We'll Always Love You Papa

This past fall I went down to Paris, TX, my mother's hometown, to take pictures of the elders in my life before they are no longer here.  Before heading to Paris, I stopped in Dallas, TX to see my grandmother, Big Mama, on my father's side.  Big Mama had a number of health issues in the past and had most recently suffered a stroke that requires her to now have full-time care.  She also suffered some paralysis on one side of her face, collapsing one of her eyes.  When I went to see Big Mama, I was taken aback by how seasoned she looked.  At the beginning of every project/shoot, I visualize what the final images will look like.  Of course they are never what they seem.  Sometimes the outcome is transformative and encouraging but this time, the face I saw looking back at me from behind my lens was one with which my memory was not quite familiar.  Big Mama's face, although bright and welcoming, was now fragile and weathered by the years.  As I began to shoot, my father- who was present at the time- insisted that I photograph her from her good side.  It was at this moment that I realized something that inevitably comes to me during my shoots- that I am merely a vessel through which the message of this project must flow.  I also knew that my illustration of their strength would be altered by the reality set before me.  Now their strength is shown in their resilience in which all the years have fortified them.  As I shot, I heeded my father's request to photograph my grandmother from her more favorable side but, although heartbreaking, found more value in the narrative that photographing her entire face could tell. 

After leaving Dallas, I travelled to Paris, TX, my intended destination.  Paris, TX is where my grandfather, Papa, lives.  Papa is my mother's father who had been long suffering from two strokes and Alzheimer's.  Over the past thirteen years, his condition began to eclipse more and more of his strong, charismatic personality.  When I was a child, Papa would cook us a variety of southern dishes from homemade crawfish to smoked turkey to chili.  Papa was also an amazing singer who frequently sang gospel songs in church. He had a beautiful voice which he passed down to my mother who is a classically trained vocalist and choral director.  At our home church in Peoria, IL., my mother would sing the songs her father taught her:  My Heavenly Father Watches Over Me, Give Me My Flowers, How Great Thou Art, among others. Over time, Papa needed the full-time care of a nursing home staff.  For the first few years he was there he was able to communicate only through his infectious smile.   My mother would sing to him and his smile would instantly appear. Alzheimer's had taken Papa's voice and crippled his ability to communicate but when my mother sang to him, we knew exactly what he was thinking: he was happy.  For the past few years, he has been in a nursing home where they treated him well, but they didn't treat him like family.  Mommy Ellen, my grandmother, would get so upset at the quality of the food and would often bring him plates from dinners at home.  As time went on, he became very tired and getting him to smile was few and far between.  

The day before the shoot my mother and I went see Papa at the nursing home.  It had been a couple of years since I last saw him and this time seemed different.  That day he was alert and smiling every so often but he was more distant than I remembered.  I know the realities of Alzheimer's, but seeing how it ungraciously takes all that you love and turns it upside down is something I will never get used to.  In an effort to keep Papa awake for a few minutes my mother began to sing.



Given the interaction of the day, I was hopeful about our shoot that I scheduled with Papa and the nursing staff for the following morning.  They said that the morning, right after breakfast, was the time when he was most alert.  They agreed to put on his "good" clothes, which to them was a baseball hat and a pullover.  Even in Papa's days as a janitor- one of his many jobs- he would not have ever considered that to be his "good" clothes.  Nevertheless, the following day my mom and I went back to the home to get set up for the shoot.  The staff prepped him as they had planned while I chose a location outside to shoot. Technically, I wanted to shoot all of my subjects outside, combining ambient light with wireless speedlights so I had a mobile studio that I traveled down to Texas with.  The day was windy and the sun was cold.  They did not take Papa outside much so I knew that I would have to work fast because I did not to want to add pneumonia to his list of ailments.  His body was not strong enough to fight anything else.  Something about this shoot felt uneasy.  I switched locations multiple times for fear that the backdrop would collapse on Papa, I did not account for the weather being so cold, and I had a lingering feeling that I should nix the shoot all together to preserve what little strength Papa had... I persevered.

I ran inside and told my mom to bring Papa out...I was ready.  As I waited for them to bring him out my attention was taken by two black crows flying in unison in the sky.  All at once I was overcome with the certainty that Papa had flown away. For years we knew that he was a shadow of himself and that he was so strong that his body would not allow him to leave us yet.  Now his body was tired and his soul was preparing to ascend.  As I looked up at the birds flying in the dark blue sky, a song rang out in my head..."I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away; (in the morning) When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away."  ...An old spiritual that Papa had undoubtedly sung at one time or another, was a foreshadowing of what was yet to come.


With the help of my mother, one of the nurses wheeled Papa outside into the questionable weather.  He was not awake.  As I saw him sleeping, the song repeated in my head and my nerve began to waiver.  My mother began to tickle him (which sometimes made him wake) to no avail.  The vivacious grandfather that I remember was not there anymore and soon his body would not be either.  I checked my emotions and began shooting.  The result of which you will see below: Papa, a man who is finally at peace...


 Papa from The Elders

He passed six months later.



The above is a part of the ongoing project The Elders.  To see this and other images from the project visit the following: