Like Raymond Carver I also have a photograph of my father. I found it last night whilst sorting through boxes looking for Christmas ornaments. It's a photo I had put away intentionally, buried deep under old work files and papers I had written in college. A photo that I had no desire to see again.
This picture was not given by him. My aunt had given it to me when I turned seventeen. "You look so much like your father," she had said, and I remember feeling the creep of discomfort, looking away. I didn't know how to respond. As I recall I mumbled something about my uncle telling me that before. She went on as I sat in awkward silence, her tone collusive; the family was just outside on the patio and this was forbidden conversation.
She spoke of how cool he was, driving around town on his motorcycle. He was in a band, a local bad boy who drove the girls crazy with his flirting. She spoke as if we were both schoolgirls and she was confessing to me her secret crush.
I don't recall all the things she said that day, but I do recall the comparison of our mannerisms, our shared habits, the similarity of our laughs. He was, and is still, my uncle's best friend. She said they visited him in Florida every summer. I took this information in, but not with curiosity; rather, with a growing feeling of desperation. This was a conversation I had never wanted to have. I wanted to clamp my hands over my ears and block out the words as she drew closer, watching for some reaction, some dramatic change in my countenance to prove that her memories were affecting me as they were affecting her.
"Do you remember what your father looked like?"
Those words finally struck me. I realized that this was where we had been heading all along. This was the thing that had been sitting in my throat, a hardened mass that made it difficult to breathe. I recall saying something non-committal like "Yes. He looked like me," but my ambiguous response did nothing to deter her conviction.
"Come on. I want to show you something."
Her next words to me need not have been spoken. They came hurtling from her mouth through a vacuum in time. They had been spoken already, at that moment when she had first said "You look so much like your father." They had been hovering in the air around us, waiting.
"I have pictures of him."
I let her take my hand and lead me. I sat obediently as she pulled them from closets and drawers – high school yearbooks and photo albums. She sat next to me and began her narration, telling me the story of a man I never knew. Her fingers stroked the image of his face as she re-lived each of these moments forever frozen in time.
I remember feeling like the main character in Du Maurier's Rebecca, trapped in a bedroom by a grief-maddened Mrs. Danvers, forced to look at a dead woman's underwear. As she flipped through the photos I closed my mind's eye. Seeing, but not seeing. Not allowing the words or the images to penetrate me, not allowing them to leave their mark in some vulnerable place within.
Then she began to pull back the little foil triangles holding certain photos in place, the ones she intended for me to keep. My father's graduation picture. I stared at the simulacrum of my own face as she handed it to me. Our faces were a near perfect likeness, except that this man did not exist, at least not in my world. I felt no emotional connection to the face looking back at me.
A black and white picture of my mother and father, the type taken in a booth at a carnival or fair. I noted how young my mother looked. Then a photo of him playing with his band in Florida. This is what he looks like today.
The next and last photograph she handed me is the photo that I found last night as I hunted down errant Christmas decorations.
In this picture my father is walking in front of a black car on a sandy road in Florida. His shirt is completely unbuttoned and the wind is blowing it from his body. His head is down, but you can just make out his face. He has a look on his face that's hard to express. It's the look of a man in pain, the kind of deep mental torment that would make him have to stop on a deserted road and get out of his car to walk around. The kind that has enveloped his mind so thoroughly that he is completely unaware of someone taking his picture.
This is the photo that finally broke through to me on that day. This man I knew. This expression. The depth of it. Grief. Pain. This is the man who held onto me on the last day that I would ever see him. He had signed the divorce papers and then broken down as I was being led away. He grabbed me, sobbing. I didn't want him to let me go. I couldn't have been more than four years old, yet the feeling of guilt was heavy upon me.
My aunt had said to me that I should have this picture. It was taken right after the funeral for my sister. I remember staring at the man in the photo, trying to gain some understanding of him. She misunderstood my concentration. Her voice was emotional as she said to me that he was devastated, it just destroyed him. He had loved my sister so much.
