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November 20, 2018

How Photos Carried Me Through Loss

 

I was standing in a Culver’s parking lot when I got the worst phone call of my life. It was the end of my freshman year at UWO and I was a couple of days away from taking my final exams for the year. A soft yet stern voice was telling me that I needed to come home. My Dad was in the hospital, and he didn’t have much time left. 

Hard to process as a nineteen year old. Your Dad is supposed to be around so much longer. Time acted funny on my hour-long drive home. It stayed still and moved too fast all at once. All around me, people were driving to and from work… running errands… living a much more ordinary day. I thought about the ways in which my life was going to change. Never seeing “Dad” listed on an incoming call ever again. Never having the option to call him. Milestones and simple things. Grabbing lunch, the chance to hear more of his stories, the chance to grow closer. I thought about how terrified I was to see him in the state he was in.

When I walked into the hospital room, my Dad mustered up his last bit of strength to lean up, smile and hug my brothers and I. Tears fell from his eyes. He could barely speak but he was so relieved to see us. We laid him back into a more comfortable position, taking our spots around his bedside for an indefinite amount of time. We didn’t know what to expect. We had never been through anything like this before. And here we were, listening to our father struggling to breathe. My Dad was never afraid of death, but he never wanted to leave us like this. So I sat next to him, using one hand to hold his and the other to press a button that administered morphine as the hours passed. I drowned in my own tears as I tried to come to terms with what was happening.

Over the course of two days in that little hospital room, I watched my family fall apart around a person who was once the brightest light in their universe. I listened to my Nanny tell her only son that it was okay to let go, even though she was living a mother’s worst nightmare. I watched my mom forgive a man, who when he lost his way in life, had taken so much of his pain out on the ones who loved him most. I looked at my Dad in the state he was in, and tried to imagine him as his younger, healthy, happy self… in both the memories I had, and the ones I wished he would be there to make. Walking me down the aisle. Holding his first grand child. Guiding me through life. Giving me wise, fatherly advice. Giving me shitty advice. Laughing more, fighting more, loving more. All the things we didn’t have enough time for in our nineteen years together.

With shaky voices, we sang “Take it Easy” and “Hallelujah” around his bedside.

We watched him go.

We got home in the middle of the night to a quiet house, the silence broken by the sounds of my brothers crying in our dark laundry room. I’ll never forget it. I sat on the edge of my bed, emotionally drained, wondering what had just happened and why me… why us… why him. I’ll never forget my mom’s efforts to console us, desperately trying to fix something so unfixable.

A few hours of sleep rescued me from my real life nightmare, then morning came. The confusing thing about each new morning that came, was that life was continuing on without my Dad. The world was still spinning even though he was gone, and that was a concept that I couldn’t wrap my head around.

What do we do when we miss someone who is gone?

We find ways to keep them alive. We make their recipes. We tell their stories. We do bad impressions of them. We wear their big t-shirts to sleep. We drive to the places we spent time with them. We laugh about how funny they were and we scream when we’re mad about our lonely reality without them. I know this now because it’s been almost five years, but it was still too early for all of that.

During that blurry, confusing week, we reached for our photos.

The photos that we didn’t take for the moment, but that we took for later.

Later was now.

In the week preparing for my Dad’s funeral, I spent all day, every day buried in piles of thousands of photos on our living room floor. “Thousands” is no exaggeration… I couldn’t believe how many I was seeing for the first time. Familiar photos, though, I was seeing through new eyes. All of these moments looked different now that it was all I had left of him. The moments that once seemed insignificant were now so valuable, and I was overcome with gratuity for the amount of life and happiness that my family had documented so that I could look back at it all in a time like this. These photos gave me moments of intense joy in my worst week, and they continue to be the first thing I run to when I’m having a hard day.

Perhaps one of the reasons I was most thankful for the photos was because they were proof of the good times. The truth is that my Dad was very sick the final decade of his life as he battled with alcoholism and eventually lost that fight. These photos that showed his true colors, his infectious smile, his loving spirit and the Dad I knew him to be before a horrible disease took over – that was the version of him worth remembering… because that was always who he was deep down to his bones, even when his bloodstream said otherwise. I had ten years of absolute perfect bliss with my Dad before he lost his way. I am so grateful that the amount of happy memories we have preserved in photos makes it feel like we had much more time together than that. I’m so grateful that these photos continue to play a role in my life every single day… that they’ll always be around when I need them… and that my future kids will be gifted a good understanding of who their Grandpa was because so much of his life was captured.

My business motto is “capturing people throughout all of the seasons of their lives” because none of us know what’s around the corner. No matter how you feel about the current state of your life… whether it’s “I could be skinnier”, “we could be happier”, or “life could be better”, those things you tell yourself are just distractions from the fact that your life and the people in it are ALWAYS deserving of documentation. After my Dad’s funeral and the whirlwind of a week we experienced, I remember thinking that I hoped it would be a very long time until I ever had to face an ordeal like that again. Unfortunately, his death marked the beginning of a string of more losses within a short period of time in my family. We felt as though we couldn’t catch a break with the hospital rooms and goodbyes. Loss and grief were things I met very suddenly, and then got to know very well. And time and time again, photos have carried me through the grief. They’ve been the friend who always knows what to say and shows up at the all the right times. And every time I look at one of the memories, I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the one behind the camera who captured the moment and made it accessible for me to come across when I needed it the most.

As someone who loves photos and sees so much joy in them, I hate to take a morbid approach to the reasons you should print your photos. But I would be lying if I said this subject wasn’t a driving force pushing me to do what I do. The ugly truth is that loss is in store for all of us, and if you haven’t faced it yet, you will someday. It’s my wish that when you do, your photos will be there to wrap themselves around you like a hug in your hardest times. They won’t be buried on hard drives or crashed computers, but close by, ready to hold, and ready to heal.

We don’t print photos for now, we print them for later.


Still to come in the Print Your Photos series:
Wednesday: From File to Photo – Ordering, Organizing and Displaying Your Photos
Thursday: Introducing the ATP Print Your Photos Challenge

  1. Jeanne Cramer

    November 20th, 2018 at 8:59 pm

    The tears are flowing down my cheeks as I try to read this. You have a wonderful way with words. You are SO right about printing pictures!!!!! I have to do some soon . We have lost five immediate family members and I am so happy I have pix of them to cherish. Take care😘😘😘

  2. Suzi Hartzheim

    November 21st, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    Audrey, your Dad loved you, your brothers and Mom beyond words. When we were kids, it was evident how much he loved your Mom. As I read your blog, saw the pictures of a happy, vibrant Matt, tears are rolling down my cheeks. No one would have thought that the disease that took his life would be around the corner. So proud of all of you for honoring him and his memory with your stories, songs and photos. Love never dies. Cousin, Suzi

  3. Ronnie Coyle

    November 21st, 2018 at 7:27 pm

    Audrey, your title is so fitting and spoke to me. I lost my dad over 8 years ago and I often go to the special photos I have of him. As you have said though, I have those photos in so many different places. It is time to change that so I can simply grab that book off the shelf when I need it most.
    Thank you!

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