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Will Varner / BuzzFeed

How A Book Helped Me Face My Fear Of Losing My Mom

After my mother fell ill with cancer, I didn't recognize her. Roland Barthes helped me find her again.

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The first time I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, my mother called.

I was in my dorm room in Poughkeepsie, New York, already halfway through the book, when she phoned me from our house in Las Vegas. She asked how school was going and I said media theory was difficult, but I loved Camera Lucida. Much of the theory in the book flew over my head (I was in my first year of college), but I admired how Barthes’ grief over his mother’s death led him to write something so poignant, cathartic.

“That’s nice,” said my mother. “Maybe I should do the same.”

Her own mother had passed away some weeks before. I’d just visited her for spring break. My grandmother had a habit of asking, at every goodbye, “Ay, apo ko, will I ever see you again?” So used to the question after 20 years, I, her only grandson, said, for the last time, “Siyempre, lola.

My grandmother died of natural causes at the age of 87. She’d been in remission, 15 years after her breast cancer diagnosis. So we’d been warned, in a sense. Any day now, her body seemed to tell her. And then she’d tell us. Her death was not surprising, nor was it expected, in the way that grief stands at the corner, waiting for your turn.

Over the phone, my mother was doing OK. Though she’d always been interested in her health (no-carb this, macrobiotic that), recent events shook her. She was healthy, but she became obsessed with preventative measures. Tomatoes, lycopene, and radiation dominated our conversation. She’d apparently googled "hair salon blow dryers cancer" the other day. I nodded along.

Before we hung up, she told me to take my vitamins, to keep up the good grades, and not to stay up too late. I finished Camera Lucida in bed at 3 in the morning, and wound up dreaming of Barthes, photographs, and mothers.

Barthes wrote Camera Lucida, subtitled Reflections on Photography, in 1979. As he examines photos in the aftermath of his mother’s death, Barthes writes that photographs are merely the detritus of time. The click of a camera is the tick of the clock, a photograph one dot of many on a timeline. He calls photographs “certificates of presence” and photographers “agents of Death.”

For Barthes, photographs express what can never be again. “When we define the Photograph as a motionless image,” he writes, “this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave.” Despite their likeness to life, photographs cannot revive a life lost, nor extend a life passing. Photographed subjects are subject to time. They cannot pose, cannot exist before the camera the same way again. “They are anesthetized and fastened down,” Barthes writes, “like butterflies.”

When Barthes finds a photo of his mother as a child, he discovers the inimitable feature of a photograph: It infers the mortality of the subject, expresses simultaneously what has been, what has died, and what is going to die. “I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred,” writes Barthes. “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

Soon after the publication of Camera Lucida, Barthes died in a car accident, in 1980. In every photograph, Barthes saw a life lost and a life left for losing. After another phone call with my mother, four years after my grandmother’s death, I began to see the same.

“OK lang tayo, hah?” said my mother. “Kaya natin ito.” Bad reception, I assumed, was cracking her voice.

She was on the phone in the Philippines. I was in my apartment in Brooklyn. It had been a year and a half since we last saw each other, at my graduation from college in Poughkeepsie. She moved back to Manila with my stepfather and I moved to New York for my job.

I called her immediately when I booked my flight to visit her for the winter holidays. It had taken me months to get the right dates off from work. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer that summer and every day suddenly felt precious. I felt I was losing time.

My mother’s voice cleared up as she repeated her affirmations in Taglish. “We’re OK, hah? Kaya natin. We’re gonna be fine.” I asked her what was wrong. She took a deep breath and said, “I won’t have hair when you see me.”

We’ll go try on wigs together, I suggested, or maybe shop for headscarves. Or earrings, I insisted. She could be one of those fabulous bald women who’s all about earrings. Through a tight throat, she called me out: “That’s from Sex and the City.” It was true; I’d hoped to make her laugh.

“I just had to warn you,” my mother said. She’d just had her first session of chemo, a month or so after her mastectomy. “So you know what to expect.”

But I already did, sort of. Bald women were not uncommon in our family. There was my mother’s mother before her, a dear cousin, and some aunts. When I’d known them, they’d been brave and strong. Now, the cancer closest to home, I saw that they must’ve been scared and tired too.

My mother had already cut her hair shorter. She took a selfie and sent me the new pixie cut, to show me what was left and what was to be lost. After we said I love yous and goodbyes, I went straight to bed. She told me what to expect, so I couldn’t bear to look at the photo until two days later.

In it, her hair is a flat black. Traces of her highlights are just at the tips, touching only the tops of her ears. She wears her scapular, an accessory of Catholic piety, over a loose blue shirt, which falls unevenly across her chest. She’s not wearing makeup, but she has her glasses and her smile. Her mother emanates from her face, like the delayed rays of a star.

I took in the photograph, my mother’s selfie. Surely, I might see her in a crowded Philippine airport and recognize her. But I might miss her at first, in the mass of black hair and tan faces. I might miss her auburn-highlighted bob, miss her sleeveless turtlenecks, miss my mother entirely, only to see a woman I must know from another life.

