self documentation

I’ve been rather haunted lately by this story about a Mom who made videos of herself for her son before she died of cancer. Knowing she would die before her son had too many natural memories of her, she video-taped them making cookies and doing other daily household-type things. The videos have been treasured by her family since her death. A few weeks ago, her family’s home was broken into and the tapes were stolen. The theft has made national news, and rightfully so. We always say that things are just things, but memories are ours and cannot be stolen. Yet, in a way, this little boy’s memories of his mother have been stolen. It seems a uniquely cruel insult to injury.

I found this story particularly jarring since I had just had a conversation with some dear friends about this very topic. I think often of Zoe’s natural memories of me and wonder if I should be doing something to document myself–my mannerisms, the way that I can’t stop kissing the back of her neck–so that she knows what I’m really like, should this cancer claim my life.

First, I thought perhaps I should set up a video camera in some unused corner of the basement and secretly tape some sort of reality television-esque video diary. Something for Zoe and Mark to discover after my death, whenever that should be. Dismissing this as too sinister and high drama, I moved on to another plan…

Fly on the wall. I would set up a camera on a tripod and move it around the house periodically. Theoretically, we would become used to it and eventually not notice when the red light showed that it was taping. And, eventually, we would have documentation of life as it really is and was.

This is the plan that I’ve sort of settled on. And yet, I can’t bring myself to implement it. Do I really want documentation of me as I really am? Of the times that I put Zoe off because I’m e-mailing or cleaning up the kitchen or (gasp!) reading a trashy magazine? Do I want to hear the voice that I use when I’m trying to get Zoe out of the house or when Mark is taking more time on a task than I deem necessary?

Do I really want Zoe to remember me as I really am? Or, can I lean on the things that I’ve written, the copious videos of her that are narrarated by my amused voice, the pictures of us and the sheer volume of pictures of her? Will these things somehow tell her that I want to set up camp in the back of her neck? That when I’m overcome by PTSD or general anxiety a firm whiff of her kid-head can calm me like nothing else? Will she catch some mannerisms in herself as an adult and quickly recognize me? Will you tell her stories about me that give her memories that over time will become intertwined with her own?

Is my very wonderment about these things assuming a larger-than-life role in my daughter’s memory? Is she meant to simply experience me and when I’m gone be comforted by whatever she has naturally gleaned from our relationship?

I wonder about these things. The friends with whom I originally discussed this topic wondered with me too. We have been brought together by many things, but one them is that we all have experienced some major loss in our lives. A child. A mother. A sibling. And, to a person, these dear friends said that the documentation they have of the people who have predeceased them is precious. Sacred. Priceless.

And yet, I can’t get myself to do it.

Perhaps if all of us did it. If all of us ackowledged that life is delicate and can be taken away at any time. If all of us made a point to videotape ourselves the way we videotape our children–not as a fly on the wall per se, but in real settings doing real things. Then, maybe, I could do it. Then I wouldn’t be staring my mortality in the face by myself. Wouldn’t be looking at my daughter as one whose days with her mother are morbidly numbered. Would simply have videos of me baking cookies with her. Playing at the park with her. Throwing her in the air and laughing with her. Smiling and laughing with her Pop. And you’d have those videos too. With your spouse. With your sister. With your kids.

And if I do make it fifty years as my oncologist says? Then, when we’re eighty, we can pop these videos in and see how we’ve changed. We can marvel at the fashions we pursued, the hair we colored, and the ways we decorated our homes. Just as we’ll marvel at the changes in our kids’ voices, the ways their mannerisms have or haven’t changed over time, the obvious predeliction of one child for the law, another for education. And we’ll cherish our old selves the same ways we cherish our children’s younger years–giving each of our years the weight we so often attribute only to childhood. Getting out from behind the video camera and giving our own experiences some screen time.

What do you think?

4 replies on “self documentation”

What do I think? A million things. I am struck by the weight of the issue. Probably because, from my experience in your home, your days are some of the most fun-packed-yet-down-home days I’ve ever seen. I love how you really ENJOY your coffee, your music, your interior decorating…your daughter. Your life feels..well, so FULL of life. That’s what I’d want Zoe to recall and for you to look back on when you are 50 or 75! And I’d want Gabe and Elise to see the “me” in the mother that I am to them right now. (Hopefully with a little of your energy rubbed off on me) And as much as I hate seeing myself on “screen,” I think bathing in the journey and capturing the “reality” of the moment IS a precious gift we can give to our kids and ourselves.

Holy Mackeral, Natasha. I love you for your fun and for your seriousness. You seem to do both of them better than most people do just one.
As for this topic. . . . . you bring up a very sobering thought. If we all lived each day like it really is, that being a completely undeserved gift, then I think we would document the days, like we document Christmases and birthdays. But I am too often bogged down by the facts that I am in a robe and without any color on my face. I am afraid I will be documented and remembered by looking like a nasty, pale faced woman with too short yoga pants and big fat slippers.
As I already watch myself in videos with Jane, I see how I am constantly on top of the action, hovering like a helicopter. For me, seeing teh reality of how I am (hovering, fixing, cleaning in the background instead of playing), helps me realize who I really want to be. It gives me evidence of some changes I want to make and points me in the right direction.
Blah blah blah.
I don’t know where I was even going with all this except that I think we should all get over whatever issues we have and get the video camera out regularly.

Do it. I know it is a fraught subject, but speaking as someone who has to listen to 50-year-old LPs of a college choir to hear his father’s voice, my visceral response is: do it.

I’m finally sitting here catching up with this part of you before I go pick Eliza up from school. Thanks for using your gift with words to express such a difficult, intimate thing. Not surprisingly, I’ve thought through the same issue at length. I have appreciated the way you take photos and video, knowing that if our house burns down, or worse, you have more photos of Eliza than we do anyway! I’ve learned from you to do a bit more of that, to write letters to my kids, to be in the moment a bit more, and to do what I can to make sure my daughter remembers a mom who plays, and not just one who cooks, cleans and works a lot.
Over the past six months, I’ve found contentment in the idea that my friends and family can recount stories about me in my absence, that Eliza and JD know where all my journals are, that there are a few photos and videos. I can take that extra step and document things better, for sure, and maybe I’ll go dust off the video camera. But if I don’t, or if I do it in my own sweet time, that’s okay too.

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