I was half a country away when my father died in a hospital in my hometown of Buffalo, New York after several days in intensive care for a bacterial infection. He had also been undergoing treatment for leukemia, so he had no immune system to fight it. I live in Dallas but was at a professional conference in Austin when my sister relayed the news that his blood pressure was dropping. I booked the first flight I could, but it wasn’t soon enough.
I didn’t see him at all in the three months following his cancer diagnosis. I didn’t see the illness consume him. He always sounded fine when I called, talking about the hockey playoffs and assuring me the chemo was going well. (But then there were the times Mom said he couldn’t come to the phone.) There seemed to be no need to rush up for a visit. My three older siblings, scattered across the country, had been able to visit during his first two rounds of treatment. I had planned to see him during the third round, the round his doctors would eventually cancel so they could focus on the infection.
The day before the funeral, I looked at his cheap, pay-as-you-go cellphone and saw a thumbnail photo in a corner of his home screen. I tapped it, bloop, and it became full size. It was him. His face, gray, sunken, filled nearly the whole frame. He was in a hospital gown. His cheeks—full when I saw him six months earlier—hung below his jawline and were covered in stubble. His wispy white hair was uncombed. His eyebrows, a mess. I had never seen him like this before.
The picture’s metadata said it was taken a minute past noon on the day before he died, using the phone’s front-facing camera. A selfie? Do people take selfies on their deathbeds? The phone must have been held low and a little to the left; the angle exaggerated the size of his chin. After the funeral, I asked my oldest sister about the picture. When I held up the phone to show her, she covered her face with her hands. She had already seen it. Though Mom wasn’t adept with the phone, she had seen it, too. It didn’t faze her. She had already seen everything. When I asked her about it, she mentioned that she had brought him his electric razor that morning. The picture must have been taken just before he shaved. She told me that when he did shave this time, he left a goatee; he wanted to try “the ZZ Top look,” a beard that takes years to grow. But he had only another 32 hours.
I sent myself a copy of the picture so I could study it further. I kept wondering why he would take it. To see how he looked? To chart the depth of his decline? Or was it meant as a sad valedictory, an attempt at summing himself up? It must have been in a rare moment of lucidity during the week he spent in the hospital. Why was that the action he took with his limited time and strength? I know why people take selfies, but why did he, an 85-year-old man who never had a social media account? Who did he want to show himself to? Who was meant to scrutinize the image? What were they meant to conclude?
Questions about what the deceased were thinking are, necessarily, hard to answer. Dead men tell no tales, so we speak for them. We imagine them looking down and smiling upon us, as even a president has said in a State of the Union address. We say we must continue their work—which usually means our work. I wanted to get into my father’s head. But could I even get out of my own?
I needed to anchor my speculation about his state of mind in solid facts. I thumbed through the phone’s contents and found three more pictures that were obvious selfies, taken in a happier and more conventional context: on a sailboat in the Finger Lakes, in central New York state, during a trip my parents took to celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary in early autumn, six months before he knew he was sick. Two of the pictures are of him and Mom. One is a shot of just himself, a true selfie. Actually, it’s mostly a picture of the sail, its seven lines of stitching coming up from the boom. Dad’s face is in just the bottom half of the frame, which ends just below his chin. He is wearing a white cotton bucket hat that echoes the sailcloth. He’s squinting slightly, his eyes half-moons. This picture was probably a practice shot. Looking at it, I can almost see him asking, “Now what’s going on here?” He looks slightly baffled. More than that, he appears to be observing his experiment, looking through the screen and into the phone to find its secrets. A line has formed across the bridge of his nose. It’s a perfectly clear day and the sun is shining on him.
So he knew how to take a selfie. The final picture wasn’t an accident. I looked at it again. He’s squinting into the lens, but not from curiosity or sun-blindness. He’s in pain. His eyes are dark, the whites invisible. The line across his nose is even deeper than it was on the boat.
Maybe he was thinking something profound, knowing the end was near, something like, “So this is it. This is what’s left.” Would he do that? I’d like to imagine that I would in his condition, and it gratifies me to think he would, too. I didn’t know him as the self-reflective type. His curiosity seemed to extend outward, toward mechanical and electrical objects. His career began in typewriter repair and ended in information technology management for a local supermarket chain. He kept no journal. Even his few emails to me were terse. I thought of the picture as something like a personal essay, an effort at public self-understanding. I recognized the impulse; part of the shock, when I first stumbled upon the photo, came from seeing him act upon it.
