A moment in time, so difficult to hold on to. Even more difficult to let go.
The desk in my father's office has for the last 25 years had a photo of my youngest sister wearing a ridiculous headband, when she was about 9 months old. School photos came and went, but this one photo never left his desk. I could never understand Dad's attachment to this one photo above all others; it wasn't the finest photo ever taken of Sarah, even amongst her baby photos there were plenty that were better lit and composed, and yet there was no doubt that it was always his favourite photo of her. Like so many other things in my relationship with my Dad, it wasn't until I had children of my own that I could understand what that photo possibly represented: a moment in time, and a sense of loss.
In a world where digital photography is so ubiquitous it's already hard to remember the way that we used to think about photographs. For starters, photographs were finite. Twenty-four chances to record the world around you, with no guarantee that when you finally processed your film, perhaps weeks or months later, that you'd get anything better than poorly focused or overexposed facsimiles of the event you wanted to preserve. The difficulty of capturing a Kodak Moment was a challenge all of its own; so many of the memories that we hung onto were associated with photos that would turn off even the most ardent fan of Instagram filters. Ultimately, the power of even a bad photo can be overwhelming when you're trying to remember more about a time than a place.
New parents with stacks of photos of their newborns aren’t just a cliché. Almost every parent goes through the phase of wanting to share every detail of their baby's life with anyone who will listen. It's even harder to avoid this today, as your friends’ social media becomes clogged with an unending stream of baby photos and every parent’s phone contains a gallery that would have previously required a dozen photo albums to be hefted around. I wonder sometimes if being flooded with photos and videos of our kids means that it's now too hard to find those special ones that sum up those magical points in time. Looking through thousands of photos means that we see our kids grow up through a roughly cut stop-motion video rather than the quantum leaps that you make when there are only a few dozen photos taken in a year.
When you see the stark changes in your children laid out before you, you realise that every time they reach a new developmental goal you lose a part of them forever, a part that you may have loved more than any other. Gummy smiles give way to toothy grins, then to full smiles, which then start falling out again, and all along the way you are excited about the changes, but you miss what you had. No-one seriously wants to freeze their kids at a point in time and never see them change, but it's hard to accept that the little person that you loved so completely is going away forever, no matter how wonderful they're about to become.
For me, it wasn't a photo that bought about realisation of how much we lose as our kids age, but a grainy 30-second video that I shot with our first digital camera. My son was not yet two, but was obsessed with Toy Story. Every day after lunch he'd want to watch it as he drifted off to sleep on the couch for his mid-day nap, and every afternoon when he awoke he'd want to watch it again because he'd missed the ending the first time around. My wife and I truly came to believe that we had seen Toy Story more times than anyone at Pixar, and yet Buster Boy could not get enough of it. Every day Buster Boy would grab the Toy Story DVD cover, wander over to one of us and ask, with a single word, if he could watch it. It was only a few months ago, having randomly found this video in our iPhoto library that I was reminded of exactly what he would do, and exactly what he would say, ‘Woo-dee?’
It broke my heart. I was sad because I had almost forgotten the sweet lilting voice of my eighteen-month-old son and the earnest way that he would ask to see Woody on the TV. It also made me keenly aware that even with this video snippet to remind me, I could never spend another moment with that little boy exactly as he was.
It was not too long after I found the video of Buster Boy that my mind wandered to the photo on Dad's desk. It was remarkable that I had any siblings at all, there's a nine-year gap between me and my first sister, Lisa, and another two years to the second, Sarah, and after Sarah was born there was no chance of another baby coming along. When the headband photo was taken, the last baby that would ever be a part of my parents' life was disappearing; she was growing up. For my part, the images of the night that the photo of Sarah was taken have been burnt into my memory. I can't remember who took the photo, or whether the headband was put on our baby sister by me, or someone else, but I can remember that we laughed, all of us, as though there'd never been a more hilarious moment. I wonder if Dad remembers the laughter, or misses his baby girl, or simply thinks that the goofy photo of his youngest child is still funny.
Every parent is told that at some point you have to let your kids go, nobody tells you you'll have to do it a thousand times before they even leave home.