A Father’s Death Through The Lens of His Daughter

April 25, 2017

It started with the lighting.

The security lights at the hospital that always stay on -- even when the lights in the waiting room are turned off -- were casting a strange glow into the darkness.

Breanna Daugherty noticed the lights as she sat there in the wee hours of the morning, her mom next to her, with her dad just down the hall in a hospital bed fighting for his life.

The alcohol had finally gotten the best of Tony Daugherty. It was trying to kill him. His liver was failing and so were his kidneys.

Maybe it was her dad’s color, his bright yellow skin, the yellow whites of his eyes, a stark contrast to the man she used to know. Maybe that is what got Breanna thinking about color and lights.

Whatever it was, the 22-year-old photojournalist pulled out her cell phone and shot a photo in the waiting room of IU Health Methodist Hospital that night.

empty room

It was a photo that would be the beginning of a project no daughter ever really wants to be a part of -- documenting the death of her father.

“I promised myself no matter what happens, I have to document it,” Breanna said. “At that point, I didn’t know what I would do with the photos.”

And she didn’t know how it would all end with her dad. But after she shot that first photo, in her mind, there was no turning back.

***

Tony Daugherty was a man’s man, one of those dads you could brag on.

Growing up in Paoli, Ind., Tony was adventurous, an athlete, a Boy Scout all the way up to Order Of The Arrow. He played tight end on the football team at Paoli High School. He did pole vault and hurdles in track and he was on the baseball team.

Diane met Tony on the town square of Paoli, where the teenagers liked to hang out. They started talking one night and never looked back.

By the time Diane was 16, she and Tony were married. It was 1982. Two sons followed, Derek and Alex. And then came Breanna, always a daddy’s girl.

photo collage

Tony wanted to take care of his family. He was frugal and hard working. He didn’t spoil the kids, but he did spend time with them. Breanna remembers many summers spent camping, going to amusement parks and ball games.

She also remembers the music. Tony was a musician, a passionate musician. He played in bands, did lighting and light shows for bands. He even put together his first guitar, a Gibson.

He wasn’t picky when it came to music. He liked a little bit of everything -- rock, classical and jazz. He collected band T-shirts, many of them came from concerts he attended.

He was a wonderful father and husband.

And, he was a drinker.

That’s where things went wrong for Tony, the alcohol. One of the photos Breanna shot as she documented her father’s death was of a bottle of tequila.

It was the bottle her mom asked her to pour down the sink after Tony was taken to the hospital.

It was 1.75 liters. Her dad, Breanna said, would go through that bottle in a couple days.

***

Tony would drink after work and on the weekends, but Diane never thought much about it. He always seemed pretty healthy to her.

“I guess over the years, it took its toll,” said Diane.

sunset

Especially the hard stuff. That is what Tony would turn to when times got tough. When his mom died. When he lost his job of more than 30 years at the factory.

He would drink the tequila. He would go too far. He would get sick. He would hit rock bottom.

Then, he would go to rehab and do pretty well for a while. But he always, eventually, went back.

Diane is sure Tony suffered from depression. And in April of 2016, he turned back to the hard stuff. This time, he didn’t quit.

He had been sick off and on. Stomach pain, infection in his bowels. Then, he started throwing up and having diarrhea. Then, he had blood in his urine.

He would go to doctors and get “it taken care of,” Diane said – and come back home.

But on Dec. 23, something was different, something was seriously wrong.

Tony’s skin was yellow. His eyes were, too.

***

Breanna was in the middle of a mundane errand, getting her car worked on, when she got the phone call. Her dad was headed to Methodist, by IU Health LifeLine.

She was the first one to get to the emergency room. She felt encouraged when she saw him. Her dad was alert, just like himself.

He was talking to doctors, EMTs, cracking jokes like he always did. He was teasing a nurse for being too short, even though she was 6 feet tall. Nobody was a stranger to Tony.

He was acting completely normal, Breanna said, but he sure didn’t look normal.

“Even the ER nurse said, ‘This is the most jaundice I’ve ever seen someone in a really long time,’” Breanna said. “It’s pretty bad.”

It alarmed Breanna, but she was still hopeful. Doctors said Tony could possibly get better, though chances were slim.

And it was that night, that first night, sitting in the waiting area at Methodist that Breanna noticed the light.

For the next 10 days, Breanna documented her dad’s final journey. His ups and downs. Her mother’s sorrow. The days after he slipped into a coma.

hands at bedside

His family surrounding his bed. Her mother’s hand and her hand next to Tony’s hand.

In a bittersweet way, Breanna had a feeling, her dad would be proud of her.

***

It was journalism 101, her freshman year of high school, when a teacher told Breanna, “You have a really good eye.”

“The bee,” Diane says to Breanna. “Remember the bee?”

bee

One of Breanna’s favorite photos, still, is one that was her dad’s idea. A photo Breanna shot when she was just 15.

Tony was out front, mashing aluminum cans, when he saw a praying mantis that had crawled onto the porch railing. He yelled for Breanna to come out there with her camera.

“My dad was so excited for me to take a photo of this,” Breanna said. “And I accidentally turned on my flash.”

When she did, she not only captured that praying mantis, but a bee that was hovering in the air looking at the praying mantis.

Her dad was so proud. He made prints of that photo and he showed anyone who would look.

***

Tony was 56 when he passed away on Jan. 3. Out of the hospital, Breanna took one more photo -- of her dad lying in his casket at the funeral home.

casket

The next day, she had to head back to Muncie to start her final semester at Ball State University, to continue as editor-in-chief of the university’s newspaper.

But, she couldn’t get the photos off of her mind. For the next month, she would take her phone out and look at those photos; there were 70 of them. What should she do with them?

“I eventually made myself do it,” Breanna said.

For nearly a week, every morning from 1 a.m. until 3 a.m., she sat alone and whittled those 70 photos down to 20. She wrote captions for what they showed.

And she cried. This was Breanna, finally, grieving her father’s death.

And then, with her mother’s permission, Breanna posted the photos to her photography website. It was Feb. 3, exactly one month after her dad died.

She had no idea at the time just how impactful those raw photos of hers would be.

***

CNN noticed those photos -- and ran Breanna’s entire essay.

family

The photos went viral. They were shared on social media over and over and over. She had email messages coming from people around the world. She still gets emails, even two months later.

It’s a strange feeling to be getting so much recognition for something so sad, Breanna said. But, both Diane and Breanna know Tony would be beaming.

“If he had seen this, he’d tell her to keep on shining,” Diane said. “That’s what he always told her when she was little. And she is shining, still to this day.”

Editor’s Note: All photos were shot and provided to IU Health by Breanna Daugherty.

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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