Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida begins with a poignant memorialization of his mother, as remembered through her photograph…. And Jacques Derrida’s posthumous Athens, Still Remains, a travel memoir accompanied by the photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme, begins with the mystical phrase “We owe ourselves to death.” For Barthes and Derrida, photography was a medium of suspended mortality—every photograph a memento mori.
— Josh Jones, “The Photography of Ludwig Wittgenstein”
Here’s what I remember. I was standing in line, waiting to board the Porter Airlines plane headed for Montreal. My mother lived in that lovely city, as she had for 91 years. Three hours earlier I’d received a phone call: a female voice from the nursing home told me she was dying and wouldn’t survive the night. I remember feeling at a loss, but not for the reasons you might expect. My mother – her name was Frances – had lived years longer than we ever expected despite severe illness and disability. How could anyone be that certain she wouldn’t survive the next twelve hours?
I was naïve—these people know their business. I shuffled forward in line, my phone buzzed, and I heard another female voice: it said she was dead. It was a few minutes past 9 pm, June 15th, 2010.
Two hours later, after a short flight and a taxi ride, I climbed the steps to Maimonides Geriatric Centre. Late nights in hospitals are different from visiting hours. Things are still, except for the odd uniformed figure moving with purpose. Once in a while you hear elevator doors open and close, but you can also hear the white noise swishing alongside the thoughts in your head.
A nurse took me to my mother’s room. Her small body lay on the bed under a thin white covering, every thing bathed in a fluorescent glow reflecting off pastel green walls. A garbage bag lay in a heap next to the bed, with my mother’s belongings inside: some clothes, a tiny pair of tennis shoes. My mother’s head was bound with a piece of fabric that ran under her jaw and over the top of her head. They do that, I’m told, to keep the jaw from slacking open. When my father died six years before, they didn’t and his mouth gaped open like he’d expelled his soul in one last act. Still, the photographs would show that even with the fabric, my mother’s lips, once so full but now thinned by time, were slightly parted. You could see a few skewed teeth, yellowed and worn down.
I waited a long time for my mother to die. That sounds harsh, but it doesn’t matter anymore. My mother had Alzheimer’s disease, which is common enough these days. But that doesn’t make it less awful. Frances had Alzheimer’s for more than fifteen years, a long time for that illness to do its all its dirt. She hadn’t recognized me in six years. She’d asked me once if she’d ever had a child. She’d forgotten years ago whether she’d had a husband, which she did, for 58 years. The parts of her brain that gave her speech were gone, and the closest she came to communicating was opening her eyelids and, looking down, slowly moving those dull, watery eyes from side to side.
As well as Alzheimer’s, my mother had Parkinson’s disease. Sometimes she shook so hare that the nurses were afraid her tinto splintery bones would break. She hadn’t taken a step in seven years, lifted by the hands of strangers from bed to wheelchair, and then wheeled to a common room where a TV murmured at low volume and others like her didn’t watch. Then back to bed.
And yes, she shit herself regularly. A few years back—at one of those hellish family/staff meetings where the topic of discussion is the purgatory of someone’s charge—a nurse told me, with a cheerfulness I can’t fathom to this day, that my mother would play with her feces. Measures had been taken to stop that kind of thing. That might have explained one of those 7 a.m. phone calls I’d receive, like the one asking my permission to place her in a special diaper, a contraption that somehow fell legally under the classification of a restraint. I said yes.
About the photographs: That night of June 15th, I carried with me a little Canon camera, which at the time was all I used for digital photography. It’s what I used to take the photographs that a year later became the images I titled 97532, no. 1 and 97532, no. 2.
Something came up recently at one of my exhibitions overseas where a number of public figures declared that my photographs were disrespectful (I may be putting their disdain mildly), that I had, as they say, gone too far. Here’s what I think. I don’t think these images are reverential but I don’t think they’re derisive either. They’re pictures I made of my mother’s body when she was dead. I knew when I walked into that hospital room that I’d never have another opportunity to take the pictures I’d snap off in the next ten minutes of my life. I did the same when my father died in 2004.
I read once that the problem with being an artist is that everything is material. Whether it’s a problem or not, I don’t know. But the death of a parent is usually a big thing to someone. And, yes, big things are material.
A year before my mother died, I read this, by Julian Barnes:
. . . the death of a parent you love is in many ways simpler than the death of a parent you hate or to who you are indifferent. Love, loss, mourning, remembering — we all know the scheme. But what is the scheme when this is not the case, when the parent is not loved? A tranquil forgetting? I think not. Imagine the situation of someone . . . who realizes that for all his life as an adult, and for many years before that as well, he has lived without knowing what it is like to love a parent. You will reply that this is not so extraordinary, not so uncommon, and I will reply that this does not make it more easy.
Rereading what Barnes said helped me. (Art’s most generous gift: the feeling that you’re not alone, even when you really are.) Whatever life my mother and I shared, we mostly wasted. There were moments when a few of our serrated feelings for each other alined to include something you might call love. (What an impoverished word for something so nebulous and strange and indefinable. And difficult.) But if I resist embellishing, I’d say that rarely happened. And even now I feel sadder than I expected saying this – this years later, and at an age when I’m ashamed to have that feeling. If I read Barnes’ words with a certain frame of mind, I can even feel teary. I’m ashamed of that too.
Did this deficiency of love make it easier for me to make these pictures? Yes, it did.
The complicated entanglement of feelings finds its way into this picture and also the others I made about my mother’s life and death. I’m not going to say much more about that because I don’t feel like it right now and because I’ve spoken of it elsewhere. And because I feel like the pictures might not only say things better than I can—they might even, somehow, know things I don’t.
The “97532” in the title comes from the reference number on my mother’s death certificate. It’s not the entire number but a truncated version, shortened because I thought it made the title less unwieldy. As it turns out, the number isn’t only truncated. It’s wrong. A couple of months after I finished the image, I fould her death certificate again and saw that I’d incorrectly remembered the real numbers. I was so sure I’d committed the whole number to memory – how does one forget something like that, especially when you’re obsessive about details like I am? But I did get it wrong.
I left the title, 97532, as it is. Because it reminded me—and reminds me still—that memory is a devious storyteller. It reminds me of all the other things I’ve probably got wrong. And it stands as a small memento—a memento of how our great stumbling between the immensities is just a brief trip through fog and mirrors.