Nathan and Keith
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I've told Keith Perks that he has a "good eye".
As a photographer he's unobtrusive and empathetic. You might not even know he's there.
There's no meanness in him. Even his grittiest work is life affirming. There's always light there. There's always a certain nobility in the eyes of even the hardest faces he captures. I sensed that the guy behind these images had what my father termed "the sizzle". That little bit of extra that turns good into great.
We finally met a few years back, and have stayed in touch since. My instincts were correct.
He can inhabit the world of a 100 year old man, or that of a little boy. He doesn't judge. He adapts.
So when first meeting the 2 year old Nathan Gray, the little boy showed him his "boo boo", a large scar across his abdomen. Keith immediately got down on the ground and showed the boy his own cancer surgery scar on his leg. There they were. On the same level. Ageless. Two veterans. Sharing war stories.
There was nothing forced about it. This wasn't some mentor or big brother thing. Their bond was as friends, and since Nathan was always wise beyond his years, and Keith was filled with child-like wonder, they decided to meet in the middle. Chaos often ensued.
The good kind. Nerf wars and squirt gun fights, which Keith inevitably lost, because Nathan's brother and sister often joined in and tipped the scales. Keith asked for no quarter, and received none. He was one of the gang.
When Nathan's cancer returned, his parents asked Keith to take some family pictures. The day after the shoot, Nathan would start chemo again. He would lose his hair. Nathan had movie star hair. Golden locks. Keith? Not so much.......
Cancer sucks. It really does. It’s like a goddamn WW2 U-boat.
Keith became the family's unofficial photographer, documenting things like first holy communions and community parades in support of Nathan and his family. Sometimes Nathan preferred his "friend" and not his "cameraman" though, and Keith would put the camera away and start filling up the water balloons. At times like these it was hard to tell who was having the most fun.
We all watched this extraordinary friendship develop through the lens of social media, which means we didn't get the half of it. Keith and Nathan's connection was visceral. I suspect it was the type that could share a room without words. If there is such a thing as a soul, maybe these two broke off pieces of their own, and shared them with each other, like bread. I have no doubt whatsoever that if Keith could have traded places with Nathan, he would have. And I have no doubt that Nathan would have said "NO"!
Nathan's family loved him fiercely. They protected him fiercely. There is a quiet dignity to the Gray family, even in the midst of torrential pain. It’s the sort of thing that makes you proud to be from this place. Nathan was a warrior, and you could clearly see where that toughness came from.
But they allowed Keith in, which is a testament to the kind of family they are. And the type of man Keith is.
In Nathan's last moments, he asked to see his friend one more time. Keith once again knelt down so they could be on the same level. And then Nathan allowed himself to let go.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The world should not need a Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. But the world desperately needs more people like Nathan in it. The world desperately needs more friendships like the one Nathan and Keith shared. For that cancer needs to be stomped out. Once and for all. Drive a stake through its fucking heart. This scourge has gone on long enough.
This Friday, September 2nd, Scranton's "First Friday" will feature 4 years of Keith's photographs of Nathan. Four years of an intense friendship, showcasing a little boy's courage I once described as "the kind you hear about in wars". They will be displayed at Bar Pazzo, 131 North Washington Ave in Scranton and will remain on display all month.
To see some of Keith's other work check out his 1120 Studios website.....named after the date of his final cancer treatment. Support he and his work, because he’s been quietly supporting us this entire time.
If at all possible, please give a donation in memory of Nathan to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center here...
In a bit...