This Is It
At about 4:30 this morning, my son wandered into my bedroom and told me that he'd had a bad dream. He said that he had been running away from Voldemort, that Voldemort had been killing everybody around him and he had to get away, and then he woke up. I let him lie down between me and my wife, and within a few seconds he was asleep again.
An hour and a half later, my alarm went off. I rolled over and picked up my phone from where it lay on my nightstand, to be greeted by a whole night's worth of push notifications from different news services. Each new message told a story worse than the last—first a warning about an active shooter, then two dead, then twenty, then fifty. I put the phone down, turned and reached down to where my son lay, still warm and unaware. I put my hand on his back and he stirred. "Time to get up, buddy," I said. He stretched and sat up. I didn't tell him what I'd just read, nor his sisters. I don't think I will. That they don't have to be burdened with such horror is a privilege, of course.
I don't believe in magic. It has nevertheless been years since the last time a nightmare sent my son seeking comfort and reassurance from me or his mother in the middle of the night. That the image which so terrified him was of crowds of people running while a dark figure indiscriminately snuffed out lives all around him is... Well, it's the kind of thing that makes me wonder about coincidences.
The thing that hurts the most about a day like today, like any of these days with which we have all become so unfortunately familiar, is the certain knowledge that the world is like this because that's how people want it to be. Oh, sure, they may profess shock or grief on a day like this one, but still nothing happens, nothing changes. Not when a man stormed into an elementary school and killed twenty children. Not when an avowed racist looking to start a race war entered a church and killed nine people. Not when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 12-year-old on camera.
Is it just guns? No, of course not. White supremacists march openly through the town square and the President makes excuses while well-meaning onlookers wrap themselves in the First Amendment and "tut tut" about campus protests. Houston, Florida, and now Puerto Rico—not to mention all of those other Caribbean islands—are demolished by successive hurricanes, but of course millions of Americans still believe that climate change is a hoax, including the head of the EPA. Closer to my home, a local Congressman is calling for war with North Korea. And city officials twiddled their thumbs for months while a hepatitis outbreak ballooned and claimed lives, only bothering to take action when the deaths made national news. (Meanwhile, of course, the amount of affordable, or even available, housing continues to fall in the area, jagged rocks are still under most of our overpasses, and now the city is clearing the streets without giving the homeless anywhere to go.) Nothing changes.
Let's not pretend that this isn't who we are. This is it. We have the money and the means to make life better, to protect those who need protecting, to save the planet. We know what we need to do, if not to solve our problems then at least to improve them. But we don't, because in our hearts we don't want to. Because whether it's guns or oil or property values or white supremacy, no price is too high to keep things comfortable for those who aren't already suffering. Because having to admit that solutions are available would mean admitting that we're part of the problem. The greatest source of harm in this world isn't greed, it's the inability to tolerate any amount of emotional discomfort.
After my kids left for school this morning, feeling heavy and sliding toward despair at the morning's news, I headed into the bathroom to get cleaned up for work. I noticed a small shape on the wall, about waist level to my three-year-old, a tiny red star no larger than two grains of rice stuck together. And for a brief moment, things didn't seem so bad. There is, as always, yet innocence and beauty and simple joy in the world. No joy is ever quite so pure as that of a toddler with a sticker, and how seductive that feeling is when all is wrong with the world. How I'd love to stay there in that space. Who wouldn't? But that would be giving up, just as surely as would despairing.
I don't have any answers. I never have. I don't know how to make people care. At least, not enough to make them take an honest look in the mirror and change. Do I even care enough? I don't know. I just know that I'm sad and angry and tired as hell.
I close so many letters or lists or threads by saying "I wish you peace." And I do. And I want to say that now. But the truth is that there will be no peace unless we make it, and we can't do that without struggle, without discomfort. I keep thinking that people will get there eventually. I hope we do. Me, too.
