The experiment would not have been imagined at all without Glenna, who found a peculiar lump in her right breast. It was not the first one but the second. Since the first one had turned out to be nothing, she put off a mammogram and possible biopsy and went on with her hectic life. She maintained a great job at a burgeoning advertising agency and her three kids were used to her coming home late and helping out. She joked that the most tiring thing was expending considerable energy managing her husband, whom she adored. So life surged forward, as if pushed from behind. A few months later she found that lump again and it was larger. She had the mammogram. It was cancer. Had surgery and chemo and lived for over a year. Then was gone.
After four and a half months, Adelaine wasn’t anywhere close to being beyond the death of her best friend. She didn’t expect she ever would be. How far from it would she have to be, to not think of her daily and find tears crashing into her life like a mammoth wave? It was like looking into a canyon that had no bottom. Glenna had been her recovery sponsor, had felt also like the older sister she’d never had. They had both once been ill and became healthy, sober alcoholics; they had similar pale, unrestrained hair; a skewed sense of humor; and shared jewelry and purses any time desired. The first thing they did when they got up in the morning was call each other to see how they’d made it through the night, what their corresponding emotional temperature and mental clarity were after the first cup of coffee. And they often checked in before bedtime. Their spouses found this alternately amusing or aggravating–why didn’t they just move in together ? Maybe it was their being alcoholics; they could be weird sometimes but their husbands loved them. This was one quirky and deep friendship; they got okay with it.
The truth was, they didn’t get together that much, what with work and family needs. They waved “hello” from porches and cars as they hurried off each day (they lived across the street from one another). They took turns having monthly barbeques on week-ends. Occasionally when they got back from errands at the same time, they walked to the center of their quiet street. Stood there, getting in a quick catch up until a car came by and honked at them, at which point they huddled on a curb like gossiping old ladies and shouted to their kids to please take in the groceries.
Some days Adelaine, in need of advice, would stand on her porch and just whistle. She was good with a shrill and piercing whistle; a few dogs might come running. Then Glenna would step out and shout, “Okay, what’s up?” They’d take a quick walk if there was time. Adelaine would pour out her frustrations and her friend would tell her to “suck it up, take your own personal inventory not anyone else’s—all you have to do is stay sober today and be open to decent change, so keep it simple.” The hug was always a good one and off they went to their own houses, even if Adelaine thought Glenna often offered suggestions rather too simplified.
They went to AA meetings once a week if they could, but the rides to and from provided the only private time. Adelaine persuaded her friend into taking a few week-end trips over the years to scenic inns or city spots. In warm, drier weather they headed out for a day’s country outing, picnic basket in hand or backpacks loaded. But it was a challenge to slow down, enjoy being the close friends they agreed they were. So much other life was happening.
One of two last times Glenna spoke to Adelaine was a week before she died. She put her hand upon her shoulder, pulled her close and whispered so softly, pallid lips barely grazing her cheek: “Know yourself better now, not later, make sure your family knows who you are, too…” That, coupled with final words for Adelaine–“It’s been a good journey; you’ll always be dear to me”–were emblazoned within Adelaine. Played over and over in her mind as she worked at the medical lab and went through routines with family or attended recovery meetings. Whenever she took walks along the bluff where they liked to picnic, looking out over the passionate ocean that was coolly removed from her grief and confusion, she felt emptiness swell and take hold.
What was it Glenna wanted her to know about herself , to share more with her family? What was it Adelaine needed to do to live better? Or was it just the gearing down, taking time to be present in this moment. Something Glenna had long ago admitted was hardest for her to embrace–she had been born with the burden of nagging ambitiousness, unlike her friend. She’d once suggested to Adelaine that she was a dreamer cleverly disguised as a smartly efficient lab technician but hadn’t realized it yet.
The medical lab that employed Adelaine had undergone big changes. Two months after Glenna passed it had been absorbed by a bigger, more profitable lab and with that came a new manager and staff who then replaced various employees. When Adelaine got her pink slip, she was shocked. She had been there eleven years, she rarely missed work, she was very good at her job. It was one more boulder to load into her leaking boat of grief. She slept too much, sat gazing out the window, forgot to turn off the stove when the kettle went dry. Her teen children were starting to give her sidelong looks. Dennis was tiring of his earnest but ineffective pep talks. He was afraid she might even drink.
