The pictures are from my seventh birthday and they make me cry. My mother found them the other day and originally thought they were from my fifth birthday, so she labeled the one she posted on Facebook that way. I looked at it and thought that was the last birthday I had while my father was alive. But I didn’t remember my father there for that birthday, and he’s not in any of the pictures. (Neither is my mom, but she’s rarely in the pictures — she took most of them.) Later my mother decided it was actually my seventh birthday (perhaps the label on the pictures tipped her off—they are labeled 5TH BIRTHDAY, but someone crossed out the 5 and replaced it with a 7), and then I thought that is a birthday when my father was dead.
It’s a little ridiculous that my reaction to the photos has nothing to do with me and everything to do with my father. In fact it was a wonderful birthday. Three friends came and got along, and we had a magician, a medical school classmate of my mom’s who did magic on the side. He pulled things from our ears and made them disappear, and to this day I’ve never seen a better magic show, maybe because that one was so small and happened right in front of our eyes. It was a good birthday, as all my birthdays but my sixth were, and my mother made it happen. But it’s hard now for me to look at any picture of my childhood and not measure it against my father’s presence or absence.
In a few short months my son will be five-and-a-half, the age I was when my father died. It’s like a clock counting down to that date, and the closer it gets the more I expect something awful to happen, though that makes no more sense. But I can’t help but look at him and wonder what he knows, what he remembers, what he will remember of this time.
The worst thing anyone has ever said to me is that it must not matter so much that my father died because I was too young when he died to remember him. Multiple people have said this to me, people who apparently remember nothing of being three and four and five. I pity them. I have so many memories of my father and of that time. I remember fishing for leaves with him off the limestone wall that marked the border of the college where he taught. In my memories it is always autumn there, as is appropriate for a small liberal arts college with old brick and stone buildings. My father always wears a long sleeves and a coat and tie and smokes a pipe, just like a professor in a book or a movie. I remember riding in the way back of the station wagon with my friend and my father saying pollylops and ephelants and giving us the mayonnaise jar full of peppermints and lemon drops, as many as we wanted, and we always wanted some of each. I remember watching tennis on television with my father as he sat in his Swedish modern chair, his pipe rack by his side and the black and white TV balanced on an end table across from his chair. Don’t ever tell me I do not remember him.
The first photo ever taken of me is actually a photo of my father. He is carrying me out of the hospital on a snowy night. My mother walks a few feet behind him. For years I assumed she must have taken the photo until the day I realized the dim figure in the background was her. It’s hard not to read that photo as symbolic: my life has been defined by my father, while my mother, who did all the work, is relegated to the background. If I were to stage a photo of how my life has actually been, my mother would be carrying me proudly, and my father would be a dim shadowy figure lowering behind. But that’s not the photo that was taken, by whomever took it — my grandmother? — and even though my photo is truer to my life, the actual photo has had its influence.
It’s hard for me not to imagine how my life might have gone if my father had lived. I know my parents would have divorced. I know in reality I would have grown up to argue with my father horribly, for he was, as one of his students described him to me, a Neanderthal in his beliefs (though I hear perhaps the Neanderthals were more advanced than we are). But it’s hard not to imagine the good times, the things we would have shared. Perhaps I would have grown up to love watching tennis and football. Perhaps we would have done translations together. Perhaps I would have applied myself more under his eye.
It’s no good to speculate, but it’s hard not to. In the meantime, the photos watch me watching them, daring me to look and see.