We had your birthday party this past weekend, but today is your birthday. Your party was pretty great, though. You were tired by the end of the day, after all of the dancing and playing and hollering and hugging, but when you went to bed you said you'd had a great day. I'm glad.
You've had another big year. Kindergarten was a breeze for you, and your teacher constantly talked about how smart and hard-working you are. Now you're in first grade and I know you're going to do just as well. You had your first dance recital over the summer, too, and you were one of the best ones from your class. You take things seriously and always do your best, but you also know how to have fun and relax, too, whether that's curling up on a chair in the living room with an iPad and your favorite YouTube channel, or whether it's having your friends over for a play date. (You had your first sleepover this year, too, and that was great fun.)
I'm always proud of you for how much you care about doing things well and doing the right thing. Mostly, though, I'm happy to get to spend time with you, either reading with you or, lately, watching So You Think You Can Dance together. You're a really great kid, and I'm lucky to be your dad.
Happy birthday, my girl. I love you.
Soundtrack: "Wildrunners (With Oohs)" by Hugo Hans. Licensed from Marmoset Music.
(Briefly) Empty Nest
When he was a puppy, our dog slept beside our bed, just within reach of my fingertips if I let my arm hang down from under the blankets. Then, when our son was born, the dog moved into his room and helped keep bad dreams away while the boy slept. But ever since our first daughter was born, and now, still, with three kids in the house, he sleeps in the hallway, the better to keep watch over the entire family each night.
This week the kids—all three of them—are hundreds of miles away, visiting their grandparents. The dog is still sleeping in the hallway, though. Perhaps he wonders where they are. Perhaps he feels some stress over not being able to protect them. Some day none of them will live here anymore, but, already almost eleven years old, it's unlikely that the dog will live long enough to see even the first of them go.
This is a melancholy thought, but it's not at all out of character for me.
With the kids away and me being out of the office, I've had few responsibilities for the past week. Notwithstanding the relentless march of terrible news, this should be a time for me to enjoy myself. And it has—J and I have eaten at interesting restaurants, seen some good movies, visited art exhibitions, and even spent one afternoon wine-tasting. Both of us have also spent time working on personal projects. In a lot of ways it's been glorious.
Over and over, though, I keep thinking about how hard it's going to hit me when the kids finally move out for real. How this is, in fact, the goal of parenting: to prepare your children to go out into the world and leave you behind. How brief the time is that you get to have them close. How some day they will all be too big for me to lift and hold in my arms, and how I most likely won't even notice the last time I do so.
While they've been gone, J and I dismantled our youngest's crib and took it and the rocking chair out of her room, and replaced them with a real bed. The crib went to J's sister's house, where in a few months it will belong to our newest nephew, after he's born. The rocker very nearly went to Goodwill, but at the last minute J changed her mind, realizing that she couldn't part with it yet. I'm nearly always sentimentally attached to objects, but J almost never is. There's something powerful, though, that both of us feel about the fact that we no longer have babies in the house. For nine years we've been comforting our children in that chair, reading to them, singing to them, lulling them to sleep. It's a lot to move on from. We'll get there, but not just yet.
A couple of days ago I went into my son's empty room, lay down on the bed, and just stared at the ceiling for a while. He has two Pokémon posters taped up there, and a paper Christmas tree from 2012, a few splashes of color against an otherwise plain, white background. His room still had the slightly musty, slightly sweet smell of boy, and I wondered how long it would take for it to completely fade. It struck me how strange and melodramatic and possibly creepy I was being, but it was still another minute or two before I got up.
The kids will be home tomorrow, bringing with them all the joys and aggravations that kids do. I can't wait.
As I write this letter, you are asleep, having spent the day running and playing and having lots of fun. Earlier this evening, you and I sat next to each other when we went to a restaurant for dinner, and just before the food came you climbed into my lap—completely unprompted—and let me give you a hug and a kiss. It was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one—most of the time when I ask if I can give you a hug or kiss you say no. But, honestly, this is one of the things I love about you, that you have a sense of your personal boundaries and that you are independent and strong-willed.
