I didn’t know why, but the candid photo of Doris, her husband, and their young children laughing in front of a Christmas tree made me sad. The sensation was strange because I was staring at an image of pure joy. Why should I feel anything other than happy? I wouldn’t understand until later.
At eighty-five years old, Doris died at home, though it wasn’t her home. As her health failed to the point of no return, she had to move into a makeshift bedroom at the back of her daughter’s house. While the accommodations were better than a nursing home, she was confined to a hospital bed in a former mud room connected to the garage. Her teenage grandchildren didn’t bother to adjust. They continued to use her new bedroom as their entrance into the house every day after school.
I know this about Doris because I met her daughter and stood in that makeshift bedroom shortly after she died. I was there with a colleague from the funeral home. As the funeral director, he collected information from the family while I waited by Doris’s bed to provide lift assistance and offer prayer if requested. Meanwhile, I assessed the room to determine whether we needed to move furniture and plan the smoothest route from her bed to the minivan we parked in the driveway. My task was completed quickly, so I wandered over to a wall covered from floor to ceiling in framed family photographs.
The wall was like a museum dedicated to Doris. The photos spanned her life, from black-and-white childhood snapshots to colorful images of her eightieth birthday party. I saw blurry pictures of Doris behind the wheel of a Vista Cruiser and Polaroids of a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. As I glanced from one to the next, I was genuinely amused, not to mention engrossed. Each frame captured a priceless moment in this woman’s perfectly ordinary yet richly blessed life. I was captivated, thoroughly enjoying my walk through a stranger’s memories.
Near the center of the collage was the Christmas photo. The picture was spontaneous. Whoever stood behind the camera didn’t have to instruct Doris and her family to say cheese. Surrounded by wrapped gifts and now-vintage holiday decor, they were already smiling. Better yet, someone had caught them in a fit of unrestrained bliss. They threw their heads back and revealed every tooth as they laughed with mouths wide open. I didn’t know why they were laughing, but that couldn’t stop me from wanting to climb inside the frame and enjoy the moment as much as they were.
The smile on my face, however, soon disappeared. The joy I gleaned was overwhelmed by a sense of melancholy. In hindsight, the reason is evident, but I was slow to make the connection. The sweetness of the photo was necessarily mingled with bitterness. After all, two of the four beaming faces in the picture were now dead and gone. I was peering into an unretrievable past. Doris, her husband, and their children would never share another Christmas. They would never have another opportunity to make each other laugh like they did years before.
Then again, I’m a full-time chaplain at a funeral home. Death is as routine for me as a coffee break. I’m surrounded by the sting of loss every day. How could one photo have such a profound effect on me? I was barely suppressing tears even hours later. Each time that Christmas snapshot appeared in my mind’s eye, I felt uneasy and confused.
The answer came to me just before dinner. As I watched my young children playing on the living room floor, my daughter whacked my son with a pillow. He fell hard onto his back, hitting his head on the carpet with an audible thud. I braced myself for screaming, but instead, I heard a roar of laughter. My son thought it was funny, my daughter found it hilarious, and they made a game of it, repeating it five or six more times before I intervened to encourage less violent activity.
A house full of laughter, I thought. A loving family enjoying one another. Young children relishing simple pleasures with a degree of freedom only children can know. That’s what bothers me.
The photo on Doris’s wall was a still frame of my current stage of life. Those were my children. That was my living room and Christmas tree. I’m married to Doris. Though we have a pretty great life together, filled with one blessing after another worth capturing on film, I was made painfully aware that a day will come when the last picture will be hung. If I’m as fortunate as anyone can be, I’ll breathe my last as an old man on a hospital bed in the back of my daughter’s house, staring at photos of a past I can never get back. They’re already slipping away from me. Four decades of precious moments are gone forever. Eventually, time won’t allow for new ones.