(Preface) THE BOX
You may not realize it, but every time you bring your camera up to your eye you’re making decisions about composition. Simply put, composition is how you choose to frame the picture you’re about to make. ~
Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.
With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.
Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met when I worked as a photojournalist in South Africa. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me, in a flack jacket, flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.
Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.
Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away. I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.
Before he left, our daughters bought pouches and filled them with small stones for him to carry. Dropped from their palms were a rose quartz, an agate and bloodstone offering him both love and protection. Wrapped around the stones was a note from me, a bandage holding tight the wounds that had not yet begun to bleed. My message wasn’t original, just words about a field and forgiveness, said best by Rumi. I knew it was us he was questioning, our marriage and what it meant to him. He’d made this clear. I could only let go as I watched him gather his families hopes and dreams in his pockets and set out to meet himself. He hadn’t been asking for permission. This was solely about him.
Little girl’s fingers left smears on a wrinkled sheet of paper that was taped to the kitchen wall. It was a map pulled from his pocket before leaving on his journey; handed to our daughters age eight and ten for them to follow the pilgrimage he was taking through Northern Spain. At first glance it appeared so utterly basic, a display of my husband’s intentions that showed absolutely nothing of what was happening to the life of our family. It was December of 2008 and he was to walk the Camino or what is also known as the Way of St. James to hold back the years, renew a spirit that hadn’t yet found what it was searching for. As he left, embracing me at the train station, he said, “I love you, I hope I work out my shit,” neither his lips nor eyes met mine. I was scared but I had respect for what he was doing.
As our daughters traced his route, the places, Pamplona and Logrono became real to us as did his pain. “My feet are freezing and my knees are aching.” The pilgrim with a cell phone relayed to his family. It was December and cold. This trek, this road to Santiago normally takes people a month to complete, if not longer but it was never his plan to walk the entire way. He didn’t have that kind of time to work out his shit. I awaited his decision around Burgos, where he was probably making a plan to accelerate; depart from the path he was on and take a bus toward the ceremonial end where seekers arrive at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
One needs to walk the last one hundred kilometers to earn the Compostela or official certificate. The pilgrim can state whether the goal of his or her Camino is ‘religious’, ‘religious and other.’ or just ‘other’. “Just other” would have sufficed. It was enough for the pilgrim office and it would have been enough for me yet he insisted, by way of explanation to our daughters, that he was going to a place where people who believe in God go to figure out their lives. I’d never heard him speak this way before. God had never been a focal point in our family, at least not been used as a reason to do anything,
Late one night another text came in. His backpack has been stolen and he was at a police station. Some considerate pilgrims from Brazil had lent him clothes and even money. It was three in the morning but I didn’t question the strange hour. I just thought of him in a cold police station, exhausted and thinking of me. An hour later as the phone laid next to me in bed, where he used to lay, it chimed and a text came in. My eyes met the screen of my flip phone and I read, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, it’s me who needs to change. I love you.”
The gasp of air allowed, as I surfaced into the world again was brief. Within a day I eddied, taken down again by my husband’s narrative. With Christmas less than two weeks away, while shopping for gifts, another message from him came in: “I’ve decided I’ve had enough of these so-called pilgrims. I’m checking into an all-inclusive resort in Tunis. Hope you aren’t too disappointed.”
In retrospect, I can only guess that text was meant to explain the suntan he was going to come home with and the pounds he kept on rather than shed. The day he returned he asked us to pick him up at Zurich’s main train station. My children ran to him; I received a hug and kiss from arms and lips that felt like they’d travelled far away but missed the return flight.
My husband sat next to me in my car asking if he looked “enlightened.” The mere fact that he was asking told me otherwise, but I lied, and weakly replied, “Yeah, you look good.”
As he excitedly told our daughters how he’d ridden horses on the beach, a sense of nausea enveloped me. The contrast in our emotions couldn’t have been more stark. Being held in limbo for the last few months, wondering if my family was about to fall apart, had been a personal hell—and it had been made that much more difficult by the mind-boggling fact that my husband was coming home just two days before Christmas. His light and breezy mood was emoting neither sympathy for what I’d been through nor reconciliation. It was something else—something outside the realm of emotions I’d been anticipating. Whatever was going on with him, I felt, it had very little to do with me.
