The Almost

Eight years ago today my mother died; nothing predicted it.  Although we never learned the deciding cause (off with causality, off with dogma), it was a defining day that I’ve mostly come to terms with. The day-marker is like an anniversary; it imposes a peculiar singularity of feeling (a lonely annuity): very few remember the deathdays of ordinary people (even D. and Ph. might not have felt the date had I not brought it up, and Ph. was there). This is not to say, by any means, that my mother was merely ordinary; instead, I like to think of life—perhaps all lives—as small-world extraordinary. The day-marker of death, in its singularity, fails to evoke a broad co-memory; it sparks only a local co-memory, reaching as far as the family. And so this is most certainly the echo of a moment felt by my brother and dad, felt by mom’s siblings. Perhaps a few, close others.

I don’t have a whole lot more to say, and I definitely don’t have the impulse to over-intellectualize the almost. Barthes, in Camera Lucida, writes about the almost—the paradoxical nearness/distance that confronts him in a collection of photographs of his deceased mother.  I don’t have many photos of my mother, especially from the years immediately before she died. But the few I do possess lend an astounding credibility and accuracy to the experience Barthes describes.  Without understanding it in his terms, I was sensing the incompleteness of the image, as I still do, over and over.

According to these photographs, sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands.  I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether. It was not she, and yet it was no one else.  I would have recognized her among thousands of other women, yet I did not “find” her.  I recognized her differently, not essentially. Photography thereby compelled me to perform a painful labor; straining toward the essence of her identity, I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false.  To say, confronted with a certain photograph, “That’s almost the way she was!” was more distressing than to say, confronted with another, “That’s not the way she was at all.”  The almost: love’s dreadful regime, but also the dream’s disappointing status—which is why I hate dreams.  For I often dream about her (I dream only about her), but it is never quite my mother: sometimes, in the dream, there is something misplaced, something excessive: for example, something playful or casual—which she never was; or again I know it is she, but I do not see her features (but we do see, in dreams, or do we know?): I dream about her, I do not dream her.  And confronted with the photograph, as in the dream, it is the same effort, the same Sisyphean labor: to reascend, straining toward the essence, to climb back down without ever having seen it, and to begin all over again. (65-66)


  1. Crying now.

    My mother is still living, but I know she won’t always. I don’t want to think about it; if just the thought upsets me so much, I can’t imagine how horrible it will be when it happens. My heart goes out to you, and to all the people who have lost their mothers.

  2. “Small-world extraordinary,” what a beautiful, clear and true sentiment. I’ve always felt that the sadness we feel at the anniversary is a tribute to how extraordinary our late family members have been to us.

  3. Thanks for the comments. Glad to share, although I hope it wasn’t too upsetting, C. They change from year to year–the feelings on the date as well as the small, surprising tugs of sadness. And I decided to bring it into the blog because I was just reading Barthes the other day and it seemed both poignant and precise.

  4. i’m really sorry to hear that, derek. i know it’s no comparison, but i had a cat, that was ten years old (i’d had him for seven of those). suddenly, on december 19, he collapsed and died. even after an autopsy at purdue’s veterinary school, they still couldn’t tell me what had happened. i was devastated; my cats are like my kids (yeah, cliche’). i emailed a number of vets at tufts and another in florida, and all tried to be helpful, but couldn’t give me any answers. all i could do was go to the HS and bring a few more home.

  5. The lack of answers is something I’ve thought long and hard about; it always only ends in a shrug. What’s to do about it (in an investigative sense)?

    I was mostly thinking about how on-the-mark Barthes seemed as I read this passage. I was also thinking about the chronos of the almost. It’s not the day, but the time that shares the day’s identifiers that evoke the sense of the person, that stirs memories, and so on. But it’s relatively unobservable/unobserved by others.

  6. No-one can understand loss until they experience it like you have – sudden, unexpected, numbing, crushing, painful. I tell my child that her father lives through her… as long as I have her, I have him. I see his eyes, his hands, his smile. I’m sure your pa sees Linda in you and J. Be comforted and look in the mirror. Thinking of you this week. Been there.

  7. Thanks, Sybel. Those feelings come and go. It was on my mind a little more than usual, and actually that’s a good thing.

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