I used to stare at my wife. When we were first dating, she found it charming, cute, proof of my burgeoning love for her. After we had been engaged a while, she began to find it irritating, annoying, evidence of my lack of social skills. Once we were married, she made her peace with it. Occasionally she would catch me at it and allow the tiniest, most ephemeral of smiles, just the barest upturn of the corner of her mouth and a twinkle in her eye. It was enough for me.
She gave me a camera for my birthday one year, one of those hipster film cameras; I took to it immediately. I painted over the window of the little spare bedroom downstairs, converted it into a darkroom; I developed my own pictures. There was something zen about it. It took skill and patience and chemicals. It was tactile.
Most of my pictures were of her. She would roll her eyes and mutter that she’d brought it on herself, but she didn’t block her face with her hands or turn away; she’d smile and forebear. There were vacation pictures. There were pictures over nice dinners out and breakfasts in. There were intimate pictures she only let me take because I developed them myself and kept them locked away.
When she got cancer, she didn’t want me taking pictures anymore. She was feeling self-conscious, betrayed by her body. She thought you could tell just by looking at the image that she was sick. Eventually she was right.
I took pictures of other things, to show her. She would send me out to investigate beautiful days when she was too tired to follow, and I would bring back the evidence. She’d end the day with prints surrounding her on the bed, her own personal gallery. When she went into the hospital, we kept it up. Sometimes the nurses would ask to keep a print or two. They let us paper the few bare areas of wall with the best of the others.
When she took a turn for the worse, I stopped going out. She didn’t have the energy to look through the pictures and I didn’t want to be away long enough to take them, much less develop them. The camera stayed in the bag, next to my cot, next to her bed.
I remember being told that she was getting ready to go, that it was only a matter of time, that I should prepare myself. I remember wondering how on Earth to do that.
I took out the camera, loaded some film into it. I opened the blinds so that the morning light spilled in across her bed. She had a paper-thin, ethereal quality to her, like she was already halfway out of the world. I took the picture.
It was weeks before I got out of bed, remembered the camera, developed the film. It’s not my favorite picture of her, not even close; it’s just the last one.