A couple of social media friends inadvertently asked me to do something hilarious with the original photo. Instead, I had a moment imagining the morning. This is what I wrote and created:
The “Wake up!” shouted in her dream brought her instantly to consciousness. She stared at the small red aura of the clock in her peripheral vision for a few seconds.
It had been her own voice in her dream. She drove with her companion as he hung his head out the window, smelling the water and watching the scenery pass. She fumbled with her phone long enough to snap a picture of the moment. In her dream, she experienced a series of overlapping moments, each one of her through the course of her life. The last one was a picture she’d happily snapped one hundred and twenty-three days ago. She slowed the car as she came to a stop. The images flowed backward across time, carrying her from adulthood back to her infancy. The reversal repeated, bringing nostalgia and appreciation for the moment – and for all the moments she’d lived.
As the dream faded and its grip loosened, she wondered what it meant and what the day might hold. She smiled secretly as she lay in the shadows of the morning.
This is a post in two parts. I didn’t know how to separate them…
She reached out to me in November, her heart dreading what I might tell her. Sheena and Deanne, my wife who died, were once inseparable comrades in friendship and a little mischief. The early 90s were their heyday. Both Sheena and Deanne were outgoing and beautiful young women.
They’d lost touch. I don’t remember that Deanne told me why other than she often told stories about her friends and the shenanigans and moments she lived before meeting me. As anyone knows, the first few months of getting to know someone is a sublime pleasure filled with stories and insights. We immerse ourselves into the unknown universe of someone else’s life as we get to know them. Deanne was almost ten years younger than me. Despite that, she had a lot of stories to tell and a large family to fill the spaces of her life. I already knew her brother Mark thanks to our jobs at Cargill.
Sheena said she’d seen Deanne once in April of 2001 when Sheena was giving birth to her daughter. Deanne worked at the hospital and surprised Sheena with an impromptu visit. Evidently, it was one filled with smiles and quick words. Sheena did not see her again. But she always wanted to and wondered where Deanne was in the world.
As so often happens when we get older, we think about the people who once touched us. Some of them drift away purposefully; others drift for other reasons. The truth is that some people have a room in our hearts even when we no longer see them. It’s one of life’s bittersweet lessons.
Sheena found an obituary for Deanne. I’d dutifully left a trail of her life and some of her stories on Ancestry and other places. People need to be remembered. Sheena told me that she cried reading it, knowing that her hopes of reconnecting were gone forever. I felt an immense pang of regret on her behalf. Deanne would have lovingly hugged Sheena had she had the chance. She loved a good grudge, but she loved connections more. One of Deanne’s foibles was how quickly she could get irritated. It was a blessing to her in some ways, too, though. As I grew to know her, her ire often made me laugh. She’d punch me in the arm and laugh, too, once the ridiculousness of the situation became apparent.
Sheena ultimately revealed that their friendship probably ruptured because she had told Deanne that we were not compatible. Deanne made up her mind about me very early on. I’m not sure I was consulted!
Sheena reached out to me on Ancestry, and I shared my entire picture collection with her, thousands of pictures – and every picture I owned of Deanne. She was able to sort through Deanne’s short life, as told in pictures. Later, I shared a few stories with her, ones some people have never read or heard.
More importantly, I gave Sheena peace. I let her know that she should feel happy that Deanne and I found each other and stayed together, even when it wasn’t easy. We all do and say things when we’re younger – and often continue the same when we’re older. And if she said the things she said to Deanne with an authentic heart, she should not be accountable for sharing her opinion or truth. That’s the risk of being genuine with other people.
The truth is that Deanne and I weren’t compatible at first glance. Or probably second glance. In that sense, Sheena was definitely not wrong. Deanne was an outgoing, buxom, active soul, almost ten years younger than me. I had no clue she was interested in me. Until she insisted I come over for a homemade meal. Believe me, I was not the one wearing the pants at the beginning of the relationship. Call me oblivious.
Sheena got to see Deanne’s life because I am committed to sharing every picture I own with anyone interested. I’m just the custodian. I love pictures, and I love knowing that people always come full circle with wanting to see every picture of someone they love or loved. Avoiding the soapbox, I will limit myself to saying that unappreciated or unseen pictures do no one any good.
