February 15, 2011
He is dying. I see his eyes through my camera lens. This zoom lens that also shows me the fine hairs glistening on a plant stem. And just once, he looks directly into my lens, showing me his dying eyes. Eyes that reveal a soul straddling two worlds.
This contact startles me.
I pull the camera away from my face. Did he really see me on this crowded balcony? There is a good distance between me and his wheel chair. We are shielded from each other by a sea of chiffon dresses and scarves flowing between us. Yet, his eyes found me.
I hide behind my lens again, feeling like I was just caught peering into a forbidden room. I wonder if he knows what I saw in that moment of connection. I wonder if he is aware that this is his daughter’s wedding. She is nearly forty. This is her first wedding. I think this man, this doctor, has waited a very long time to see this daughter be married. And, here he is.
Dying on her wedding day.
I am the only wedding photographer today. My second camera is borrowed from Jeffrey. A much more expensive and higher quality camera than my little Rebel XT. I’ve never used his before. Why did I say yes to this? I am not equipped nor qualified. Not by a long shot. And, all that I want to do is follow this frail human being around snapping photos of the tenderness he gives. The loving pats on his thin shoulders that he receives. The exchange of knowing looks he shares with these wedding guests. His family. The young boy, possibly a grandson, assigns himself to remain at this old man’s side throughout the entire day. I want to take photos of only this. But, this is a wedding and I am to take pictures of the bride and groom. I am not prepared for this.
I remind myself to keep breathing.
Even though this is a favor, and we aren’t even friends, the pressure to produce high quality, romantic, clever and loving photos is the same as if I were being paid the highest dollar amount ever offered to a wedding photographer. There can’t be any mistakes. There are no do-overs in wedding photography if I mess up.
Besides, this father won’t be here for take two. This knowledge, revealed when he looked at me. This, I saw through my zoom lens.
I am taking a lot of photos of this man in the wheel chair. He is frail, but there is still a twinkle in his eye. A grown son seems to be in charge of his care and maybe there is a male nurse, as well. They take this former doctor to one of the nearby beds in this glamorous hotel on the beach. He can nap often throughout the day. I watch him come and go. Both, for his naps and for his awareness. The zoom lens on my camera making me privy to depths most often missed by our naked eye. He knows he only needs to hold on just a bit longer. I think he is gathering strength just to breath. Conserving energy to live. Until it is time to toast the newly wed couple. The old doctor had saved every ounce of energy for this moment. A long, loving, intelligent speech.
I think he has rehearsed this speech from the moment this daughter was born.
The people raise their glasses and listen to a clear and steady voice. A strong voice coming from a dying man. I watch through my lens. He is very much alive right now. This dying man. His hands remain steady. I wonder what kind of doctor he might have been. Maybe once these were large, strong hands. Healing hands. Today, they are frail. Bony.
I watch the bride. She wears a special smile during this long toast. This last toast the doctor will ever make. It is a smile of deep love. Respect. The smile a three year old daughter wears when her daddy picks her up in his arms at the end of his long work day. When he talks only to her. And she thinks right then and there that she will marry him. This smile. A daddy’s girl smile. A sweet smile.
The bride kisses the dying man’s forehead after the speech. I am happiest to have captured this moment than knowing I got the shot of the wedding couple’s first kiss. I whisper a thank you to my angels for guiding my eyes through this lens.
A few days after the wedding, I hear the doctor dies. This father of the bride.
This man who knew he was dying.
I think we breast cancer girls have an advantage in life. Maybe as privileged as this doctor. Like him on that wedding day, we have constant reminders that we are going to die. Well, all people know that they are going to die. Of course. But, when there is cancer or some such diagnosis, that reality gets brought home rather regularly.
This is a privilege.
Knowing this. Really knowing this is so much richer than before diagnosis. The knowing that comes before diagnosis is bland. Like a dull movie we sleep through. We let it go. Forget about it. Move on.
The knowing that comes after diagnosis is alive and breathing. A knowing so clear it is like seeing life for the first time through a very expensive, high-end zoom lens. We start seeing everything, every little thing that is good and beautiful, through this lens. And every frame we set up through our zoom lens is as if it might be the last photo ever seen.
This is an advantage.
Being fully conscious and aware of death makes us live more fully and consciously. We make better choices with our precious time. And, we can choose how we will fill in these frames. It reminds me of a song I learned as a child and only until now does it make the most sense. It was a song I learned in Sunday School.
Growing up, we were not at all a religious family. In fact, my dad strongly opposed religion. The only thing I could figure, as a child on those Sunday mornings when he would drop my sisters and I off at the Methodist church for Sunday School, was that this was probably just so my mom and dad could have uninterrupted sex. Not a bad trade off while my sisters and I learned about God and all that.
Mostly, I learned that I loved making crafts with Popsicle sticks on those mornings. And, I loved learning songs. Songs I would go home with on those mornings, insisting that I sing them for my parents in the living room. Songs I would sing throughout my life, in my very bad singing voice. The only one I have.
A line in one of those songs always stuck with me, “be careful what you see little eyes”.
I liked the ‘little eyes’ part. I liked being a child. Being talked to this way, like I was taken care of.
Today, I realize what I have learned from this song and from lessons I am privileged to see through my zoom lens. Lessons from seeing into the eyes of a dying man.
From this doctor, this father of the bride, I learn this:
This man was dying, yet, he willed himself to wait until after February 11, 2011. His daughter’s wedding day. He must have envisioned himself a million times over, giving a speech at his daughter’s wedding. It mattered to him. He willed himself to wait to die until after this speech. Visualizing that goodness and having strong will power, both, matter.
From the zoom lens, I learn this:
Zoom in! To really see, beyond a mere glance, past just looking, but to really see requires nothing more than taking the time to see with the depths of my own soul. To zoom in on the people I love, really and truly to see them, to let them know they are important and noticed. Loved.
And, from the line of that song I learned in Sunday School so many years ago, I learn this:
I can be careful with what I see. I can choose what I see and what I choose to focus on. There is good and bad in everything. I can choose to see the good. And, with this, fill my photo frames, my memory, with all that is beautiful, loving and joy-filled.
I can choose to see health and healing.
Michelley leaves for her year of living in Japan in just two days. I intend to stay by her side every last minute and to zoom in and see all of her goodness, filling the photo frames in my mind’s eye with good memories to last two lifetimes.