Learning to See

Carrying a camera with me has become as natural as rubbing the sleep from my eyes as I wake each morning. Be it my phone or one of my various cameras, I’ve become methodical in my documentation of moments; these hours or minutes—or seconds, even—that I know belong forever. I tell myself, convincingly and facetiously, “What joy it will be to look back one day, upon my youth and innocence, and recall with such import the sights I’ve seen and the places I’ve been.”

Looking through the lens teaches you to see differently. You learn to cherish the way the ever-changing light colours our world. You wait for those moments, undefinable, that balance the scene just so. When, explaining the frame later, you might say, “I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” knowing the lie in that statement and the hours of solitude that went into that single exposure.

Even without the viewfinder, you are constantly framing, composing and studying. You see a man lighting his cigarette in the semidarkness of dusk and ruminate about the exposure and shutter speed to capture the fleeting spark of the lighter. It’s starting to rain a bit—could I capture those drops as well? I’ve seen first the first kiss of newlyweds and the fresh cries of a newborn babe, through the glass. Like an artist who studies her subject to such an extent that no freckle or hair goes unchecked, you learn to see the little things, the details and nuances that before went unnoticed. It’s changed how you see the world.

“Be in the moment, still” I tell myself.

“Don’t forget to look.”

This changes as one transitions into parenthood, increasing in breadth and volume to embarrassing maxima. Perpetual exhaustion and the fleeting stages of early life combine into a force unmatched, and nary a day goes by without a snapshot of a smile, or a capture of a quiet moment when she exhales, nestling into the warmth of her mother’s loving arms.

“They grow up so quickly,” they say.

“They change before your eyes.”

And so, you document. You collect and archive, fastidious about the process.

But then it happens. A silent reminder. It’s Tuesday night, and the bathwater is cooling to a temperature more suitable for a summer afternoon than an autumn eve. The room is quiet, save for the gentle slosh of the tub. She yawns, and the energy dissolves like the tiny bubbles slowly popping around her. With a reluctance any reasonable person would feel about leaving a warm bath behind, she lifts her small and wrinkly hands, without words saying, “hold you.”

(I smile that she still confuses “you” and “me” sometimes, reminded of her infancy.)

Wrapped in a towel not much bigger than a pillowcase and standing on the floor as I drain the tub, she twirls slowly from side to side. Grinning just because, she stands there: unabashed, beautiful, and perfect. This is a moment I want forever.

My camera is in another room, downstairs. I know this because I’d drained the battery just this afternoon at the park. What a shame: the orangey light coming through the blinds is glorious. I recall weeks ago when—after the same bath and bubbles—I paused for a few short seconds to snap a cute shot before moving on to the bedtime routine. Oh, how she’s grown.

“I could grab my phone, its just in the bedroom.”

Or is it? Did I leave it in the car, or was that yesterday?

She giggles and draws me back in, and as quickly as it mattered it no longer does. She’s still twirling, though now it seems as if in slow motion. Frustrated because I’m unable to document this moment, I notice a bead of water tracing a path from her hairline to her nose, and after pausing a second it summons the courage to drop to the floor. It breaks on the tile and my heart softens. The drips leave faint trails in their wake, a network on her skin like rivers racing toward the sea. There are flecks of colour in her left iris, which the sun sets fire to at the right moments in her slow rotation—and I wonder, “do my eyes have the same?”

There is a warmth to her skin, flush from the now tepid bathwater. The gentle rhythm of her breathing, and her tiny hands gripping the towel to ensure the warm air stays trapped. Her hair is curly, like my fathers. I see her toes curl into the mat, then uncurl—as if only to feel the cotton between her toes, and then it’s absence.

“Your mother does that,” I think to myself. I saw it the summer we met.

There are blue bunnies on her towel, the only cool notes in this warm glow.

She’s looking at me, the gaze unwavering though her head follows her body through its gentle, swing-set arc. There is no question, no anticipation, no reason. She does not say a word, only waiting quietly and patiently for me to pull her up into my arms. Like I always do. She offers me a look, and a smile, and a short while to study.

“See me, Daddy?” I hear her voice say.

Yes, sweetheart. I see.

Awkward Silence

First published Nov 2015