I still feel a bit of remorse for both Deanne and Sheena. They could have reconnected. Had I been aware, I would have asked Deanne to look past any past words and find Sheena again. I did the same with Deanne’s dad. Deanne doubted she could forge a new beginning with him. Through the years, though, I encouraged her to try from a new foundation. And she did. I still count it as one of the best things I’ve ever accomplished. More so because she died so young.
I hope Sheena found a way to fill her life with new souls. She seems like the kind of person who deserves it. Her words to Deanne so many years ago would have been received differently had I known at the time. * *
After Deanne died, I didn’t have a big interval of time before I met Dawn, my ex-wife. Whether you can understand or not, I made the choice to plow through life and not let myself get overwhelmed with the loss. When we first got together, I had her meet Deanne’s brother and his wife. I wanted them to know that me getting on with life didn’t negate Deanne. Quite the contrary. I had to make a choice, one that wasn’t really a choice at all. Things could have ended very badly for me. If you’ve lived a life with loss, you can imagine what some of those endings might look like for me. There’s no shame in acknowledging them.
It’s not a choice a lot of people might make. I make no apologies, though. Dawn and I were together when we were very young. She’d had an intervening marriage, one that fizzled and ground down into apathy. We were happy to find each other again.
Deanne never was between Dawn and me. At least not for me. She wasn’t a ghost, but she was a catalyst and reminder for me, something that people misunderstand. When life snatches your optimism through mortality, there are a lot of impossible feelings. This amplifies when you consider how capricious life can be; anyone or anything can disappear at any moment. Deanne deserved more years to continue her journey. She was substantially different from the time when we first met. And that was a great thing to witness. I try to remember to be grateful for the years I had with her. The song always ends, leaving us with a melody we can replay in our heads through memories.
At the risk of repeating myself, one of my biggest mistakes in life has been to occasionally forget the lesson that Deanne’s death dealt me: life is for the living, obstacles will always punch, and love is never wasted, no matter how it ends.
It’s true I shared fewer stories about Deanne than I should have. I did make the mistake of not writing all the stories of adventure and mischief I had with Deanne. And also some about our hard times. We definitely had them. As Dawn and I disintegrated, she seemed to switch the narrative on me about how it was with Deanne. Whether that’s true or not is in the eye of the beholder. I made a choice – as did she. I’d make the same choice again because a choice to live and love is a positive choice; fearing another loss and avoiding taking the risk is a negative choice.
Someone reminded me this morning not to veer. Since she’s a disguised writer, I’m obligated to heed her warning.
Every love is forged with expansiveness and optimism. That we can’t navigate the treachery of daily living and one another’s messes isn’t a knock to love or vulnerability, though. The problem lies within us. Familiarity breeds contempt. We assign motive to actions or words, usually based on our faulty filters. It’s hilariously evident that most of us want the same things.
When love has drawn its last breath, it is easy to focus on the things that were wrong.
When a person draws their last breath, all the doors are shut forever.
Whether you are 31 or 71, the door is always about to shut. We just don’t see it coming. That helps us to forget how precarious our lives are. That same forgetfulness affords us the ability to live our daily lives but it also has the reciprocal defect of failing to focus on what lights us up.
For Sheena, for Deanne, and for anyone who no longer walks the Earth, we can do our best by choosing optimism over despair, deliberate risk over comfort, and for being ourselves, even as the world madly surprises us.
Deanne would tell us that all these years she’s been gone that she would hope we were squeezing the absolute hell out of whatever life has to offer – and shame on us if we aren’t.
She would have loved to be alive and make a lot of mistakes. We should be too. She’d be the first to call me out for being an idiot. And she’d mean it.
I remember before phones were ubiquitous, and cameras were a burden some of us willingly carried to capture moments.
“I love pictures but hate photography” is one of my quotes.
I used to take guerilla photos constantly, knowing at least one would be salvageable.
