Take a Picture So That You Can Remember
My mother had a way with words.
Even in the midst of her thirteen year battle with Alzheimer’s.
One of my most memorable visits to her nursing home was a short one. I was in a rush to run to the bank, meet with her lawyer, and apply for a copy of her social security card before making the long drive back to New York. We had a nice chat but then I had to leave my mother’s small, tidy room.
“I hate to go,” I said. Riva wasn’t able to get out into the sunshine much at that point. She’d lived on the first floor of this facility, adjacent to a beautiful garden a few years earlier. As her dementia progressed, however, she’d been transferred to a locked unit on the third floor, with no easy access to the outdoors, and I felt bad about that.
However, my creative mother had made adjustments to that reality in her own distinctive way. She’d been an artist all her life, and now she was painting with words.
She made a funny sound when I bent down to kiss her goodbye.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I’m taking a picture of you so that I can remember!” my mother told me.
That was her version of being in the moment.
And perhaps the most vivid lesson my mother ever taught me.
So when my husband invited me to accompany him the next month on a business trip to Paris – in April no less – I decided to go with him, and to take pictures non-stop.
I’d been overwhelmed with my caregiving responsibilities over the last decade, and it took me a while to adjust to a beautiful life an ocean away from all the conversations I’d had with doctors about anti-psychotic medication, DNR orders, diapers, memory loss and end of life directives.
Riva had never been able to understand what an IPhone was. Still, as soon as we stepped off the plane, I imagined her saying “Walk around Paris while Jimmy is in his meetings. Take pictures with that gadget you have!”
I felt her looking over my shoulder as I focused my camera on whatever was in front of me.
All my life, Riva had been my teacher when it came to appreciating beautiful things, whether a dandelion gone to seed or a Picasso painting. A perfect, flaky croissant or the rough cobblestones of the Latin Quarter.
“Notice all the beauty around you,” I heard Riva say. “Go, go, go!”
The first shot I took was of a woman in her eighties, wearing a full-length tiger skin patterned coat, as she walked her two little French poodles. “I thought that was Riva!” my son Max commented when I posted the photo to Instagram.
I took pictures along the Seine, of the bridges laden with lockets sparkling in the sun, left there by lovers of all ages.
Passion fruit and dark chocolate ice cream from the famous Bertillon parlor on Ille de la Cite?
A perfectly Parisian pink bureau in the window of a furniture store?
Giant bronze lions at the Hotel de Ville…coquilles St Jacques at an outdoor market…kids on ponies in the Luxembourg Gardens, perfect French strawberries, a golden apple tart…and four different kinds of chocolate mousse…
I got it all.
I sifted through the images on my phone carefully, dropping them into my Instagram feed the way Riva had pasted images together in her collages.
Perhaps the sweetest moment of our trip (aside from the time Jimmy glanced at a simple café and remembered it as a favorite spot on our long-ago honeymoon) was when we took an after-dinner walk that turned into a four-mile hike, landing at the feet of the Eiffel Tower at 9:59 pm, at precisely the moment when a spectacular light show exploded in front of us.
Love was all around us.
“Quick!” I could hear Riva saying. “Are you getting this?”
I pulled out my camera and captured it all.
In fact, I’m still capturing everything with my camera five years after my mother’s death – even in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
No matter how I’m feeling – frightened, angry or confused by what’s going around me – I can pull out my phone and record a moment in time. And that helps me to realize that every moment passes. That photograph will be replaced by another one quite soon.
For the last decade of her life, my mother existed in her own kind of quarantine, trapped in her illness while understanding so little about her life. She once admitted to my brother in a moment of lucidity “I’m terribly frightened.” And that haunted me.
But it also inspired me.
Like my mother, I’m terribly frightened now, and I’m not understanding much about life. We live just outside of New York City. We know people who’ve been sick with the coronavirus. A cousin of my husband’s died. We haven’t seen our children except online in weeks, or hugged neighbors and friends. We’re trapped in our own minds, and in this new unreal reality that no one can figure out.
I hear my mother’s words: “Click Click!”
Dandelions sprouting up on suburban lawns have never looked so beautiful. A toy left on someone’s front yard is a poignant reminder of how all of our lives have been put on hold. A forlorn basketball hoop on a friend’s garage waits for the day when people will be bumping up against each other with grit and determination. I’m finding funky old vegetables in the bottom of my refrigerator, cooking soup and marveling at how pretty it looks on Instagram. And when the cherry trees in our front yard explode with blossoms – as they do every year – my joy is more profound than it’s ever been. I lie beneath the trees every day and marvel at my good fortune.
“Embrace every sweet morsel in life!” my mother once wrote to me forty years ago, after her friend’s fourteen-year-old son died tragically.
“I do,” I say to her now. “I do.”