My daughter was the texture in my life. Our relationship was a rocky one: gravelly and spongy, sticky and slippery, blistering and subdued, grating and yet grooving. She could make me bristle with rage; she could make me sparkle, percolating with pride. She dented me. And she melted my heart to oozy mush when she smiled at me, her eyelids iridescent with smoky pearl shadow.
When my daughter died my grief was heavy frozen concrete. For a long while, I gathered up feathery flea-bits of memories from the dark depths of sorrow. There was no sense to be found. Only things. The stuff she left behind. Jagged shards, shiny trinkets, and fuzzy stuffed things. What they looked like, what they felt like, and how they made me feel. It’s the texture of life that still keeps me engaged. Believing there’s peace and beauty yet to be discovered, I watch the sky for the next super moon, to witness its light kissing the world below.
Years ago I hated taking photographs. Having a camera in front of my eyes kept me from experiencing the world, I used to say, I couldn’t be present to what was around me if I was focusing through a camera. But now, with my digital Sony RX100 that fits in a pocket, I can capture so much I didn’t even realize was there. Its postage stamp-sized plastic chip holds a million memories in tiny thumbnail scenes. Memories, and sometimes surprises. I click, drag, and drop the tiny images from the chip into the Photoshop program on my computer where I can enlarge or erase, copy as-is, or change them. Then I spend hours remaking reality. In Photoshop there are intriguing “tools” to work with. Tools geared to fixing. A Patch Tool and a Path Selection Tool, a Dodge Tool and an Add Anchor Tool. A Magic Eraser and a Magic Wand … a Clone Stamp. And a Healing Brush.
One gray day in early March 2013, I pass an old abandoned home. I stop because I’d grown up across the street from a ‘haunted’ house, and as a curious kid I’d peeked into the clouded windows to find traces of former inhabitants. Even vacated, there remained a vague residue of the lives that came and went. This other empty house just outside Ithaca now captivates my imagination. Respectfully, I approach the threshold to snap pictures and consider how I might ‘shop a ghost-image of Marika onto its porch. But back home, I reconsider as I view the images in Photoshop. The house is beautiful in itself. It wears its own stories in chipped paint that reveals familiar patterns in the weathered wood underneath. There’s no need to imprint my own longings onto it. Two years after Marika’s death, I find I’m filled with a deeper regard for others’ hearts and homes that house memories of lost loved ones. Loss and grief do not belong only to me.
Sooner or later we all lose someone we love. Then, critically wounded, we wallow in hopeless despair, suffering regrets and guilt, fatigue, denial, depression, anger … all sorts of symptoms and phases of grief. And finally we scramble to adapt, to redefine our lives, and find our new selves amid the gutted remains of our broken hearts.
Why don’t we learn about death early on, like in grade school, I wonder? Why don’t they prepare us in high school for all the dying we’re going to be faced with in the course of our lives? We should know that the longer we live, the more people, pets, and plants will die before us, and that the deaths of the ones we love most are going to scour our hearts raw. Allowing ourselves to get slammed by death over and over again—is this the humanness of us? Watching the bereaved keen and crumple every time—is this godliness? And why aren’t we taught how to use all our pain and longing as a source of new strength?
To live on after loss is to hold on, and let go, and love again, all at the same time. There are no rules, no right or wrong ways to go about grieving. This whole grief thing is just our individual journeys or unique adaptations to loss, which may eventually lead to growth, but could alternatively wipe us out.
Before she died, Marika and I were in the middle of a great mother-daughter divide. She was almost out the door when cancer clobbered her. Us. After two years stuck together sallying through cancer, Marika was ready to move clear across the world to get away from me. And one day she would have come back. There would have been graduations, shopping trips for gowns, maybe a wedding … grandchildren. All the would-haves have disintegrated. Now I hold onto Marika’s memory and her words, and let go of her future. And the future I’d imagined for myself. But I will not let go of her. Her absence is a presence. Something still remains, and even without a physical presence there is still a relationship. I watch as it mellows with time.
And I discover almost daily that all around me there are others dealing with loss. Everybody’s dealing with something. Maybe the humanness is in recognizing this. Maybe the godliness is in our simply sitting with the brokenhearted, listening, and being a silent, compassionate, non-judgmental presence.
“Mom, I want to be a mermaid this year. Mom, I want to be a fairy princess.” My daughter loved to dress up. Even beyond Halloween, which she made last two whole months, Marika had me rummaging for fabrics and sewing frilly feminine gowns, dressing her up like she was my little doll. Then, she would pose patiently with a serious face as I applied makeup, and captured the creation in a photo.
The assignment in my photography class this week was to “construct a scene that attempts to reconstruct a memory or even a fragment of it.”
“Oh no, another memory thing,” I said, aware of spending a good portion of my time and energy the past four years reconstructing memories. Photography for healing is something I recommend to anyone recovering from a loss, but it is not for the faint-of-heart. It is like facing the bleak facts of your situation, and sharing them over and over again until you can tell your story without tears. Most of the time.
The meltdown wasn’t from the photographs, or the photo-shoot, which took little time because my models eagerly cooperated, bouncing about in the glad rags I handed out. By that point I’d composed myself, and was enjoying the merriment costumes bring out. But, in my scrambling about for the outfits, tearing through the giant Tupperware bins of old clothes, finding the baby sweaters my mother knit, the strawberry nightgown, and the flowery mother-daughter frocks, … touching the sundresses Marika had outgrown, something had sent my memory spinning in tessellations.
What memory might you try to reconstruct in words or in an art-form? Does your favorite photograph capture a memory? Or does it construct a memory?
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.