With Her Final Goodbye, a Final Lesson

My mom leaving her room for the last time, guided by her trusted physical therapist, Gene Hall. 'For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.' - Paul's Second Epistle to Timothy

Although she loved most of the photographs I have made since she and my dad gave me my first camera as a Christmas gift in 1978, my mom hated photographs of herself. Over the years she did everything possible to ensure that no one, including me, pointed a camera toward her.

But recently her failing eyesight conspired with the tiny lens of my iPhone’s camera and allowed me to eek out a shot of her every now and then, and to do so in a way that I believe honored her sense of privacy.

I made the photograph above on Monday, October 18. She is on the way to physical therapy, just down the hall the little room at Carolina Village Medical Center where she spent the last seven weeks of her life. I was sitting beside her in that room when Gene Hall, her gifted therapist, came to fetch her. As Gene entered the room I let go of her hand so she could turn her attention toward him. After stepping into the hallway I turned on my iPhone’s camera and waited.

I obviously had no idea when she walked out of that room that it would be for the last time, or that she would die in her sleep four days later on the morning of her 88th birthday. Instead, I sensed only the subtle stirring inside myself that I have learned to recognize as a calling for me to bring a camera to my eye, and then to make a photograph.

This image will be my enduring eulogy to my mother. I will return to it again and again over the coming years, as I also grow old, and through it I will remember the last days I spent with her.

Her bent shoulders will remind me of her fierce determination. The reassuring touch of Gene’s hand on her back will remind me of her insecurity, sadness and unspoken need for reassurance. The slight lifting of her left foot and the little socks she wears will remind me of the times I helped her get ready for bed in the days before she died. And they will remind me that as I kneeled before her to remove those socks she was both embarrassed and quietly amused when I told her that she had pretty feet.

Finally, this last photograph of my mom will be a reminder of the lessons she taught me, including one that, though it should be obvious to a photographer of my age, I am thankful she reinforced as she walked away from me the last day I spent with her.

And that is to always, always make the picture, always respond in the affirmative to the call to photograph. It may be your last opportunity.

6 Responses to “With Her Final Goodbye, a Final Lesson”

  1. Bruce Yoder October 31, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    Stretch, how incredibly beautiful – both the photo and your words. You are a fine son as well as an accomplished photographer. Thank you for sharing this tribute to your mother.

  2. Andrea Shank November 1, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    oh Stretch. the timing of this is incredible, and it’s beautiful.

  3. Jane Daugherty November 15, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    Stretch, I’ve known you for such a short time, but this moving photograph and your narrative tells me more about you and your mother than I know about some people I’ve known for years. And that’s the essence of good journalism, isn’t it? Thank you.

  4. Ed Ledford November 29, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    Great job, Charles . . . you got it just right. Thanks for this.

    Ed

  5. April Y. January 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Thank you, Stretch, for this moving, urgent lesson from such an unassuming teacher. You share your great fortune with us all.

  6. George Armistead September 10, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    She was so proud of the two of you.

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