“Did you get photos?” my friend Elizabeth inevitably asked whenever I told her about an interesting or beautiful event in my life. More often than not, I’d have to make some lame excuse about why I didn’t have my camera with me or hadn’t pulled my phone from my pocket.
I’m a competent photographer—had to be through all those years as a small-town journalist. But I’m neither brilliant nor passionate about the art. I’d rather enjoy the work of photographers who are both.
Elizabeth and I were polar opposites when it came to photography. I use photos to illustrate my writing. Her writing was about her photography. She claimed she was merely an amateur with the camera, but she had it with her at all times. Even after her eyesight dimmed, she persisted, setting her Canon A710 IS on automatic, pointing and clicking. Then she’d pass the camera to me (or, I assume, to whomever was with her) so I could assess the image and tell her whether she needed to try again.
One of the hardest parts of aging is letting go. Letting go of people who die ahead of us; letting go of physical abilities: mobility, the senses, a pain-free existence; letting go of activities that give us joy and express our creativity. We never discussed it, but I knew Elizabeth had reached the threshold of letting go when she no longer carried her camera. By the time she celebrated her hundredth birthday last July, she’d let go of so very much.
Last week her longtime friend Marsha and I sat at Elizabeth’s bedside during the final hour of her life. I sang some of the old hymns that Elizabeth and I’d been singing together over the last couple months. She’d amazed me by remembering all the verses of any hymn we sang. On that last morning, as her breathing became erratic, she no longer sang. I’m not sure she could even hear me sing, but her spirit did.
“I believe my favorite hymn is ‘This is my Father’s world,’” Marsha commented. I began to sing it. Somewhere around the “music of the spheres,” Elizabeth entered that place of deepest peace. After Marsha and I shared a few prayers, after the funeral home collected the body, I stepped outside into a glorious autumn day. There is a reason that this is the season of “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead), All Saints, Hallowed Evening (Halloween). Autumn is a fine time to die. That fall palette of reds, golds, yellows, bronzes, oranges, and on, and on, are creation’s promise to us. Leaves and grasses shimmer brilliantly before they let go, becoming part of the cycle that is eternal life.
For once, my camera was in my car. I spent the afternoon driving up and down the valley, looping back and forth, past orchards, over the river, through town, stopping with each new burst of color, breathing the redolent smells of apple harvest, the even deeper essence of Mother Earth enriching herself.
Yes, Elizabeth, my friend. I got a few photos.