When my husband realized he was dying, he insisted on taking pictures.
From the time I was a little girl, I’d been someone who collected snapshots in albums, but I’d lost the habit in those final few years of Brian’s illness. I was so tired, and we were so often in hospitals. I began to question the worth of almost everything that felt frivolous as my twenties wore on, like photos and decorations and even cake.
A few months before he died, though, Brian realized that death has its power and that people do whatever a dying person asks them to do. For the first time since I’d known him, Brian got assertive. He told me to take pictures, and he told people to get in the frame and smile, and we did what he said. I didn’t understand why Brian wanted this. We used 35mm film back then, and he knew he was never going to see those photos.
Ten years later, I think I understand.
I woke with the certain knowledge that Brian was dead that morning that seems so long ago. I had been sleeping on the couch, and he was in his hospital bed an arm’s length away. I called to him and went to him and shook him, but he was gone.
I’d had weeks, months, years to prepare for this, but I realize now how young I was, only 30, and how hard I’d clung to the idea that while I knew that life could be unfair, it couldn’t be this unfair, not really. I was shocked to find that I didn’t end when Brian did.
I could tell you about screaming and sobbing and falling to the floor. Those things happened, a blur. What I remember most clearly is settling into stillness, alone in the house, how I sat there a long while before I forced myself to get up, to go to the phone, and to call for help–not for Brian, for a change, but for me.
It was almost a year before I got it together enough to get that film developed. All that time, though–even through those first few months I can’t remember–I kept taking pictures, and now I have ten years’ worth of albums. I get them out sometimes and look at them when I’m feeling sad. Photos are moments, of course–edited, staged, chosen. They don’t tell the whole story, but when I look back, I see that through the years I fought grief, depression, and despair, I was also happy. There I am with my godson Lucas, in picture after picture smiling. There’s the arrival and growth of my godson Maxwell. There are holidays and hikes and vacations.
And then there are the photos from the months when Brian was dying: Brian, me, family, friends. Everyone smiling. Brian recognized this beauty for what it was and wanted to document it, for someone if not for himself. Maybe for me. The people who were there those couple months keep showing up in my albums after Brian disappeared. I have the last photo of him, of him and his dad at a baseball game about two weeks before the end. That was the last time Brian left the house, too. He wanted to go to the baseball game, he told me, and he wanted to see the progress of the construction on the new YMCA, and then he wanted to stay home until he died.
“Bring the camera,” he said.
Brian was so loved. I never knew anyone who didn’t love him, but even if that weren’t true, no one should die like that, of cancer, so young. The biggest grief Brian ever knew was his own life slipping away. He didn’t get to live long enough to learn about the kind of grief I went through, the kind that slowly, slowly taught me how to live again, differently, better.
“You’ll be okay,” Brian said to me not long before he died. “You always land on your feet.”
He had no idea what he was talking about, and also he was right. I still have to work to not get lost in knowing that I don’t deserve this amazing life I have any more than Brian deserved his death, but I am alive, and I am grateful to be alive. Every day. So grateful.