The last time I wrote about my son was a reflection of our first year together. Since then, more than 2.5 years and more milestones than I can possibly count have past. Throughout this time I have been fortunate enough to witness Milo's first time riding his bike down a little hill, his first time drawing a picture, his first hamburger. We have shared his first real tantrum, his first time seeing a monkey, his first time interacting with a ladybug, his first mini-golf game, his first time saying "I'm sorry" or "I love you" without being prompted. The list goes on.
One first that really kicked me in the face was Milo's first haircut. For the past years, my wife and I held out on the haircut. Selfishly, we didn't want Milo to even have a trim. His delicate blonde curls were just too damn cute.
The day finally came when Milo independently asked for a haircut. We knew that this request would eventually come. For months Milo was curious about haircuts, quizzing us about the process every time we passed the salons in nearby Kichijoji. He was naturally curious about the shops hosting draped customers with phones in hand and the scissor-belt stylists working their magic with sheer clippers.
When asked. we agreed to make him an appointment for a haircut without too much hesitation. Who are we to tell him what he can and can't do with his hair?
Soon enough, my son was inside the Anpanman Hair Salon in Yokohama, Japan. At that point, a haircut was just an added bonus for Milo. The real treat was no longer a haircut but an episode or two of Japan's dearly loved animated classic. Milo sat down and sat still. Distracted by the cartoon, the kid didn't acknowledge me making photos of the occasion, his mother sobbing in the corner, or the moment his long hair became short,
Looking at the blond piles on the floor, I felt pride instead of sadness. I felt lucky to have shared yet another first with my son. I realized that I wasn't attached to his hair, but what it symbolized. Each strand was three years of time, each inch a time capsule of milestones, a reminder of how far Milo has come since those first days we shared together as a family.
Sometimes I wonder how many experiences I will get to share with Milo. While I hope that we will have a million "firsts" together, I know that a number with that many zeros is pure fantasy. Ever since Milo was born, time has become a glacial melt that finds the nearest crevasse and disappears. Voices from the dark remind me that I don't have much time left with Milo and I worry, panic, gasp that it is possible that I, perhaps, have more lasts than firsts with my son.
Time is passing, but it isn't gone. I am doing my best to live in the present. To enjoy every second with my son is the best rebuke I can muster to oppose those nagging, brutally truthful whispers.
The notion of firsts and lasts is shortsighted, hyper-focused. I am giving the abstract concept of time too much power over me. In the end, it doesn't matter how much time we have together, how many firsts or lasts we share. What matters is that I treat our time as a precious commodity, each second together as a unique opportunity for potency, for love, for life.
You are my everything.
The birth certificate says 2:00 a.m.
But it was actually 1:47 was when Milo arrived. I distinctly remember looking at the clock in the delivery room and thinking to myself that it was one of the most important minutes of my life. I let go of my wife's hand and reached for my camera so that I could take a few quick snaps of the surreal moment.
Days before going to the hospital I packed a small "go bag" with my Fujifilm X-T1 and a couple of lenses. I made some grandiose plan of photographing the whole delivery process. I wanted to shoot the delivery room and the medical gadgetry (if that is a word). I wanted to take photos of the legendary umbilical cord and even make portraits of the doctors. I had seen enough television to know that I would be able to come away from the birth with at least a thousand frames.
I have never been so wrong.
When the time finally came, I quickly understood that the delivery room is not the time, nor the place to do anything except following directions, carefully doing as you are told by your partner or hospital staff. I was only able to take a couple of actual photos. But, I took hundreds of snaps through my mental viewfinder (In hindsight, I am very grateful that I experienced Milo's birth first hand, without a camera in my hand. So much of my life, our collective lives, are spent snapping photographs instead of seeing life as it really is).
It wasn't until the first light when I really got to take a look at Milo and fully introduce myself. I was timid near him. He had such a gentleness, a softness I had never really seen in a human before. It might have been the morning light coming through the partially drawn curtains. But, the atmosphere during our first man to man chat was golden.
Coming home, the reality of the situation set in. By nature I am an anxious person. In our living room sat this little dude screaming and I, in all honesty, got really freaked out. It took me nearly three and a half decades to finally commit to having a child and those first moments in the house with him made me question our decision to have a family.
At the moment, it didn't seem like we were capable of taking care of the little guy and I questioned whether I would be able to keep it all together. I wondered how we were going to make it through a week let alone eighteen years. For the first days, my life was just one massive, ongoing panic attack.
The anxiety of change wore off. After a few days (lets get real... weeks) the ideal of fatherhood set in. There would be changes and sacrifices, sleepless nights and added responsibility. But, when Milo started grabbing onto my fingers, I knew that everything would be just fine.
