Not long ago I found a picture in my parents' photo archives of my great-aunt Rose, dead in her casket. I was in elementary school when she died and don't remember very much about her but I know she was a great lady who had mad cooking skills. The Italian restaurant, Sunny Italy Café, that she and her husband founded in the late 1920s still stands today as one of the most popular restaurants in my hometown.
Seeing the yellowed, frayed polaroid made me wonder about whoever took that picture – how much they must have loved Aunt Rose and knew how much they'd miss her. Despite the taboo that for some reason is placed on taking photographs of the dead, or of a casket, or at a funeral itself – this person just needed one last memory of her.
It wasn't until my husband died that I was able to understand why that person had to take that picture.
Pictures are normally meant to capture the beauty in this life – the smiles, the arms up on roller coasters, the sandcastles at the beach, the cake smashing at weddings, the birth of a child, the first day of school. They are physical evidence that we were HERE. We witnessed these precious moments in time. We don't want to forget the memory of the laughter. We can't lose the image of that little hand in ours as we walked her through the threshold into kindergarten. We need to forever remember the faces on Christmas morning or our baby's first birthday. We can't let those moments just go out and away into the world without documenting it – without saving it forever.
But what about different types of life moments? The not-so-happy ones. The ones that are heartbreaking, emotional, painful –yet still beautiful moments that we want to hold onto. Why shouldn't we capture those too?
In the week leading up to my husband's funeral one year ago on that cold, November Saturday, I kept panicking about the finality of this all. I would hit the floor in despair thinking about how this was really the end. This was the end for my four children and the man they called father. Being with someone you love every day for 20 years and then suddenly NOT being with that person anymore is probably the most cruel, gut-wrenching reality a human can face. I couldn't breathe all that week.
I looked at a photo hanging on the wall of our family, one of the last photoshoots we would have together, taken a few years prior. The kids were dressed in cute fall outfits, autumn leaves behind us. A beautiful backdrop at the family farm. Our smiles. I didn't know the photographer all that well, but I knew I loved the pictures she got that day. Her camera was the last to capture this once healthy, happy family of six. I contacted her immediately asking for– what is deemed by many– a strange and grim request, to photograph my husband's funeral.
She ended up capturing achingly beautiful memories of a day that I wished I could forget but didn't want to forget. His best friends– many of whom he'd known from grade school– flanked his casket as it was brought into the church. Hundreds of family, friends, coworkers, people from the community, some who didn't even know him, all packed his childhood church to pay respects. Standing room only was in high demand. She knew to capture the kids and I up near the front of the altar next to his body, as it lay in a modest, wooden box covered by a white sheet as the prayers reigned down on him, on us– his family left behind.
Seeing this picture reminds me of the last time he and I were on an altar together. It was 16 years ago vowing 'death do us part.' Now here I was pondering this unfair reality where my 41-year-old husband was forced too early to stay true to that promise.
My children were young – all under age 10. My youngest was only 5. I'm not sure how much of this period in time they will remember when they are grown. What will they remember of the years that cancer robbed him of everything he was, or of the horrific morning I found him when I couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't speak but only scream? What about the hours and days and weeks after that left us all in a fog of tears and regret? Will they remember all the friends that came by, that called, that brought us food and desserts? What will they remember of a man who only got to live a short time with them? Will they remember his voice, his laughter, the way he worked hard and dedicated himself to making our lives perfect? Will they remember the joking way he danced behind me in the bathroom mirror at night or wrestled with them on the floor or tossed a ball with them in the yard? What will they remember of this day we put him in the ground?
In these last photographs, I know they will see and remember amazing things.
The crowd that came that day. How people lined the streets to get in. How they paused the motorcade on the way to the cemetery at the corner where his family business sits, honoring the well-known hometown boy, the last of four generations who would ever run it. My son said the funeral home director told him that in all his years, he had never seen an outpouring as magnificent as this. This was the most amazing crowd he had ever seen. "It's true," I told my son, "it's because your daddy was the best at everything." He was amazing in every sense of the word– even to the end. I know he will remember that.
They will also see the despair in every face, see the heartache in our eyes. They will feel the grief we felt that afternoon seeping through these prints. There are no words to describe the picture of our third child – the blonde little goofy twin who favored her daddy – draped over his casket saying goodbye. But I'll tell them that in that true heartache, there was true love. We loved him well and that's why we hurt so profoundly. They will know how loved their daddy was. How he is loved and missed still and always will be.
That is why these pictures are so important to us. We will forever treasure this one, last tangible memory we have of a great man that we got to call husband and father.