Maya’s calm and thoughtful features hover kindly over her father’s hollowed face. David’s prominent cheekbones are exaggerated by the Chiaroscuro effect of a bare-bulbed lamp. Strings of dark hair frame Maya’s profile in the windowless bedroom. Propped up on an elbow, she is beautiful, yet the role reversal is obscene.
Cancer — like a madman who begins and ends his massacre in our bodies — has catapulted this family into a parallel universe where a parent becomes a child. David’s fiancée Micilín lies prone alongside her lover’s body; Ruth, his sister, kneels at his bedside. They clasp his hands that jut out at right angles on brittle elbows. The women encircle their man as his life quietly slows down, holding on as Maya tends to her father with a grace beyond her eleven years.
When I arrived from England fifteen years ago, David was the first photographers’ agent I worked with. He sponsored my work visa and sold my pictures. We shared a deep love of photography. He possessed the uncanny ability to make sense of the contact sheets from a messy shoot. He’d stab his finger at a frame and say, ‘that one.’ Then, after considering my arguments in favor of another, he’d nod, smiling, before lobbying his choice again. He was always right.
Our English sense of humor and those cultural references sculpted by the same generation formed an even stronger bond. We exchanged wry observations about the differences between life in the England and the US. We struggled with the dichotomy of loving America yet missing the UK.
One day, as I pitched him ideas for stories over lunch, he said: “I think you’ve been here too long when you go home and policemen’s hats look ridiculous!”
“And don’t you find the pavements too narrow?!” I said.
It had been a while since that breaking of bread. I think we’d seen each other only twice since that lunch. I wanted to say ‘Hi’, ‘How’s tricks?’ but he hadn’t returned my phone calls. I quizzed April — a woman David and I had worked with at Corbis/Sygma, the photo agency — on his whereabouts. To her he was something of a mentor, but he’d dropped off her radar too, so we joined forces to track him down. Even for New York City standards, it was strange we hadn’t heard from him, but, hey, people get busy…
It didn’t take long to find him, but she called with bad news. Cancer. Her voice shivered down the line with the diagnosis. We learned from his partner Micilín that on Saturday he couldn’t get out of bed and by Sunday he couldn’t talk. April wanted to visit him. I told her I’d meet her if she wanted company.
When imagining the visit, I thought I’d pop in with bunch of grapes, make David laugh, rib him a little bit about not telling anyone about the cancer, and head back into the unfashionable end of Brooklyn, to feed my cat, Cato, and go for a run.
April’s fragile figure near David’s home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, told me that plan was out the window. By the time I was close enough to touch her, the tears were already streaming down her face. That started me up too and we sobbed and clung to each other. Sunbathers squinted at us and commuters quick-stepped around us, heading to yoga or to binge on Netflix.
Micilín greeted us at the door of the cozy apartment she shared with David. In a calm friendly tone she explained that David’s ex-wife Junko and their eleven-year-old daughter Maya were here, preparing to say goodbye. Ruth, David’s sister, would arrive on a last minute transatlantic flight, booked hastily when Ruth discovered what we were now being told… David wasn’t expected to live through the night.
The apartment was an old-fashioned, straight through ‘railroad apartment:’ three open rooms in a line. The bedroom took up the center of the apartment like the captain’s cabin in a submarine. As she talked I peeked in. In a broad metal-framed bed the figure of a man was laid out, swaddled in white sheets like a shroud.
“Let’s have some tea,” said Micilín, selecting British tea bags from the cupboard. Cookies were already fanned out on a plate. “This green tea kettle is a pretty good stand-in for an English teapot. I hope it works for you.”
I nodded and fiddled with my camera strap hooked diagonally across my chest. It was an old Canon rangefinder I’d taken to carrying around for those unscheduled candid photographs of people in the street, hopefully with the perfect balance of content and composition. The ‘decisive moment.’ Only, that morning I’d opened the camera’s back to slide a brand new, coiled roll of black and white film into its body, feeling the weight of a promise in the roll of unexposed film. There’s still an unconscious counter in my head that resets to 36 and counts down every time I shoot a new roll of film. When I have a camera up in front of my face, the world is contained in a tiny rectangle; my perception of depth is altered — one eye is closed — and my concerns are on focus, exposure and composition. Whatever images I record it is done almost mechanically.
A young girl, thin and surly, slipped by and scooped up a cookie. Headphones and an iPad held at arm’s length signaled keep back. She disappeared into the cave of her bunk bed. Maya, David’s daughter. The last time we’d met, he’d talked about his divorce and how the separation would affect her. When was that? I’d never even met Maya, now here she was, straggly long hair, petulant and evasive. How many times had David and I met in the last decade? And how many more rain-checks? Within the time it took for Maya to appear in this world and turn into this languid tween, I too had been married and divorced. I was ashamed I hadn’t been a better friend.