Milo was eating, smiling, gaining weight, cooing, and pooping. Baby stuff. But, something was still off. During those first few months, I felt disassociated from Milo. He would let me hold and cuddle him. But, it just didn't seem like we were quite vibing. I was jealous of the bond he had with my wife. I understood why he was so attached to Laura and I was of course happy to see such a connection between Milo and his mother. Still, I was eager to establish my own relationship with my son.
Experienced fathers told me over and over that my feelings were natural and that fatherhood would get progressively better with time. I hoped that they were right and that Milo would be able to show me a little love every now and again too.
Thankfully, the advice I was given by those other dads was right. Milo began to show me more of his personality. He began to wrestle with me and smile when I walked into the room. He begin to spit things at me and refuse to do what I wanted him to do (some of my best qualities were obviously passed on to him). Milo began to explore his world and interact with anything that was left on the floor. He began to come to me and raise his arms high, asking for me to pick him up. We were finally getting to know each other. It was during this transitional phase from little lump in a rocker to a little person that I really bought in.
And then Milo said, "Dada."
I realize that the next seventeen years will go as quickly as the first. I am doing my best to remind myself that each second with Milo is precious and that there will be no second chance for me to do right by my son. I am doing my best to be present and to show him the love that all kids (hell, all humans) deserve.
Happy first birthday Milo. I love you man.
Only the hungry dogs and monks were awake. Despite the hour, I pulled myself up the brutally long stairway from the valley's floor. There was a name for those stairs. Jogiwara Steps? Because there were nettles lining the walkway I made certain to observe the middle path, a move to protect my flip-flopped feet from the needle plants that whipped others daily.
I creeped through the sleeping town and broke left before His Holiness' residence. Some pilgrims were already gathering at the temple, meandering their way into supplicating postures. I noticed a glint of light coming from the interior prayer room. There, the elderly monks lit butter lamps, sending cosmic thoughts out for those who could afford to have prayers made. I purchased a lamp and asked the elder for a pointed, acutely specific prayer.
I cannot remember what I petitioned the wrinkled holy man to pray for. Perhaps his mantras were noticed by God and the universe again conspired on my behalf. Perhaps not. Either way this memory, like so many others, is now in regression.
All images taken in the lower Indian Himalaya on assorted Ilford and Kodak films (2006).
Us Vs. Them
Several months ago, I got into a fight with my wife. Like most rows, I now can't even remember how the spat started. Knowing me, I probably picked a fight over something as trivial as what type of food we would be eating that night (Burritos? Pesto pasta?). As our bickering continued, the original catalyst morphed and the decibel level increased. Our tones became less than pleasant and I put on my shoes. Before closing the door behind me, I said something to the effect of, "If they ain't blood, they ain't family."
Growing up in rural Tennessee, that specific saying means a lot. It is a conversation stopper. Discussion ender. Familial blood means everything. It would be rare to find a Tennessean that would disagree. Appalachians would scrap with Goliath over family (whether you like them or not). It is assumed that bloodline is what separates us from them.
Kicking pebbles around the neighborhood, I cycled the localism in my head and attempted to further reinforce my position. How could I be wrong? Surely I was justified in my remark. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. If they ain't blood, they ain't family. Repeat. Blood means family. Repeat.
I simmered down and returned home. For the next while, I walked on egg-shells and did my best to avoid rekindling the fire I had stupidly set. Yet, I kept thinking about the concept of family. Moreover, I thought about us and them.
Over the next days I became very rational and explored us. The nature of us is acceptance, a core component found in Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. It is what brings together familial units and best friends. The notion in action brings together municipalities in times of tragedy and forms fan-clubs for obscure bands. It is why a break-time smoker will always have a companion and why a veteran will have brothers until the end.
I attached this thinking to my concept of family. My family feels bigger than just my blood relatives. There is my surrogate family in Asia. There are my families-in-law. Then the family of friends spread out all over the world. Would I not run to my wife's mother if she was in need or support my best mates through anything? Would I not stand by my old roommates or those who have provided me with emotional shelter? And what of the furry family that have kept the bed warm and soothed tears shed in secret? The more I thought about the idea of us, the larger the group became. Very few in this growing body shared my blood.
To contrast, I moved to them. the descriptor of separation. An idea promoted by the wickedest of despots. An idea that has perpetuated wars. The ideal that has led societies to build physical and metaphorical walls. The archaic ideology that acts as the chasm that holds LOVE captive. The concept of them is such an engrained "understanding," many consider it to endure into the afterlife. I dove deeper and found that, when connected to bloodline, the concept of them rarely produces anything but suffering and tyranny.
Three weeks after the fight with my wife and my musings on us and them, I found myself in Canada. Spread before me was one version of family. My wife's parents, cousins, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents and distant relatives... Each one still seemingly a stranger but so familiar. They shared extended hugs and inside jokes. They ribbed each other over some public buffoonery from years ago. There was the uncle that wore the tacky shirt and the guy that wanted to be left alone because he is the accepted lone wolf. The beauty queen and the youngster who wanted to stay up late. The cousin who loved golf and new mother appropriately obsessed with her child. They were as typical as my own blood-unit. Kindly, each and every one of "them" treated me as though I had been there all along, like I was blood. Like I belonged.