You've had a big year. This was the year of your first dance recital, the year you discovered CookieSwirlC, the year you learned the words to every song from the soundtracks to Moana and Steven Universe, and the year you started potty training. You always have a ton of energy in everything you do, and you've been proud of your accomplishments, and for good reason! In the fall you'll be starting pre-school, and you're looking forward to it already. You're smart, funny, and very strong, and I know you're going to do great.
Happy birthday, Mary. I love you, my big girl!
Soundtrack: "It's Well (Instrumental)" by Bekah Shae. Licensed from Audiosocket.
As I write this, you are asleep. I think you probably would be surprised at how quickly you fell asleep, given how excited you were when you got into bed, but it's true: you were out in just a few minutes. But, truth be told, I'm excited, too.
You've said many times over the past few months that this year has been hard for you. It's been hard for me as well, as it has for many people, but even though I wish we were all in a better situation, it makes me so proud to know that you care so deeply about doing the right thing, helping other people, fairness, kindness. I tell you this all the time, but it's true: I'm proud that I get to be your dad, and I'm happy to know you.
Every year, every week, it gets more and more fun to be your dad. Last weekend we started playing co-op video games for the first time, and that was great. And our reading time is always one of my favorite parts of the day. So far this year we've read The Lord of the Rings and two more Harry Potter books, and I love how enthusiastic you are about these stories.
Today is your day, buddy. I hope it's a great one. Happy birthday!
Soundtrack: "Hooked (Instrumental)" by Hotbloods. Used with permission.
About six weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I found out that an old teacher of mine was dying. It was cancer, multiple myeloma, and in the final stages.
I saw his obituary today as I was getting ready to leave the house for work. He died last week.
It feels, on some level, wrong to talk about my own feelings in this moment, a moment in which the loss must surely belong more to my late teacher’s family and close friends. And yet, though I haven’t had the chance to see or speak to this man in almost twenty years, I can’t help but think of myself, my life, my past, and how my world feels smaller today.
He was my English teacher for three years in high school. More than any other single person, he is the one who taught me how to write. By the end of my senior year, he had us writing two essays a day, all in a fifty-minute class period. He gave us a strict set of structures and rules for composition, but also told us how and when and why to break those rules. In his class, I learned not just how to string words and sentences together, but I learned to have confidence in approaching the task of writing, to believe that this was something I could do, and do well.
More than that, he was the first person outside of my immediate family who I can recall showing interest in my writing, who encouraged me to find my voice, to write things that mattered to me. When I was fifteen, he submitted one of my essays to the local newspaper—a small paper serving a town of just a few thousand, but still my first publication. I never managed to get my hands on a copy of that issue, but I still have the original, typewritten essay tucked away in a drawer.
Now that I think of it, though, I wonder about those mementos I keep, the old writing, photographs, ticket stubs, posters. I’ve kept them in folders, stashed in closets, some over twenty years now. I seldom even think about them, let alone look at them, and though I usually enjoy the feeling I experience when I do take them out and let the memories wash over me, for the most part they’re kept safely hidden away. But safe from what? Two decades on, and the pages are still holding up fairly well, but eventually the paper will begin to turn yellow and brittle, and fade like all things must.
Reading my teacher’s obituary, I noted that he was 75 years old when he died. I would have sworn when I was in his class that he must have been close to that age at the time, but in truth he was only 52 when I first met him—not much older than some of my friends and coworkers now. And, of course, by now many classes will have passed through my old school never having known him. When I look at the faculty list today, I only recognize a few names, teachers who were young when I graduated and are now looking gray, like the old-timers they are. Of course. The essays sitting in my file drawer only remain the same because they’re not alive and never were. We all get older, myself no less, and as time takes us in and out of spaces, others come to fill the vacuum left behind us. I imagine the conversations taking place in the halls between classes now, and the faces, the words, even the buildings are different, but something essential remains the same.
