Unmeaning Flattery

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A Bad Seem

Sunday 11/19/2006 9:10 PM

Within a few days of Chauncey passing, Shannon asked me a curious question. I had been telling her about Candy and I staying up all night crying on the bathroom floor with our boy. Shannon asked me if I took a picture of Chaunce after he died.

I instantly responded, "No."

Later, I wondered why it was that in the seven or eight hours of time we spent on the cold tile floor with The Old Man, I never seriously contemplated snapping a picture of him. To you, the answer might be obvious, but not to me. Never one to let convention keep me from doing something that I feel like doing, I've always followed my heart, for better or worse. So the seemingly simple answer at the time was the purest of all explanations: I didn't want to. Of that I was sure.

I suspected there was a deeper why, but sometimes words fail us. So I left it at that, at least for a while. Little did I know that I'd find inspiration for the words to explain my conviction from the most unlikely of sources: Alan Alda.

Postmortem photography was common practice in the 19th century. After a loved one died, surviving family and friends would dress and pose the body for a final portrait. If you have seen The Others, this isn't the first time you've heard of this practice, but it might surprise you how prevalent it was. While some people would probably think it seems like the height of morbidity today and more akin to paganism, Satanism or some type of fringe death cult, they probably have no idea how common it was for moral, God-fearing Christians to make careful plans and preparations for these treasured photos.

One of the common theories seeking to explain what is also referred to as memorial photography is the high rate of infant mortality at the time. Because a significant percentage of children were dying at early ages, the argument goes, often the only image parents had of their child was this saddest of snapshots. I think it's more than that, though.

You might think that postmortem photography was a strange practice unique to 19th century America, and therefore can only be truly understood by people of that era. But we had been doing essentially the same thing for centuries prior, in many different societies around the world. Though they lacked even the crudest of cameras, in ancient times people still sought to capture the fleeting visage of the dearly departed. Hence, the death mask, a plaster cast of the face of the recently deceased. Even though the weight of plaster slightly distorted the familiar features, it was better than the alternative: Hoping that years after their death that the memories of the long since gone will maintain the same crisp bittersweetness of the day they first went away.

Some Native Americans believed that cameras could steal souls and, if you think about it, there is some truth to that. And in that truth, some magic, some hope. In the 19th century, I believe it was the hope that you could capture even a sliver of your loved one's soul that fueled the rise and popularity of memorial photography. Taking pictures back then, remember, was no easy feat. First, because people did not own cameras, they were forced to hire photographers (if any were available) to create the family portrait. Then, once the camera man showed up, they and their family had to remain still for minutes at a time. What you don't see in your PBS documentaries or History Channel programs are the countless bad takes where someone sneezed or a child couldn't stay still.

Not everyone got their picture taken back then, and some adults went their whole life without ever being memorialized in sepiatone. So their death portrait was the only opportunity to save their likeness, to help people remember them. But even if other, earlier pictures existed, it was the timeliness of it all. Because photo sessions were so rare, it could have easily been many years since their last portrait. So the other reason, I believe, for the popularity of postmortem photography was so you could remember them not how they were when they died, but how they were just before they died.

These days, you'll see people pull out photos of grandma or grandpa sitting up in their hospital bed. For others, it'll be Polaroids from that last vacation with their parents before the dementia completely kicked in. Or the close-cropped image of a weakly smiling child who is conspicuously (and self-consciously) bald from the weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, which might have bought her parents a few extra months before they become the lonely couple sad all the time who lost their daughter to such a terrible disease.

Today, with the advent of cheap, casual photography, we can create these memory aids on a whim. So the thought of intentionally taking a photo after death must seem nothing short of sick. Because you could have chosen to take a picture before they died, people must reason, why would you want to take a picture of them after they died?

So now we come to Alan Alda. Almost two years after I chose not to take a picture of Chauncey as he lay dead before us, I was watching Hardball on MSNBC and in the last segment, Chris Matthews interviewed Alan Alda. Alda was promoting his most recent book, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned. When he was a boy, after Alan Alda's family dog died, his parents took it a taxidermist. For years after, they still had the family dog, stuffed in their living room for all to see.

I haven't read the book, but based on what he said on TV that day, Alda uses the story as a metaphor for letting go. When you're done with something, he suggests, don't cling. Instead, move on. Like the last line of that letter Laurie Anderson sings about: "Burn this."

