Camera, Obscura

In 2016 I embarked on a forty-eight state road trip across the United States. I have said it enough to annoy the hell out of most everyone, I’m sure, but it was easily the best decision I have ever made. Over six months I camped, hiked, visited two-thirds of the national parks, and went everywhere in between. Deserts, mountains, islands, cities, theme parks, museums, you name it.

And I didn’t bring a camera.

Well, to clarify, I brought a smart phone with a built in camera. There’s nothing to regret from the cross-country odyssey, but it sure would have been a great idea to bring along a more professional documentary tool.

The Christmas after I returned home, Dad offered to get me crossbars for my Subaru so I could buy and mount a cargo box on the roof. My rustic set up was working fine, but the upgrade would lend a lot more room inside the vehicle for road trips. For some reason I didn’t take him up on the offer. Months and months went by. Dad kept asking, “Are you ready for the cross bars yet?” and I would always reply, “Not quite. Don’t worry. I’ll get them eventually.”

Finally, after almost a year, he proposed an alternative.

As he glanced through the Sunday ads for Target, “Lauren, do you really want those crossbars? Or would you prefer something else? What if I gave you the money intended for the crossbars and you used it toward a camera?”

I buzzed at the idea.

“Ooo yes! Actually, I really like that idea.”

“They have some cameras on sale at Target,” he suggested.

I took a look through the ads and Googled a few of the cameras. I know very little about photography equipment and how it works so I was not confident on which one might be best for a beginner. It’s not like I haven’t taken photographs before. In fact, I had made great use of my phone’s camera over the years and with hands-on learning had honed my skills to a level of satisfaction I was proud of. But knowing what shutter speed, aperture, or lens type to use for any given situation? Forget about it. I’m a technical amateur.

Dad handed me the allotted cash as I checked my own wallet for a credit card. Within a couple minutes I was out the door and making the twenty-minute drive to Target.

I came back home, Dad’s house at the time, and showed off the new purchase. I was electric with anticipation to use it.

Over the next several months I took it with me all over, making a point to still use my phone for easy-to-post social media shots.

During this time I planned a trip to the Southwest. With an intention to redeem myself, I brought along the camera to some of my favorite destinations. What better way to improve my photography than re-take pictures at Arches and Canyonland national parks? And to have higher resolution versions of the landscapes that I held so dearly to my heart? It would delight me to no end.

So with the camera hanging from my neck and the smart phone in a pocket, I practically galloped my way to Utah.

I am not a morning person and never have been. I wish I was. There have been very few times I have woken up before the sun and the circumstances have almost always been travel related. More often than not it’s for the obligatory catching of a flight, but a few times it’s been for a sunrise.

In Canyonlands, one of the lesser visited national parks in Utah, I knew I would be guaranteed at least a few excellent photos. You see, it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture of one of the park’s most famous features: Mesa Arch.

Less than a mile walk from a tiny parking lot the arch sits like a crown at cliff’s edge overlooking a maze of deep canyons, not dissimilar to the landscape of the Grand Canyon. As if that isn’t breathtaking enough, if you arrive in the hour before sunrise and secure a spot, you’ll be rewarded with a most unreal light show.

Like clockwork, when the sun stretches up from the Earth’s horizon and spills light onto the land, the arch comes alive. Sunrays turn the underbelly of the arch from gorgeous gingerbread colored stone to a blinding magma of orange.

One cold morning alongside looky-loos, professional photographers, and groggy road warriors I waited in the dark for the show to begin. Some people had their tripods set up in precise spots long before I had arrived, so I made sure to politely snap photos from standpoints out of their way. After all of the casual paparazzi had snapped their photos and headed on their way, I stuck around. Most people didn’t need to stay more than fifteen minutes past the first glow appeared. The reward was instantly gratifying and the affect would be gone once the sun had risen past a certain point.

As the crowd thinned out I immediately took action and became more bold. I scurried to every angle of the arch and click clicked as I went. I climbed boulders, squatted, laid on my belly, and went as close to the edge as I felt comfortable. I wanted to be sure to photograph it from every available vantage point so I could fully capture the unique phenomenon.

Satisfied with my efforts, I dreamily paced back to the Subaru and commenced another day of Moab exploration.

On this same trip I met up with new friends for my first ever backpacking trip. It happened to be at the celestial and wildly popular Havasupai, which is a Native American reservation for the Havasupai Tribe within the Grand Canyon. That’s a story for another time though.

Less than a year later I found myself moving out of Dad’s house and into Mom’s house. Over several weekends I made trips to and from each place to strategically transfer my belongings. It made moving take longer, but it was less stressful to not feel pressured to get it all done at once.

On one of these trips Dad offered use of his truck to move larger items. When we pulled up in Mom’s driveway and I started to bring things inside he said, “Are you okay?”

Sucking in my breath, “No, I’m not okay.”

