Remember: Inside the Dark Room
Thoughts fragmenting, snips of images as if I’ve taken scissors to a scrapbook: the funeral at St. Philip’s, lines of relatives dressed in black with bowed heads. I recall the days before my grandmother’s funeral more than I remember the ceremony that afternoon in the white hospital room blazes brightly.
My grandma had always been a vivacious woman. Her rosy cheeks and “child-bearing” hips were testament to her Danish love for bread, butter, and Spritz Christmas cookies. She had already survived breast cancer, but the lung cancer was more persistent, and her husband, my grandpa, had just died less than a year before. She was more alone than she’d ever been; she was more outspoken than I’d ever heard. But the fight within her succumbed to the squeezing of her lungs. We were all there during Thanksgiving break—my aunts and uncles and cousins–when things got bad.
Her internal organs were failing. A last-minute resuscitation did help bring her some relief, but it was temporary. By the next morning, the doctors and nurses and people with medical knowledge had decided that it was time. I was sixteen. Mostly, I remember flashes: the white walls, the tones of voice, my sweaty hands on my camera.
“Your assignment for this Thanksgiving holiday is to document what happens,” my photography teacher had explained. “Capture moments of family, but not in the typical way.”
I don’t know why I had decided to bring my camera to the hospital. I adjusted the shutter speed, the F-stop, accounting for the glare of lighting. I raised my camera slowly and snapped a photo of the machines that were hooked up to Grandma. The click pricked the ears of my Uncle and Aunt; both turned to look at me. I tried to explain, I don’t recall how. Justifications about wanting to remember what I could about this moment; the words were muddled and left unheard.
I backed toward the door and pressed my finger to the button again, freezing the profiles of my family on film. I angled the lens toward Grandma. She hadn’t died yet, but she was gone. I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help it. I snuck one photo of her, lying there, in the bed. I captured the moment, watching what was happening through my lens. Removed. I was trying to make something permanent in this place where everything was slipping away. My dad turned toward me;
“Put the camera away.”
I remember that morning as if watching it through a porch screen–people moving inside the gauzy memory. I see me, gangly and tall with my camera in my hands. It was my first time being so close to the unknown; I was waiting in a place where death was about to visit. It had to be captured, the liminal space between living and dying.
I hadn’t taken into account that my family wouldn’t want that memory photographed, most of all my grandmother. She hated photos of herself. I remember her frozen smile when someone would present her a Kodak envelope. Thumbing through the shiny paper, she was searching, until she found one herself. She’d remove it from the stack, hold the picture as if to admire it, and before anyone had a moment to react, she ripped it in half. Chuckling, victorious, she’d outsmarted the photographer once again. Her life was lived in real-time: clean, prepare, cook, eat, repeat, the wife of a Air Force Surgeon. Perhaps she didn’t like what she saw when a photograph showed her what life looked like, paused.
The photos I took during that Thanksgiving holiday never saw light. Consider it my Grandma’s last desire. The photos were all on one roll of film, 28 shots. Upon returning to school, I went to the dark room. I rewound the film, popped open my camera and took out the small scroll. Grabbing the jug of developing fluid, I wound the film into its canister and poured the chemicals inside: developing liquid, rest, drain, fixing liquid, rest. The smell of yeast and vinegar. Sealing the container for the final bath, I looked back at the jugs of fluid on the shelf, and my head began to spin in the fumes, and my heartbeat slowed. I had made a mistake.
I’d poured in the wrong developing liquid. In two years of photo class, it was the only time I’d ever incorrectly developed my film. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I finished the process, doing my final rinse in the canister. I walked into the dark room, a two foot hole in the wall with one red light and snaking negatives clipped up, drying. Opening the canister, I unrolled the film and held it up to the light. The negatives were practically ruined, each square a cloudy gray.
In each frame, I could make out hints of silhouettes: the machine with tentacles possibly, my uncle’s nose looking down, a mountain of sheets that wrapped Grandma. The negatives would never turn into prints that I could hold, that I could look at to remember. They would never have life. I tried to burn the images into my own memory, hoping they would stay there. After a few minutes, I threw out the film and stepped out into the blinding classroom; the light hit my eyes, and I could already feel the images of the negatives fading in my mind, as if burned away by the brightness.
The memory of me, tucked into that corner with the red light, has stayed with me, as has the feel of that long tongue of gray-black negatives. I can still see the faint lines of the machines in that hospital room; I can still hear my father telling me to put the camera away. It’s been over ten years. I clutch for remnants of those memories, but there’s very little left to hold onto.