This is my favorite photograph of my Mother. In it, she is not looking at the camera. She is not even aware of the camera. Her face is almost entirely hidden, in fact. But those who knew her well would be able to see the smile in her cheek. I’ve given this some thought, the photographing of people not as they look toward me, toward the interruption of a moment that is my camera, my attention. But how much more meaningful it can be to capture a person as they look out into their world. In this image, we are lucky enough to see the source of the smile: my father.
It’s easy for me to imagine the moment captured here. A couple of friends in the back, open road ahead, his car freshly tuned and purring (of this I am certain), driving to a picnic and toward a bright but unknown future. Sure, I know how the story ends, and I know it ends far sooner than they could have imagined. But it seems a worthwhile exercise to look through their eyes and just enjoy this moment with them. Young people in love on a warm day with the top down. This was a good moment. Who knows, maybe in difficult times ahead this instant came to mind and brought a smile.
But it’s this smile in the picture that intrigues me. It’s not for the camera, or at a family gathering, or amid small talk at the office water cooler. It’s a smile, pure as can be, at the man she’s about to marry, at the man with whom she will soon have children, at the man who is now watching the road. The smile isn’t even for him. It just is. And I almost feel guilty for spying on it.
My mother, who outlived my father by nearly thirty years, died five years ago today. A few years earlier, I had written something for her as a Mother’s Day gift. She called me, crying, and said it was the best gift I had ever given her. By the next time I visited, she had gotten it framed and it was hanging in her bedroom. So it meant a lot to both of us, and with Mother’s Day nearly upon us, I want to share it with you. What started as a gift, is now a tribute. I call it, “Flying.”
I recently held a hummingbird in my hand. He had accidentally flown into a window and fallen, unconscious, on the ground in front of a busy doorway. He looked like nothing, upside down, his white belly close to the color of the concrete beneath. But something made me look closer, and when I picked him up he moved a bit.
I moved him away from the human traffic, and sat on a nearby bench. Alive. Stunned, but with no visible injuries. His eyes opened, and I gave him the opportunity to fly from my open hand. He politely declined, and with an invisible gesture asked for a little more time to gather his wits. I assured him – by holding my hands in a way that he was protected and secure, but could leave if he chose to – that this was now the most important thing in my day, and if he needed all day he could have it.
So we sat there. Him clearing cobwebs and me just thinking, how lucky for me to have the opportunity to hold a hummingbird in my hands. How lucky for him that I came along.
My thoughts drifted back many, many years. Back to the house I grew up in, back to an injured bird in the gutter in front of that house, and back to my Mother. A shoebox, some paper towels, a lamp. It was exciting, I thought, to have part of the natural world sitting here in a box on the dining room table. I asked her how long before the bird would be better. She was a nurse, after all. Clearly she knew how to fix a bird.
I wanted to name it.
When she told me that she wasn’t confident the bird would get better (it wouldn’t), I remember instantly distancing myself emotionally. I felt like I had dodged a bullet by being moments away from deciding on a name.
My Mother, of course, saw instantly what I was doing and we had what stands now as my Earliest Remembered Meaningful Conversation. She asked, as a nurse, what would happen if she stopped caring about patients who were not getting better? Patients who were going to die? They needed her more than ever during those times.
I was young, I don’t recall how young. And I don’t recall the words she used to express and make me understand compassion. And Lord only knows how she made it be a part of me. But that’s how it is with these things. You can’t identify how your Mother makes you who you are, exactly. But you know that she did.
And so now, on Mother’s Day, I think about how at many other moments in my life my Mother taught me. Showed me. Shaped me. Held me, protected me, and gave me room to fly away. And I hope she knows that I noticed. That I remember. That the only thing I really forget is to thank her, and for that I am sorry.