As I think of my teacher, I’m grateful for many things. What I learned, of course, and the times he made me laugh. Most recently, though, I’m grateful for this: finding out in the way I did, on the day I did, I had the opportunity, the time, to say goodbye. It’s not something I take lightly—I have lost a lot of people in a lot of ways, and most often it has happened suddenly. And though the grief has been no less when I’ve been prepared than when I’ve been surprised, there is a measure of peace granted by the knowledge that I didn’t miss my chance to let my teacher know how much he has meant to me, how much knowing him has mattered in my life. It would be, I think, an amazing thing to truly know the lives we’ve influenced, the ways in which the world is better for our having been in it, and though we may or may not get to see this for ourselves, it’s something we can do for others. It’s not so hard to say, simply, “Thank you, you mattered to me.” And what a world it would be if we all did it a bit more often.
Thank you, as always, for your time. For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you.
Sometimes at night, as I am waiting to fall asleep, my brain engages in a form of time travel. I suppose a more prosaic way of saying it would be to call it “memory,” but this doesn’t capture the experience. Nor does the word “hallucination,” though that gets closer. In the dark, with my eyes closed, no sound in my ears but my own breathing, I am in a different bed. One that doesn’t exist anymore.
Last night after I came to bed, I lay there for a while and looked at my wife, at the way she looked blue in the dim glow from her phone, at the softness of the light and how it matched the softness of her skin, and I smiled a little, though she didn’t see it. When I closed my eyes, the image of her face stayed in my mind for a moment, but then, as it does, my mind wandered. And after no more than a few seconds, I found that my sense of the room around me and the bed beneath me had changed.
Often when I go somewhere else, it’s back to my high-school bedroom, a room I called mine from the ninth grade through college. I haven’t seen the inside of that house in 13 years, since my mom and stepdad moved east to care for his elderly parents. But I still go there at night. The room is nine feet by ten feet and built like a ship’s cabin, with all of the furniture built onto the walls. If I were to open my eyes, I’d see that every horizontal surface apart from the bed on which I lie is covered with books, magazines, papers, and the other detritus of a teenaged introvert. My toes just hang over the edge of the mattress, and if I roll just a bit to the right, the plaster on the wall will be cold against my back. Of course, if I were actually to move or open my eyes, the spell would be broken and I’d be back to the present day.
Last night, though, I went back much further. Instead of the short twin mattress of my 14-year-old self, I found myself lying on a cot against the east wall of a small, one-room cabin. Just a few inches from my feet are several large windows that look out onto an unfinished redwood deck, past the railing of which the Bixby Creek trickled by. There are crayfish in the creek, and trout, hiding in the shadows under the little footbridge. We lived here when I was six, with my mom’s boyfriend—a man I haven’t seen in decades, who died four years ago, and whose memory will probably always haunt me.
My waking intellect, the part of me which is writing these words right now, knows that this experience is just a combination of memory and imagination. But when I am drowsy, I begin to wonder: is this mere fantasy, or does my consciousness perhaps drift back to my younger body in these moments? If I remain still enough, silent enough to hold onto this magic through the night, or if I fall asleep while I’m there, where might I be when I awake?
Most of the time when I am transported through time in this place between sleep and wakefulness, I feel a sense of longing, a melancholy born of the recognition of lost time. Yet I also feel a certain wonder, and perhaps a certain safety—which makes little sense to me now that I consider how often I felt frightened as a child and lost and lonely as an adolescent.
Finding myself back in that cabin, though, was more than I could bear. The weight of my memories, the thickness, the viscosity of my emotions—I felt like I couldn’t draw a breath. I jerked my eyes open and, needing an anchor to something present and real, I reached out and put a hand on my wife’s shoulder. She turned and looked at me, lowering her phone for a moment and asked “What’s up?”
I explained. I’m not sure what I said, or whether it made any sense, but she simply asked “What do you need right now?”
