by James R. Gapinski
My dead dad has been appearing in photographs. Family snapshots. Selfies. My new ID card at work. Poof. There he is. He isn’t dead in the photos—I mean, he’s dead, of course, but it’s not like he’s decaying, you know what I mean? He’s not even ghostly. He’s just there.
He’s about to put his arm around me in some of the photos. In others, he’s in the background chopping down a birch tree. In another series of photos, he’s photobombing the foreground, hands waving wildly, disrupting the shot. He’s cheering on sports teams and wearing foam fingers. He’s brushing his teeth. He’s rubbing his bad knee and soaking it in ice. He’s drinking a beer. He’s blowing out birthday candles.
In all these photos, there is something familiar. His pose always lines up with some memory that I have of a real occurrence. I wonder if I’m manifesting him in some fucked up way, missing him in each instance, conjuring him from some subconscious willpower. But then I decide that’s not possible because I never thought about my dad playing Monopoly while I took photos of my son’s first steps—but there he is anyway, playing Monopoly on the coffee table.
He’s so solid in these photos. So physical. So palpable. I wonder if it’s possible to touch him during these photos. I wonder if there’s a way to predict where he might appear and then grab him and pull him back into the land of the living.
I take photo after photo, grabbing at nothing. I study these photos and try to determine if there’s a chronology or if he’s aging in them. I wonder if this has an end point—if someday I’ll just take a photo, and it’ll be back to reality—no dead dads appearing out of nowhere. I know this must be the inevitable. That must be where this is heading—a second death—a photo death.
I consider when I’ll take a snapshot and see the blood pour from his left eye, smoke whisking skyward, tears flooding the frame. I look at the one of my dad blowing out his candles again—the rest of the frame is a family photo at the waterpark. I study his expression. It’s sad. It’s like he doesn’t want to eat the cake—like he doesn’t want to be in that photo. I grab a selfie stick and take another.
There are components of loss that nobody prepares you for. After somebody dies, you look at photographs. You look at mementos and images. These photographic lifelines help you process things, remember things, maybe even heal a little. But there’s a strange inkling of forgetting that occurs later. It’s gradual, of course, but the photographs provide less connective sensation. They eventually feel more devoid of context, and maybe you can’t remember what year that was taken or whose birthday it was. Staring at those photos and coming up short is like a second moment of loss. It also feels like a betrayal when you look at the photo and don’t immediately feel sad—even if you know the person would be happy that you’re coping and healing.
James R. Gapinski is the author of the novella Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press) and the flash collection Messiah Tortoise (Red Bird Chapbooks). His short fiction has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Hobart, Juked, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, and other publications. He lives with his partner in Portland, Oregon. Find him online at jamesrgapinski.com or on Twitter @jamesrgapinski