Maybe the selfie was a final document, intended for his youngest son to find, so I could see him alive one last time. Or is that just my narcissism talking? Because my wife and I don’t have children, I can’t say how much space parenthood occupies in someone’s head. But I assume people think of their children while dying. Don’t we consider slipping into darkness surrounded by progeny as the best possible death? I won’t have that opportunity. My father did, but so far as I know, he didn’t call for us. Did he pass up his chance, embarrassed, perhaps, to do something so shameful as die in front of our eyes? Or did he not realize the moment was coming? Maybe he took the selfie because he knew by then it was too late to fulfill the ideal of the good death, and the photo was his approximation of the experience, perhaps even an apology, an admission that this was the best he could do. But this all sounds like me. It’s my pride, my fear, my regret talking.
In meandering conversations while drinking Manhattans on the back deck while I was home for the funeral, Mom told me how he struggled during his last days. I hear his anger as she quotes his demand that she call the funeral home near their church. His instruction that he wanted to be cremated: “Fry me!” His insistence that the nurses “pull the plug.” I don’t see anger in the photo so much as the despair of someone in the process of giving up on life, a feeling I cannot imagine. But if it’s a selfie, then it also shows a man who desired to be seen—who still desired something that wasn’t death. He wanted to represent himself, to make a record. I could not trace his line of thinking precisely, but I knew it had a direction.
The funeral home asked for a picture of him. My mom found an old wallet-size portrait that his company must have taken two decades earlier, but we didn’t get it to them in time for the mortician to make him up right for the viewing. The corners of his mouth curled up in a way they never did in life. Something about his nose was off: too trapezoidal. His hair was neatly trimmed, but combed back, away from his face, revealing a high widow’s peak I’d never seen before. He’d had the same haircut as long as I knew him – a neat side-part, with his hair drawn straight across, left to right. At least he was clean-shaven for his final public appearance. He was wearing a broad, burgundy Hermès tie picked up on a trip my parents took to Paris in the early Seventies. The funeral home did its best to fill out his shirt and jacket, but they were still far too loose. I patted his arm and felt the tissue paper stuffed in his sleeve.
Warner Sallman’s portrait of Jesus—you know it, it’s the one with the lustrous, shampoo-commercial hair, dewy complexion and far-off gaze—hung above the casket. We know, through reasonable historical conjecture, that Jesus didn’t look like that. We also know, as a matter of cultural faith shaped by endless reproduction of that image, that he did.
The uncanniness of my father’s appearance at the viewing softened the blow of his death. From certain angles, it looked like someone else. Not my dad. My dad wasn’t dead. But then a familiar liver spot on his hand or something about his fleshy upper lip would give him away. Shit. As my mother, siblings and nieces chatted with old friends and acquaintances, my wife slipped out of the parlor for a while to walk up and down the suburban street and call her parents. I look a lot like my dad. I have his hairline, his eyes, his nose, his chin, his heavy legs. Seeing him—seeing me—in the casket shook her up.
Cellphone photos of people we love do the same work as wallet-size prints and daguerreotype lockets did in centuries past. They help us deal with absence. Religious imagery does, too. According to the Book of Genesis, we don’t even have to make a picture to remind ourselves of the absent God. Human beings are made in his image and likeness, so to see one of us is to see the creator. The New Testament takes the connection between God’s image and ours even further. The absent God became one of us, but then he, too, went away. Artists who want to make him present again have no chance at an accurate depiction; the gospel is silent on Christ’s appearance. So they’ve made him in their image instead.
Religious images are at least as much an effort to understand ourselves as they are to understand God. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote, “Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge. By his God thou knowest the man, and by the man his God; the two are identical.” To Feuerbach, every god is a human creation, a statement of ideals. “Zeus is the strongest of all gods,” he wrote. “Why? Because physical strength in itself was something glorious and divine to the Greeks.” Warner Sallman belonged to a Swedish Evangelical church in Chicago. His Jesus looks like a soft-hearted white Protestant. If Feuerbach is right, then all our drawing and painting and talking about God is nothing more than us projecting our current societal values, if not just our individual preferences, onto the largest screen imaginable. We sit in the theater and applaud who we believe ourselves to be.
Even as a practicing Catholic, I can’t dismiss Feuerbach’s critique. I’m not sure we can avoid projection, in religious matters or otherwise. “Man is nothing without an object,” Feuerbach wrote. When we project ourselves onto others, we aren’t only fulfilling latent wishes or aggrandizing ourselves. We are seeking knowledge. What I know about myself helps me understand my absent father. Because half my chromosomes belonged to him, I know that his ZZ Top remark was an absurd joke. I can’t grow a good beard, and neither could he. Mine comes in slow and patchy, hardly worth cultivating. My body reflects my dad’s even down to its involuntary behavior. This is most apparent to me at night, when I’m tired and my guard is down. I’ll be lying on the couch and catch myself in one of his postures: my left arm contorted over my head and my fingers on my forehead, as if I’m trying to pull my eyebrows up. Or I’ll cross my feet at the ankle and roll one foot around in a circle against the other, like he did when watching a game or Fox News.
