One afternoon recently I found myself staring down at an email that appeared in my inbox with a simple question that required a yes or no answer: “Do you have any photos of you with your dad?” But that question is a loaded one.
That question is heavy. And that question hurts.
The truth is there are very few photos of us. I mean, we have a couple of posed family pics. There are some vacation photos and special occasion shots, images where we were dressed to the nines — i.e., images where my father was sporting a fitted suit and I was in a poofy Communion dress or a deep green Christmas dress.
But there aren’t many because he was always behind the scenes. My father was always the one behind the lens.
And while I didn’t notice his “absence” when I was growing up, as the years pass, I regret those missing memories more and more.
My father died when I was 12 years old, and I can barely remember the color of his eyes or the shape of his face.
Did my head reach his armpit? Could I fit in the crook of his neck, just beneath his salt-and-pepper beard? Or was I smaller? Has time skewed my memory that much?
And every day it gets worse. As the 20th anniversary of his death approaches, I find myself mourning the pictures we never took, and the frames we never filled, because he was too busy capturing the moment — because he didn’t want to be in it. Or because the pictures I long for are from days he never saw and are of memories we never made.
Prom. Graduation. My wedding day. My daughter’s birthday.
It hurts, and it is hard.
Because the man who had a larger-than-life personality, who taught me how to ride a bike and burp the alphabet, who kissed my boo-boos, the man who poured my cereal and made a mean strip steak — he is fading from my memory.
The man I called “Dad” is nothing more than a shadow in my mind, and the handful of photos I have — the ones I keep in a fireproof box — seem so meager compared to the space he held. Compared to the man he was.
The idea that 39 years can disappear so swiftly, and so easily, scares me. It scared me when I was a teenager, and it scares me even more today as a mother and wife.
So I take pictures of everything and anything. I snap at least a dozen shots each day.
However, when I look back at my daughter’s first year, a year that is missing from my memory thanks to sleep deprivation and a terrible bout of postpartum depression, I notice a similar trend in my own family’s photos: I am often missing. I am the disembodied voice in videos. I am the face just beyond the picture’s frame. I am that off-camera entity.
I didn’t plan to be — I didn’t mean to be — but it happened.
I don’t want to be that “missing” face in my daughter’s life. I don’t want her to forget my crazy hair colors, my graphic tees, or my colorful leggings. I don’t want her to wonder if Mommy had a mustache — I do, in fact, and she loves to comb it — or bushy brows. And I don’t want her to long for something she can never fix.
For a space, and a memory, that she can never fill.
That said, I have to admit I’m conflicted, because while I long for photos of my father, it is the memories that matter. And I often wonder if my obsession to capture the moment is destroying it.
I wonder if my desire to document life keeps me from truly living it. But at the end of the day, I know my camera doesn’t preclude me from doing anything, as long as I remember to put it down. As long as I look up from the screen and into my living room. As long as I remember to be in the moment and not just to document it.
So I vow — to my daughter and to myself — to make memories worth keeping. To make moments worth treasuring. To fill our frames. And to be in our pictures.
For more from Kimberly Zapata, visit Sunshine Spoils Milk.