“Do you want to say hello to David?” said Micilín.
Cancer got my dad three years ago. But when I last saw him in England, I’d been told his final days were weeks or months so I flew back to the US for Thanksgiving. And when the phone rang — at exactly the moment I slid a sheet of turkey into lake of cranberry sauce — I knew. One thing you could always say about my father, he was never late for dinner. I said goodbye to my Father and there was peace between us, but I hadn’t been there when he passed.
We followed David’s partner in the gloom. There’s been some mistake, I thought, this wasn’t David. He looked nothing like the man I knew! This man was tiny and frail. David was bigger than this, a little shorter than I and like me a fading redhead. This man who lay on his back, slack jawed with a wispy beard, weighed no more than 100 pounds.
“David?” said Micilín, “April and Neville are here to see you.” We stood by his bed grinning like idiots. “Hi David,” we chimed.
Vibrating with shock I wanted to be sure — to confirm David’s identity — so I climbed up onto the bed to look into his eyes. I flopped down in the position Micilín assumes in the picture. David’s lips were drawn back in a dry smile and his eyes were dilated. He was so doped up, I wasn’t sure he could see me, but Micilín said he was still communicating with hand squeezes and some sporadic nodding and blinking, so I took his hand — it was wiry and warm and it twitched when I lifted it. In his glassy eyes something sparked and faraway I heard his laugh.
“You bastard, David. Why didn’t you tell me you were sick?” I said.
The remark shot out of me with finesse of a bullet. It should have slid out as a joke, putting an end to all this ‘nice’ respectful nonsense that seemed appropriate but David would have hated. April started to cry, she smiled at me — she knew what I was trying to do — and I started to cry too. On the bed, close to David, I held back the floodgates. I shook it off and he watched me in silence, his gaze was unwavering. Maya slithered up through the knot of adults onto the bed and gently squeezed a juice box over his dry lips.
We stepped back to the kitchen. Maya’s mother, David’s ex-wife Junko, appeared from somewhere smiling broadly and we all came together. David’s sister Ruth arrived and bustled in with her bags. We stepped back to give her space.
I thought of another photographer and Brit, our mutual friend, Jason. David introduced us a few days after 9/11. Jason and I had made a short film about our experiences during the terrorist attacks. He was preparing to leave for East Africa. I suggested to Micilín I invite him over. She brightened at the prospect and encouraged us to call all David’s friends. April made a list and I called Jason. I explained the situation to him, trying not to be too melodramatic. But in the end I had to be explicit.
“Jason, mate, you coming by ‘in the next couple of days’… probably isn’t an option. They say he won’t last the night.”
“Oh God,” he said, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
People started arriving. Mourners-to-be formed a line into the bedroom. Some of them I knew only as acquaintances, yet they all greeted me with warmth. What is this thing? I thought, a wake? No, a ‘goodbye’ party, perhaps?
“A celebration!” said Micilín. “A celebration of his life, don’t you think? Send him off in style! I’m sure he’d protest but it’s a good thing — all his friends are around him.”
“Well, he doesn’t have a lot of choice.” I said, and we laughed. It was my first real laugh of the evening.
Micilín cranked up a playlist of his favorite music. We texted Jason: Pick up some beer! We ordered pizza and haggled over the toppings. An old-fashioned house party kicked into gear. People drifted in and out of David’s room with beer cans and folded pizza. They sat on the bed and talked to him. They waved phones in his face as some of his dearest friends scattered across the globe said goodbye via video chat. Maya, intrigued by the company, walked among us with big shy eyes. Junko fired up the Playstation for her and pretty soon her voice could be heard above the adults.
The girl forced a handset into my hands and quickly flipped through the menu on the screen. She pressed her little fingers on my big, stubby thumbs to activate the buttons on my controller, explaining in detail how to play. We plunged headlong into Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. It was a ‘first-person-shooter’ with close quarters fighting, bayonets and pistols, hand-to-hand combat; brutal. I fought next to Maya and we laughed and shouted as we guided our rifles towards a jungle outpost whilst our friends egged us on. Her eyes shone at me as she bent double and giggled as I repeatedly tossed hand grenades at my own feet. Junko feigned horror as her little girl dispatched Japanese troops with the rat-a-tat of a Thompson machine gun and just for a moment, we forgot why we were there.
David was now a centerpiece for our strange communion. Life and laughter encircled him, lifting him up. He became buoyant on a raft of friendship and laughter. And even through the fog of morphine, I’m certain he heard the sound of his daughter’s laughter, once again.
