The parting shot

(Published in the Globe and Mail, April 18, 2011)
 My father smiles at me from his obituary photo. The picture sits inside a blue velvet case holding a small urn with a portion of his ashes.The moment I see his face we are once again in the kitchen of my brother’s house on the night of my father’s 56th birthday party. The whole family has just finished singing Happy Birthday to You and my father starts posing in mock demureness for the flashing cameras and BlackBerrys, pausing while cutting into his birthday cake.Then – because it is one of the two or three times a year he has a drink – he pretends to be feeling the effects, rolling his eyes askew, cocking an eyebrow and talking through fake slurs and hiccups. While everyone is laughing, my mother, sitting next to him, nudges him and tells him with playful sternness to smile for a nice picture.

He immediately drops the act and flashes a fake, broad, I’m-posing-for-a-picture smile. Rarely is he so unselfconscious of his dentures, and his pose is so hilariously, deliberately fake, the whole party erupts again. Then he begins laughing too and gives us a two-thumbs-up, as if to say, “You got me.” At that moment, I snap a picture of the birthday boy at his best, full of life and laughter in a room filled with people who love him.

Fifteen months later, almost to the day, my father died suddenly of a heart attack on an otherwise perfectly sunny August afternoon last year.

The unexpected death of a family member comes with a flurry of decisions barely remembered afterward. Somewhere in the midst of arranging tissue donation, choosing a casket, selecting pallbearers and a list of other decisions, my mother chose the photo I took at his birthday party to run with his obituary.

He is smiling, the top button of his yellow dress shirt open, his sleeves turned up in a single roll at the cuff. His grey hair is thicker than usual, with a tuft covering the top of his ear and another sticking out in the back. The birthday cake and knife are on the table in front of him. My favourite part of the photo – the part that says the most about him – is my mother, just at the edge of the frame, howling with laughter.

It is the cropped version of his smiling face that runs in the newspaper and on the memorial cards arranged in casual stacks on the funeral-home coffee tables at his wake.

Looking at one of these memorial cards, it occurs to me that my father had no idea when this picture was taken it would become his obituary photo. I am standing near his casket when I have the morbid realization that there is a corresponding photo just like this for every one of us. It is a thought that brings my own mortality into focus in a way not even his death itself did.

Could my own obituary photo be looking back at me every time I log in to Facebook? Will the profile photo I chose only because it is recent – and not because it is meaningful – some day come to represent everything I was?

Unfortunately, in the past year, my family has had lots of experience choosing obituary photos. My father was the third of five members of his family to die in seven months.

The first was Sergeant Jimmy MacNeil, a cousin killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan last June. In the official military photo that accompanied media reports, he is wearing his beige camouflage uniform, standing in front of a Canadian flag. His wide, blue eyes stare impassively into the camera and his mouth is the thin, flat line of a person with purpose.

Then my aunt Mazie died of a heart attack in her easy chair after supper one night. In her obituary photo she is wearing a bright red blouse and the left side of her mouth is curled into a mischievous smirk. Just as we knew her, her face is warm and welcoming and on the verge of finding something very funny.

After my father died, my uncle Sonny followed. The picture that accompanies his obituary is a recent one, but he still looks healthy and strong. Though in his early 60s, there is little doubt the person in the photo could still drag a man out of a burning house, as he did almost 30 years earlier, for which he was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism.

Then it was my uncle Donnie. He thought he had the flu. But it was an infection that entered his bloodstream and began shutting down his organs. Can it really happen that easily, we all asked ourselves. In the photo atop his obituary he is wearing his wedding tuxedo with a bright-blue bow tie. It is impossible not to notice his posture: More than standing upright, his head is tilted back and his smile is full of confidence. This is a man on the happiest day of his life whose swelled chest is leaning toward the bright and hopeful future.

All of them now gone. Certainly, we each have our memories of those we have lost. Some are personal, subtle moments between two individuals; some are the stories we all share that unite us in our grief and make us smile fondly even in the midst of overwhelming loss.

The people in each of these obituary photos had similar moments and stories of those who went before them. When the people left to remember become memories themselves, we are left only with the photos – the mischievous smirk, the confident smile, the two thumbs up. But somewhere in the image will always be the life it represents, like an echo you no longer hear but swear you will never forget.

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