Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What the Profile Picture Doesn't Tell: Facing Grief, Finding Joy

by Beth Saadati
A picture may be worth a thousand words,
but it seldom tells the whole story.

On July 1st Mary Denman arrives. For twenty-one years I’ve avoided professional pictures, but now I need head shots—for a radio interview, for business cards, for a blog. I apologize in advance and warn Mary this might be hard.

Hard because I don’t photograph well. Because I’ve never figured out how to pose. Because nothing about “say cheese” comes natural to me. Because, after four years of braces, my lower jaw decided to grow and when I smile big it sticks out and, as my son says, my eyes “go Chinese.” 

Mary smiles and tells me to relax. “I’ll get the pictures you need,” she says. “Plus a couple for your husband to put on his desk.”

I keep secret the main reason I’ve dreaded today, however, although I think Mary might know. My daughter, Jenna, should be a high school senior. Mary ought to be photographing her.

I imagine Jenna standing in my place. Smiling. Posing. Radiant. Glowing. Instead, it’s me who’s left, with a story I wish I had no reason to share. The twisting in my gut reminds me of how much I hate suicide.

Mary suggests we start outside on the back patio. She motions to a bench, and I sit. She puts me at ease, snaps away, speaks kind words. But I can feel my forced smile, my dull eyes, and I’m sure that even the most gifted photographer can’t capture joy that isn’t there.

Next we move to the steps. They’re marked with my husband’s footprints and coated in South Carolina’s staining red clay. I sit against the twisted-iron rail anyway.

“Just be yourself,” Mary says. I loosen up and lean back. The railing wobbles. It’s broken, so I smile—a genuine grin—picturing what the photo would look like if it were to give. Mary captures the moment.

Afterwards, following a quick change of clothes, Mary motions me to the opposite sun-rotten bench. As I sit, I remember being in the same place nearly three years ago.

“Jenna,” I’d called, “could you take a picture for me?”

Gently I placed my new Nikon in her hands, slung the strap around her neck, showed her how to auto-focus the camera. I smiled at her, my effervescent 14-year-old girl, while she pressed the button.

“I’ve taken three, Mom. Is that enough?”