Sometime after nine o’clock, World War II paused. Friends and family slumped into a slow mumble.
I stood in the kitchen talking when a heart-wrenching moan drifted through the apartment. The house fell silent.
I slipped into the bedroom behind Ruth and stood at the foot of the bed next to Junko. In the half-light my fingers stumbled on the dials of the old Canon. The small camera had a fast lens and was loaded with black and white film but I knew not to trust the exposure meter — it would never cope with the dark. I rotated the shutter ring on the barrel of the lens down to a 1/4 of a second and steadied myself against the door frame, lifting the camera to my eye. I brought the two half moons in the viewfinder together and focused on David’s gaunt face.
Maya slid onto the bed at David’s head at a right angle his body. Ruth stood at the side of the bed and took David’s hand in hers. Maya stood up to give Ruth room to sit down,
The shutter was a thunderclap to me, but only Junko noticed. She indulged me with a smile; she too saw the beauty in the scene, and David — an advocate of reportage — would have scolded me if I hadn’t made the shot. Still, he was my friend and I trembled in my task. When Maya climbed back up onto the bed she curled her legs around her father and shuffled up around his head once again, burying her face in the pillows. She was crying very softly. David’s breathing rattled slightly, his chest rose and fell slowly and evenly. With my thumb I slowly cranked the film advance lever.
Ruth — her left hand still holding David’s — knelt down and put a hand on Maya’s knee to reassure her and set her still.
Ruth held tight to David’s hand as Maya sat up on her elbow. For a second David and Maya seemed connected vertically through the same focal plane by a thread — I held the focus there.
Ruth looked up at David and Maya looked over at Micilín. Micilín cooed slow words of reassurance in her lover’s ear.
I let the camera slide back to my hip and I left them in a ring of love and grief. These two women and a girl sent a current of warmth and compassion swirling around the room. Eddies of smoke and sparks spun out in a hearth, reappearing as quickly as they disappeared.
In the kitchen, numbers had dwindled. Micilín came out of the bedroom to our expectant faces.
“He doesn’t want to go yet,” she said, “he’s having too much of a good time!”
She grinned at us and we let out a collective sigh; the rubber band unwound. Maya lay quietly next to her father, the kettle bubbled on the stove, and at that moment it seemed appropriate to leave.
April and I found ourselves traveling together in the same direction home. I don’t remember what we said to each other on the journey, though I’m sure we must have talked. I do remember spilling a new reservoir of tears when she switched trains. We hugged each other and promised to check in the morning.
I descended the stairs to my connecting subway train deep underground. At this time of night, the line that would take me home was a ‘local’ — it stopped at every station — and the few anonymous souls accompanying me made no eye contact. Slowly, I was ferried through the underworld to my destination. A few stops before the end of the line, I got off and trudged up the stairs to the world above.
I woke to my phone rattling at my bedside. I fumbled for my glasses; I’d overslept. Two texts.
From April: ‘You ok?’
The other from Jason: ‘cheers geezer. sad. but glad I could be there’
I replied to April, ‘just woke up. I’m ok. talk later ☺’
I fed Cato, fired up the coffeepot and opened all the windows to the New York summer. A neighbor chuckled, a siren wailed, Cato crunched her food.
The phone buzzed again. A third text. Micilín.
“David just left us at 10:47. Me and Maya and Ruth were with him. He was at peace and he looks so beautiful now. The room is just bursting with the love you and all his friends brought over…And His phone has been blowing up with messages of love and stories of laughter and gratitude which we continued to read to him. Thanks for giving him the royal send off that he deserves.”
I put down my coffee and called Jason.
A few days later I stood at a large lightbox at the photo lab. Backlit and magnified in silver and plastic, the five reversed frames of David and Maya on the bed seemed more permanent between my fingers than they ever would enlarged as positives on my computer screen.
Like a Cyclops I scanned the tail of blue cellulose, but couldn’t decide which image was the strongest, giving the scene the most dignity and, most importantly, recording the event accurately. I needed counsel. David’s face flared at the edge of my loupe like a crack in the sun and for a moment I could see him grinning, healthy and animated, eager to help me choose.
A college fund has been set up for David’s daughter, Maya. Please consider contributing to it here.
Editor’s note: David’s family consented to this reflection on the end of his life by photographer Neville Elder. This piece was also published at The Curator on December 2nd.
About the author: Neville Elder is an award-winning British-born photographer based in New York. In the last 12 years in New York City, he has shot US stories for clients including The Times, The Independent Magazine, Stern, The Globe and Mail, Newsweek, Time, VSD. You can find more of his work on his website.