mom and me, 1999
Two years ago today my mom died.
Few events have etched their way into my brain the way that one has. The birth of my kids, certainly. The first time I laid eyes on Eddie.
Over the course of these past two years, not a day has passed that I haven’t thought back to the period of time when my mother was ill. And then the night she died. And the fact that I recorded much of that time with my camera.
I struggled with it then, and I guess I still do now. Why did I take pictures of my mother’s death? Was it ultimately an invasion of her privacy? Was it a way for me to see more clearly what was going on or was it a mechanism that allowed me to pull back from it? Perhaps it was my way of trying to hold on to her image as long as I could?
Fellow photographers and close friends have reminded me that photographing is simply the way I journal. That this is the way I remember. Here is something I finally wrote about the process a year or so ago:
“As my mother became more ill, I began to photograph her. I had always made pictures of her while I growing up. But these were different. These pictures were about her death. During the last three weeks of her life, I documented the process of dying. As I placed a frame around her tired and drawn face, I removed myself somewhat from the reality that was at hand, but I also brought myself closer to it – to linger on it, to study it, to consider it, to try to make sense of it. Order, commemoration, preservation – the same reasons I’d always made pictures.”
encouragement from my dad
the night before she died
I wrote about it, too. I have always loved the combination of photography and words, so that part made perfect sense to me. I began by describing the fact that three of the four of us kids live quite a distance from my folks and that for the eleven months that she was sick, we all pitched in.
“My siblings and I traveled back and forth to our hometown to help out however we could. This meant picking her up after she had fallen, helping her get up from the toilet on particularly bad days, putting a heating pad on her shoulders, stocking the refrigerator with sweet potato and split pea soup, doing the laundry, driving her to the doctor, organizing the sheets in the linen closet, trimming the rose bushes, washing her hair, and painting her fingernails.”
I ended the essay with a description of the night she died. I was alone with her. I consider that an honor and a blessing. I also know that it has affected me in ways I have yet begun to figure out.
“No one had ever prepared me for the task of watching someone die. As much as Mom and I had talked about her illness, her funeral, who should have her sapphire pin and her collection of souvenir spoons, we had not quite gotten around to covering what the actual death scenario might look like. I was on my own.
My mother was serene now. Her breathing had moved from her belly up into her chest. It was growing more and more shallow. The sheets were draped around her frail frame; her head was propped on the pillow. Her face looked round and peaceful, like a full moon bobbing just above the clouds on a cold, clear winter night. I began to talk to her.
I thought of death scenes from movies, from books, from plays. Words came tumbling out of my mouth – words that had been uttered by so many others so many times before: “Let go now, Mom… it’s okay, just let go… you’ll see, it will be so much better without the pain… you were a wonderful mother… we all love you so much… we’ll miss you terribly… let go now, Mom… go on, it’s okay… I’m here with you… we love you… we’ll think about you everyday… I’ll see you again, I know it… just relax, let go… it’s okay… I’m right here with you.”
Her breathing started to move up out of her chest into her throat and became very short and thin. Every third inhalation or so, it seemed like minutes passed before she finally exhaled. To my surprise, her eyes opened. They were glazed, but as blue and pure as ever, and they darted about as if she was looking for a place to land. I leaned down and wrapped my arms around my mother, my chest on top of hers. I placed my head on her shoulder and nestled my face into the crook of her neck.
Then she fell silent. And suddenly I was hovering near the ceiling watching the whole scene. I floated high above and saw the two of us, wrapped up together on a small hospital bed in a small, darkened room. I saw myself kiss her neck. I watched with fascination as I told her, when I felt sure the breathing had stopped, goodbye.
I saw myself pick up the phone to call my father.
During those last twenty-six hours with my mother, I found myself waiting for some important secrets to be revealed. When she was speaking in random fragments, I felt sure I would hear something that would astonish me, enlighten me, surprise me, answer the unanswered, explain the unexplainable. I figured I would come away from the experience wiser about who she was, more informed about our relationship as mother and daughter, and absolutely clear as to what the point of her life, or any life, might be. When her eyes opened at the very end, I guess I had hoped she might call my name, speak suddenly, and tell me what she was seeing and where she was headed. When she drew in that last breath, I suppose I was holding out for a dramatic last word or two, something that would change my life in a profound way and provide me with strength and purpose.
The morphine machine kept purring every few minutes after my mother died, still releasing the drug into her arm. I looked out the window and noticed that dusk was settling over the city. The fireflies would be out in full force in my parents’ back yard by now, flickering like stars.
I saw myself embrace my father when he walked into the room. An hour or so later, I watched as I drove him home.”
mom and me, a few minutes before she died