This is a picture of my friend Kim, who I was lucky enough to get to know while we both worked as teachers in Texas.
One of the things that I adore about this picture is that it somehow manages to capture Kim’s essence. She is a strong, smart, kind person with a beautiful spirit. And yet there is something missing from this picture – or at least missing from any of the photos in mycollection.
I’m not there.
And to my knowledge, there isn’t a photo anywhere of just the two of us.
Kim has been gone from us for about two years now. Her death after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer was heartbreaking for so many reasons, but especially because it seemed that Kim still had so much to give and so much to teach the rest of us, including her two teenaged daughters.
Looking at the span of our friendship, Kim and I got to know each other best after her diagnosis. We talked about the range of emotions that she experienced. We talked about what we thought death meant. And how different people might handle her earthly exit. We discussed what it meant to live a full and meaningful life, and whether either of us was managing to do that.
I knew every single time we talked that she might not be with us as long as we hoped and prayed. (And I did pray. Hard. Kim did, too.)
I had a number of opportunities to take a picture of the two of us together. Every time we met up, including on a crazy late-afternoon trip from The Woodlands, Texas to Baylor to hear a guest speaker talk about education, I thought about asking to take a picture of us. But I always found a reason not to do it.
My hair was too poofy.
My hair was too flat.
My skin was weird.
I was wearing my glasses.
I was wearing my contacts.
I might look tired.
I might look like a spazz.
I worried about her, too. She might not like what she was wearing. She might think that I was taking her picture because I didn’t believe she was going to survive.
Always. An. Excuse. And then, heartbreakingly, she was gone. It was too late.
People who know me best think it’s odd that I feel so strongly about having my photo taken. Day to day, I really don’t put an awful lot of time or energy into worrying about how I look. But I think that is what bugs me about photos of myself.
They don’t always capture my essence. A photo can’t show how smart we are, or how kind, or how funny. When we take a photo, we run the risk of being reduced to how we look. And then we count on the viewer of the photo to fill in the gaps.
When I look at photos of my friends and family, I don’t just see what is in the photo. I see them – in all their boundlessly hilarious, brilliant, funny, generous glory. I fill in the gaps. And every one of my friends is beautiful beyond measure. Why can’t I allow myself to view my own photos the same way?
These days, I take a lot of photos of my kids and my three-year-old niece. Photographing children is something I’ve always felt comfortable doing and something I’ve long enjoyed – in part because children don’t worry much about their hair, and in part because children change so quickly that I feel an urgency about photographing them. Capturing them in a particular phase feels urgent.
But with adults, I don’t tend to take photos very much. This is especially true when it comes to pictures of my friends. I often assume that they, like me, are feeling weird about their hair. Their skin. Their clothes. And I assume that I can always wait and take a photo another day, because we don’t change so quickly.
But here is the thing that 43 is teaching me like no age before: like children, our images can be fleeting. Some of us are taken from this earth suddenly. I’ve lost multiple friends to cancer lately. Another to suicide. One to a decades-long battle with addiction. Others are almost unrecognizable to now because they have been ravaged by illness.
I pray hard and wish mightily for the recovery of my sick friends. I cry. I wish that I had better words – in some cases for them, and in other cases for the family members who struggle. But I also wish for photos that capture the essence of our friendship – something that says, “yes. We had some good times. We connected. And the time we spent together was magical. It mattered – to both of us.”
This weekend, I visited with friends I hadn’t seen since we left East Texas two years ago. Kim should have been in that group in body. But instead, she was only there with us in spirit. I made sure I took pictures together with the rest of us. My hair was weird. They probably think theirs was, too. But I will treasure those photos like crazy.
And I will make a point of taking more photos with friends in the future. I also am promising myself that I will do a better job of making time for friendships – for honoring them for the tremendous meaning that they have in my life. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for our family, but also for our friends, too. And losing them hurts terribly.
It’s a lesson that Kim continues to teach me. And I want to do right by her.