Adelaine was not thinking of drinking. She was thinking of sleeping for a year and if that didn’t help, going on a very long trip on her bicycle with backpack and a tent. Would that take away the misery? Still, as far as the job was concerned, there was no denying that she had felt overworked and underpaid so she tried to see it as an opportunity for…something. What, she didn’t know.
She began cleaning and organizing; that was the only thing she could think of since-she had voluminous spare time to fill. It was a good way to empty her head as well. The spare room had a large closet that had to be opened with caution as it was piled and crammed. She was about an hour into it and feeling tiny relief from the chafing second skin of sadness, when she came across a shoe box of photographs, a big rubber band about it. Adelaine opened it, took out each picture with a jolt of memory. She had proudly developed her own photographs once, when she had taken a few classes in photography and film making during that first stab at sobriety. Eight long years ago. It had helped. She’d used the camera her father had given her, an ancient Voigtlander Bessa 35 mm Rangefinder. She’d felt a thrill using it, and took her fill of information in adult education over one autumn and winter. There had been a dark room where she brought to life her pictures. Mesmerized, absorbed by the process of bringing life to images on curling rolls of real film. She couldn’t recall why she had not taken more classes. Time issues, likely. Or a lack of follow through.
She came upon more boxes. One after the other, she sorted them: her son and daughter ((Tim and Cass, now thirteen and fifteen) building immense towers with blocks and odds and ends or playing with Tazz their German shepherd (alive) and two gerbils (dead), laughing with friends in the back yard, swimming at the indoor pool, walking along edges of the dramatic Pacific. Dennis, her husband, caught riding his ratty vintage bike, wrestling with Tim and playing darts with Cass, mowing the lawn, boating at a lake, snoring in his easy chair with books scattered about.
But where was she? She looked again. Dennis took a couple of pictures–he especially liked the old camera but not nearly as did she–and finally she found one. Adelaine was pushing back her long hair as she weeded the vegetable garden. She was squinting into the sun; it was hard to tell if she was smiling or making a face at him.
But that was it. No other pictures of mother and wife, the person called Adelaine. She wondered if it was the same with her digital files and realized that was the likely case. After all, she was the photographer of the family, a chronicler of their stories, the familial historian. She was the absent one in photographs, a ghostly eye behind the camera’s more accurate eye. And in an essential if obtuse way, she had been missing from her own life for a long while, too, ever since she had started to have an alcohol problem. Staying sober had brought her better in sync with most realms of living, yes. But had it brought her closer to herself? Or was she afraid?–or just lazy, as Glenna once insinuated with a gentle jab of an elbow. After all, she’d had nineteen years sober when she exited earth so clearly she had insights that made a difference.
Adelaine leaned back, smacked her knee. That was what Glenna said. That she needed to get to know herself more intimately. Perhaps there was time and a way to do that now. She would take self portraits! See what came forward. She’d use the easy digital so she could check each one, delete as needed; there’d be too many of those. It was settled. She wanted to explore photography, anyway.
The first one wasn’t so hard. She took a self portrait of bleary eyes and mussed up hair right after she awakened. And promptly deleted it. Then took it again, catching light streaming through the sheer embroidered curtains. She may as well show unadorned truth, who really arose from the depths of sleep. She looked baffled and shy. Then she snapped a group as various household tasks were undertaken, but when she checked them it seemed she’d made a mid-twentieth century ad for housewifery. They took her aback with their soothing emptiness, even though she knew it was honorable enough work. What could she do that was different, visually interesting?
So commenced her lone day trips. On the way, she found herself holding conversations with Glenna, telling her where she was headed and why and then it felt like she heard suggestions. She was drawn to parks, great emerald swaths with flowery trees, small creatures and colorful passersby. She got a shot of herself peering around a tree trunk, kneeling at a creek with stones in hand. She liked art galleries so snagged a few shots of herself standing between monstrous metal bugs and a huge garish abstract painting–both made her think of otherworldly landscapes. The gallery owners were not enthralled so she looked for outdoor public art. Sidled up to a General, admired a dazzling salmon the size of a whale. She found nooks amid shops, and crannies within countryside. She played with light, her face fully seen and half seen and unseen and her hair floated about her shoulders with its own life. But who was emerging was not who she had thought. She had a small edginess, a sassiness that had long escaped her notice. And that forceful sadness that nearly gave off sound waves, that shaped her mouth and stunned her eyes.
