by David LaBelle
Many friends claim there are no “coincidences,” that every moment of life is orchestrated by a master choreographer.
I’ve not subscribed to this belief because accepting this would eliminate both my choice in life and responsibility for my actions, as if we are all pawns on earth’s chessboard being moved by a larger hand. That is not to say I deny our Creator’s involvement in our everyday lives. On the contrary, I believe God’s presence is constant.
Still, that leaves me without an understanding of certain seemingly impossible events.
Last year, while en route from Cleveland to Seattle to conduct a photography workshop, I experienced one of those serendipitous encounters that defy the odds. It left me wondering if this was an accidental meeting or a providential appointment with a deeper purpose.
There was one stop on the flight from Ohio to Washington. After the Nashville passengers deplaned, those of us remaining waited in our seats for the Seattle-bound passengers to board. I was in an aisle seat on an empty row towards the back of the plane, reading C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy.
Now, those of you frequent travelers know about holding the hope of some nice, quiet, small, fairly clean person occupying the next seat allowing arm and leg room and a pleasant ride. Sometimes you avoid making eye contact, especially if the interested party has a half shaved head, a nose ring and wears a “kill the President” T-shirt. Even worse, they are coughing and sneezing or have a frightened, yapping dog in a carrier.
This day as the plane filled, I spotted a grandmotherly woman with a man that looked to be her husband, searching for seats together. I made eye contact and smiled. She asked if they could sit next to me.
We made small talk, her husband sat closest to me, while she took the window seat. She noticed my camera and excitedly said, “My daughter-in-law is a photographer.”
I shared my current role teaching Photojournalism at Kent State in Ohio. I told her about conducting a photography seminar in Seattle. Her eyes became glassy. “She is a photojournalist, too. She went to Western,” she added proudly.
“Where does she work?” I asked.
She worked in Nashville and in Bremerton, Washington, the grandmotherly woman advised.
I felt goose bumps crawl up my arms.
“Was her name Lynn?”
Her eyes about leapt from her surprised face.
“Did you know her?” She asked as her eyes began to fill.
“Yes, I was one of her teachers.”
She reached over and grabbed her husband’s forearm.
“ Joe, he knew Lynn. He was one of her teachers.”
I have also met your son, Martin, too,” I shared. “Did he stay in Washington or return to Nashville?
“He knows Martin, too.” She said in disbelief.
“My wife worked with Lynn in Bremerton,” I explained
“We are on the way to visit Martin now, to help him. We are meeting our daughter at the airport in Seattle. We go each year,” she explained.
I shared I had talked briefly about Lynn and another WKU grad, Mark Gruber, during closing remarks for a print exhibition at Western Kentucky the previous October.
“I can’t believe you knew Lynn and were one of her teachers,” the woman said again, wiping her teary eyes.
I met Lynn Delaney Saunders in the late 80’s while teaching at Western Kentucky University. By then she had worked as a photographer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center but was determined to pursue newspaper work. Lynn went back to school for a second degree in Photojournalism. She ended up working for newspapers in Florida and Tennessee before ending her career at the Bremerton Sun in Washington.
Lynn’s road was never easy. She suffered several operations, including one to remove a brain tumor that left her beautiful face scarred and her balance compromised. Because of her limited mobility and continued medical problems, most of us felt Lynn was chasing an unrealistic, if not impossible dream. The life of a photojournalist was far too demanding.
She proved us wrong.
As if her role as a mother of a teenage son and wife to a man with limited mobility wasn’t tough enough. Her husband Martin was paralyzed in a construction accident in 1990. Had it not been for his brother Bill hurrying to his rescue and uncovering his face so he could breathe in the collapsed ditch, Martin would have surely perished.
Lynn never took life for granted and shared with my wife the awareness that each day could be her last. Her body continued to produce tumors. She kept her closets organized so she would not be remembered as a slob and people would not be burdened with going through her belongings if she died suddenly.
In 1995 Lynn chronicled a young woman’s last year of life, a single mother of six with breast cancer. The two became friends and Lynn was at the woman’s bedside when she died.
Four years later Lynn’s own life ended when her car struck the center support of an overpass. She was only 46
As hard as Lynn’s life was at times, she was a picture of gratitude. I never saw any self-pity and she didn’t allow her numerous hurdles to become obstacles to keep her from doing what she loved. After struggling to keep the pace as a shooting photojournalist, she finally found true peace in her profession as a picture editor for The Bremerton Sun.
I still wonder about the meaning of the unlikely encounter with Lynn’s in-laws. Maybe time will reveal a deeper purpose?
Since I haven’t been able to let it go, I decided it was worth sharing.