This happens to me for some reason. When I am most in need of rest and have a stack of “to dos” a mile high that require alertness and concentration, I find myself waking up every few hours staring at the ceiling and watching my precious minutes to sleep slip away in the eerie blue glow of my digital alarm clock. If I lay there too long unable to slide back to sleep, I just get up. Better to while away the wee hours doing something rather than just watching helplessly as they pass!
So with finals looming and an overwhelming amount of work due this week and next (let’s not even talk about my taxes!), here I am sitting at my computer when I should be fast asleep. I finally gave up and got out of bed about two hours ago, fully intending to wrap up a class assignment and finish my tax return. Instead, I found myself re-organizing the shelves in my office and finally putting the old family photos that I’ve been going through into their new archival boxes. Because that’s what one does at 3am the week before finals begin, right?!? Sometimes I exasperate even myself.
But as I carefully removed the images from 1943 of my grandmother holding her first-born from the pages of one of those horrible sticky album pages, and slid the portraits of the two-year-old version of my Mom’s oldest brother into acid free protective pockets, I had one of those quiet, profound moments where I could feel my roots deeply, that timeless and unbreakable connection to family. I never met my uncle Alan. He died at the age of 23 far from his family and friends in Vietnam, one of the 58,000 men whose name is etched on a wall in D.C.. As I put those portraits of him into the pockets, I thought about my grandparents and how proud they must have been, walking into that photographer’s studio with their son. They were young and freshly married, my grandfather finally home from the war in the Pacific. I imagine that they still had all of their dreams for their lives and for their children still intact as they held Alan’s hand and placed him in front of that camera.
It struck me that, even having never met him, I know Alan. I recognize the shape of his eyes…they are the same ones that my grandfather and my uncle Rick looked at me through. My brother, Mat, has shades of that shape as well. I’ve seen these photos a thousand times, along with the rest of the ones going into that box…the one of him with my Mom and Pam, and the one of him as an alter boy. I recognize the photos of him in his army uniform as well as those of the family accepting his posthumous bronze star. I know him, not just through stories of remembrance, but because I can picture his eyes and his smile…because of those photos I’ve seen so many times.
In my moments of doubt and self-critique, I sometimes wonder whether my decision not to practice law is one of cowardice, that maybe it’s because I’m not strong enough or brave enough to get out there and fight for those without a voice. But as I looked at the images of my family, my foundation, my roots, tonight, I was reminded of others without a voice. Ghosts whose images haunt us because a photographer, amateur or otherwise, caught them for us, so that we can’t forget, so that we have something to hang onto after the voice is silent. I’m so grateful to the photographers who kept Alan alive so that I could know him too.
I know in my depths that I’ve made the right decision. Life is so unexpected, in both blessings and hardships- to be able to capture a look, a laugh, a moment with a loved one is such a gift. I may never argue before a jury and make Atticus Finch proud, but it’s not cowardice…it’s just the call of other voices.