On Taking Your Picture

I grew up before the age of the cell phone, thankfully, and so my exposure to cutting-edge hand-held technology consisted of the camera and the video recorder. Because my parents would not be considered shutterbugs, I looked at those devices and reacted as most people do to things they were not raised to value: I found all the reasons not to like them. I smugly concluded that my friends’ parents, with their faces buried behind cameras and video recorders, were taking themselves out of the very moments they appeared to value so much. Why couldn’t they just experience the moment?

My son is not quite 18 months old, but I have 2,800 pictures of him on my phone. He’s been alive for approximately 540 days, so I have more than 5 pictures per day of his life. And, full disclosure here, those 2,800 pictures are the pictures that made the cut! Those special moments are catalogued by dozens of picture clicks, and subsequently curated to reflect only the finest aspects of his beauty and majesty. Hypocrisy does not begin to describe my sin. I have become what I mocked and judged, and them some. I am humbled by my weakness.

At the risk of self-serving rationalization, I, nearly 3,000 pictures and videos in, have a better understanding of what my friends’ parents were trying to accomplish as they snapped and flashed and focused. Sure, it’s a visual diary of your child’s life, it may be valued by them some day, and it can help distant family stay connected, but, ultimately, it’s the losing gambit to capture the moment and trap it in amber. The day to day mechanics of parenting — feeding, bathing, dressing, cleaning, protecting — never relent, but those chores fade to the background, dwarfed by the all-encompassing love you feel for your child. The preciousness of that bond is, in turn, threatened by the inescapable passage of time. They grow, they change, one stage begets another, equipoise always just out of reach. The shifting ground beneath your feet serves as a reminder of the fleeting nature of the arrangement. You’ll always be their mom or dad, but there are only so many Cheerios to balance on their nose, only so many rocking chair naps, only so many hugs and kisses untempered by human complexity.

You can’t stop it, can’t fight it, can’t change anything. And so you become a cliche, focusing and clicking your way on the off chance that, inside that frame, you’ll capture the essence of this love that you cannot control and cannot quite articulate. That, years later, as they pay their mortgage, you might just be able to recapture that magic. To take your head and your heart back to those moments of seemingly unfettered happiness. On my son’s first birthday, I wrote that he has given me a sort of invincibility, because I completely understand that I can never experience a greater love, a fuller contentment, and more pristine joy than my experience with him. It is physically, mentally, and emotionally impossible. But it’s a double-edged sword, for if this is the mountaintop, if this is as good as it gets, isn’t that worth savoring? Saving? Maybe even containing as much as you can inside the four corners of a photograph?

Of course you can’t trap it for posterity. If you could, it wouldn’t mean as much. But my love for my son has made me a fool in so many ways, so I’ll keep clicking. And maybe one day, in the distant glow of my golden years, I’ll have the wisdom to understand that, rather than an unsuccessful attempt to capture the essence of my love for him, my innumerable photos will stand as a compelling testament to the fact that I was blessed to have a son. And that will be enough.

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