He lays in the grass, beneath the route, me belaying, Vanessa above, telling me about his thoughts on future children his still fresh marriage might one day bring. Like all young, maybe dad’s, he’s not convinced, looking for ways out not in, all the reasons stacked up like bombs in the bombay of excuses, ready to drop on someone else’s ticking time bomb. “If she wants kids you can’t stop her,” I say, “it’s inhuman, plus she’ll just have them without you”, but I don’t think he hears me. “How can you bring children into this world,” he asks, and I say that there is no better time, and there is no ideal time anyway, but he’s still not listening. “Imagine how scary it would be, just swinging them on the swings, every moment of their lives terrified about what might happen to them” he continues on, looking up at the sky. “I don’t think you’re afraid of what might happen to them, I think you’re afraid about what might happen to you,” I say, but he’s still not listening, in no hurry to be convinced, too much else to do.
I sit in the house, scanning slide after slide, a box of memories out of which the fragments from life are dug one by one. Unlike some file, made up of bits, these small squares lived that life too, they were there, entwined in the body of the Nikon, were there to witness and record. “Throw them away when you’re done,” says Vanessa, so young she asks why slides were even used ‘back in the day, why we didn’t just use “disposable cameras”.
Out the box they come, photos from Patagonia, the Alps, Alaska, Norway, Scotland, one by one, mixed and match experiences all mixed in together, the images of the event more now the event than the memory, the story the truth, the slideshow the reality, what happened overwritten.
But in the box, there are other slides, not just ones of daring-do, but of that life lived in between, the down days, hundreds of them, of my kids, Ella and Ewen, from babies right up to the days of the end of the film.
I scan the pictures one by one as well, Fuji colour and Ilford black and white, each old photo brought back from the dark dead box, back to life, emulsion turned to bits, that spin through the living room and up into the cloud, that moment naughts and zeros in some cold war bunkers deep below the earth. The climbing shots are the past, things that happened long ago, to another me, that child, but not these, these other images, of my babies, their smiling faces, funny faces, sad faces, in baths, on swings, in forests, in parks. The climbs mean nothing now, the fleeting nature of their worth more understood, nothing now where once they meant everything, much more than these children of mine. Not anymore. As I look at the pictures I see the folly of my life, the lesson men like me should take notice of.
And this is it if anyone wants to know, the obsessives and the dreamers, the young dad’s putting off the most precious burden of any life. I was given few really great gifts, the real treasure, not just the stuff, but that which you’d rush to gather up in your dying breath, to know it had meant someone. And in my arms would be these two, Ella and Ewen, gifts that came so easily, so expected, that I took them for granted. And still do. So much of that time spent taking these photos of them back then I now know I was hardly there, a phantom parent, one foot in the afterlife. I mistook hugs for holding me back, love for gravity, being wanted as a burden. I made that mistake that too many men make, of being neither there nor somewhere else, to be present fully at that moment. And just like that, a childhood can drift by, the meaning of life going on over your very shoulder. Instead of being there, I was that parent who was angry inside, frustrated and mad and crazy, always eager to get from under that weight of love.
What a mistake I made. I see it now.
I told myself back then when taking those pictures that if one day I never came home at least through these slides my children would see the love. But I did come home, and now it’s me, looking through older and wiser eyes, at that love I’m scared I never fully understood staring back.