Listen to Sad Twilight by Don Byron on YouTube.
The subject line of my sister’s email to me on the anniversary of our father’s death contained his initials, followed by a question mark: RDB? The jpeg attached looked like him—sharp traces of our father embedded in a blurry surface, exaggerated fragments of his face that brought him to mind immediately: prominent nose, cheeks that were only slightly more hollow than those of his bony face, hair darker than his white hair, but thick and wavy as his had always been, and a brown suit jacket that I could almost remember seeing him wear. It was possible. And the jaunty red flower, pinned to the lapel—this was like him, too, though I couldn’t ever remember him wearing a boutonniere. But surely it wasn’t, it couldn’t be him—I was almost certain that it wasn’t him: my sister’s question mark, the background that I didn’t recognize, and most of all, my instant recognition that sending me a photograph of a stranger who looked just like our father was exactly my sister’s sort of memorial.
I called Ellen about it, asking, with a laugh, but only half-joking, “It’s not really him, is it?” It wasn’t, she said. She took the photo several years ago in Paris, having spotted this stranger at the Musée D’Orsay. She told me what she was thinking just before taking the photo: this man’s nose was too big; he was much taller than our father, he was stiff, too stiff to be him–and then, she tells me, exasperated and triumphant all at once, laughing a little through the emphatic high notes of her explanation, that “All of a sudden, I thought, well, Ellen, it’s not him. It’s not actually him.” But she took the photo anyway, for the sake, I think, of those few impossible moments of recognition, when it looked like he might have come back to life to contemplate some paintings in a museum—in a country he’d never had the chance to see.
This was what he might look like, if, for example, he’d been able to visit me when I was living in Belgium in my early twenties, how he might have dressed if we’d taken him to a museum, how he might have sat, composed and still, meditating on the art and resting his lungs. He might have waxed philosophical about what he was seeing, relating it to the ideas of one of his favorite thinkers, his voice taking on the same peculiar mix of urgency and conviction that I hear in my voice and my sister’s, when we hold forth to each other, to our loved ones, to our students. The tone I hear now, in fact, in Ellen’s voice as she tells me about this experience of seeing this almost-father and how she thought about it.
His voice would have sounded ordinary to me then. I wouldn’t have noticed the thick New York accent and the gravelly twinges of age that I was surprised to hear in the recording of my mother and me teaching him to use a computer that we’d made a year or so before his death. He had insisted on the recording, certain that it would be of help to him when we weren’t around, during future practice sessions on a machine completely foreign to him. Ellen had made several copies, carefully labeling each tape with a title: “RDB—The PC Lesson.”
About a year ago, my mother told me she had found some photographs of my father that she thought I hadn’t seen. I was about to come for a visit, and I looked forward to seeing these mystery photos. I thought I might find some new piece of my father to remember—some facial expression or piece of clothing caught on film, an unmistakable (this time) sign of some trip or event that I’d forgotten—some moment that would be given back to me in a rush of Proustian memory, some surprise gift, long after I needed it—a reward, perhaps, for surviving his death myself. But I was disappointed. I recognized all the photos as ones I’d seen many times before, photos of him, but not as the kind of forgotten memory I’d wanted to find. I thought of Roland Barthes, alone in the apartment that he’d shared with his mother, just after her death, searching for a photograph that truly showed her, and finding it. It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize something of him in those photos—of course I did—but every bit of him I recognized was some bit that stuck inexorably to the photographs themselves, adhering, now, more firmly to those glossy surfaces than to my felt memory of what the photo represented. These were the two-dimensional fathers who lived in the photographs, bounded neatly by the frames, flattened between the sleeves of brittle plastic. It’s like that even with my own pictures of him, framed soon after his death and displayed in every house I’ve lived in since. There is one in particular: he’s looking slightly upward, his face cast sharply in sun and shade at once, looking as though he’s marveling at the wonder of it all. He’s standing in front of his dilapidated boat in our overgrown, unkempt backyard. What did he have to marvel about? When I think about his life, I sometimes wonder how he found anything at all worth marveling about, and yet he did, despite how his life narrowed, despite the disappointments and finalities it accumulated, little by little. In capturing that expression, then, this photo is true in a certain way: it expresses something about him that we all remember, and for this reason, perhaps, it became an iconic photo in the mix of photos that congealed into a memorial collection in the weeks and months after his death. And yet even this photo has become less attached to my father, a sign not of his material reality, but of an abstract fact—a truth that I accept—about a man whose body and face and voice I remember less and less as more and more time passes.
I was captivated by the first page of Barthes’ Camera Lucida when I read it four years after my father’s death. I didn’t, as I remember it, think of my father as I imagined Barthes gazing into the photographed eyes of Napoleon’s brother. Yet those lines animated the idea of photography for me with a sudden jolt that was itself a kind of punctum: in the years of reading and writing that followed, I found myself seeing the photograph as the exemplar of everything potent about writing and representation, about the temptation and the anguish of trying to remake some part of the world into a story. I wrote my dissertation about it, crisscrossing those Barthesian lines with so many more of my own, year after year, couching their traces in my elegant close readings and fascinated commentaries on all of those nineteenth century photographic believers: photos that showed traces of ghosts; composites of “criminal types” that claimed to reveal the true face of evil; post-mortem photographs of dressed up babies who looked heartbreakingly alive. I was compensating, perhaps, for a stupidly naïve hope I couldn’t help having when I read those lines, for the prick of a promise that I believed without knowing my own belief: that I might one day experience my father again, brought back to me through the photograph’s weird mix of magic and technology.