In the interview with Chris Matthews, Alda shared a telling story. While visiting stores on his book tour, a distant cousin of his showed up at one of Alda's appearances. She gave him a photo of his dog from when it had been alive. The moment he saw the picture, he knew he had been right to title his book the way he did because there was more life in that decades-old snapshot than the years of living with the stuffed version of his dog had ever provided. Worse than that, though, he realized by looking at that photo, over the course of time, all he had come to remember was the stuffed dog. That taxidermist did more than just try to preserve the unpreservable. By returning his Frankenstein creation back to its family, he had unknowingly begun a process that eventually replaced most (if not all) of Alan Alda's memories of his dog from when it had been alive.

I agree with everything Alda said, but I think it all also has something to do with the uncanny valley as well. In robotics, the uncanny valley refers to the point at which human-like androids become recognizable enough to be obviously similar to us, but still different enough in subtle ways that we feel uncomfortable with them. This explains why we can smile when we see C-3PO from Star Wars, but get creeped out by the more human-like automatons at Disney World, like you'll find in The Hall of Presidents or Pirates of the Caribbean.

In some respects, I think that both postmortem photography and death masks of old suffer from the uncanny valley, in that we can often pick up on the subtleties of death even if we can't point our fingers at them. That missing gleam in the eye or unnaturally smooth muscle tone can make such a difference, signaling to our brain on some lower level that what we're looking at is not alive.

Until a week ago, if you had asked me what particular things I remembered about the way Chauncey looked on the bathroom floor that night, the only thing I would have said was that he looked dead and left it at that as I proceeded to scratch your name out of my address book for even asking such a question in the first place. But last weekend something happened that startled me. Something happened that would cause me to give you a different answer if you asked me that question today.

Candy and I were sitting at the kitchen table. Argus was lying on the floor next to us, while Sheriff was to my left, behind me in the hall asleep. For no reason in particular I glanced back at him. And I saw it. In that instant, I remembered. And my heart leapt to my throat.

Today if you were to ask me if there is anything I remember about Chaunce from that night he slept on the floor of our house for the last time, I would tell you about his eyes. How they were closed. How they were shut too hard. I would tell you about how beautiful he always slept, and how those bad seams closing his eyes for the last were the cruelest things I'd ever seen.

I know how it must have happened. I've written about it before, so there is no need to re-tell the whole story. Suffice it to say, the force with which he died, striking his head against the bathroom door as his body straightened out, must have been such a blow — a shock — that he involuntarily flinched, clenching his eyes shut as he wandered beyond our reach that last time.

It is because of his eyes that I never wanted to take a picture. Like Alan Alda's dog and those robots at Disney that make my skin crawl, I didn't want to remember the Almost Chauncey, the simulacrum cancer that would eat away my memories of him.

But when I saw that bad seam of Sheriff's clenched eyelid on the hallway floor the Saturday before last, not a dozen feet from where Chauncey passed away, I knew I remembered. And I knew what it meant. Sheriff was gone now too. He had slipped away right in front of us and we never even realized it. Not with a bang like The Red Dog, but without even a whimper. Like when you look away for a moment and then it's gone.

I called out, "Candy! Sheriff!" as I turned in my chair, dropping to the floor to cradle The Black and Tan for the last time. In that moment of freefall, I was already accepting the reality of us going back to being a one dog house and wondered how Argus would handle it. I worried how Candy would react and remembered our days, our weeks, our months of mourning. I wondered how long I'd have to wait for The Old Dog to get cremated and how the top of that dresser was going to be uncomfortably full with two urns on it now.

All of this and more ran through me, cut through me, like a giant drill bit spinning in my gut.

As Candy rose from her chair, eyes wide with panic, I reached out for Sheriff just as he woke from his slumber. He lifted his head, lowered his ears and welcomed my out-stretched hand. I'm sure he never understood the smile on my face or why I stroked him so fervently.

Slowly, the static pink noise volume of blood pumping through my ears quieted and, after a few more minutes, we went back to our lives.

If memory serves correct, this is John Davis' birthday. He and I were friends for years, but drifted apart in our mid-twenties. John, if you're reading this, gimme a ring or drop me a note, OK? Maybe you'll Google your name sometime and find this message. Years from now perhaps. Love ya, man.

File Under: Birthday; Chauncey; Death; Sheriff; Writing Sample
Music: Various Artists "Desert Blues"

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