From the hardbound book and e-book, Flame Spirals: Journey Through Nocturnal Photography
Dad's cancer has shrunk but hasn't gone away. After almost two years of awful chemotherapy, we are pretty much where we started: Dad has a bad lymphoma and he's probably going to die.
I was up in New York City for a few days photographing and attending a friend's wedding. [Major emotional highlights were the Klezmer band at Craig and Barbara's reception; the delightful and generous devotees at the Hare Krishna Bed and Breakfast in the Lower East Side; and the many Monet haystacks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.] I've just come down to Virginia for a brief visit with the folks before flying back to Arizona.
It's good and not-so-good to see Dad. I always experience some sort of internal emotional bugaboo when I'm hanging around my mother and father. All of us Jenks are judgmenta, me included—this is good, that is bad, blah, blah, blah—but my mother and father have it down to an art form. Dad's mockingly sarcastic laughter at my going to their church tonight to shoot is just one example. Mom's subtle shaming sighs of disapproval are another. God love 'em, or to Hell with 'em. See what I mean? I inherited the virus too.
Within twenty minutes, I’ve parked my rental pickup truck in a gravel parking lot of their church.
My parents' church, St. Mary's Whitechapel Episcopal Church, is just down the road near the little town of Lively, Virginia. Lively is actually just a crossroads, with a drug store, a post office, and a bar called “The Corner” that serves pretty good shrimp and really great hamburgers. The church is a few miles south of Lively at an even smaller crossroads. The church is the only thing at the corner of routes 201 and 354. It's a very small chapel that has been there since 1669. It thrived during Colonial Times, was vacant and abandoned for fifty years during Antidisestablishmentarian Times (when the Church of England was shunned by most new Americans after the Revolutionary War), was reborn in the middle 19th century, and is now an historic, financially well-endowed, little church in the middle of nowhere in Virginia.
There's no moon tonight, but there’s plenty of good light shining into the graveyard from a strong streetlight near the back of the church. The church’s sexton has apparently cut the grass today. What a delightful surprise. Large amounts of cut grass are scattered all around. I walk around the cemetery looking for just the right stone, just the right light. I find the stone and the light pretty quick. The smell of the grass is strong and pungent. We just don't have grass like this in Tucson.
I make a circle of cut grass on a tombstone. I look and find the angle, set up my Rollei, and practice making circles with my Zippo. I get the hang of it after a few minutes. I stop and take in the space: the ancient Oak trees that surround me; the graves of wealthy Colonial Virginia planters; the monuments of a movie star or two.
I open the shutter and enter the frame and begin to paint a flame circle above the grass. Cicadas sing loudly from the surrounding woods. I close the Zippo, exit the field of view, and then go for a walk around the cemetery. This is going to have to be a long exposure. Probably a half hour or more. It's a strong streetlight but it gives off less light than you think.
Up the hill, I visit the four plots for the Jenks Family. No markers or graves yet. Two huge Oak trees grow just north of the plots. I won't mind having my ashes here some day. I walk to my rental truck to check the time. Fifteen minutes have gone by. I throw in a Peter Gabriel CD and light a smoke. After 25 minutes, I get out of the car and return to the grass circle. I close the shutter and repeat the process all over again. I paint a flame circle, walk among the graves, think about my Dad, think about Death.
I didn't think about Death much until my Dad got sick, but I sure do now. I believe in some sort of Soul Survival, be it in heaven or as a part of a Great Big Sea of souls. I don't know, but I'm not scared of that. OK, maybe a little anxious but not bad. I'm in my mid-40's, still thinking that my death is a good thirty years away. But being around Dad, who seems to be getting sicker and sicker, seems to be dying more than living, and this taking-it-for-granted-that-I'll-surely-live-a-long-time-thing is leaving me a little each day. When they found his cancer, it was no bigger than a pencil point. They cut it out, but it came right back, even larger. So they cut it out again, and that just made it mad and it spread like a weed. To his lymph nodes. To his lungs. Around his heart. All over. Now it's filled most of his left lung, all in a year. And if he hadn't taken the Agent Orange Chemo, he would have been dead months ago.
It could happen to me, to you, to anyone. Cancer, that is. And Death is surely going to come to all of us one day.
But again, it's not Death or Heaven that I'm scared of. It's living an unfulfilled life, here on Planet Earth, of wasting the time I have, of not risking greater happiness for myself or larger service to others, of not fully loving those who I love and not fully receiving the love they give, of not forgiving myself when I truly fall short of the mark, of not forgiving others for their shortcomings. That’s what really terrifies me, that at perhaps age 77 I'll look back at my life with deep regret, knowing I should have eaten more ice cream, should have forgiven that friend, should have loved the imperfect Stu just a little bit more.
Then again, I could die tonight, by accidentally hitting a deer with my truck on the way back to the river, and avoid this imaginary-unhappy-old-me all together.
Nah. That won't happen.
I guess I’m going to have to eat more butter pecan, forgive that jerk Richard, and love Stu more.