Editor's Pick

Cancer, 'Fixies' And Flickr Friendships

Forty-six months ago, August 2007, I added Ezra Caldwell as a contact on Flickr. He made beautiful fixed-gear bicycles, and I was on a quest to build my own. I don't remember how I found him. A year out of grad school in Seattle, I think I clicked through the links of my Flickr buddies, many of them happy fixtures in the designer-hipster-fixie-coffee culture of the Pacific Northwest. Ezra is also a talented photographer: I was tempted and inspired by the photos of his beautiful machines. He's a bike builder in New York City. A husband, a dog-lover, a foodie and an incredible inspiration.

  • This is one of the bike photos that reeled me into Ezra's world. Beautiful. He's a custom bike builder in New York City under the name Fastboy Cycles. The basket on the front of this bike was the clincher for me — that and the modern, clean lines evident in his work. His bikes are a lesson in beautiful simplicity.
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    This is one of the bike photos that reeled me into Ezra's world. Beautiful. He's a custom bike builder in New York City under the name Fastboy Cycles. The basket on the front of this bike was the clincher for me — that and the modern, clean lines evident in his work. His bikes are a lesson in beautiful simplicity.
    Ezra Caldwell
  • Ezra's dog, Putney. "Putney is almost eight," he writes on Flickr. "I've had her since she was five weeks old. I found her in the sick room at the pound, took her out of her cage to check her out, and didn't put her down again until I got home."
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    Ezra's dog, Putney. "Putney is almost eight," he writes on Flickr. "I've had her since she was five weeks old. I found her in the sick room at the pound, took her out of her cage to check her out, and didn't put her down again until I got home."
    Ezra Caldwell
  • "She claims that she's an Argentine Dogo (aka Dogo Argentino)," Ezra writes. "I think she's a little small for that, and that she's probably just a leggy pit bull. She's smart as a whip, and very sweet."
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    "She claims that she's an Argentine Dogo (aka Dogo Argentino)," Ezra writes. "I think she's a little small for that, and that she's probably just a leggy pit bull. She's smart as a whip, and very sweet."
    Ezra Caldwell
  • On meeting Hillary, he writes: "Hill and I both worked at the same dance studio back when I was still teaching. ... She was a dancer as well, and took my class regularly. I was pretty sweet on her from the start. She moved in with me about a week after we started dating and hasn't left since."
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    On meeting Hillary, he writes: "Hill and I both worked at the same dance studio back when I was still teaching. ... She was a dancer as well, and took my class regularly. I was pretty sweet on her from the start. She moved in with me about a week after we started dating and hasn't left since."
    Ezra Caldwell
  • Ezra Caldwell, aka "Fastboy," as a toddler. This early photo captures the spunk and optimism he has displayed via his blog and photography chronicling his three-year fight with colon cancer.
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    Ezra Caldwell, aka "Fastboy," as a toddler. This early photo captures the spunk and optimism he has displayed via his blog and photography chronicling his three-year fight with colon cancer.
    Ezra Caldwell
  • On photographing Hillary: "When she first moved in, I would photograph her almost every morning when I brought her coffee. She was very tolerant. But how many years of that can one really take?"
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    On photographing Hillary: "When she first moved in, I would photograph her almost every morning when I brought her coffee. She was very tolerant. But how many years of that can one really take?"
    Ezra Caldwell
  • A natural redhead, Hillary is the subject of many of Ezra's photographs. Like his metal and woodwork, his photographs of her are clean, honest, simple and beautiful.
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    A natural redhead, Hillary is the subject of many of Ezra's photographs. Like his metal and woodwork, his photographs of her are clean, honest, simple and beautiful.
    Ezra Caldwell
  • A drawing on Ezra's stomach shows a tattoo he pondered getting after his cancer relapsed and he discovered he would need a colostomy. It prompted our conversations around how the design of medical equipment (specifically, colostomy bags) can affect a patient's dignity and self-esteem.
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    A drawing on Ezra's stomach shows a tattoo he pondered getting after his cancer relapsed and he discovered he would need a colostomy. It prompted our conversations around how the design of medical equipment (specifically, colostomy bags) can affect a patient's dignity and self-esteem.
    Ezra Caldwell
  • Ezra's initial stent placement for his first round of chemotherapy.
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    Ezra's initial stent placement for his first round of chemotherapy.
    Ezra Caldwell
  • The wedding party in Nova Scotia. Ezra writes: "I proposed to her during my first year of treatment. At that point the outlook was pretty good, though I have a feeling that if I'd waited until now to pop the question she still would have said yes. I can't be sure, of course! I think that being sick WAS a bit of a catalyst in getting me to propose."
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    The wedding party in Nova Scotia. Ezra writes: "I proposed to her during my first year of treatment. At that point the outlook was pretty good, though I have a feeling that if I'd waited until now to pop the question she still would have said yes. I can't be sure, of course! I think that being sick WAS a bit of a catalyst in getting me to propose."
    Ezra Caldwell

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Thirty-four months ago, August 2008, Ezra started a blog right after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer. He was young, handsome, virile. The picture of perfect health in love with a picturesque, redhead girl named Hillary.

450 months ago, Jan. 24, 1974, my mother died of cancer. A malignant brain tumor, metastasized from a malignant melanoma. She was an avid skier, swimmer, grad student at the University of Colorado and mother of five. She was young, beautiful and vivacious.

Next year, I will be the same age my mother was when she died. How I wish she'd had a blog and a Flickr account that I could browse and ponder now. I was only 6 when she died and, bittersweetly, I feel like I know Ezra more than I know my own mother. The faint, residual memories I have of her I'm convinced are only because I have four siblings who have kept her memory alive with their physical resemblances, words and inherited mannerisms. Without my siblings, her memory would have undoubtedly escaped me by now.

I've followed Ezra's story since he announced his illness. "Favorited" countless of his Flickr photos, sobbed over many of his blog posts, laughed over more than a few. I can imagine through his writings and photographs that my mother's struggles with cancer were similarly poignant, painful, ugly, brutal, exasperating and sometimes humorous.

Ezra's self-portrait after his colostomy and second round of treatment.

hide captionEzra's self-portrait after his colostomy and second round of treatment.

Ezra Caldwell/Flickr

Through these indirect, digital exchanges, I suspected Ezra was a wonderful person. He loves dogs, photography, bikes, New York City and good food. How could he not be?

Then we exchanged a few emails about writing and photography and design, and my suspicions were confirmed: He is a good person. Warm, funny and infectiously optimistic in spite of it all. He's also finally done with his second round of chemotherapy, after a first round, a wedding and a colostomy. Basically, a trip to hell and back. And hopefully, now in remission for good.

I still have never met Ezra in person, but I find it amazing. Amazing that in this age of compromised privacy and the collective angst we feel over sharing (or not sharing) and password protection, beautiful stories like Ezra's are out there, honest, raw and public — for all the world to see.

It makes me love the Internet even more. How it equalizes, democratizes, eulogizes and preserves some very wonderful things. Like eulogies that we can all write on our own.

That is a beautiful thing, my friends. I only wish my mother could have shared her own with the world, too.

Callie Neylan is a former NPR designer and currently assistant design professor at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County).

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