It’s harder to say how psychologically similar I am to my dad, not only because the mind is invisible but because in any close relationship, the lines of influence run in both directions. Sometimes he seemed to imitate me, his interests following mine. For instance, I think it was only after I started playing hockey at age six that he started playing in a late-night beer league with other middle-aged men. But why did I want to play in the first place? Did I have a spontaneous desire, or did I pick up on a latent desire he had for himself? He had been a longtime hockey fan, holding season tickets for the Buffalo Sabres since the team was founded. He watched Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday in winter on the CBC station that came in from Toronto. You could tell what period it was in the game by how many empty bottles of Labatt’s Blue Light he had lined up on the kitchen counter.
He drove me to practices and games for years, through high school. We parsed my performance on car rides home and over dinner. He often claimed I was too stiff on the ice—he called me “iron man” and tried to coach me into loosening up. I don’t know what he thought of himself as a player. Did he think he was an iron man, too? I never even saw him leave for the rink, sticks and equipment bag in hand. His games started after I was already in bed. In the morning, I never asked how they went.
For a year and a half after my father’s death, I took comfort in knowing that the range of things he might have been thinking when his phone’s virtual shutter clicked was limited to the possible reasons for taking a selfie. I could get into the vicinity of his thoughts—his regret, his wish to show himself to me—and even if I was projecting my own onto him, I could suppose that I was only adding to an image I knew was roughly accurate, like those digital reproductions of Jesus’s appearance, based on first-century skulls unearthed in Palestine, that circulate online every few years. It was something.
Then, while I was visiting my mother before Christmas, I mentioned the photo to her again. “I don’t even know why I took that stupid picture!” she said. What? She took it? Cracks formed in the rudimentary narrative I had built upon the photograph. I asked her to explain. She described having trouble with the phone, miming for me the action of awkwardly turning the phone around, holding it with both hands while trying to touch the right button on the screen. She made it sound like the picture was a lark, just something to do on an anxious day.
I was dumbfounded. Suddenly, I had nothing to go on. If the picture was a selfie, it told me something about my dad’s interiority. It documented not only his appearance but also his intention. If it wasn’t a selfie, it didn’t tell me anything. He wasn’t taking an action. He was a passive subject. The idea that he had taken the picture, that he was the agent, tethered me to his state of mind. Without it, the cluster of his possible thoughts floated away to infinity.
My mom and I had talked about the picture before. I know I had told her I thought Dad took it; she never said he didn’t. We tend the take the most recent thing someone said as the truth, as if everyone is always revising their stories for accuracy. It’s possible she misremembered during our later conversation, but her account of the act of taking the picture was too precise, too plausible to be a mistake. If she was taking a photo with the front-facing camera, trying to center it on my dad’s face while sitting or standing at his bedside, it would have required some awkward positioning. I can see her doing it.
I let months pass between the times I ask my mom about that moment. I don’t like putting her on the spot. It had to have been the hardest week of her life, cleaning the bathroom with bleach multiple times a day as the infection worked through my father’s guts, finally taking him to the hospital and staying with him until he drew his last shallow breaths. I worry about putting needless pressure on her. Asking about someone’s actions can sound a lot like questioning them; I’m not confident I can stay on the right side of that line in a lengthy conversation about the picture. Besides, I wouldn’t want someone prying into the actions I took while my wife was dying. I don’t want to think about her dying at all. I also worry my mom will think I’m obsessed with the picture, with the death I was not around to witness—which is true, of course. I didn’t learn to worry like this from my dad. I learned it from her.
To make an image of another person, in matter or in the mind, is risky. You take someone in all their complexity and autonomy, and, using your shoddy skills and an unreliable medium, reduce them to a single moment. “Every image is already a caricature,” Emmanuel Levinas wrote in a 1948 essay. “But this caricature turns into something tragic.” A statue, a painting, a photograph: each one oversimplifies a free subject and then condemns it to inexorable fate. If that’s true, then when I lost the false connection to my dad’s mind that the picture represented, the mystery of his full humanity was liberated. Levinas might say that the relation between my late father and me thereby became more ethical. But that’s little consolation for my disappointment over losing the knowledge of him I thought I had.