I tried to reconcile the words that she was saying with the face in the photograph and the truth that had made me shut down all feeling and thought of him. He had loved me, I do know that, but he was a violent man and when he was drinking he was abusive. He was abusive to my mother in ways that defy comprehension. When a rage was upon him it was not enough to harm her, his need was to completely control her by threatening harm to those she loved and, far more torturous, to anyone who loved her. His threats forced her to isolate herself from those who cared for her, from anyone who would have helped her. He assigned her the responsibility to keep them safe and the blame if harm came to them.
I could say that because she was young and naive she believed his threats, but that again would deny the truth that I knew, that I myself had witnessed. The possibility of such violence already had a corporeal existence in our lives, there was no question of whether he was capable, too many bore the scars of his capabilities. His threats were not phantoms invoked to prey upon her fears. They were very real and considered plans whose execution needed only a whim on his part to be set into motion.
I think perhaps it was the death of my infant sister that caused the ripple of change that allowed my mother to escape, that point when the loss became so great that it overwhelmed fear. My sister went to sleep one night and never woke up. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I was too young to remember much from that time, but I do recall that it was the time of my mother's pulling away, her refusal to continue life as she had been living it.
When I received that picture from my aunt I wanted to throw it away, but I couldn't bring myself to do that. It was too deeply connected to my sister's death, to the agony my mother had gone through. To simply cast it away was like denying this truth that must live inside me. I own this truth, as I think all of our truths should be owned, even if never shared with another person. As long as I exist, this truth exists. There is no one who can make me unknow it. No words can make me re-write it. The look in my eyes says that I hold this truth inside me; it has brought attempts at florid alteration to a halt, mid-breath. It will not be softened nor swayed.
I took the photo and hid it away. It had no place in my world and yet it had a significant place in my world, a Liar's Paradox as profound as any textbook statement. As I moved around through life the photo would pop up and I would find a new place to hide it.
When I found it this time, life and age had changed my perspective. What once had been a photo of a man was to me now a photo of a kid. He does not look bold nor particularly strong. He looks small to me, so much smaller than the man I remember. And young, far too young to bear the demons that are dancing across his face. But I know his agony is well-deserved and therefore right. I stared at the face in the photo and understood for the first time. I understood that look of grief, the deep inner torment that could make a man have to pull over and get out of his car on a deserted beach road. I understood how he might not even be aware of someone snapping his picture.
The first poem I ever loved was "A Photograph of my Father in His Twenty-Second Year" by Raymond Carver. After years of being force-fed poetry I came across this poem in college. I could barely contain myself as I ran back to my room and locked the door. I sat on the floor and hiccup/sobbed for the better part of an hour. In four verses he had brought me to my knees. His words might have been my words, his photograph my photograph. But it was not for the man in my photograph that I wept, it was for the sudden, unexpected depth of connection I felt with the stranger who had written about his own photograph.
When I look at the photo now I do not feel forgiveness, I do not feel pity or anger. I have no need of closure. He no longer exists, the boy in this picture. And whatever he may have become, he will never know me. I will never know him.
I have attached no particular emotion to this photograph; rather, what comes to my mind are words. The words of writers far more eloquent than myself.
"Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year"
All his life my father wanted to be bold
But the eyes give him away
Edna St. Vincent Millay
"I will put Chaos into fourteen lines"
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
"The Truth the Dead Know"
And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in the stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
"Variations on the Word Sleep"
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.
Whenever I hear people say that they love poetry I cannot help but roll my eyes. Pretentious. Shallow. There are hundreds of poems that have burned themselves into my psyche, each one specific, unique in its connection within my mind. The rest of the lot can be thrown in the wastebasket as far as I'm concerned. I do not love poetry. I do love poems. Each one that I've embraced has become a part of me, a metaphoric representation of some significant event in my life.