We have two portraits sitting now on the mantle over the fireplace. They’re on either side of my brother’s poster from China. His gift from a paper shop, from a cultural exchange. He doesn’t know what it means, but that doesn’t matter. The pictures are of her of course. One shows my mother with my father. He leans in against her, over her. The other is the whole family: my parents, brother, sister, me. These pictures record perhaps her healthiest moments for an entire year. I think they were taken for just that reason.
A photographer and his wife took pictures for us. His son had my father as a teacher, which was how he found out about her. Dad’s class heard the story between substitutes, between his times at the hospital. From years of recording moments — senior portraits, happier memories — they recognized a need. The photographer volunteered something we would never have thought about. When your mother is in the hospital because she can’t eat and having surgery and finding out she has terminal cancer you don’t think about much of anything at all. My dad tells me later they would sit together on the bed and just cry. With thoughts empty the emotions would pour. You don’t think then of moments a year later, the moment now, when you walk into the room and look at the pictures.
She came home from the hospital in the middle of December. Her healthiest moments nestled between surgery to re-route her intestinal tract around the duodenal blockage and the debilitation of chemo and worsening cancer. In those few days she was ready for the picture. She hadn’t lost hair yet and that made her happy. She wore jeans for the first time in perhaps a month and even just that made her happy.
The photographer brought some equipment; he set up a light in the living room. I could watch his simple care for instruments I couldn’t name. A device to measure lighting, another to time the flash. He knew what he was doing: making a memory of her health that we would never see again. Against our reality, he was humorous and lighthearted. His wife was more serious, watching my younger sister, too young, from that connection of mothers. She did simple things to help like adjusting the lighting or holding a shade for pesky rays of sunlight through the window. They were full of life together. Watching their interactions brought the life out of us to capture. We could smile and laugh and live. Live as we would not for months. My mother could walk around the house, could go outside to take some more pictures in varied locations. The dog made it into some of the portraits, sitting tall and looking at the camera. Outside he smelled or heard too many distractions. Always a noise somewhere to chase. I could hear breeze through the leaves.
There remains for a time another portrait from the session, enlarged and blown up on a glossy poster board sitting in the entryway against the corner of the stairs. Dad’s girlfriend may ask more about her than anyone desires to say and he wants to clean the entry. Thinking about moving it brings to mind its purpose. The picture sat in front at her funeral to remember her face with eyes open. This last picture of health sat a year old by that time of the ceremony.
What did she think about then? I ask memories of those times. I want to reach the mind behind the face not yet gaunt. Hopeful past surgery, not yet suffering the exhaustion of chemotherapy. Did she think then how we would have these portraits now sitting above the fireplace? How they would rest unable to fill the missing spaces of her absence but standing out as such against the beige of the wall?
We clean the hallway. We take the glossy portrait and place it somewhere in a closet. Entrants to the house do not see her face and strangers would never know what transpired there before. As time passes, I can still remember that photographer and his wife who entered that same door and snared a moment.
Robert Searway is a graduate student in English Literature and sometimes hopeful writer.
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