Maybe it's the time of year? That the first little knobs on the trees, the sunshine struggling against the chill, the longer days, turn my mind, paradoxically, to death.
Or maybe I'm always thinking about it, somewhere behind the everyday struggles and little bits of joy, the clouds.
Whatever the reason, I'm fascinated lately with Victorian Death Photography. That the Victorians seemed routinely to memorialize their loved ones in permanent death images, many of them posed like regular portraits...it amazes and impresses me. Of course, death was all around them all the time--life expectancies were short, and many died in babyhood and childhood, diseases that are now easily treated, then were lethal. Death was a part of the cycle, in a tangible and public way.
We don't do this now, of course, take photos and glue them in our photo albums among the wedding and baby pictures. My father died upright in his favorite red leather easy chair one morning in January, and my sister and I sat on either side of him as he left. I remember how lightly we breathed in the dim morning, trying our best not to disturb his passage that seemed so precarious--I didn't want him to suffer anymore, and I didn't want to make any noise that would startle him back to his pain. We spoke to him our encouragement in whispers that fell almost soundlessly into quiet air. And as I watched the life leave his eyes, as they opened suddenly, and fixed on a far point in the room, and then died--his eyes died before he drew his last rough breath--I still couldn't believe he'd gone, although no one with eyes like that could ever return to this world. Afterwards, we continued to speak in whispers, even as we hugged and kissed him...it was a long time before we could call the funeral parlor to take him away, we couldn't stand to let him go. In the end, the relatives came swarming and fluttering and hovering, and they made the calls. But I always felt that they simply couldn't stand the sight of us with the dead body, sitting with him, holding dad's cold hand. My sister and I knew that the passage between life and death, though irrevocable, is not such an absolute. Dad was alive, we held his hand, and he was dead--why would we throw the hand away in sudden horror? I saw a terrible fear in their faces; but I was unafraid.
In the weeks and months that followed that day, I thought often about those moments beside dad, and I began to wish that I'd had the presence of mind, or the nerve, to have taken a photo of him, dead in his chair. I had not yet become interested in the Victorian death portraits, and my strange impulse was somewhat sui generis. A photograph would have marked the passing, whose details I returned to, obsessively, again and again in my mind over those weeks and months. Anyway, my mind returned to it: the last breath, the dead eyes, dad cold in his chair. The photo would have helped me, I am sure of it, to be certain of that moment. Was I really there? Did it happen that way? And...was he dead?
Had I been a Victorian girl, I might have had the assistance of the relatives--together, we would have dressed him in his favorite trousers, his suspenders, his special gaudy tropical print shirt, and arrayed ourselves around him arms over his dead shoulders, living cheeks pressed to the dead face, and we would have stared into the camera, eyes filled with grief, but with a certainty also.
As it was, the relatives were disgusted, afraid, and dismayed already by our tender proximity to the dead one. Such a portrait was unthinkable; they would have thought me utterly mad.
But I know the truth. That the dead are among us, that we are among them, that there is nothing to fear, that we should not so quickly hide the body away and with the body, hide away our abject sadness and longing. The need is strong, to rush away to life. But it is, after all, an impossibility: for the ones who attend, who sit vigil as life ends, that death scene is real and we will always carry it with us, the images of it, the feel of it and the sounds and smells in the quiet room. To externalize it, to take it outside of the darkest recesses of one's soul, in a simple portrait--unafraid, unashamed, unhidden, pasted up in an album that could be taken down from a shelf and looked at, until one didn't feel so alone with the secret memories...