I immediately thought back to the harsh words spoken in baseless anger weeks before. Noticing the scene in front of me, I completed a reflective cycle and gained new understanding. Those "strangers" were my family. They had long ago accepted me. It was my own mental compartmentalization that created the illusion of separation. After all, it isn't bloodline that distinguishes us from them. What separates us is a lack of empathy, lack of understanding, ignorance and our constant companion fear.
In that moment there was only us, an idea that moves past family and becomes applicable to all human interaction.
The day before my sixteenth birthday, my parents loaded some lads into the family's conversion van and drove several hours to Winston Salem, North Carolina. For the next five hours, my parents sat in the big green van while the teenage boys under their charge moshed about inside of Ziggy's, a legendary music venue near Wake Forest University's campus.
On the bill that spring night were San Fransisco natives Tinfed and Sacramento California's Deftones. Touring in support of their highly anticipated second album (Around the Fur, 1997) the Deftones more than lived up to my expectations. Not only was their set amazing, the band was humble enough to meet with young fans before and after the show.
Having a camera in my hand even then, I was able to snap a few photos of the band and even posed with the late Chi Cheng (1970-2013) for a photo or two. To a fifteen year old angst ridden teen, the night was the best birthday present you could ever ask for and would mark the band's place in mind and heart.
16 years later, I had the opportunity to photograph the Deftones again. Instead of a disposable Fuji camera, I had my actual gear and a press pass. I again found myself backstage with the band. Yet, instead of asking to take photos with them, I had prepared a gift. I handed over an envelope containing a few of the film shots I had taken over a decade and a half earlier when we were all a bit more green behind the ears. Until you are next in Tokyo Deftones...
From England | Queen
"You want me to go shoot who?" I said to the magazine editor. My hearing wasn't failing. She said it. Again she repeated, "Queen."
Forty eight hours later I was ready and waiting in front of the crowd barrier. I kept telling myself to play it cool. "Freddie Mercury is dead. So, it isn't really Queen." I thought. I continued to downgrade the event and momentarily imagined Brain May, Queen's legendary guitarist, as an invalid. I assured myself that the show was going to be rubbish.
The curtain dropped and there they were. Queen. Well, three fourths of Queen. Brian May was alive and well, standing directly in front of me. The fact that Freddie wasn't there flew out of my mind. The rockstar in me got excited and the photographer in me got to work. I was determined to do Queen and Freddie's tour replacement, Adam Lambert from American Idol, justice.
For the next three songs, the Korean fans cheers while I shot my face off. I was happy with the show and even happier to scratch another item off of the bucket list. Thanks to Queen for a great show and to Groove Magazine for sending me out.
I stood alone feeling like a zombie on acid. I knocked timidly and actually waited for an answer... Nothing. I took a deep breath and as I exhaled pushed open the door. From left to right, my eyes roamed slowly over his private space.
My dad was always armed with idioms. He repeated southern colloquialisms as much as he did the stories from his glory days. In this case, "You can't take things with you to Heaven." was the adage that popped out. It was the first time I had ever said it to myself and, for once, didn't feel the need to roll my eyes. I realized just how right he was. He didn't take anything.
There on the fireplace mantle were the tobacco pipes that had always been there. A hint of a shirt poked just out of a drawer. The antique butter churn that I played with as a child sat in the corner. The knife collection that was started by his father before him was in a box on his nightstand. A small stack of magazines were piled neatly next to the bed. My senior prom picture was free of dust, positioned at an angle that could be seen from anywhere in the room. All of it was still, silent and would not ever be moved again. Not by him.
My initial feeling was not of grief or greed. I did not dread having the task of sorting my father's material things. What I felt was a jolt of urgency.
Despite dad's advice, I wanted to take it ALL with me. I wanted to grab and hold onto each and every object that my father had ever touched. kept dear or just kept. A shred of paper with his signature on it. An armpit-stained-white-shirt-rag. His last jar of mountain moonshine. The unpaid electric bill on the counter. It didn't matter what it was. I just wanted a connection and hoped that each object had a trace of him. By touching his things, I would be somehow holding his hand.
The thought of a single ounce of his tonnage in the landfill made me ill, heaven forbid any of it fall into the hands of someone who didn't know how special those things were because they were, well, his. I realized that there weren't enough storage units in Tennessee to keep it all. "Can't take it with me to heaven." So, I did the only thing I knew to do.
For the next few days and nights, I touched as many of my father's things as I could. After meditating on each item, I took a photo of it and then placed the object in its new home. A pile to be donated, kept or appropriately trashed. With each click of the shutter I carved a headstone of pixels. Each jpeg represents the man I so terribly miss and makes the permanent void much less vast.