Do you ever get stuck looking for something? I mean really stuck like you can’t stop yourself from scouring the house, searching the same spots over again, like you can’t move forward until you find this one thing.
It was stupid. I knew I was being unreasonable spending hours trying to find the snapshot of my son as a toddler holding a yellow umbrella. So much for my plan to Photoshop it with a shot of the stunning yellow tree dropping leaves in my driveway. After three hours of non-stop tearing the house apart it hit me: when you look for something, you always find something else. I found a twenty-dollar bill, my dead daughter’s certificate of live birth, and the watch I was looking for last week. I would have to search for something else in order to find this photo. I fled the scene where now, upstairs and down, small piles of tossed stuff riddled every room.
“I’m looking for joy,” I said, bumping into a friend at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market. “I need to photograph something joyful.” It was gray and rainy. People were cold and cranky. The only things I was drawn to were the reflections of trees in the lake and the stacks of colorful produce. I took a couple of shots, bought lunch at the Macro Mamas booth, and headed home. There were only a few hours until dinner with my daughter’s old friend so I went back to searching for the photo.
It was dark and raining outside Mitsuba Restaurant as Marika’s friend and I stood over the open trunk of his car. He pulled out something red and held it up. Marika’s Ithaca Soccer jacket danced in the wind. There it was, the jacket she’d worn so often before cancer. Was that really seven years ago? The familiar shade of red, the shape of it – it was almost like seeing Marika again. Close to tears, I grabbed it.
Later that night I got lost in Photoshop. There was no thinking, no plan. I just played with the images I’d shot that day, fascinated by the different reds in each photo. It didn’t matter that the picture didn’t match the story I’d written. Warmly wrapped in my daughter’s red jacket, I forgot about the son-with-umbrella photo that still remains to be found.
“We’re comin’ over to your place with some wine,” the friends I’d just left phoned as I pulled into my dark driveway.
“But, uh … ” I sputtered.
“We’re almost there. Bye.” There was just enough time to pull out five wine glasses.
“Got any matches?” someone asked when the wine was poured. They gathered up their glasses and newspapers, found an old log, and made a campfire on the deck. The deck that once housed skunks; the deck that last year harbored a fox family and earlier this year was home to snakes. Squirrels and chipmunks scamper about daily on this deck, undaunted by the barking dog. The past week the dog, my son, and I watched woodchucks and raccoons dart underneath.
This year I’d only lingered outside my house briefly a few times to listen to coyotes and frogs or to photograph 2014’s super-moons reflected in the pond. In the three years since my daughter died, and the three summers in and out of hospitals before that, I had stopped reading and watching stars on the deck. So wild creatures found it a peaceful spot.
But on this night, between my son grilling his hamburgers, the prowling dog, and the friends stomping on the planks, raising flames and wildly whooping it up as they washed down the wine, on this first campfire of the year we took back the deck.
After, I went to bed with my hair smelling of smoke and slept through the night.
“Where’s your toy, Suki?” I ask every night as my dog and I make our bedtime tour of the house to collect Green Ball, her favorite toy. The dog I inherited from my daughter who died is my lifesaver now. When I think I’m drowning, Suki shows me the playground our world is. Our nightly routine is to find her toy and settle into bed, and then she rolls over so I can give her a belly-rub as I recount the best parts of the day. Before turning out the light, I tell her what we can look forward to when we wake.
The first ten days of August had been full. I performed my book reading, went to a hikers’ picnic and the theater, ate several dinners out, and spent a weekend away at Lake George. Suki and I hiked with friends almost every day. Each morning we saw a great blue heron take off from the pond. At night we watched the moon reflected in the pond as frogs sang. I tried to videotape the full moon and the frog-song but Suki whined wanting my attention and I laughed too hard to hold the camera.
Then came August 11th. There was little planned for that week other than medical tests. On the calendar was written: CT scan, mammogram, eat only clear liquids, call lab for test results. It rained, the driveway flooded. The credit card bill came due. I learned that since I had lyme disease I could no longer donate blood. The great blue heron disappeared along with the resident duck. Rodents noisily clawed their way through the house’s rafters. Robin Williams died. Lauren Bacall died. The days were spent waiting for doctors’ calls, not daring to make plans that would need to be cancelled. Another diagnosis, a rare disorder, my doctors couldn’t answer my questions, it wasn’t cancer but I couldn’t be grateful.
For seven nights I sank into bed scared.
“Where’s the joy, Suki?” I asked last night, sobbing to my sweet inherited dog as we settled into bed. Suki looked straight at me, picked up the Green Ball, and merrily squeaked it in my face.