The risk of representation is even greater where God is concerned. If God is infinite, then he’s not reducible to an image; in fact, God isn’t even reducible to the male pronoun I used in this sentence. Because of the risk of blasphemy, Islam and Judaism forbid visual depictions of God altogether. The early Byzantine Christian Church pioneered devotional art—mosaics, ivory carvings and gold-ground icons of holy figures—then destroyed much of it in the eighth and ninth centuries. Protestant reformers did the same in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Iconoclasts feared that people would worship the image instead of the being it represents. They removed devotion from the senses and placed it in language. Christian iconoclasm seems like a fit of radical fury, like throwing every dish in the house at your spouse in a drunken argument. And historical accounts of it emphasize irrational violence: paintings burned, statues hauled down by rope, stained-glass windows smashed. But iconoclasm springs from a strong sense of caution, from the idea that it’s better not to make images at all than to make ones that don’t do justice to the original. All reproductions are unfaithful, in both senses of the term.
My wife and I don’t know what it’s like to see a smaller version of ourselves out in the world to admire and worry over and, at times, I assume, hate. To fret about what your child’s behavior says about yourself. We were cautious, concerned about establishing our academic careers. We didn’t even meet until we were around thirty. Then we lived apart for five years seeking degrees and postdocs and permanent jobs. For three of those years, including our first year of marriage, we were on opposite coasts. Our commitment to solving academia’s two-body problem made it hard for us to create a third. My parents weren’t cautious at all. They had kids immediately. I imagine Mom and Dad in their apartment by the Buffalo Zoo in 1960, staring at their first-born daughter and trying to figure out what she needed, how she worked. What the Psalms say about the unbelievers’ idol is also true of an infant: she has a mouth but cannot speak. “What does she want? What would I want?” Our first desires are the ones others project onto us, and once they’re imprinted, they’re hard to erase.
The responsibility of parenting paralyzes me. I even worry when my students start to believe what I tell them, or when they say that they made a decision—changed their major or quit a job—because of something they learned in my class. (I admit, this happens rarely.) To raise a child, or to teach another’s child, is to risk getting it wrong and screwing up someone else’s life. My wife and I didn’t set out to be iconoclasts, but, as it has turned out, we shall make no fleshy image of ourselves.
It’s tempting to view our childlessness as a heroic stand against narcissism, as part of a broader moral program of not imposing ourselves on the world, of allowing others to be simply who they are, on their own terms. Levinas thought that if we could manage to let go of the will to force ourselves on others, we would see the infinite in each face we encounter. On his account, if we rejected projection, then we could greet strangers and care for our dying parents without preconceptions. We could give up the self-centered quest to think other people’s thoughts for them. Maybe iconoclasm is the one path to moral decency.
But I think it would be a mistake to banish projection from our ethical repertoire. It’s true that we can’t know the inner lives of others. We certainly can’t know the inner lives of strangers. Nevertheless, we have to bring our limited knowledge to bear on our interactions with other people, living or dead, and do our best by them. That often requires filling out our pictures of them with a self-portrait. There is no other way. Even if we could set aside everything that makes projection possible—self-knowledge, imagination, the ability to recognize our common humanity—we shouldn’t, because those things also make ethics possible. Even the most compassionate moral ideals are built from the same materials. Take the Golden Rule. It asks you to assume that others want to be treated the way you do. It’s saying to love in them what is best in you.
After nearly three years of thinking about the picture, I still often imagine I don’t know that my mom took it; I still view it as a self-disclosing message from my father to me. I keep going back to the moment I first saw it, keep speculating about what he was trying to say in perhaps his final creative action. It’s clear that I saw the photo as meaningful because I so badly wanted one more quantum of meaning from him, one more word, one more tap of his thumb on a screen.
My only certainty is that I wish I had been there to see him the day it was taken. I regret my failure to read the signs and know he wouldn’t make it through his stay in intensive care. I regret going to that conference, where I had to clamp down all thoughts of him so I could schmooze people at a reception in a hotel ballroom while holding a nine-dollar bottle of Shiner Bock swaddled in napkins. The thought had occurred to me—and has only intensified—that a good son would have been in Buffalo instead and been some comfort to him and to my mom. They didn’t say they wanted me there, but they must have, right? I’m projecting again. Thinking about the photo isn’t only how I deal with his absence now; it’s how I deal with mine then.
But what else can I do? I want to be—to have been—the sort of son who knows when to rush to a parent’s bedside. And regardless of what my dad desired at the moment the picture was taken, what I want, now, is a father who wanted me with him in his final days. I fear that, in fact, I had that without realizing it. But I also think that wish may be too much to ask, not because I think he didn’t love me enough, but because I suspect his pain was so great, he didn’t have it in him to wish for anything other than its cessation. But he had the wherewithal to shave. But he could joke about ZZ Top. But.
My skull is a hall of mirrors. I’m inside, chasing a figure who looks like him but who always eludes me, turning when I turn, whose face I never quite get to see.