Thursday, January 29, 2009

Who Am I? What Will I Be? Leif in a Photo Essay

In 1984 when I was working on my master's degree in educational technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, one of the courses I took was Educational Photography. We had no digital cameras in those days, and learning to develop and print in the darkroom, as well as putting together slide shows with actual mounted slides were part of the curriculum. One of the assignments was to do a photo essay on some kind of educational subject.

I no longer remember how I got the inspiration to use Leif and Peter W. as the subjects and pose them and create captions that captured my philosophy of childrearing and education, but that's what I did. The essay was mounted on four large cream-colored matte panels and I kept it for years. When I was moving to Florida permanently in the fall of 2006, I was making hard decisions about what to keep and what to discard or sell. There sat this very large and very heavy photo essay, wrapped in plastic, behind my office door. It hadn't been unwrapped for years. I decided it was time to part with it, but I wanted to be able to keep a memory of it, so, in the irony of modern technology, I took digital photos of it. Now that Leif is dead, I am doubly glad I did so.

The panels read down, after the full essay shot at the top. First there is a pensive Leif looking out a window, under the caption, "Who am I? What Will I Be?

Under that, he is posing in a Japanese tea box, peeking out over a caption that says, "You can't put me in a little box."

In the second panel, he is holding up a "definition" of "Leif Garretson," created like a dictionary entry, which says, "boy; nine years old; student; model builder; TV watcher; bike rider; younger brother; tall; son of Peter W. & Geraldine A. Garretson; likes jets, ships, guns, computers, toys; imaginative, talkative, likes to eat sweets." And under that it says, "You can't label me with a neat little definition.

In the next photo, Peter W. has his arm around Leif's shoulder and he is pointing down the road where they are both looking. The caption reads, "You can't tell me which road to take."

In the third panel, Leif is looking at a large pile of Lego pieces and the caption reads, "All you can do is give me the pieces . . . "

Then Peter W. and Leif are looking at a map and Peter W. is pointing out a road. It says, "and show me the roads . . . "

In the third photo, Leif is building with the Lego pieces, and the caption says, "and I'll build . . . "

"my own life!" This is with the photo on the fourth panel where a smiling Leif is holding two flying vehicles he made with the Lego pieces.

The essay concludes with a contemplative Leif holding pieces of Lego in his hands and underneath is the question, "What pieces will you give?"

Leif died after some emotionally, physically and financially rough years, a little less than two years after I got rid of this essay, which now seems so very poignant and meaningful.

It's so true that we couldn't define him, that we couldn't tell him how to live his life or what path to take. All we could do was try to be the best parents we could and give him the pieces, the skills, to build his life. Did we give him the right ones? We tried so hard to do so. We could not make choices for him. We could not change the bad luck he had. We could not change the heartaches he felt or the genetics he inherited. But could we have given him better tools to withstand them? We will never know. That is one of the worst heartaches of those who survive a loved one's suicide. We all ask, what could we have done differently?

And another sad and poignant thing. We couldn't put him in a little box, but now we have. All that's left of Leif's physical presence on this earth is in a little box in a little niche. How can that be? I look at this essay and think how true it is, and yet how much it doesn't and cannot say.

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