Photography on Mother’s Day
Mother’s Day, which this year fell on May 11, was just a day after the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. She would have been 89. When she was diagnosed with advanced lymphoma, I came home to help out with her hospice care. I took many photographs, trying to document her last days. I haven’t looked at those photos since she died. Recently, I found myself going through them.
Most of the photos show her body wasting away, even as she remained lucid while receiving a steady stream of visitors. There are brief videos of her receiving communion and the last rites, both incredibly moving. The last photos I took of her alive shows her sitting up at dawn, propped up by her caregiver and longtime maid. Her right hand is heavily bandaged with the tourniquet into which her morphine drip is attached. She smiles weakly, her mouth showing several missing teeth because she does not have her dentures on. She looks very tired, barely able to sit up.
The next set of photos shows her corpse, dressed in a delicate peach-colored terno and laid out in a casket. Her face is made up heavily, her hair slicked back with mousse that she would never have used, turning her into an image of someone different from when she was alive. Her hands clutch a wooden rosary.
There are many other photos of the wake, the burial and the reception that followed. But I find myself lingering on the photos of our house that I took after her funeral.
My brother and I had gone back to the house to sort through some of our mother’s papers. I went around absent-mindedly taking photos of the rooms, perhaps thinking that this was the last time we were going to be in the house as she had left it. Looking at them now, I am struck by what appears before me. The photos of the various rooms, left as they were while she was still alive, are difficult to look at, far more so than her sick body or her still corpse. In the photos, the rooms are unrecognizable. Whose house is this? The photos convey only an inexplicable emptiness. Like photographs of a disaster, there is abandonment everywhere, each room hollowed out of every conceivable human presence. These photos are beyond uncanny. They refuse mourning. Like wounds that will not heal, they are reopened with every viewing.
The photos have no aesthetic value in that they bring forth merely a certain formlessness. Thus do they defy the very possibility of photography. They depict rooms that are forever forlorn, failing to signify anything beyond their failure to signify. Abysmal sites, they offer only a death that evokes the death of representation as such. At least with the photos of my mother’s last days and her wake, there is still a recognizable figure, a body around which the bodies of visitors cluster, organizing space and grounding the labor of care. It is a body that can still be by being beheld, evoking pity, soliciting vision and longing. With the photos of the empty rooms, there is no such luck. There is nothing to see, no object to miss, master or desire, nothing against which to measure and constitute oneself as a viewer. No other, no mother, no self.
To say that these photos convey a sense of haunted spaces is already to say too much. Haunting assumes the insistence of some undefined but no less palpable presence amid an absence. Again, no such luck here. No fortune. No future. No chance. Utter desolation reigns.
The house is long gone. It was sold shortly after my mother’s death and leveled by its new owner. A more modern structure stands in its place.
These photos are among the few tokens of the house that remain. And yet, what they memorialize is their failure to stimulate memory. For that, I have to turn to other photos of my mom with my dad and the other kids. Those family photos provoke nostalgia, laced with sweetness and sorrow. They contain the details that are the clues to understanding my family’s past: the period clothes, the baptisms, graduations, weddings and funerals. Rich with the evidence of our past, they are the raw materials in the making of a historical consciousness.
But the photos of the empty rooms are radically different. They are incapable of yielding pathos. Each viewing only drains them of meaning. They say, if they could speak, only the same thing: Nothing remains. All is gone. Over and out. Even the ghosts have fled. They wait for new life to arrive, if they ever do, to restore once again the sense of something to be missed and mourned.
Vicente Rafael ([email protected]) teaches history at the University of Washington, Seattle, in the United States.
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