This first one is from May 2007, in Omaha, Nebraska. We shared a delicious Italian supper at an Italian restaurant. Though I didn’t realize it, I have a picture of the entrance! It was Lo Sole Mio Ristorante Italiano. I’d forgotten I took a quick snapshot, also grabbing a picture of my brother-in-law Joe in doing so.
Kim, in the lead, is looking down and smiling. My brother-in-law Steve is next to her. Behind him, my deceased wife, Deanne. She died four months later, unexpectedly, ten years my junior —her brother Steve, six years later. For all I know, everyone in this picture, even the innocent bystanders walking behind them, are dead. On a long enough timeline, this will be true for every single image you own.
I love this picture. Steve and Deanne gave me the one-finger salute independently and simultaneously. I laughed and laughed when I saw it. I apologized to the bystanders, telling them that some of us were from Arkansas.
Joe and Deanne had a bitter exchange of words afterward. I don’t remember why. I hope Joe doesn’t either because no matter what words they shared, they loved each other. I have a picture that captures the irritation.
I have better pictures of Deanne from that day. But the one of her getting into Steve’s gargantuan truck captures her perfectly in an unguarded moment.
Now that I’m living in my own The After, I think about Deanne more. She was ten years younger than me. Loudly and aggressively vivacious.
Were she here, she would absolutely holler at me to stop wasting time on ‘what ifs’ and wishes. She’s been gone fourteen years.
She would quote “The Green Mile” and tell me, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Don’t stop taking pictures, even if people give you the finger.
One day, you might be sitting and reminiscing. And that picture might give you a breath of life.
When the sun begins to sit on the horizon, we are all memories.
“Just call me a cartographer – because this post will be all over the map.” – X
Everyone is going to have their ‘last funeral’ story. Perhaps not the last of each person’s life, but the last one not impacted by covid. While my last precovid funeral wasn’t traditional, it happened in January before the country felt the virus’s hammer.
Jackie wanted a gathering of friends as a commemoration. It happened at her home in Springdale. I knew a few of the people at the gathering but most shared nothing in common with me. It was a fact that Jackie would have laughed about. One of the most complicated puzzles I had ever made with pictures was prominently displayed on the coffee table in the intimacy of their living room. The puzzle contained innumerable pictures detailing their lives. I made it with care and attention. It was an affirmation to know that it touched them enough to find a place at Jackie’s last gathering. The video and music I crafted played on loop on the large monitor nearby. Having learned the hard lesson of no backup plan, I had the video on dvd and flash drive and an executable folder of music and pictures if the other two methods failed.
Though I unexpectedly liked a couple of Post Malone’s songs before, I included a piano version of two of his songs. When I have my guard down, I sometimes hear the melodies and remember the absurdity of including it in Jackie’s memory video. I can’t imagine Jackie liking Post Malone; I know that this piano version would have struck her heartstrings with unerring certainty. In part, that expresses how I got to know her – often indirectly and through a constant barrage of banter and conversation. I also included three songs I wrote, one of which I know Jackie loved.
I said my goodbyes in the same way I got to know her: through pictures. The family asked me to do the montage of photos and choose the music. It’s a rare thing for people to trust me so intimately. I’ve known some people all my life who skipped past me for weddings (even one who I originally became ordained for) or overlooked the few things I can do well. In a way that is not immediately easy for me to write, Jackie and her husband seemed at ease with me, even despite our marked differences. I’m sure that some of my pranks were a bit too much for them – but that my intent always found favor with them.
I was volunteered into their circle by my mother-in-law, who worked with Jackie and her husband at the hospital, as did my wife and sister-in-law. What started as a simple project ultimately gave me access to their entire lives of private pictures and images. While I began by scanning hundreds of hospital pictures, I was soon compiling decades of family history.
I frequently see the thousands of pictures I carefully scanned and indexed in my photo archives, and my heart both swells and painfully beats. It was a project that I hoped would never find its end.
Even though this sort of thing is both a love and hobby of mine, it still strikes me to know that people close to me failed to take advantage of my willingness to ensure that everyone’s memories could be reproduced, protected, and shared; such endeavors leave no one without access. It’s true that on a long enough timeline, we all fade – along with everything we can touch, where we stand, and even the planet itself. Pictures have their most value while someone is alive who remembers the people in the picture.
