Thursday, August 4, 2011

Take a Picture

Like many people who grew up in the Mississippi Delta, I spent lots of time around the levee in my town, on the banks of the Mississippi River.  Unlike other people, though, what I did most there was run, up and down, rain or shine, cold or hot.

The Levee, where we did "Hill Workouts"
Dad was of the old-school way of thinking about running:  “No pain, no gain; no guts, no glory.”  That meant we ran, almost every day of the year, and the summer heat and humidity were not an excuse to forego that plan.  In fact, he loved to say, Almost anyone can be a runner on a perfect spring or fall day, but it takes a Real Runner to run in the extreme heat of summer and the extreme cold of winter.”  (He also told me once that Real Runners don't wear leggings or warm-up pants in races … and so I wore shorts in a marathon on a day in December when it was only 20 degrees outside.  I didn’t feel my legs for the first 18 miles of the race, but that’s a story for another time …)

With all that heat and all that running, I don’t remember complaining, though, because I loved to run.  And I loved growing up in the Delta, and, well, that meant running when it was almost literally hot as hell outside sometimes.  Every year, at the beginning of every summer when it started to get really hot, Dad said, “You can get used to almost anything if you do it everyday for two weeks.”  And for the most part, he was right. 

Another thing I remember Dad saying as we ran up and down the levee is this:  “In running, when you have a good day, take a picture of it in your head, so that you can think about it again the next time your day isn’t going so great.”

So that’s what I did.  With lots of pictures in my head, those runs in the extreme heat of summer didn’t seem so bad.  And he was right:  I did get used to them after awhile, and they did make me stronger as a runner and maybe even as a person.

Even better than pictures in my head from while I was running, though, are the pictures in my head and the photographs from the times over the years that my family was together.  Looking back through hundreds of photos, I remember the day and in some cases the exact moment when many of them were taken.  In some, we are posed, and others are informal.  I think the best ones, though, are those when the victims subjects were caught in action.

About a week after my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer, I made an appointment for a photo session for our extended family.  We had gotten a family photo taken around Thanksgiving the year before, and I was thinking that we should try to do it around that same time every year.  I told Dad when I had booked the session, thinking he would like the idea, but he didn’t really react much to it.  Having that session on the calendar gave the rest of us something to look forward to and, I’m sure somewhere WAY in the back of our minds, a sense of relative security because we were suddenly acutely aware that our time together could be limited.   Looking back, I can see that having those family photos taken in the midst of all the chaos and stress going on as we tried to cope with the intensity of Dad's illness and with the downhill of the roller-coaster ride of Grandmom's condition was all part of an effort, at least on my part, to fix time, to keep things from progressing, to capture our family's memories and love in a tangible way, in hopes that that would allow us some control over what was going on.  As is, or actually, as was, is the way I desperately wanted things to be, and I was willing to put forth my best effort to make that happen.  And what an effort it was. 

We had all planned to gather at our parents’ house the weekend after Thanksgiving.  Dad, Mom, one of my sisters, and I had gotten back from our trip to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke University late in the evening on Thanksgiving Day, and we were exhausted.  We were motivated, though, to have the intactness of our family captured on film.  

The Day of the Family Photos began with an early morning phone call from the nursing home where my grandmother lived, about five miles from my parents’ house.  One of my sisters answered the phone, and the nurse told her that Grandmom had taken a turn for the worse. 

As was the pattern for Dad at the time, he hadn’t been able to sleep at all that night and had just gotten to sleep about 5 a.m.  He’d had a headache and, after just having gotten his first dose of chemo two days before, we felt that he needed to be closely monitored and that he needed his sleep whenever he could get it.  One of my sisters, her husband, and my mom had been up with him in the night, too, and so my brother, my other sister, and I quickly got dressed and raced to the nursing home to be with Grandmom.

She had the Death Rattle going and was unresponsive.  Even though she was being cared for in a nursing home, she was also on Hospice, and the Hospice nurse was there with her.  “Just sit with her and talk to her,” she advised us in the hallway outside of Grandmom’s room. “She hasn’t been able to eat or drink in a couple of days, and she has a high fever that isn’t responding to medication.  We are giving her medicine to keep her comfortable.”

I had been in the shower when the phone call had come, and I still had wet hair despite the freezing cold temperature outside.  My sister hadn’t slept well and had a bad headache.  After we had been there for awhile, our brother said he would go to get some medicine to help with the headache and then would be back. 

He ended up being gone for longer than expected though, because he had a fender-bender in his rental car on the way to get the medicine.  (When it rains, it pours, right?)  My sister and I sat with Grandmom, with each of us holding one of her hands.  There were photos of family members and of her at different times in her life on the walls of her room, and we talked to her about each of them, hoping she could hear us and that she had taken a picture of those memories in her head so that she could be thinking about all of those good times again. 

The Hospice nurse eventually told us that she thought that Grandmom had a few days left and recommended that we hire an aide to sit with her during the time that we couldn’t be there.   We hastily made the arrangements and then got ready for the photo session in about 20 minutes, planning to have the pictures taken and then hurry back to the nursing home.

The rest of the family had been getting ready and helping to get Dad ready, and we met the photographer in the common area of my parents’ neighborhood.  It was very cold and windy outside, and Dad, who had lost almost all of his body fat over the past few weeks, was exceptionally miserable.  It felt like we were climbing a mountain, but, even as stressed and fatigued as were were, we were well aware that we needed to do whatever we could to recognize, appreciate, and remember the view from where we stood that day.  We all smiled for the camera, knowing that we’d be glad that we’d had a picture taken so that we could be thinking about the memories later, especially if things weren’t going so great.

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