One time an idle young woman offered to take her picture at a burbling fountain in the square. She urged Adelaine to jump in. She hesitated then did so despite a sign forbidding it. She let water splash over her, sticking her arms through the cascade, looking up so water streamed over her face, sunshine gilding all. The picture was a favorite; she did something not expected to be done sober, and a stranger had made her laugh. A few adults gave her looks that may as well have been finger waggings but it felt liberating to dash, smiling and dripping, to her bike. The ride home was lovely despite a chill as breezes dried her.
Over the weeks, Adelaine found it harder to arrange such outings. She found fewer reasons as to why she had to meet someone another time of day or pick up the kids at a different spot or hide in the bedroom to spend another ten minutes to capture her mood and look before going out with Dennis. It was all to accommodate her self-portraiture. She found herself snapping pictures more often. At times she freed herself of the camera, setting it up with timer at ten seconds: dancing to loud Bjork in the middle of morning; as she tossed a heaping veggie-studded salad or poured a mug of coffee, stirring cream into steaming dark richness; in the back yard dirty and pleased among tomatoes and grapevines, marigolds and geraniums; in the car while waiting for Tim after soccer, impatient and scowling. She began to mug a bit, develop a congenial smile, wink as if she had said something smart and sly and funny. She recorded her moods which were becoming more variable.
She would often think of Glenna, say to her–“I know, an uppity sort of shot, who do I think I am?”–or sense her presence poking fun, egging her on, telling her what a creative, finicky and impatient but brave and good person she really was.
It almost eased the tension and heaviness she’d felt since losing her friend and then the job, and with both a chunk of self-esteem. Photography insisted she focus on something other than sorrow. It was self indulgent, too, but she didn’t care. It meant something…she would look at the pictures and feel confounded–who was this woman? How could she have faked it for so long? And was she still play acting, wearing a small, useless life like some raggedy costume? But she wanted the kids to have something of her other than fast hellos and goodbyes, besides the fussing or praise that parents always give. Something more than the mother they knew so well. Because there was more, much more, and she was just beginning to consider herself someone who hungered to explore life, who might be able to grow as she searched different avenues. To become a more complete someone, a better version. Not only sober–as if that was the final best she could offer now– but entirely Adelaine.
One night she was trying on different clothing for a series of shots long after Dennis was out for his monthly poker game and the kids were holed up in their rooms. She had many good clothes not worn now so why not play a bit before their donation? It seemed harmless, might be revealing. She set the camera on the master bedroom fireplace mantel, aimed it toward the space she would pose, then start the timer when ready.
She had just pulled on a shimmering cranberry red sheath not worn in a couple of years. It had been bought for a cocktail party during Christmas season. She turned and twisted in the full length mirror. The scoop neck and snug cut showed her good figure. She remembered Glenna and Terry had been there; all four of them had nabbed a table together. It was softly snowing, an oddity in Oregon, and green candles were throwing off a dance of light. They laughed readily, glad to be together and looking forward during Christmas. It was right before Glenna found the lump.
Adelaine’s feet were bare so she grabbed her black tennis shoes and slipped them on. Turned her head upside down and tousled and bunched her usually tamer hair. Put on a pair of silver dangly earrings. Left her lips palest pink and dusted on soft rouge, drew silver liner along each eyelid. She glanced in the mirror. A slightly messy, glittery-eyed, curvy woman showing one comically arched eyebrow. A person veering toward nuttiness while feeling abandoned and adrift.
“Glenna ole girl, you might think this a waste but we didn’t get to goof off enough, did we? I think I get it now, what you were meaning…”
She set the camera timer, stepped back to her spot, put hands on hips and looked right into the camera, eyes unblinking as tears prickled, chapped lips holding loss like salt from the sea, then she began a smile as the camera took a shot.
There was a knock on the bedroom door.
“Who is it? Just a minute, hang on!”
“It’s just me,” Cass said and opened the door.
Adelaine froze. Cass gaped at her mother.
“What are you doing…? Or should I even ask?”