I still see people in agony over lost videos and pictures. It’s work to keep track of our lives. It’s more work to organize it for everyone coming after us. They’ll want to see our memories. The truth is that most people, even ones who seem to appreciate the frailty of such memories, don’t take the care necessary to share them openly and widely. It’s the only way to ensure the survival of the pictures we find to be cherished.
Jackie and her husband were undoubtedly part of the backbone of the community. Both were well-known and respected. Apart from teasing back and forth about me doing something ridiculous with their treasure chest of pictures and albums, they never doubted my love for the project or that I might somehow misuse their photographs.
Because I maintained an archive of all the thousands of pictures Jackie shared with me, it was no stretch to know that I could manage a retrospective of her life when she died. That I hadn’t shared much of her life was immaterial. Anyone could see that I had an affection for her that defied our vast age difference. I continue to regret that I didn’t know her for longer. It is possible that we would not have aligned so well earlier in my life. Having thought about it in the last few months, I’m convinced it’s true.
Part of my regret of not knowing her longer is that many of her stories passed with her. I discovered quickly that both Jackie and her husband were living repositories of fascinating stories. I intended to ask her to share several hours with me with the hopes of getting her story written in a way that would bear her signature wit and charm. She became ill before that come could to fruition.
But I still have this hoard of pictures, often waiting for me to open them and peer inside. I know that I honored Jackie by taking a piece of my life and preserving hers. I made sure that everyone had copies and access; no one was left in the rain. We don’t own pictures, though we foolishly think otherwise. We are custodians, with transitory possession of these lives and this world.
The day of her death races away from me, sliding into the past, as all deaths do.
Life marches forward with callous step and indifferent regard.
As Jackie’s life fades from human memory, I watch the world and wonder about the depth of visual memory and story being lost. But it is not because of me. I’ve tipped the balance in my favor and find myself unable to stop asking people to drop their pretenses and share who and what they are with the world.
In continued memory of Jackie Lou and with a renewed dedication to the joy of pictures, X.
Back in the 80s, a popular photographer roamed the hills and valleys of NWA. One of his spots was a spot off E. Lake Road in Elm Springs, not too far from the post office and cemetery entrance. Because I know better than to trust my memory, I can’t be sure his tradename is as I remember it, but it was close. He was popular for senior pictures. One of the spots he used wasn’t too far from the road, in part because of the dense trees, foliage, and sloping once you stepped off the side of the road. It used to have a short section of lateral fencing there. Many seniors, especially girls, found themselves at this spot posing. The people I’m going to mention had nothing to do with this photographer, at least as far as I know. I mention him only because of what happened. The photographer I crossed paths with did use one of the senior photographer’s go-to spots, though.
I lived next to the Willis Shaw lot, near what is now the Police Department on Jayroe Avenue, on the other side of Highway 112. Many days, you could find me running, sometimes biking, and often walking the miles of roads in the area. It was a beautiful place to be able to do so. Those familiar with the area need no convincing.
One summer evening, I walked several miles and was coming back home on E. Lake Road after walking to Springdale. It was about 8. I can’t be sure because we didn’t have cellphones and I certainly had no watch. The sunlight was fading, and the valley there was dense and beautiful in a backroads way. Even though I was wearing a cheap radio, the batteries went dead a few miles into the walk. I’m sure I listened to KCIZ FM-105 for most of my walk. The insects were deafening. Over them, I could hear voices shouting and laughing. Their voices carried surprisingly well. I walked at least a couple of more minutes without being able to see them. I realized that their voices had shifted and that I had probably passed them. Even though I was exhausted, I turned around and walked a few feet down a horribly-maintained side driveway. The laughter that I heard was raucous and fun. I didn’t see a vehicle. As for my curiosity, youth usually overrides caution.
I stopped in my tracks. About twenty feet from me stood a naked man holding what appeared to be a large, expensive camera. In front of him and to the right was a naked woman. To get this out of the way, the woman was beautiful. She had black hair down to her shoulders. Although no one remembers her now, I’d say she looked like Phyllis Davis. She was teasing the photographer about taking too long with the shot. She stopped talking momentarily when she saw me. And then waved and smiled, as if I were expected at any moment. The photographer turned and laughed. “Hey bud!” he said, smiling.
