When I was fourteen, and just beginning to show the worst symptoms of bipolar depression, I experienced the death of someone close to me for the first time.
I still remember when my mother came into my room to tell me Nana (my mother’s mother) had died, from pneumonia she had contracted because the steroids she needed to be on to keep her autoimmune disorders (including lupus, among other things) in remission, had destroyed her immune system. It was also the first time I truly understood the meaning of the phrase, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” as ultimately, it was the medications that kept her alive that killed her.
My memory of that event is different than most of the memories before that, in that I remember seeing myself from the door to my room, as my mom came in and told me the news, that Nana had died, and watching myself shrink away from my mother and curl up around the scruffy and worn long-eared rabbit that Nana had given me a decade before then. It was then I began to understand grief (for someone else, I had dealt with a different kind of grief secretly on an ongoing basis for the last few years at that point following several severe sexual brutalizations), this grief seemed more acute than any feeling I’d ever experienced before. The grief was so strong, that I feel it now still, in my eyes welling up with tears as I recall, in the feeling like a ball of iron is weighing down my gut, pulling on the bottom of my rib cage…
I started a photography class at a local college a few weeks ago, and instead of checking out a camera from the school a few days at a time, I remembered a recent offer from my mom for her to give me a 35mm camera. I thought she was referring to the Canon that mom had used in college herself and that, when I was deemed responsible enough with the almost-disposable cheap snapshot camera I’d been given around age 5 when I showed interest in shooting pictures, I was allowed to borrow mom’s hallowed Canon.
The idea excited me. This whole class excites me, really. It had been so long since I worked with film, I’d forgotten how thrilling it used to be to me to hoard each exposure for *just* the right moment, because each roll of film and each print had to be begged for following endless hours of chores, and every exposure was priceless. But I digress.
I was wrong. I went out to mom’s for dinner after talking to her, she was tickled pink that I came to visit. As I was getting ready to go, she brought out the camera. It wasn’t the Canon.
The camera she brought out was a mid-80’s Minolta, a nice 35mm SLR that is IDEAL for the work I’m doing for the next three quarters for the film portions of my photography classes. As she opened the case to show me, she said the camera had been Nana’s, that Nana bought it right before she started to get really sick, and had used it on her travels to see states she’d not visited before now that she was permanently retired from the hospital where she’d been an RN for close to four decades. Mom said that it had been sitting in storage since Nana had started getting sick in ’88, that other than two or three times mom and the other kids had taken it out to check on it, it hadn’t been handled, and that it hadn’t been used.
I’ve been using it the last couple weeks. Ineptly, because it’s been a little over two decades since I last shot film, but I’m anxiously awaiting my shot at checking out a canister and developing this first roll tomorrow. Digressing again…
Tonight, just a short while ago, I went to clean off the dust that has been on the lens this whole time with a few cotton swabs and some rubbing alcohol, since I’d accidentally touched the surface today and left a fingerprint. I swabbed the surface gently, switching swabs as soon as they started to leave lint behind. When it seemed as clean as it would get, and it dried, I held it to the light to check the job I’d done. Despite my work, a fingerprint still clearly reflected.
What the fuck?! was my first thought – how can that be? Until I realized, the fingerprint is on the *other side*. It wasn’t a lens surface I’d cleaned, but only a filter left screwed on the lens to protect it. I unscrewed the filter to clean it, and then it struck me, hard.
This was the last remaining fingerprint that Nana left behind.
I almost looked for a box to save the filter, but I’m trying to work hard on not hoarding shit anymore (and keeping this would be a step backward on a moderately serious problem I have in that direction). I would have taken a picture, if I had the right lights necessary to show its reflection on the filter’s glass, but I don’t, and so I didn’t. And really, it seems to me that the purpose of death for me, as someone left behind, and of grief, is to learn to let go.
And so I let go, and gently swabbed the last traces of my maternal grandmother from the only thing of hers that I still own. I wonder who will miss me when I go, like I miss Nana now — even though she’s been gone for most of my life.
I spend a lot of time reflecting on ideas for what legacy I hope to leave behind, especially since I have no children and plan to keep it that way (for many very good reasons – a discussion for later). What fingerprint will I leave behind for decades after my death? And who will be there to find it?