The dam I had been holding up cracked and out poured some of the stress and the worry and the grief I had been privately experiencing. I had no money but was trying to pay for Mom’s outstanding property taxes and other bills. I was moving out of Dad’s house because I couldn’t afford his rent increase, which was meager compared to actual rent in our area. (At the time I did not divulge my financial issues with him so he was unaware of that aspect). I was in my thirties and living back home. Not only was I living with my parents, but I was moving into the home of the one who had dementia. My independence was shrinking rapidly and my responsibilities were growing. I knew things were continuing to get less ideal.

Crying and hyperventilating in the confines of the truck, I let Dad do his best to comfort me. Big, wallowing emotions make him uncomfortable and feel somewhat helpless, but he does always step up when I need him most. In his own ways he assured me that everything was going to be okay and that he would be there for me.

Despite the dramatic start as Mom’s newest roommate, I remember one other thing very clearly. Dad made sure I didn’t forget to grab my camera from the back seat of the truck. It was in it’s carrying case and had been sitting there for a couple days because we had just come back from a family trip to his modest vacation home in the woods.

I gathered up the case and brought it inside, first placing it on the carpet of the front room amidst the rest of my crap, but immediately changed my mind. I didn’t want the dog to pee on it or otherwise disturb it, so I moved the case to a higher perch on top of a chair.

It took a couple months for me to find room for my belongings and try to encroach on Mom’s space as respectfully as I could. It also took me a couple months to realize my camera was missing.

One day I decided to take the camera for a weekend adventure, probably something along the lines of a local hike. I looked in all of the obvious places, but I couldn’t locate it.

I wasn’t all that worried about it at first because having just moved all of my stuff into a new house, it wasn’t surprising to not remember where I had organized or temporarily placed particular items.  

But a seed of panic planted itself in my gut and waited.

The next time I thought to use the camera for something I tried looking more thoroughly. As to be expected, living with someone who has dementia can sometimes mean that items get moved around unexpectedly and put in strange places.

I looked in every closet, every room, in each cupboard and under all of the beds. The garage proved to be just as fruitless. As the minutes passed by I could feel the panic grow inside me. It spread until it clutched at my breath and wrapped tightly around my heart. I tried to internally chant that it would turn up. It had to turn up.

A thought came to me. On the same day of the emotional breakdown in the truck I recalled Mom trying her best to help me move in. She’s a go-getter and likes to clean, at least very much so pre-dementia, and I remembered her throwing moving materials away. In the weeks after that day I would often return home to see that she had recycled or thrown out more boxes and bags because they would be missing from where I had gathered them. It was annoying because I wanted to save some of them for future use and had asked her several times not to touch them, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

In front of my mind’s eye I imagined a sickening scene of Mom plucking the non-descript black camera carrying case and carrying it to the large garbage bin outside. I didn’t actually know if it happened, but it suddenly became a very real and likely possibility.

I asked Mom about the case and if she remembered throwing it out. She of course had no idea what I was talking about, couldn’t even recall what my camera and its case looked like.

Unabashedly I ugly cried, gritting my teeth and clenching my fists in protest.

No no no no no. Please don’t let that be what happened.

The grief and the rage, and the guilt of directing it all toward Mom, detonated from me with a force I wasn’t proud of. It felt like Alzheimer’s had long been the blade stuck between innards and with a big “Fuck you!” the blade was yanked out so I could be reminded that it was ultimately in control.

It wasn’t so much that the camera was gone, it was the pictures. Yes, some of the photos on the memory card were re-takes of places I had already been and photographed. But many were not.

If anything, I just wanted the memory card back.

This may all sound melodramatic, but looking back I recognzie that this was the symbolic signaling of dying freedoms. Little did I know at the time that Covid would knock my world, and the rest of the world, upside down, but when I moved into Mom’s house I knew that it was the beginning of the end for the way of life I cherished. As Mom’s disease progressed I would eventually be unable to do much for myself. No hiking on a whim. No road trips or camping on the weekends. No international travel. No real time to myself without arranging some sort of care and supervision for her. A single parent living life at the mercy of a vulnerable loved one.

The tangible memories of truest days, sidewinding across the Southwest in pursuit of a life enacted exactly as I chose, if only temporarily, were gone. Some of the purest joy and the humblest experiences were lived in those frames of digital film and now their existence depended solely on my ability to daydream of them.

It was a pity to have lost something so excruciatingly small, yet infinitely impactful. I would have traded it for nearly any other possession.

To this day I have not been able to locate the camera and its accompanying memory card. Since moving in I have purged ourselves of many burdensome items, organized the entire place top to bottom, touched every inch of every room as I painted and nailed and dragged furniture across floors. It is nowhere.

Can I afford to purchase a new camera? Thankfully, yes. There is no real urgency to get one though as I am even more bound to my caregiving duties than ever before. For now I am content to using what I am most familiar with anyway: a smartphone.

I force myself to let it be. I am far from angry at my mother anymore. But from time to time when someone asks me about my photography or if I longingly daydream about meandering highways and trails, I can’t help but to feel the ripping of an old wound. Grief is a funny thing that doesn’t always concede the best sense of humor for the audience.

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