“I’m um, I’m just trying on some old clothes–”
“Playing…a kind of dress up?” Cass came closer and examined the dress. She touched her mother’s wild hair. She snickered over the shoes paired with such a dress. “I like it, sort of. Radical for you. A creative change… What were you going to do dressed like this? Not going out, right?”
Her expression showed horror at such a thought. She fingered her own short purple hair as she stared, as if comparing their two heads. Then she sat on the bed and shook her head at her mother and herself in the long mirror. They shared some features. Cass had always felt she was lucky to look like her mom not her dad, who was altogether paunchy middle-aged masculine from hairline to feet, not what he used to be, he said as he patted his stomach.
Adelaine felt relief fill her body, steady her mind. “No, I wasn’t going out. I was…” Too late, her eyes involuntarily went to her camera.
Cass followed her mother’s gaze. “You’re taking selfies?” She snorted. “Really? For what? Or for who?”
“Wait a minute, Cass, using a camera for self portraits was not always thought of as superficial, egotistical ‘selfies’. They were considered creative photography, they were important self expressions. It wasn’t so different from painting a self portrait or sculpting one. You must see it was a way of searching for and exposing a person’s real self, one’s deepest self with an honest eye, or making a creative composition of someone. Have you never heard of the famous Cindy Sherman, as a more contemporary example? She has made a career out of photographing herself in different guises.” She heard her voice increase volume but could not soften it. “And I can also snap pictures of myself to help define who I am, don’t you think? I have been a mother and a wife, an alcoholic in recovery and a laboratory worker bee, but I am more than that, I am someone who has ideas of my own, more feelings unknown, a strong urge to create something good–”
Cass held up her hands, stood before her. “Mom! Mom, hold on a minute I didn’t mean to laugh at you. Exactly. I just wondered what you were doing. I get it. I get it, okay…? ”
“You cannot possibly get it.” Adelaine stood with arms limp at her sides, features fighting against crumpling. She kicked off the tennis shoes and reached for a brush on the dresser, her back to her daughter. “I lost my best friend, I lost my job, Cass. I’m trying so hard to stay positive so just let me do what I need to do.” She yanked it through her hair.
“I know, Mama… I know, maybe not like you do, but I know it hurts and I’m sorry. I really do know life can be so awful and hard. But you’re strong, Mom. I know that, too…”
She went to her mother, took the brush, led her to the bed and sat her down. She pulled it through the fading blond, knotted length, over and over. Adelaine closed her eyes, eyelids fluttering then clamping tight. The long even strokes were just how she brushed Cass’ hair for so many years. Now it was snipped so short; it was Cass’ style for now. Her own self expression.
“You want to see what else in your closet? You have any other good dresses I haven’t seen in awhile? I can finally wear your shoe size, right? I’ve been meaning to try on your spiky navy heels, though I really do not like heels, I actually want your tall black leather boots. Let’s try them all on.”
Adelaine stopped the brushing, pulled the brush from Cass’ fingers and took the almost unbearably young hand in hers. Held it briefly against her lips, then released her.
“Thank you, Cass, you’re a most loved daughter. Do not forget. Yes, let’s take out the old stuff I don’t know what to do with. You can have a pair of the high heels if you want, but you can’t keep my best boots, no way.”
When Dennis came home, he and Tim stopped in the master bedroom’s doorway and took in a strange scene: chaos. A phantasmagoria of fashion and footwear with Adelaine and Cass dressed in get-up they’d never seen them in and, luck holding out, might never again. But the females of the household were engaged in a hilarious romp, not even bothering to greet them.
“What is this, a weird play time for girls or are you just losing it?” Tim asked, hooting at their mismatched outfits.
So the men in the family left for their respective sanctuaries. But after a moment Dennis circled back, having seen the camera, and took a picture for a keepsake.
That night Adelaine stepped onto the bedroom’s balcony as Dennis slept, searching the stars, feeling Glenna nearby. She knew what she’d be doing tomorrow and the next day and the next: taking pictures, learning how to best capture others’ essences, finding her way toward film making, discovering how to tell truthful stories of real people. All those random pictures of herself? They’d taught her a few things, as Glenna had wished. They’d be there for the children to laugh and wonder over when she was long gone. She’d add many family pictures but more would hold her presence, Adelaine the human being–who was a mother, a wife, a friend and who knew what else. All healing up bit by bit.
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