“I’m doing it,” I said, and squeezed her shoulder gently. She smiled and went back to her phone. A few minutes later I was asleep. Here. And now.
This Is Not the Life I Wanted
This is not the life I wanted.
I suppose if I'm being honest, I should say: this is not the life I was promised.
The other evening I was in my living room doing something I can no longer remember—perhaps playing a game on my phone or wading through news updates—when I heard my wife say "You look terrible."
"What?" I said.
She pointed to the video she was watching, one I'd recorded earlier in the day, asking people to call their representatives about one crisis or another. "You look tired," she said. "Haggard. You need to take better care of yourself."
I hadn't really watched the video before, just recorded it and posted it, and then moved on. But she was right. The face in the video looked back at me with bloodshot eyes, heavy-lidded with exhaustion. Somehow, I was surprised. I knew how I felt, but I didn't know it showed so much.
Lately thoughts of exhaustion tumble in my head, crashing and rasping against each other as they turn, but never becoming round or smooth or comfortable. John Lennon's voice drones on, lamenting not having slept a wink—and my mind, too, feels on the blink. And I think again and again, like an old hobbit, "Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."
I'm being dramatic. I know. But I can feel myself burning out, and I don't know how to stop, or even how to slow down.
It strikes me as unseemly to spend my time (and now yours) on thoughts like these, on simple exhaustion, when I know that other people are suffering more, even dying. That, yes, I am tired, but protesters are being beaten and graves are being desecrated and families are being separated by deportation and somewhere right now, right this instant, someone is trying to make the impossible choice between buying food and paying for cancer treatments. I know this. I know what feels like an ordeal to me does not compare to what other people are going through.
Though, perhaps this, too, is something this Congress, this President, this year is taking from us: the right to even admit that our struggles are struggles. Is that too much? Maybe. I don't know.
When I was young, I had no greater concerns placed on me than to get good grades and be polite, to eventually be "successful" and reflect well on my family. I expected nothing more than to raise my children, save for retirement, and read some good books along the way.
What has it cost me, then, this year? I think about the words not written, the art not created, the hours spent researching and organizing and not playing with my children. I think about the pile of unread books on my nightstand, the months of unedited photographs sitting on memory cards, waiting for a spare moment. I think about the late nights and early mornings. I think about the look on my son's face as I head out the door to another protest instead of sitting down for a family dinner. In one sense, these sacrifices are small. In another, they are pieces of my life being stolen.
I read something once, long enough ago that I cannot remember when or where or by whom, something to the effect that both the magic and tragedy of life is that each of us are going through it for the first time. It means that we each get the opportunity for discovery, and thus the ability to experience wonder. But it means also that time and life are resources which are finite, and unrecoverable.
This isn't the life that I wanted. I never wanted to have to know about legislative calendars and executive appointments. I never wanted to know how lobbying differs from political activity, and what the financial rules are for each. I never thought about which kinds of protests need a permit and which don't, and I didn't want to. But now I do. And having put the time in, I am more aware than ever how much more work is still left to be done, and how few people—still—are available to help. Or even willing to do so. Or, rather, how many would help, how many want to help, but need someone else to show them what to do.
I tell the people who attend our meetings, "Self-care is important. No one person can do everything, and you don't have to. Take care of yourself when you need to. Rest, so that you can come back refreshed." Like a lot of people, of course, I find it easier to say that to others than to live that way. There's simply too much to do, and not enough time to do it, and more piling on every day.
In the end, though, when I am done crying for myself and the life I expected, I come back—as I always have—to the stories of my youth. Perhaps I say to myself, "I wish it need not have happened in my time." But I remember, too, that "so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." I read those words to my son for the first time last summer, not knowing then what they would mean now. I want to have the opportunity to read them to my daughters, too. Am I willing to do what's necessary to give them a chance at a simpler life? I think so. I hope so.
This is not the life that I wanted, but this is the life that I have.
Here we are.
Here we go.
