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)