I never would have admitted—am almost ashamed to admit now—that I might have believed such a thing was possible. It isn’t, of course: what photographs offer is so much more complicated, a gift of memory with innumerable tangled strings attached. The images of my father that I see over and over again in the photographs around my house suggest, falsely, that he’s somehow still with me: these are the images that seem to flatten and fade as time passes, dying more slowly than he did, but dying just the same.
* * *
On her most recent visit to me, some fifteen years after his death, Ellen brought the last round of our father’s things she’d been storing, so I could claim anything I wanted before she donated what was left. Among them was a mysterious cassette tape labeled with the words “Chief Seattle” in my father’s handwriting. We played it and heard our father performing a dramatic, careful reading of a speech that I recognized as one supposedly delivered during the 1850s by the Native American Chief Seattle to the United States Congress. Our father’s voice was clear and urgently mournful, and it spoke at length: it was more of our father than we’d heard in so many years. We were awed and puzzled: what did this speech mean to my father?
I knew about the speech because I’d taught it in my survey of American Literature course the year before, choosing it on a whim from the stacks of anthologies in my office. I was struck by the coincidence: I’d never known my father had any interest in Native American history, or Chief Seattle, and I was no expert on Native American literature—and yet we had both chosen this speech. It was almost a miracle, maybe something even better than what I’d been missing in my father’s photographs. It wasn’t just a forgotten memory, but a connection between us that I never knew about, one that couldn’t have existed until the present moment, years after his death. It was like finding a letter he’d written from beyond the grave, one that commented on my life as a student and teacher of literature, as a wife, as a mother—on all of the choices I’d made after he died.
But the speech wasn’t this kind of miraculous commentary, though I tried to make it seem like it was. There was my father’s voice, entranced by this text, as so many had been before him. I told myself that I heard echoes of my own early fascination with beautiful words in the timbre of my father’s oratory. I used to meticulously copy passages from books onto tiny sheets of paper and tape them to the furniture in my childhood room, wanting the words I loved to be visible always. Maybe this was my father’s version of my word décor. Maybe he had wanted to make the words he loved perpetually audible through the magic of his own voice and a tape recorder. I told myself that hearing my father read that speech was like hearing a piece of my own desire to be surrounded by words, to talk and write about them.
It’s certainly possible—it makes a satisfying kind of sense. But this sensible connection was not what I felt when I heard my father’s voice on the cassette tape. The truth is that I would have delighted in hearing him read anything, as I did when I listened to him muttering about the wonders of modern computing and making mundane plans about running errands with my mother on “The PC Lesson.” The recording of Seattle’s speech, though, full of inflection and drama, was a far more complete representation of his voice. I’ve looked at photographs of my father since the day he died, but I’ve hardly ever heard his voice. And in the nine months between his car accident and his death, his voice was largely absent—as if it died before he did, the first thing to go, reduced by the ventilator to occasional whispers and soundless mouthed words. We hurried to fill the silence with photographs, displaying many that we now display in our homes in his hospital rooms, so the constantly rotating cadres of caregivers could see how, and maybe a shred of who, he used to be, since he could hardly tell them himself. I longed for his photographs to speak for him, to tell his caregivers that he was a man worth saving, worth being gentle to, worth smiles and jokes as well as the bare minimum of physical care and attention they were required to give him. He was lucky to have many nurses and aides who gave him far more, with zeal and respect, and perhaps part of their efforts were thanks to what our photographs had to say. So maybe I’m indebted to his photographs for speaking up for him when it really mattered, but I’ve paid this debt many times over by listening to these images insist upon the same ideas about my father over and over again, more flatly repetitive with each year that passed after his death. Hearing his voice reading aloud, though, was a gift with no contingencies. It was irrefutable evidence that he had lived, just as the photographs were—but this particular piece of evidence had stayed hidden from us, protected, as his photographs had never been, from our desire to experience him again through our living senses: there he was, his voice said, alone in his small apartment, speaking into the silence in a moment no photo would ever have captured.
I think about how strange it would be if we displayed the voices of our dead loved ones in our homes, just like we do their photographs, if their voices were a perpetual soundtrack of background music for our present lives. My children would grow up hearing my father’s voice, but they would still never know him, and his voice would give them nothing like what I get from hearing him speak long after his death. My husband insists that we digitize the cassette, to preserve his voice for as long as possible, to bring this sign of him into the world of modern technology, as we’d tried—comically—and failed to bring the man himself into the digital era with our computer lesson. If we digitized the tape, I could listen to it any time I wanted to, and if I did, then, inevitably, my father’s voice would flatten and fade just as surely as his photographs had. So, for now, I keep the cassette in a small chest of drawers inside my bedroom closet. That wooden box protects my father’s voice from the ravages of being endlessly heard, preserving the tape as the bearer of a gift more generously alive than any photograph. And yet I will digitize it, because I can’t bear the thought of never hearing his voice again, any more than I can bear the thought of a home with no photograph of his face. We don’t own a tape player; soon, no one will. I have a vivid memory, but I won’t have it forever. I want to know that I could hear his voice again, even if I chose not to, even if all this trace of his voice ever animates is some digital cloud, full already of other voices, notes, and harmonies, carefully lodged there by the tech savvy preservationists who’d loved them. I had loved the sound of his voice, as he relished the delivery of a carefully crafted pun at just the right moment, sang harmony with me as we worked our way through Christmas carols and American standards during long car trips, or so earnestly and urgently explained—or rather held forth—to me about what it meant—what it really meant—to love and be loved. I won’t ever hear his voice again, not in any of these tender ways that I still remember. But I would like to know that, should I ever forget, I could touch some slim glowing screen and hear a thread of the voice that animated my father, speaking over the fading drone of his many photographs, insisting on everything about him that his images can no longer say.