Photographic Memories

Last night I went through the totes with pictures. When we moved up here I had just tossed them all, most in the original packaging from the photo shop, into two pink totes and I haven’t looked at them since. Not that I looked at them much before anyway. I haven’t been one to document my life on film. Most of the time the camera was put away unless it was a holiday or a special occasion of some sort. I vowed to changed that after Katy was born. I didn’t want her to be one of those people who had scant evidence that she was ever a child. But despite my best efforts the pictures never made it to a scrapbook or photo album and now that I have a digital camera and computer – I am even worse about getting pictures out and on display.

I made rather quick work of the totes. I was surprised that I could identify and date the pictures by lot as easily as I could as I still have a difficult time with time frames. One thing that was striking was the fact that as time went on Will’s presence in the photos diminished and then disappeared completely even though he was still alive. But maybe that is why. He was just alive in the physical sense and no more than that. I do remember that I deliberately stopped taking pictures of him when he went into the nursing home. I think there is just one photograph of him there that was taken at a holiday dinner they had for the residents and family in very early December. He would have been there about two months at the time and the social worker there took the picture and gave me a copy later. My memories of that time and place are awful enough without photos and Katy, thankfully, can’t remember him there at all. It probably wasn’t the worst that nursing homes had to offer but it was typical of what most of those places are. Understaffed and full of demented seniors who are in various types of restraints and drugged more insensible than they would have been anyway. Will, unfortunately, had to be quite quite medicated as he was aggressive and combative due to the areas of his brain that were under attack from his immune system. It wasn’t until the last six months or so when he had lost completely the ability to move that it was safe to take him off some of those medications. It’s odd that I should be thinking of this kind of thing right now because Rob and I are putting the finishing touches on our wills and personal directives and we have this list of “what ifs” to plow through and decide upon. I am pretty sure I would not want to live the way Will did those last two years even if I was suffering from dementia as severely as he was and didn’t know what was going on – or at least couldn’t remember it from one moment to the next. Sometimes life is not worth living and I think a lot of what passes for respect for the sanctity of life is just the cowardice of family to do the right thing or the selfishness in wanting to preserve someone in a horrible existence to put off their own grief.

But not everything in the photo totes was about Will. Believe it or not I had a longer life without him than with him. There were pictures of students and events that took place at the various schools I have taught at. There were tons of photos of my oldest nephew who I borrowed quite a bit during my single days. I found all the family history stuff that my cousin, Anne, and I had worked on. I have a fairly intricate family tree map that I used for my own writing and it reminded me of the stories that I wanted to write up at some point.

And I found cards. Why did I save all these cards? What is the purpose? Rob says not to be too hard on myself in that respect as everyone does this. He has nearly every important card ever given to him. I suppose he is right but I am not overly sentimental in this respect and whenever I pull out this stuffed shoe-box, I am more annoyed than pleased that it exists. Perhaps though I would be upset if it didn’t turn up from time to time and maybe I will be glad of these cards someday. And then there were the bereavement cards. I did nothing with this aside from take money out of them which sounds awful but I needed that money to pay for the lot and the burial. My aunt paid for the wake. I was so broke and still had about six months to go on my masters – with the accompanying bills and nearly a year before I would see the corresponding pay raise that I so desperately needed already. I verbally thanked everyone at the time of the wake but I know this doesn’t clear me with Miss Manners. At the time I wasn’t up to sending out written acknowledgment and as time went on I came to resent more and more the idea that this was expected. A death isn’t like a wedding or baby shower. It’s not a party and the cards are not gifts. And I found no comfort from them and still don’t. By and large they are from people who abandoned us for over two years and I didn’t, still don’t, see any good reason to thank them for throwing me a bone and showing up after Will was gone especially since I never heard or saw all but a handful of these people again. And these were people that had stuck with us anyway and I still tell them how much that meant to me.

Today all these photos are labeled and packed into two much small, and easier to pack for moving, photo boxes – ready for scanning onto my computer at some later date. The most immediate plan I have for them is to gather up pictures for Katy to create a book telling her story. I have read, and the hospice grief program confirmed, that it’s good for young children to have a photo book that tells the story of their lost parent. It helps them remember and facilitates their grieving process by giving them something concrete to thumb through and read and remember. Aside from that I am content to have them in some sort of order at last.

Now it’s on to the last two boxes of papers to be sorted and then filed or shredded. A widow at the hospice group asked me if it was okay to have not gone through her husband’s things. She is barely a year out and I told her that it was fine. For me though, at almost two years, it is not okay anymore. I can’t string this out over the remaining decade and I don’t see the sense in that anyway. The photos, papers and miscellaneous items left will not lose their power over me through my delay and may indeed gain grief momentum if I set it up as something arduous rather than something that is necessary and, in my experience, spiritually cleansing. I can’t protect myself from memories by hiding or ignoring things.

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