I can hear the little bear in the kitchen, the feet of the step-stool scraping on the tile floor as she climbs on top of it. “I WANT A SNACK,” she announces. The space of a heartbeat passes, maybe two. “I WANT A SNACK,” she repeats, stretching the last word into something like a musical phrase, complete with a crescendo and a fermata.
“Could you ask me that more politely, please?” I say, standing up and putting my book down.
“Please can I have a snack?” she asks, her voice quieting and rising in pitch.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for asking nicely.” She rejects my first four offerings—applesauce, a graham cracker, a cup of yogurt, a tangerine—before finally settling on Goldfish crackers as acceptable. “Sank you,” she says as I place the bowl before her, then turns away. I have been dismissed.
“Little Bear, can I have a hug?” I ask.
She laughs. “No!” I am, of course, being ridiculous.
When my youngest was an infant, I called her a berry when she was sweet, and a bear when she was surly. Given her name, these endearments were low-hanging fruit, to be sure. But by the time one is up in the night with his third child, the impressiveness of wit or ingenuity has lost a bit of its urgency; one takes the fruit that is at hand. As tends to happen, one name stuck and the other didn’t, so now at the ripe old age of two years, she is our Little Bear.
Unlike her brother—currently experiencing a growth spurt that makes him devour his meals quickly and then go in search of more—Little Bear likes to linger over her food, picking at it as she plays or sings or watches a video on my tablet. She will nibble until it’s gone, or until something else catches her attention. With two older siblings and a dog, the latter is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve only managed to get two or three pages further in my book before I hear the slap of her tiny feet as she races down the hallway. “EXCUSE ME!” she shouts. “EXCUSE ME!” She opens her brother’s bedroom door. “EXCUSE ME! DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME!”
“No,” he says.
She turns to her sister, who is lying on the floor beside their brother’s bed, apparently staging some sort of battle between some Lego Star Wars characters and some Pokémon figurines. “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME?” Little Bear asks.
“No,” says her sister.
I hear the door close, and the quick pip-pip-pip-pip-pip of her feet as she runs back toward the living room, where I am setting my book down again. “THEY SAID NO!” she reports. I brace myself. She glares at me for a few seconds, then abruptly turns and goes back to her crackers and the video which has continued playing during her absence.
When you are the smallest person in a house full of opinionated people, you must find ways to assert yourself, and Little Bear does this with aplomb. From her very first day, two things have been clear: she is aware, and she has opinions. It is a cliché to say that a person is “a force to be reckoned with,” and yet this is what she does. In every interaction, she demands that you consider her. I tell myself—and everyone else, really—that I’m heartened by this, that I hope she never loses this insistence, that it will serve her well when she’s grown. I also often (usually) add a rueful grin and the caveat, “I wish she’d take it a little easier on me and her mom sometimes.” But when I’ve put her to bed at night (singing one song to her and one to the stuffed animal by her side, laying the blankets over her in exactly the order she requires) what I find myself turning over and over in my head are all the ways that the world tells little girls to make themselves small and soft and pliant. I can’t protect her from this fate; all I can do is try to prepare her for it, and a strong self-regard and confident assertiveness seem a good armor. Or so I hope.
Perhaps twenty minutes have passed—long enough for me to become engrossed again in the story I’m reading—when I feel a touch at my knee and then Little Bear is pushing the book out of her way and climbing over my lap and onto the chair beside me.
“Hello, Little Bear” I say.
“Oh!” she says, and giggles. “Hello!” She stretches her legs up, crossing one ankle over the other and setting them on my lap. “I’m not touching you!” she says.
“Oh really? Are those your feet?” I ask.
“And is that my leg?”
“No! That’s my leg!” She laughs uproariously; that the thigh serving as her footrest belongs to her should be obvious, but she has decided not to hold it against me. She throws her arms around me. “Snuggle time!” she declares. “Snuggles are good!”
Yes. They are.