This is not her, I thought, yet it is no one else. This dissonance, however, frustrated me. She took this! I cried, This is what now is! But I reasoned that somehow a photograph partially true must therefore be totally false. To say, “That’s almost who my mother is,” was more distressing to say than, “That’s not who my mother is at all.”

When I was 16, I saw my mother in a hospital bed. I can’t recall what happened, but this was years before the cancer. She was pale, had an IV in her arm, wore a crêpe-thin gown that wasn’t hers. The doctors told me and my stepfather she was stable, but I cried anyway. Then she cried with me. It was the first time I’d seen my mother ill and I was horrified it was possible. So this time, after her first round of chemo, she wanted to give me a heads-up.

I’d always seen my mother as invincible. She crossed the Pacific, her hand forever around mine, to strike out on her own, for us. She restarted her career in America and made sure we had clothes on our backs (via mother-and-son trips to the outlet mall). And her love never wavered, be it when I came out to her as gay, when I switched coasts for college, when I stayed in New York as she returned to the Philippines to restart once again.

Much like any gay son, I thought it was my mother’s beauty regimen that bolstered her spirit, fortified her very being. As a young boy, I’d watch my mother at her vanity in the evenings, with her lighted mirror, jars of creams, vials of serums. Before bed, she’d cast her magic like the good witch, wipe time from her face and salve her skin with strength.

And she used to wear this green tea perfume. The smell of it calmed me, assured me everything would be fine. I believed she wore it for the same reason. My first summer in New York, I missed her terribly and bought a bottle of the same perfume. The salespeople assured me it was unisex, but I’d not have cared if it weren’t. Whenever I wear it, my heart beats steadier.

I feel the same way when I look at my favorite photo of my mother, one from 20 years ago. It was taken at a wedding (white linens, white flowers), and she's at the table for family who can’t sit next to family. But 5-year-old me finds her easily at the reception, her red lipstick, her teeth white like a picket fence. She wears her pearls, not a scapular; satin, not cotton. I longed to return to these versions of us in this photograph: she, ageless; me, not knowing any better.

Confronted by the possibility of losing my mother, I sought this mother, a woman captured by time, a phantom repeated ad infinitum by the alchemy of photography. That I might find her again in every photograph of her was a hallucination, as she can never pose, can never exist before a camera in the same way again. Here, instead, I found a butterfly under glass.

But Barthes writes, “The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.” A photographer is an agent of death, certainly, but each photograph is a certificate of presence, only one dot of many on a subject’s timeline.

When confronted with any photograph, there is a choice. Barthes says we must either “subject the Photograph’s spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.”

My invincible mother, fixed and frozen in a past reality, is what has been. But my mother — a living woman named May, named after her mother, named after an auxiliary verb expressing possibility, opportunity, or a wish — is what still is.

True, I cannot contest a photograph, the way it infers mortality, indiscriminate to its subject. I might build barriers, dams of sticks and straw against the rising tides of loss, dams that will be swept away in a catastrophe yet to happen and already occurred. This is the intractable reality of which Barthes writes in Camera Lucida.

Between that and my mother’s cancer, I see grief beyond her shoulder, at every corner, in every photograph. I have seen what has been, what has died, and what is going to die. But I hope and I dare, when I see my mother soon, to revel in what we have and what is now.

I texted my mother the other day. She was feeling good going into her second round of chemo. Her doctors told her to eat more (yes-carb this, macro-burger that). I sent her a series of food and drink emojis, as well as our favorite, the wineglass.

We cheers’ed via emoji and I asked, “Can you have wine during chemo?”

“No, anak,” said my mother. She sent an emoji of a smiling face wearing a halo. “But maybe a sip or two when you’re here for Christmas.”

I wanted to talk more, but we had to cut our conversation short. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. “I notice now my hair is starting to fall.” She added a winking emoji, for good measure.

I texted back, “I love you!” I fell asleep wiping my tears.

Then, in the morning, I looked at my mother’s selfie. The wrinkles in her face are deeper than I remember, but those are her laugh lines, her unmistakable dimples. I examine her fading highlights, can almost hear her say, “At least I save on my salon bills.” Though she’s retired her stilettos and she’s stopped wearing the tea perfume, I see in this photo a truth that time has only changed, not taken away.

My mother is not the good witch, with no creams or serums from which to source strength. But now I realize she must have a magic of her own, possess it in spades. She must bolster her spirit with hope, fortify her being with faith. I study the scapular in her selfie, the scapular worn by her mother, and wonder if that too steadies my mother’s heart.

Four years after first reading Camera Lucida, I’ve since grasped its theories (I graduated with honors). But as Barthes’ road map to grief, it continues to astound me, to make me ache anew. His oeuvre consists of these little lacerations. With this book, I’ve learned not how to mourn (not now, I pray, not yet), but rather how to cope. Though, as always with Barthes’ work, I’m left wondering if the two are not one and the same.


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