Two years ago, and I can’t even believe it was two years ago, I was fixing to photograph my dad’s 50th high school reunion. I couldn’t believe it. I was panicked about it and even tried to wiggle out of it but he said firmly, “We want you. If we wanted someone else, we would have hired someone else.” In true dream team fashion, my sister was hired to DJ the event. My mom was my dad’s date. Perfection, right? All of this before heinous talk of pandemics and human rights, although maybe it’s never too early to have those heinous talks, I think. I booked a swanky hotel suite. I was exhausted after the event but I enjoyed at least 10 hours in that swanky hotel suite.
When I was very young, I was afraid of him. He had a Darth Vader voice (really a nice, deep James Earl Jones voice) and I had just lost my father probably not long after seeing Star Wars. My dad brought us M&Ms because he was falling in love with my mom, and falling in love with her two grieving girls as well. My dad had lost his wife to cancer, with two extremely grieving young boys and a baby girl still in her infancy. We were all a hot mess, weren’t we? And we weren’t an easy bunch, by any means. I believe we still aren’t an easy bunch, but we try to grow together and not apart. It’s hard with life and pandemics and emotions, but it isn’t impossible.
My dad is a deep-feeling, open-minded man and over the years, and even today (for me, anyway), we can still be crusted over from grief and defensiveness and fear and anger and God knows what else. I think we’re more alike than we ever knew back then, and it’s fun to figure it out all these years later, and growing. He turns 70 today, which is old when you’re young, and young when you’re old. My grandparents were around 70 when I was born, and they still had three decades of life in them. Both of my dad’s parents passed away in 2018. Grandma Helen passed May 24th at age 92 and Poppa Jo passed on June 16th at age 94. As my dad said, their love was so strong they refused to be apart. I get comforted by the longevity on both sides.
When I photographed his reunion, which I had been slightly dreading – only because of anxiety and a long drive to the most populated part of the US (or close to it) and the actual real-time photographing – I was bowled over by the experience. All of the classmates were now in their 60s but you could see their spark and joy and youth. I could see how loved my dad had been in high school, and still very much is. And in those few hours, I felt chosen. He was proud of me, and I was proud of him. I think we learned more about each other that weekend than in years of the mix of family and growth and school and work and drama. It’s a choice, and an opportunity.
The horrors of the pandemic are obvious and deep-rooted, grabbing lives and sanities and livelihoods. And the horrors of the way we keep each other “safe” are also obvious and deep-rooted, grabbing milestones and experiences and emotions. We used to gather at the farm, several times a year, but I haven’t seen my dad since December. I know we will all gather again.
I once wrote of my father, and not my dad, that losing him to an early sudden death when I was three has and is leading to a lifetime of puzzle pieces. I’m always trying to piece together who he was, who he could have been, and who I am and will be, because of him. So, what an absolute gift to be able to do that with my dad in real time, and with his participation and love. I’m putting together who he was, who he is, and how lucky and more whole I am to have known him; to know him still. We hopefully have much more time to put these puzzle pieces together.