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?”
“Snap a few more, Jenna,” I said, “just to make sure there’s a good one. I’m ready to change my Facebook photo—to replace the one that’s five years old.”
Shrugging her shoulders, she sighed, obeyed, then set down the camera and ran off to write.
As Mary shoots, I wonder if I’ll have enough courage to let go of the photo Jenna took.
“Look over there,” she tenderly says. “Think of Jenna. No one will see this photo. It’s just for you.”
I remember, but no tears come. There were plenty in private earlier this morning. I’m guessing they’re all dried up.
But Mary’s aren’t. She shoots the photos, then lowers her camera as tears for me slide down her cheeks.
Finally we finish then return inside. Mary flips through the pictures she’s taken and assures me there are enough decent ones for what I need. Relieved, I breathe.
We stand at the front door and gaze at my lawn. It looks like a meadow.
“Once I took pictures of Cindy Sproles lying in the grass,” says Mary. “They turned out great.”
Cindy. The director of a writers’ conference I attended, the author of Mercy’s Rain. Recalling the photos, I turn towards Mary.
“Could we?” After all she’s done, I scold myself for daring to ask.
Without hesitation, she answers. “Let’s do it.”
Having spent a lifetime avoiding cameras, I can’t believe I suggested this. Maybe it’s because it resonates with the kid in me who never fully grew up.
Settling myself on the unmown lawn, I extend my legs and make myself comfortable. That’s when I realize the mistake I’ve made.
Fifteen feet in front of me looms the giant oak—the tree Jenna stood beside for her Facebook photo. I remember her there—see her barely seven-year-old brother videoing her with the flip camera a week before her unforeseen death—and my heartbeat quickens.
Then I remember the cul-de-sac, where she took her final breath, is less than two hundred yards behind me. I don’t think I can go through with this.
Preparing to say I’ve changed my mind, I glance at Mary. Wearing a lovely red and white sundress, she’s on her stomach, stretched out atop my unkempt yard, determined to get this photo.
I shake my head in disbelief. Because Mary is choosing to be more than a photographer. She’s selflessly choosing to be a friend and enter into my mess.
At that moment I see beautiful story—a healing balm to the bittersweet. And then I laugh inside, because the unexpected sight is crazy-filled fun.
My eyes light up, I smile, and Mary captures it—the picture for Speak Up radio, the picture for the blog, the picture for a new Facebook profile photo.
A photo that reminds me there’s hope.