We Are Running Out of Photographs

Never think you are taking too many photos. Question if you are taking enough.

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Alicia Cook (left) and Jessica Cook (right) in 2002.

Written on September 19, 2018

Three nights ago I had a dream that my cousin Jessica sat down next to me at Starbucks. She told me she couldn’t stay long but she wanted to tell me she was healthy and happy. Then she said she had to go, but that’d we’d talk again soon. It was so nice to hear her voice again. In the dream, she was wearing the same jacket in this photo (above), which was taken one of the last years I remember her truly being happy and healthy. That must mean something.

When Jess died on this day 12 years ago, cameras were still “in addition to” our cell phones, which flipped open and close. We were still lugging around clunky digital cameras, still developing film, still using 1-hour-photo for our disposable cameras. We didn’t take hundreds of photos because film ran out, memory cards filled up, and honestly, our minds weren’t yet conditioned to document every moment of our lives.

Social media was there, but had yet to become the fluid time capsule it is today. A frustrating component of grieving someone who existed before the cloud is that when I miss her, I can’t search the internet for an endless amount of photos and videos of us. I have to go to my parents’, and scour photo albums with sticky pages that smell as old as they are.

Most of the photos of Jessica and I were taken by family members. So they aren’t directly our memories, but another’s perception of what was going on in that moment, one person removed. All the photos are physical photos, in frames and albums. Some are so old they are discolored. Some are blurry, uncentered, or have someone’s finger in the top corner. Some are bent or torn, from my holding them or folding them. Some have ink stains on them. I’ve lost some, and there is no digital backup. Those photos are gone forever if they don’t turn up on their own again.

In the last two years of her life, we hardly took any photos at all, because during times we were together, we were busy pretending nothing changed; but knew everything had changed. We spent most of our last hangouts in my bedroom, flipping through magazines that I had always saved for her visits, ignoring the elephant in the room. Our focus was on the scary reality of her disease and Jess stopped wanting to be in photos altogether. I think I have two photos with her the last 18 months of her life and those aren’t photos I want to share, because they remind me of a terrible time, and that’s not how I want to remember Jess.

And now, 12 years later, because we did not live in the age of infinite pictures, I’ve realized we have officially run out of photographs. I’ve seen them all, there are no new photos to uncover. And in a strange, even tangible way, it feels like I am losing her all over again because it’s as though I’ve reached this weird “end of the road” moment with my cousin. All we have is all we had and time keeps moving forward.

I knew when she died that we made all the memories, had all the conversations, we were ever going to have together. At the time, 19 years’ worth of remembrances seemed like plenty – and for years, I was able to discover new pieces of Jess through photographs and family videos or journals. But now she’s been gone almost as long as I had her here and I would give anything to find a box of photos I’ve never seen before, but I know that box doesn’t exist. But what a wonderful thought that is, that I would be able to rediscover a whole slew of memories with Jess that I may have forgotten about if not for those photos.

If I could, I would go back in time and take photos whenever we were together, no matter how odd it may had been at the time. I would explain to her that one day people would take photos of mundane days constantly, upload them to the internet, and have them forever. I would tell her that one day, those photos would be all I have left of our short time on earth together. She would probably roll her eyes and tell me I was being dramatic.

If things were different back then, I wonder what we would have captured. Would we have taken photos of the day when we were 17 and she lost me in the mall and had me paged over the loud speaker? Would I have taken a picture of our feet in mismatched socks at the foot of my bed as we read magazines? Would we have taken photos of our “buffalo fries” before we devoured them? Would we have documented our walks we would take around my neighborhood so she could sneak a cigarette? Would we have taken more than just three photos of our New York City trip? Would I have filmed the day she got pulled over driving under the speed limit? Would we have taken a selfie the last time we were ever together? That “what if” haunts me the most. 12 years later and I still remember our last day together so vividly, but I am afraid I won’t remember one day. There are no photos.

We have run out of photographs and the absolute nature of that has made me sadder than I have been over the loss of my cousin in quite some time. We have run out of photographs and we’ll never have the chance to take more.

Life is fleeting. Never think you are taking too many photos. Question if you are taking enough. 

September is National Recovery Month. Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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