Ode to a Photograph
Is it the last?
We’re all on the beach, wearing windbreakers, because the Oregon coast is colder than we’d all like to admit. The baby is not in the picture, because I realized this was taken before she existed. I can tell because my face is thinner and my teeth look covered by my clear retainer.
We’re smiling. It’s clear we’re family, almost sisters. This wouldn’t be the first time someone mistook us for siblings. But our mom was only 21 when I was born, so despite my baby face, we were often faced with a gloating, giggling mother as we blushed, laughed, and let her have the win.
Part of me wishes I had removed my sunglasses. I wish I could see the joy in my eyes. Same with my sister.
But you can see it on our mom’s face. For some reason, she had this way of only partially smiling in photographs, when you could actually convince her to stand in front of the camera. But not in this one: she’s beaming. In her element, the sun on the horizon and surrounded by her daughters, she is a clear picture of happy, healthy, vibrant: fully alive.
I don’t know if this is really the last photograph of my mom, my sister, and me. In fact, I can think of another one after my daughter was born. We’re all on the couch in my living room at Christmastime, my purple curly hair cascading over a clashing red plaid shirt, my baby in a white dress on my lap. My mom is grinning like a hopeful middle schooler at her first dance, staring at the baby, while my sister sits next to her smiling. I had purchased inexpensive green stockings for everyone, and we watched the baby play with stacking cups and crawling under the tree.
But there is something so important in this image on the beach. It feels like the last picture. The joy is so evident because the ocean brings us back to ourselves. It feels like home, no matter where we stand. When the sand is taking up residence on every inch of my skin, life can feel right again.
The photograph was taken on Rockaway Beach. I still haven’t returned, but that’s just me. After our final trip to the coast together, I know my sister has returned. It’s an anniversary I can’t yet touch.
Some of them are easier. The date of her death sends me into a spiral I somehow, don’t see coming. I know to clear that day well ahead of time.
But today, I honor her birthday with this memory. Our family trips to the coast are some of my greatest memories with my mom. The ocean will always feel like safety, no matter how reckless and dangerous the waves can be. This is one anniversary that, despite the pain of celebrating without her here, I am able to navigate with kindness toward myself.
One year, I ate lemon-everything for her birthday. Hollandaise sauce on eggs benedict (one of her specialties), salmon and fresh lemon schmear on bagels. Lemon bars, lemon candies, and lemon drop martinis. I didn’t care about a stomach ache; I cared about celebrating.
Other years, the day passed without much fanfare at all.
And that was kind of how Mom treated her birthday, too. We always wanted to be very EXTRA; she appreciated a simple card or a call. Maybe a pair of earrings. We wanted to celebrate all the incredible things she did and who she was; she just wanted to be us, together.
Another thing you should know about my mom: she was much more than a lover of all things lemon or a coy-smiler in photographs. She was also a writer.
When we were kids, our mom wrote a story called, “Sam The Clam.” A friend illustrated the work and although it was never published, she created a beautiful story about Sam finding acceptance in his identity without judgment.
She inspired us. To read, and create. To embrace people for who they were and to withhold judgment for curiosity.
I’m not saying she was perfect; far from it. But I’ve learned over the years that if I can offer anyone a measure of grace for their humanity, it is my parents. It would be too easy to accuse them as the source of all my trauma, my wounds.
Parents inevitably cause injury to their children; it’s kind of part of the deal. Even unintentionally, as parents we will make mistakes and create tension for our kids. We just have to hope we’ve raised them in a way that allows for healing down the road.
So this year, on her birthday, I will honor the healing I’ve experienced since her passing, and the healing we carried together while she still breathed. I will spend the day working with others, coaching grievers through their losses with as much compassion and curiosity as I can manage, because at the end of the day we’re all just humans, doing our best to survive a world that often makes very little sense.
But if I may offer a birthday gift to you, on behalf of my mom? I would love for you to take more pictures. I know — being present in the moment is very, very necessary and I would hate to know you were distracted from the present by thoughts of the unknown future. But please; make sure each of your prior photographs is not the last.
Happy birthday, Mom.
Mandy Capehart is an author, small business owner, editor, certified grief and life coach, and creator of The Restorative Grief Project. The Restorative Grief Project is an online community focusing on one another’s stories and new methodologies for grief, creating a safe environment for our souls to heal and our spirits to be revived. To learn more, visit MandyCapehart.com or follow her on Twitter. She thinks she is pretty funny. The jury is out.