It seemed like I just stood stupefied for a few seconds. “Hello,” I said, much too loudly.
Then, I turned and sprinted away from the driveway and up the road, all the way to the highway. I could hear the two of them laughing with strange merriment as I bolted away from them.
I ran past that spot at least five hundred more times. While I didn’t run past to see the woman, I did look to see if she was there. She never reappeared, though I did see a lot of unexpected people and things on those backroads. Walking quietly at any hour of the night often yielded people in places where they were expecting privacy. The cemetery there in Elm Springs certainly gave me a list of stories I could share.
Thirty-five plus years later, I sometimes wonder what the story was with Phyllis Davis’ doppelganger. She had the looks to be a model, and she didn’t seem surprised by seeing me magically appear from the roadside.
P.S. She is the only reason I remember Phyllis Davis or her name.
I am of the continued mind that we should drop the pretense of vanity and concealment. We should just offer voluntarily the worst possible perspective, the worst possible picture, and the worst possible interpretation of our motives through life.
If you think about the title of this post, it should project the exact tone, imagery, and point that I’m trying to make. Sunsets are beautiful and most of us agree. The world that brings us back to the center is one of necessity and immediacy.
Each of us is engaged in a varying degree of war with other people’s opinions of us. Someone smarter than me pointed out that every person has a different idea of who we are in their head. Each of those images reveals at best 75% accuracy.
When we are reduced to our visceral essence, much of our ego of pretense abandons us. For all our lofty goals and vain ideology, we are all equally engaged in the grind of survival.
For me, what gets me through these days, is the idea that you’re sitting there with an unpleasant picture in your head and wondering how mere words took you there.
A friend (and writer, though she fights the label) sent me a picture from her childhood. She snapped a picture of the old orange photo with her phone. I removed the orange tint from it, knowing that greater revealed detail might cause surprising observations. The hand originally seen holding the picture as she quickly snapped it is almost 40 years older than the innocent face smiling at us in the picture.
As I looked at the picture, for a brief second, I felt disembodied and as if I’d traveled back in time to City View Trailer Park and glanced briefly through the cheap window of the trailer. My eyes crawled across the scene; my friend in the background was smiling because she was asked to by her mom, the photographer, while her stepfather wrestled with a sibling on the bed.
In that instant, the moment became frozen forever, also disembodied and ethereal. My friend’s smile could be authentic happiness or adopted camouflage. It’s easy to take pictures and memories out of context. Due to the convergence of so many aspects of my friend’s life and mine, I can look at such pictures and interpret them in the harsh shorthand we learned separately. Such preconceptions can be wrong.
Her life has arced away from the world contained in the picture. Such victories are unheralded. She is excavating her truth from all the stories inventoried in her head. Despite what we’re told, memories are fluid, often refusing to take solid form. Who we are at the moment drives our focus toward the conflicting elements in our memories and pictures.
Because I shared most elements of family in common with my friend, I too can hear the cacophony of anger and control, even as I feel my heart swell with some moments which escaped the discoloring of the lesser parts of my life.
She’s looking through a long series of windows, trying to balance the tapestry of fact against emotion and her loyalty to those who shared her path when she was younger. It’s a delicate tiptoe and seldom leads everyone to agree.
It’s possible to be momentarily happy and yet inexplicably ruined. We don’t understand our lives until they’ve made an aged trajectory. Even then, our glimpses into the window make us feel traitorous to our own lives. It is as if we owe ourselves an explanation, even though we know we’re blameless for choices we didn’t make.
So, in turn, I peer into my own childhood. I feel the cheap paneling against my back as I lean against the wall in the narrow closets. I hear the shouts from other rooms. And sometimes, I recall the joy of stolen moments, ones which do not fit comfortably with the mythology of my recalled violence.
In those same closets, I opened books and dreamed of other lives – and momentarily forgot that my life was diminished and small.
I look at this picture through my window and see the smile as a captured moment, fragmented away from those in the photograph.