mother and a survivor. I can do hard shit! I feel like I can do anything now. I outlived the doctors timeline initially by 6 months…and now we are another 10 months past that.
This diagnosis has forced me to sink or swim. When people ask how I do this with a smile on my face, I’m honest. It’s not always there. I quickly follow it up with explaining how I legitimately HAVE to endure this season of life regardless. I can be bitter about it or better for it. I’ve chosen to chase the feeling of what it means to be alive-for me.
I’ve now become an adrenaline junkie that also finds comfort in tiny, mundane things. You would think having death constantly hovering over your shoulder, would be a sad dark place. It’s the opposite. It holds your eyes wide open. You complain less. You change your narrative constantly.
“Everyone surrounding you complaining about the weather, gas prices or their hair…When you’re just grateful as the warm sun hits your skin, while you pump gas and the wind blows through the hair you didn’t know you’d ever see grow back-never knowing if that’s the last time you will ever experience any one of those things again. I just want to shake every human individually and beg them to stop acting like they’re not dying too.”
M’s closing thoughts:
As Kora’s story unfolded in front of me – my jaw just kept dropping lower and lower to the floor. From her courageous escape from her toxic abusive husband, and resilient pivot from never being allowed to have a job, to holding 3 jobs in order to survive as a single mother, to her horrible experience in our healthcare system as she searched for a diagnosis (which she will be talking more about on the next episode of the Behind the Lens podcast). Tests just kept coming – like a firehose to the face. I kept noticing the differences, then Kora vs now. This time I saw a level of FORTITUDE in her eyes, in her face, in her VOICE. She had made a realization – when she was suicidal, she didn’t actually want to die. She just wanted to no longer be in the life she was in, or feel the things she was feeling, which is the same for so many of us that have struggled to stay.
We spoke about her magical romance with partner Justin, of 2 years – they met after her diagnosis – which was a moment we shared some very painful and heartfelt tears. Watching how this person not only loves and celebrates her, but is LIVING every single moment with her to the fullest. When I asked if they were going to get married, there was uncertainty behind the response. Yes they want to, but also…it’s scary.
She told me a story about how sometimes, he will put his face close to hers when he is leaving early for work – making sure she is still breathing. She had controlled her emotions up until this point, but her tears stifled her voice as she formed the words. As I heard that sentence I felt a huge lump in my own throat. We both started to sob, and my heart immediately felt connected to hers. The fear that we will leave our loved ones in a place of such loss and pain is one of the things that has always scared me. I work around stories of loss and suicide – but the idea of her partner, being present enough in that moment with that possible reality – and having the love and space needed to experience it in such a TENDER way, in real time – whew gave me very big feelings. At one point she told me when they spoke about marriage she asked him, are you sure you want to marry me? Knowing that I’m dying? He said to her “You are the one who tells people we are all dying. That is the only way I can look at it.”
As we closed out her session – Kora’s excitement grew, telling me all about her plans to LIVE. Trips, bucket list things that made her face LIGHT up as she told me about them. I felt myself thinking about the same things for myself. What do I REALLY want to do, that I keep putting off instead of really LIVING? I no longer felt sad about Kora’s life expectancy – because I was able to see how FULL the life she is living now – with every ounce of her being. Kora had her diagnosis, and the opinions of her doctors, but her final “voice of reason” was her own. She had decided instead of taking this part of her life as a death sentence, which is what doctors did almost immediately – she would transform this chapter of her life, leaning into as much that brings her joy as possible. To let go of EVERY fuck given that doesn’t in some way bring joy and fulfillment to her life. She is now determined to live every moment with intention and a level of fullness that she hadn’t experienced before.
At the end of the session – both of us exhausted from HUGE belly laughs and tender tearful moments – I felt the need to document our connection, so I jumped in a few photos with her. It’s not something I have done consistently with Faces in the past – but now I realize I want documentation of the connection made during these sessions. Each is unique, and the special connections made are so important to me. As we began to pose, and the shutter clicked with my remote, Kora said “Can I touch your face? It’s kind of a thing for me, It’s how I show love”. “Absolutely”, I said – feeling a swell of gratitude come into my body. As she did it, I felt my eyes close and tears take away my words. I let my eyes stay closed for those moments and just let myself feel her love – and the energy I felt is something I will remember forever. This entire series of photos will live in my heart and now begin a tradition of being sure I take a moment with every Face like this going forward.
As I explore my own feelings and unearthed wounds connected to the fear of death, dying and sudden trauma – my time with Kora showed me the nuance and impermanence of all of this life. Some people would feel pity for Kora, knowing she is in pain most days, and having to suffer in the ways people do from terminal illness. I am now seeing how backwards that is. Kora has shown me how comforting connecting to your own mortality can be.
We are ALL dying, some of us just have a bit more information than others on what that will or may look like. Kora is a beautiful example of LIVING, even when all people can focus on is that she is dying. Again, we are ALL DYING – but how many of us are really living – rather than spending our time and energy, worrying about dying?
In closing, I asked Kora: “What do you want to be remembered for in 100 years?” and her response made me belly laugh and cry all at the same time.
“Well first of all, I hope my OnlyFans nudes are still floating around on the internet somewhere 🙂 because why not. I want people to know I persevered. To know it’s ok to just have ‘a day’. Remember to have grace with yourself. You can do so much more than you think you can. I know I am here to talk about how I used to want to take my own life, and it happened so many times. I was actively trying to die, and now I am actively trying to live.”
Thank you Kora for showing us your beautiful metamorphosis, and for reminding us how special this life is, and to live every moment to the fullest.