When the world spins too fast and I need it to slow down I take a breath and I look at the pictures.
I close my eyes and they are there. They’ve become blurry as time has passed. Their color is fading. The lines are not as sharp as when they were taken, and the images have begun to bleed into each other.
But they are remarkably well preserved after thirty years. If I recalled the pictures more often perhaps their focus would be sharper. Or maybe they would get mixed together with the other pictures I have of the moments.
I do not want the pictures I’ve taken to be mixed with the others I’ve acquired over time. They are pictures that others have taken of their moments and given to me. They are good pictures. But they are not mine. And when I need them the most my pictures are pure and unfiltered. They are as raw and as visceral as they day they were taken.
There is the boy seated on the brown, faux leather couch. He sits on the end of it. He is as far away from the woman on the recliner as he can be and still be visible in the picture.
He recoils. He is looking down.
She is slight. She is covered in thick quilts. A scarf is tied around her head. She’s robbed of her hair. Her eyes are closed. She’s been robbed of her sight. Her face is visible and it is her. But she is a husk and her face betrays her illness. She’s somewhere behind the weathered mask that is her face, but barely.
Someone is cradling her head. She leans towards them. The picture snaps as she lets out the thin strings of vomit. The picture snaps and it is of him watching. His face says that he doesn’t know if he should look or not. His face betrays how uncomfortable he is. His face betrays how scared he is.
The pictures are sad but they spark the memory. She is gone but she comes when I need her.
The pictures begin to move. The lines sharpen and the color is crisp. It’s as if the video was on pause and instead of hitting the play button the fast forward button is pressed instead and the boy is standing.
Come sit with her someone says and he’s next to the chair. We’ll be right back someone says and they mean it but it will be too late.
The tape slows down and he’s kneeling by the side of the chair. He leans on the armrest. Her head is towards him. The room is dark but the sun shines through the small window across and above them through the large wooden blinds. She bathed in its light and her features soften. She smiles.
He is young and strong. He has his whole life ahead.
She is old and frail. She has this moment.
The boy manages to say hello. He manages to say his name. He doesn’t know if she can hear him.
He wants to comfort her but he’s afraid. He’s never had to face this. He is small. He is weak. He is scared. It is the boy who needs to be comforted.
She knows this. At the sound of his voice she turns her head further towards him. She struggles but is able to free one of her tiny weathered hands from underneath her coverings. She raises it and brings it to his cheek. It is surprisingly soft and warm. She pulls him closer. Her breathing is shallow.
She’s going. He doesn’t want her to. He can hear the others voices floating up from the first floor. He thinks he should call out to them but he does not and it is just the two of them.
The video stops and the moment is struck. It is preserved in the amber of my memory and it cannot escape.
She was strong. She loomed large. In her final moment she was not afraid.
“I’m ok,” she said to me. She said it to comfort a young boy when he should have comforted her. The words escaped with her last breath, and she was gone.
I’m not sure it was meant for me but I’m glad I was there.
It should have been someone else but I’m glad it was not.
I’m still on the floor and the camera of my memory snaps its last picture of that moment. The color fades and the lines dull and the images bleed into each other again.
I wonder now if she can see me. I wonder if I’ve made her proud.
I wonder what she thinks of it all.
I call upon her when I need to. I’ll forever feel her hand upon my cheek.
In the quiet moments, when I think she might be listening, I’ll tell her.
I’m ok too.
Aaron J. Como lives and writes and works in Milwaukee, WI. His short story ‘Trece’ was published by Drunk Monkeys in 2014 and his essay ‘From Frederick to Maxine’ was published by Drunk Monkeys in 2017. Find him on Twitter @aaronjcomo