Musician photographer & film-maker, Crystal Chen bares her vulnerability in a personal piece about her work and life. After her mothers recent diagnoses with Alzehimer's, Crystal's shares with us how she is learning to navigate her grief, look after her mum, all the while balancing her own dreams and aspirations.
From the outside, I may look like I have my shit together. Constantly on the hustle, ticking off my goals and chasing my dreams.
The truth is, I might have used chaos as a form of coping with grief. I am doing what I dreamt of doing since I was a little girl but none of this really matters. My Mum becoming diagnosed with Alzhiemers has been a shock to the system and has forced me to grow up in many ways. Finally, I’m able to publicly speak about it as it has become a big aspect of my life and has shaped my character in many ways.
In these past couple of years, I established myself as a photographer and musician. I worked really hard and would romanticise burn-out, whilst being Mum’s caretaker. I would be doing everything, be everywhere with everyone at once until I was numb. Maybe to numb my grief? Grief is not linear, the sad thing is that you can’t progress without experiencing pain and I was so angry, yet compressing it. Feeling sorry for yourself, just makes yourself angrier. And there’s simply too much to feel sorry for, if I go down that rabbit hole. I had to find comfort in the chaos. Most times you can’t control the environment around you but you can change how you choose to interact with it. I chose to make the absolute most of it.
I could speak on the topic of Alzhiemers forever. This disease is ruthless and it can tear down all hopes of the future. It’s extremely disheartening to see somebody you love who was once independent, fierce, caring, inspiring and fearless to somebody that has become so vulnerable who needs nurture and care. It really tests your love and resilience, now I know what it means to have unconditional love towards someone. No matter how much they hurt you, you still have love and empathy for them. What you are willing to do, how far you are willing to go, how many bullets you have to take for that person before you fall? The answer is unconditional.
Cynthia Chen, by Crystal 陈 (Chen).
Mid-2021, Cynthia Chen was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
This woman is as warm as the sun’s kiss, she raised me free-range with the spunk to do and create anything I want. Go ham, go hard! Love it! Do it with intention and fearlessness, try everything and see what sticks. There is never a dull moment with her. You may have heard of the Asian parents stereotype, her Mum raised her that way, so she swore to raise her daughter differently. Cynthia is an incredible and inspiring woman to me. She raised me as a single Mother, she had me (and only me) when she was 42, and I unintentionally followed in her creative footsteps as she was a photographer and painter amongst other things and I’m so endlessly grateful that she gave me these pair of eyes.
Cynthia, being a photographer was the reason why she came to New Zealand, she was working in ShenZen (which is like the New York of China) and ran a media production company, doing shoots all the time and directing them. At the time and still now, it’s a male dominated industry and she was on the constant hustle. She was exhausted, although her job was her passion, she wanted to chill out and get away from the city. So, in a spur of the moment - she chose the smallest and farthest place on the map and came here, then New Zealand made her stay. Our country does have that effect on people.
The past two years have been the hardest years of my life but I’ve also had some life defining moments that little me would be really proud of so I guess they’ve also been the best years too. I came of age, gone through hurdles with my cultural identity, Mum got diagnosed, dropped out of uni, went through heartbreak, worked 5 jobs at one point, my step-Father passed, I’m also currently dealing with this legal battle… but at the same time I played my first gigs and directed my first films, got my own studio and really went from girl to woman.
Tom Scott at Auckland Town Hall, shot by Crystal 陈 (Chen).
Mini portait sessions by Crystal 陈 (Chen).
If I want to feel sorry for myself, I could do that with a million reasons and I have every right. But it’s times like this when being a photographer has been life changing as all of a sudden the people and environment that surround you, become your muse and your job is to literally see the beauty in things. I feel like I have learnt to do just that within life. In Chinese we call that feeling 幸福。There is no English word that describes exactly how that feels but know that there’s a sprinkle of romance, the feeling of luckiness, knowing that you are loved and the feeling that wants to keep you alive.
I’ve shifted my priorities to what is important to me, my Mum and spending quality time with her. It’s crazy how the roles have reversed and I’ve become her Mum now. This disease is fucking awful and I don’t wish it on anyone or their families but I’ve tried hard to make and see the best out of this situation and I feel really lucky that I can return the favour of looking after her. I’m not doing nearly as much as what she did for me - raising me and me being a little shit, so I genuinely have no reason to complain.
Now, I see her tendencies becoming more child-like and it has inspired me to embrace the inner-child, to be free and present. I worry so much about Mum, about the future, constantly thinking ahead and in a state of unsettled, on-edge, preparing for disaster state-of-mind. I used to resent the effect Alzhiemers has on Mum, that she would forget all the good memories, that I have to carry this load of stress and anxiety on behalf of both of us. I felt like I was Marlin and Mum was Dory (from “Finding Nemo”). Now, I realised that Mum, who has been right in front of me this whole time has been living her life appreciating things without reason or restriction, she has no desire to think about what she “should” be doing or even what time of day it is, or what year or season it is, she just does what she feels like and is so present. This woman will literally make any situation fun and do everything with laughs and smiles that is so contagious when I allow myself to reciprocate. I admire that so much and it really strengthens quality of life and quality time spent together.
I’m in the midst of finishing off projects before dropping the chaos of my life and taking Mum on a creative journey to our homeland China to travel. I’m going to buy her, her old camera back that got stolen - a medium format hasselblad. Together, we are going to make a photography book.
Written by Crystal 陈 (Chen)