IX: The Photograph


In the beginning of Dad’s cancer adventure, it would have never occurred to me to take a picture of him. Not that photos are either bad or good—they are a medium onto which one person’s perception is recorded—but they are by their nature revealing. Not invasive, per se, but not not invasive either. And it would have taken something resembling premeditation to even consider recording my Dad’s illness.

On film, anyway.

But I understood the impulse. I discovered a blog which documented a young woman’s illness as it ground to its unwelcome conclusion. A photographer, Julie recorded her feelings and impressions of life after her diagnosis, which complimented and provided counterpoint to written entries about her struggles with and against cancer. Images of hope, love, grief, expectation—ten days before her untimely death at 36 Julie posted photos she had taken which resounded with her. She knew she had reached the end game. She was posting photographs which captured what she was no longer able to write, or maybe her words no longer expressed with proper immediacy what she realized: she was dying and there was no more to fight. There was only the life with which to make her peace.

This is an appropriate use of the medium of photography. It might be tough to swallow as a viewer but what the hell? If I was dying and wanted to write my own memoriam in Braille, I would do it. We’re all struggling hard enough with our own mortality as it is—if you want to tap dance the meaning of life and death in Morse code, I say run with it.

But there might be photos that just shouldn’t be taken. There are moments that benefit from the power of internal contemplation, the wonder of imagination. Human beings, frail and flawed as we are, were imbued with the gift of storytelling and mythology, which should be the way we explain certain poignant moments.

Easy enough to forget when we answer our phone in the bathroom at the airport and text people our status when we’re buying Tampax in the convenience store. We take photos with tiny cameras that fit in our pockets, no matter their value as a memory worth recording. “Ha ha ha!” we gasp. “Lookee there! Thaz zo funny. Lez take a picher.” We’re left with hard drives loaded with photos of non-events, and no amount of editing seems to make sense of the mass.

But the ubiquity of cameras also allows us to feel empowered to make sense of our lives by taking a picture of it. I’m guilty myself—when our cat was winding down like an old clock, several hours before we put her to sleep, we took photos. I don’t know why. It makes us sad to look at them now; they aren’t remarkable for their poignancy or composition, and in fact look like a banal portrait of just any pet. That there is a photo of our beloved kitty during her final nap in the sun is only memorable to us because we remember the gravity of the day; any other schmoe would think, “Huh. Cat in the sun.”

Milo also used the camera this way. When faced with daily impermanence (a particular tableau of Matchbox bars lined just so; a tower of blocks swaying dangerously) he took pictures of it, creating tons of little still-life’s before their inevitable demise at the hands of clean-up time, photos that captured some moment for no one but him.

Milo tried to make sense of larger transience as well. Upon discussing an event when someone died, the abstraction of the person’s death was frustrating him. Tangling with mortality in his mind but not being able to see it or touch it, Milo asked if I could show him a picture of what happened. I couldn’t, of course, but it illustrated his desire to capture concepts that are mysterious, that don’t make sense any other way.

But sometimes imagination should be the only tool for our mental wrangling. 

My grandfather Charlie, whom I wasn’t close to at all, lived a wonderfully long time. That I didn’t know him well didn’t stop my appreciation of him and I hazily remember him from a couple of early vacations before my teens. He had a quiet demeanor and penetrating blue eyes, and a rabid dedication to Yahtzee. I recalled getting sick from eating too many rainbow colored marshmallows in his trailer at Fort Meyers Beach, and screaming in terror as I was “chased” by a tiny white crab down the glistening sand. My grandpa was a silent force but loved, albeit distantly.

Dad, who was also not particularly close to his father, went to visit him before he died. A mending of fences of sorts, though there was never an overt fall-out between them. They spoke of family and loss, and missed opportunities. They said their farewells, stoically I imagine since both shied from histrionics and public displays of emotional breast-beating.

Dad also took a photograph of him, recording his final visit with his Pop. And then he gave the photo to me.

Dad told me about this final visit so I imagined it through Dad’s narrative of the experience. But this photo of Grandpa Charlie has replaced any other memory; it’s what I recall when I think about him. Not the beach, not the puking up technicolor marshmallows in his trailer, not the Yahtzee: I remember in depressing detail the slackness of my grandfather’s jaw, the droop of his shoulders and the pallor of his skin. He looks like he’s dying, but it’s neither a documentary photo nor an artistic visualization of mortality; it is a stark, poorly framed image of a very ill old man in his waning days. There is no poetry there, no making sense of the larger issues. There is only waiting.

I was talking about this with a friend whose father died after enormous and protracted suffering. Her mother gave her a photo at Christmas of the last picture taken of her father. “Good grief, what was she thinking?” she asked. “He looks miserable and old and like he wants to die. Why would I want to remember him that way?” But her mother was understandably trying to share it all with her: the good, the bad, the mundane, the end.

We try to capture fleeting moments, to convince ourselves of the full and meaningful lives we live before we die. But the proof recorded in photographs is no closer to an understanding of a life if it recalls memories that aren’t true for the viewer: I had no memory of poor old Grandpa in that condition because I wasn’t there, but that is the indelible impression I have of him now.  And my friend is forever cursed with the image of her father wishing for death alongside all the other moments of a lifetime shared with him. 

It’s easy to rely on the camera to retain our memories, but sometimes personal mythology is more profound than the visual evidence.


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