Here’s to the lunatics. The dreamers. The yellers. The people who see life as a crazy fun-house ride. Steve Nickerson was one of those people. You knew it the moment you met him – whether it was 20 years ago, when he looked like Meat Loaf, shooting photos for the Free Press with his long stringy hair and giant hulking frame, or three weeks ago, when he was thin and stumbling, hooked to two tanks of oxygen, his head shaved, his legs in funky pajama bottoms and colorful socks.
Steve Nickerson was the best kind of guy to find and the worst kind of guy to lose: a funny friend. We met in Detroit in the late 1980s, but who can remember our first assignment together? Maybe a ballgame? Maybe a practice? Maybe a feature story on a young athlete overcoming trouble in a downtown neighborhood?
Steve and I would crack up in car rides together. He always had a wild idea for how to tell the story. Some photographers merely point and shoot, Steve would try a fish-eye lens, a crazy pose, some skewed angle that had him on his back, aiming up. The subjects would be jumping in his photos, or blurry in motion, or standing on railroad tracks, or half-naked, wearing feathers.
There are always people at newspapers who are just artists in need of a steady paycheck.
Steve was one of them.
He squeezed art out of life. He squeezed joy out of the unforgiving minute. He laughed like a hyena. He spoke faster than an auctioneer. He was passionate about his subjects and would follow certain ones for weeks, even months, chronicling an immigrant or a wheelchair-bound child who adored Michigan’s Fab Five basketball team. I once likened him to sitting “between Robin Williams and Hunter Thompson.” That remains accurate. He would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes as part of photography teams covering the Columbine shootings and Colorado wildfires. But he was always nutty, sweet, loud, soft, seemingly on the edge of control.
There was a time when, at 6-feet-4, he weighed more than 400 pounds, and I would say to him, “Steve, you gotta drop some weight. It’s not healthy.”
Then he got a rare illness called scleroderma.
And the words “not healthy” were slapped permanently across his forehead.
The fear and the fun
There are awful diseases and more awful diseases. You can’t rank this one low enough. Scleroderma, whose cause is unknown, turns your immune system against you. Instead of protecting the body, it attacks the tissues, hardens your skin, affects your hands, feet, legs, arms, destroys your organs from the inside.
There is no cure.
It began eating at Steve more than 10 years ago. By that point, after nearly a decade at the Free Press, he was shooting for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. He noticed his hands were freezing so badly, he couldn’t focus his camera. Then his skin developed strange patches. He was fatigued all the time. His jaw hurt. He couldn’t digest food.
Finally, he got the diagnosis. He was scared when he didn’t know what was happening to him and even more scared when he did.
But the fear, he kept to himself.
The fun, he shared with everyone else.
So through a decade of countless surgeries, endless emergency rooms trips, a litany of blood treatments and transfusions, the gradual inability to run, walk fast, lift things or climb steps, kidney issues, lung issues, heart issues, dizziness, leaking from both ends, incontinence, diarrhea, food becoming the enemy (by the end, he could only consume liquid Ensure and, for some reason, cheese) somehow, through all this, he found reasons to go on.
When he looked in the mirror he saw less and less of his body, but more and more of his soul.
A love of life
In April, he sent me an e-mail, “Even fully sick, life can be a blast.” Who does that? Steve did. When he couldn’t work anymore as a photojournalist, he took pictures for free. When there was no money coming in, he scraped what he had together and took his wife, Karen McClean, to Tokyo, because he’d always promised he would. He treated road trips to a Baltimore doctor as a foreign adventure, befriending waiters and tourists alike. When insurance companies cruelly denied him coverage, he kicked and screamed until he eked blood from their stones, then prepared himself for another battle to come.
He found solace in comforting others. He counseled. He talked for hours with friends and family. One of his best photos was of a blind girl laying on a manhole cover, because she could hear rumbling coming from underneath it. If a child could find delight leaning over a sewer, then he could find joy despite his illness.
So he and Karen painted the walls of their house multiple bright colors. He created wild voice-mail greetings. (My favorite: “THREE, TWO, ONE – SPEAK!”) He made eclectic picture frames and gave them to his friends.
He regularly visited Anchor School for Blind Children in Denver and read to the kids there. He called it the “best moments in my life.” He cried when he spoke about it. Tears of joy. A photographer, who makes images, reading to children who can’t see?
“I don’t think I’ve met anybody whose willpower to live kept them going as long as he did,” Karen told me Saturday. “I don’t know how he did it physically. I have no clue.”
His love for life was matched only by his love for her. They met at a photo workshop in Aspen, Colo., and got married on a beach in Australia in 1996. He embraced Karen’s two young children as tightly as he ever could his own. Together, they held hands on this long, bumpy journey. Karen became a nurse during Steve’s illness. He was her biggest cheerleader. But no matter what she learned about medicine, the disease held the upper hand, it was a vulture, knowing death was inevitable, circling and pecking, every day, every week, every year.
Life’s final songs
Steve finally stumbled a few months ago, when breathing became so difficult, a car trip back to the Colorado mountains nearly killed him. He began calling friends – he had a million of them – and saying good-bye.
I saw him for the final time last month, in California. He was wearing those funky pajamas and mismatched socks and a sweater covered by a colorful nurse’s scrub top. A breathing tube was in his nose and he lugged around his oxygen machine, which had a nickname and was covered in stickers. He had a dozen or so vinyl toys on the dashboard of his car, little rabbits, trolls, cartoon figures.
We spent several days together, and he wanted to say good-bye to me, too. I refused to accept that. I said, “Let’s just see. Maybe there’s another doctor.” He shrugged and said OK – he accepted everyone where they were – and then, for some reason, he tickled me. I don’t know why. But I am very ticklish and I began to scream and laugh and he tickled me more and just had the best time doing it.
A few weeks later, Steve died.
It was June 8. He died at home, as he’d wanted, and Karen and some friends were right beside him. He was on morphine, pretty much out of it, but he seemed agitated, so Karen got headphones and put them on his ears, his heavy rock music creating a final soundtrack.
She had a stethoscope and kept checking his heartbeat. “At first it was racing so fast, and then it began to slow down, and then it got more faint.”
She listened to the last poundings of that wonderful, crazy, passionate soul, like the little girl leaning over the manhole, hearing the wonder of the noise below.
And then it was gone.
And heaven had its door kicked in.
Steve Nickerson was 55 years old. That’s too young. A party was held for him, not a funeral – Steve’s wish – and several songs were played over photos from his life. The songs were chosen by Steve as well:
The first was “Life is a Lemon (And I Want My Money Back).”
The last was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
They could not have been more fitting.
Here’s to the lunatics. No one ever fought a better fight than Steve Nickerson. No one ever loved creating a picture more. He lamented when photography was no longer possible, and he told me once, “I didn’t know who I was without a camera.”
But in the end, he knew. You make pictures lots of ways in life. You do it with film. You do it with memories. Steve did it with both. And they were all beautiful.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations in Nickerson’s memory can be made to the Anchor Center for Blind Children in Denver at anchorcenter.org or Johns Hopkins Scleroderma Center in Baltimore at hopkinsscleroderma.org.