Our daughters were asking questions from the backseat, but their father was struggling to answer them, unable to remember the names of the places we’d been tracing on the map he’d given us of Spain.
“That place where they run the bulls, Pamp . . .”
“Pamplona,” I awkwardly finished his sentence for him.
Staring straight ahead, I drove through the streets of Zurich, where holiday shoppers were out in full force. The city, to me, is one of the most beautiful in the world; its old buildings, steeples, and narrow streets appear to be designed specifically for the perfect Christmas scene. In the old town, a market sprawls, offering up baked goods and Glühwein to keep shoppers warm during the holidays. Next to the lake, people young and old gather in a tent around vats of warm liquid beeswax, and make candles. This activity had become a family tradition of ours over the years: with a long wick looped over our fingers we would dip into the vat, patiently pause to let it cool, then dip again—sometimes for hours. Even as our feet became cold and our bellies began to rumble, the vision of what we were creating impelled us to keep going. Time passed; layer upon layer strengthened what was once a spindly string into a form capable of emitting light and warmth.
Today, we returned to our house—the one we’d bought just two years prior—and I tried to read the signals, looking for the warmth that should come from someone who’s left his wife on tenterhooks as he contemplated life for the past three weeks. The man who had been my husband seemed to have disappeared, and I was quickly becoming aware that I would never have a sense of that person again. His actions were not one of a father returning for Christmas—he was already a step ahead of the holidays, if not twenty. His first priority when he returned was to get bindings mounted on a new pair of skis, even though we hadn’t even spoken about going on a trip to the mountains.
The obvious conversation that had to take place—the one that was the culmination of three months of being held in limbo—was left to me to instigate. “When are we going to talk?” (When are you going to put this nightmare to an end?) I finally asked.
We sat together on the sofa, and he spun a disingenuous tale of how he figured out it was time to unravel himself from the fabric of our family (though he said it in a far less poetic tone). If I were to try to remember it verbatim, I’d fail. My mind was spinning trying to make sense of what was being said. I strained to hear something real, something authentic to help me focus. Eventually I did. With absurd yet heartbreaking clarity, this moment of my life was defined, in one sentence, by my husband. “I don’t want this, I want to travel, see other cultures”
How could anyone who had ever known me, yet alone loved me ever say such words? In an instant, I was faced not only with his callous indifference but the immediate impulse to survive this by taking responsibility for the things I’d neglected that had once been fundamental to my character. “This is not my story.” I kept saying to myself as I felt my world shatter around me.
The day before Christmas, at dinner, while my husband slept off what later I would learn was jet lag, I had to address my daughters’ questions and tell them that Daddy wasn’t back—that he was leaving. I asked him to stay until December 29th, to help with the kids. He initially agreed, but by the 27th he had grabbed his skis and headed out the door.
Things weren’t adding up at first; it was the cliché credit card statement that ultimately gave it away. Initially I paid little attention to it—my husband may be going through a midlife crisis, but I thought I knew what he was and wasn’t capable of. I mean, who would make up a story about doing a spiritual pilgrimage and think they could get away with it? Furthermore, the entries on the American Express bill were in Spanish, that made sense since he’d been in Spain—right?
It was during a very long and confused call to my mother in Canada, late one night, that I was prompted to retrieve the statement to take a more careful look. Before a long list of charges was a currency I didn’t recognize. It was neither that of the Swiss Franc or the Euro. With my finger (the one that had been following a map of Southern Spain for the last three weeks) I scanned a particular transaction, one from a women’s boutique . . . in Argentina. On closer examination, I realized that none of the transactions were from Spain. All of them—including hotels, restaurants, and shops—had been charged in Argentina. My husband had been there for the past three weeks, and he’d been there with the woman he’d been having an affair with for quite some time. There were no cold toes or aching feet; no stolen backpacks. The only revelations stemming from his journey were the ones slamming into me full force as I shakily told my Mom I had to go.
“Did God tell Daddy to leave us?”
It was Jemima, staring up at me in the cold light of the next day. Of my two daughters, she is the one who always has a question and is never satisfied with a quick answer. What are the rules here, I wondered. He had done whatever he wanted so what were the rules? How am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to say? The responsibility I felt was crushing but it also brought clarity; not for the state of our family but to be as true to myself and daughters as I possibly could. In the absolute silence after my daughter’s question, this certainty pressed through me.
It’s never left.
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