BYU student film reflects on cancer journey

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This self portrait was taken of Howie Burbidge, director of the BYU capstone film “Gather,” at home in June 2017, right before he entered remission for stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (Howie Burbidge)

“Together we sleep, the Lord’s gathered sheep. Safe-folded as one, by God’s blessed son.” These were some of the words spoken in recent graduate and director Howie Burbidge’s senior BYU capstone film, “Gather.”

The capstone film debuted on Sept. 20, showcasing the story of a family struggling to survive a Pacific Northwest winter during the mid-1800s.

In the film, the mother would repeat these words to her daughter. The father, Jesse, struggled to recall the words after his wife’s passing.  

Howie, a 2018 BYU graduate, created the film as a reflection of his own journey undergoing stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Howie grew up in Salt Lake City and attended BYU-Idaho before transferring to BYU, where he met his wife, Ellie. They were married on Oct. 11, 2014, in the Salt Lake Temple.

The Burbidges welcomed a baby boy, Jack, on Dec. 11, 2015, soon after Howie’s acceptance into the film program. He worked for almost a year in the program, before things turned for the worse.

Howie, Ellie and Jack Burbidge took this family portrait after Howie’s diagnosis of stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (Ellie Burbidge)

In 2016, Howie began feeling severe back pain during Thanksgiving break. He found out shortly afterward he likely had lymphoma.        

“In my head I was like, ‘No way. … There is no way he has cancer,’” Ellie said. 

After having surgery to remove a lymph node, the test came back positive for stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Chemotherapy began days later on Feb. 1, 2017.

“(Both of our lives) turned upside down,” Ellie said. “It was like, ‘Anything we care about does not matter anymore because my husband has cancer. He might not even live until the end of the year. How am I supposed to do anything?’”

Ellie said before the official diagnosis, she thought to herself that she needed to be a “rock” for her husband.

“I have to be his rock. I have to be supportive. I cannot crash,” Elle said. “I do not want him to see me cry. I have to be strong and help him through this.”

Ellie’s mother, Mary Ann Stanger, traveled every other week to help with Jack so Ellie could help Howie during treatments.

“I definitely prayed a lot that I could be the strength for them and try to hold things together just a little bit,” Stanger said.

Howie went through treatment until July 5, 2017, when he was told he was in remission.

“I remember laying in my bed just feeling like this is probably the closest I could get to dying without dying. (I was) so glad it was over,” he said.

Howie and Ellie Burbidge capture a photo during a chemotherapy treatment at a cancer center in February. (Ellie Burbidge)

Howie was hesitant to work on a capstone project, but Ellie knew deep down it had been his dream since he began the program.

Theatre and media arts professor Tom Russell worked closely with Howie on the film, providing him with guidance and mentorship.

“For him to sit down and write and get to the place he got to — despite the pain I am sure he was feeling physically — was a huge achievement,” Russell said.

According to Ellie, Howie knew he wanted to share an emotionally deep and authentic story to touch people’s lives after undergoing cancer. Howie helped people connect to his story while doing something he loved.

“I just want to make films. I think I have a lot of life left — I know I have a lot of life left,” Howie said.

Howie scouts locations for his film “Gather” with his art crew, directors team and producers team in March 2018. (Howie Burbidge)

Ellie said it was a unique experience for Howie to work with Russell, who lost his own wife to cancer years earlier. She believed they used their personal experience and talent to portray real and genuine life challenges.  

“I think the department has been inspired to see somebody resurrect, and after all, that is the film,” Russell said. “I think people like Howie remind us there are seasons in life, and we go through them.”

Howie said he saw himself represented through Jesse, the father, having to take care of his family while feeling dead. After Jesse’s death, Howie did something he did not originally intend to do: he followed the character into the hereafter. 

According to Howie, the story was about dying, the hereafter and still being there for family after death. This is what he was going through — thoughts that he would still be there for Ellie and Jack, just not in person.

“(Howie and Ellie) are very young to have had to go through an experience like this. They are both stronger for it,” Stanger said. “They are both sympathetic towards others who struggle like this, as Howie’s film relates to the friends that he made.”

Howie and his film crew shoot a scene from “Gather,” in April 2018. (Howie Burbidge)

The film was written for Howie’s friends who did not survive their own cancer battle. He wanted to show a story of someone who might not have made it through their mortal challenge but still had a life afterward.

The story ends with a completeness in the hereafter. The characters are followed to the other side where the audience sees their ongoing life.

Howie said the last scene brought everything full circle as they ate an eternal meal. In the end, Jesse recalls the words his wife spoke as the family is brought together.

“Tomorrow you’ll rise, new life in your eyes. Rest now. I’m right by your side.”

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