That began to change with the broad acceptance of hospice, which spread in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s and turned the innovations of modern medicine toward helping those whose cures were beyond its reach. The physician Dame Cicely Saunders founded the first modern clinic in London; the term “hospice” had first been used by old sanctuaries for weary travelers.
Sanctuary, says the photographer Gillian Laub, is what she and her family found at Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne, N.Y., a hamlet in Westchester County. Laub’s mother-in-law was suffering from terminal cancer, and her insurance would not cover the 24-hour care she required. So they took her to Rosary, which is run by Catholic nuns and accepts no payment from the families of those they treat — all of them with incurable cancer.
Rosary, which sits on a hill above the town, was founded in 1901, long before the mainstream medical community embraced hospice care and during a time when some doctors still thought cancer was contagious. Although it still treats only the terminally ill, Rosary is not technically considered a hospice in New York because, among other things, it accepts patients too early. The nuns, who are members of the Dominican order, care for those of all religions and backgrounds — Laub’s mother-in-law was Jewish — and live by the prescient words of its founder, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, a daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “We cannot cure our patients, but we can assure the dignity and value of their final days, and keep them comfortable and free of pain.” (The Hawthorne Dominicans also operate similar homes in Atlanta and Philadelphia.)
As the nuns cared for their guests, Laub followed them with her camera — it’s her way. Then, even after her mother-in-law died in late September, she found herself returning to Rosary again and again, still wanting to capture something of the kindness that her family had found there. She asked the nuns to sit for portraits, in which she stripped away the background to show their eyes and faces in clear focus. “I wanted them to be quiet,” she said, “so their power could come through.”
The nuns in particular had moved her. She was struck by their tenderness with the dying, how they painted women’s fingernails and combed their hair, changed them into fresh nightgowns and arranged flowers in their rooms. “This is how dying should be,” Laub says. “It doesn’t feel like a place of death. It feels like a place of living.”