Photographs, Memory, Moments
It was too early when I went in to wake my five-year-old daughter for school this morning. It is always too early when I wake her, even more so for me than for her. There is, nevertheless, something comforting about the familiar mundanity of being tired on a weekday morning, as unpleasant as it usually feels.
When I stepped through her bedroom door she was sitting in the middle of her bed, blinking heavily against the light from the lamp I’d turned on a few minutes before as I stumbled down the hall. She was frowning, her brows bunched in consternation, perhaps even resentment for a moment before she brushed her hair from her eyes and looked up at me, and smiled. Something about this scene brought an image to my mind, a picture from her even-younger days, but it took me a second or two to realize that I was remembering a photograph.
Photographers are often drawn to obsessing about time and memory—though, in that I suppose we are not so terribly different from other artists. From other people in general, really. It makes sense, of course. Photography is something most of us understand as a form of documentation, a way of physicalizing memory, of stretching the infinitesimal into something like permanence. Does it actually do this? Well, no, but it feels like it does, and in some ways that feeling may be more important and true than the literal facts.
Still, seeing some hint of complexity in the interaction between memory and photos, we can’t help ourselves; we just have to wrestle with it. There’s a chapter in Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, in which she laments that her clearest memory of how her father looks comes not from life, but rather from a photograph. She recalls every details of the image, from the gesture of his hands to the color of his belt, but finds herself unable to move beyond the stillness of the picture to the full sensory detail of life experience. There’s no real arguing with this—once you make a photograph, or even spend any appreciable amount of time looking at one, that is what your brain will latch onto.
Nevertheless, I find myself resistant to the now-commonplace cry, “Put down your camera and live!” Perhaps this is merely another expression of the contrarian streak that so aggravated my parents when I was a child. When I poke at the edges of my capacity to remember, though, I find myself dismayed by the brain’s fallibility.
When I was young—fourth grade, perhaps? third?—one of the people I loved most in life was a young man who worked at the day care center where I went after school. I remember that love, the admiration I felt for his creativity, the joy I felt when he would invent stories on the spot. I remember looking up to him, and looking forward to every afternoon I got to spend in his presence. And I remember the deep sadness I felt, the pain and confusion we all felt the day we found out he’d killed himself. His wasn’t the first funeral I’d attended, but it was the first I cried at.
I have no photographs of that boy, and I find that now, some thirty years later, when I search my memory for an image of him, I find only a few indistinct impressions. Dark, curly hair, long in the back in the way so many boys’ hair was in the late 80’s. A bulging Adam’s apple, a cracking voice, a wispy shadow of a moustache that he never got old enough to see become proper stubble. But the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose or chin, his posture or the way he held his hands—all of that is gone now, and it will never return. What would I give to be able to remember even a facsimile, a reflection, a ghost of his smile?
After my friend died, we planted a tree to remember him, beside the fence that separated the school playground from the day care’s yard. Many years later, when I came back to my home town to shoot a photographic series about nostalgia, I stopped to visit the tree, finding that I couldn’t remember exactly which tree it was anymore. I made my best guess, and stood there trying to fix the moment in my mind. I remember now the coolness of the air, the sound of some young mothers talking while their kids ran through the play structure, the roughness of the new bark that showed through where the outer layer peeled off. But mostly I remember the photograph I took.
This morning when I carried my daughter from her bed to the living room, she wrapped her arms around my neck, and I squeezed her gently back. I gave her a little kiss on the top of her head, and her hair tickled my lips, and I thought about the photograph I’d remembered a few moments before. As I so often find myself doing, I found myself paying close attention to the sensations of the moment, the feel of the grooves in the wood floor beneath my feet, the dimness of the house in that moment before the sun was fully up, the weight of my daughter’s small body in my arms. “Remember this,” I silently told myself. “Remember exactly this.” But even as the thought finished, I felt the moment starting to slip away. It’s seven hours later as I write this. I can’t even remember which picture I thought of when I woke her up.