20121109-042017.jpgPhoto above: Etched into freshly poured concrete at the Perry Rd project – “In memory of Keith E. Fulmer, 9/1/12, The Dream lives on in us.”

Time marches on and I find the days go well as long as I keep busy. The election this week set me off on a cycle of late nights once again, and sleep eludes me until I can no longer hold my eyelids open. But, while I await the sandman’s arrival, I see Keith’s smile in the photo across from me, a little smirk that made dimples in his cheeks, a twinkle in his eyes that spoke a bit of mischief, a challenge. Of course these were mostly photos taken by others. For when I was the photographer, Keith would often challenge me with a bit more rebellion, and sometimes a crude gesture, all in fun. Or, I would have to work a bit harder to capture those moments when he had his guard down, was a bit more contemplative, unaffected by the camera. It made my role as family photographer a little more challenging, working around the self-consciousness that was sometimes awkwardly expressed.

My role as photographer shifted a little when we traveled, even more so when I traveled alone. As much as Keith traveled in the South Pacific – living in Fiji, working on the dive boat, or flying to Tonga or Vanuatu – he was still much more of a homebody. When we moved back stateside to Michigan, he would be willing to drive long distances, though often complained of pain in his shoulders from doing so. But as weird as it may sound from a guy who had his pilot’s license, he hated flying commercially. Can’t say as I blamed him. If I could avoid it, I would. But I had yet to find a way to beam myself to a conference destination. More than a few times Keith and the kids would join me when I went to a conference, or we would join Keith for one of his symposium destinations. It was great fun, though a little stressful at times. And I admit a little envy for having to miss out on the family fun while I sat inside at a conference event. Still, we managed to work in some quality time together when we drove to these places, using it as an opportunity to “see America”.

But during the times when either of us would travel alone, we would always come back with pictures to share with the other. In my case, I was fairly prolific looking at these photos as an opportunity to add to my photo library of memories and resources for future art projects.

When Keith’s diagnosis was nearly confirmed in early June this year, we sat down on the big leather sofa in the living room and, page by page, photo by photo, we revisited our lives together. It was during those early reminiscences that Keith expressed for the first time his thoughts about his life. The odds were not good, he knew that. Yet he was not giving up. But he was coming to terms with the reality of his foreshortened future.

So, as he looked back through those albums filled with the iconic images that defined our lives, I heard him say it. “I have no regrets. I have no regrets for how I have lived my life.” That didn’t negate that he was deeply saddened, depressed, or even angry at times about this turn of events. But it became the anthem upon which the rest of the family would rally. No regrets. Seqa ni rarawa.

We had often talked about certain travels we wanted to do together. St. Petersburg, Russia was one of those places we had agreed would be a place we wanted to see. When the possibility came about, and an invitation for a Fulbright to Ekaterinburg, Russia came in September 2011, my mouth dropped. Here was our chance to do this. But it soon became clear that there would be too many obstacles to overcome to have us both travel at this time. Keith’s work making custom furniture was growing, and he had several shows the following May (2012) and too many other things to prepare for. Besides, spending three weeks in Ekaterinburg while I was teaching, before heading to St. Petersburg, just seemed too daunting for Keith to overcome. So the plan evolved to where I would go alone, become acquainted with travel in Russia, even visit St. Petersburg on my own, and then in the future, we would go back there together.

I never made it to St. Petersburg, canceling that part of the trip when Keith’s illness turned into something more ominous than the flu we thought he couldn’t shake. But this summer I continued to take photos often to share with Keith the progress on Perry Road, or to show him something I needed to ask him about, or a special moment that I wanted to share with him. The photos continued to be part of the archive of our lives together.

But as the summer faded, and the progression of Keith’s cancer moved relentlessly towards its ultimate end, I began to question myself. Eleven days before Keith passed away, I contemplated this issue in my diary.

Diary Question….
8/21/12, 4:47 am

Who will the photos be for now?

Over the years, when Keith was unable (or unwilling) to travel, especially if the flights were long, I would take many photos to share with him. Before, they were film-based and thus I would get them hurriedly developed and printed upon my return. More recently, I used a blog and photos – with their basic descriptions – uploaded for him to see almost in real time.

I wonder, though, how much energy he had to look when I kept a blog up with photos on my recent Fulbright to Russia.

Now I wonder as I travel … who are the photos really for? My guess….the child yet unborn.

Why do I continue to take photos of the Perry Road project’s progress? Is it just to document a process of renovation?

Who are they for? Are they to fulfill some personal need to continue to chronicle what was begun before Keith died?

Do I continue to photograph it and the nature around it out of some sort of habit I cannot break?

That is what led me to write that question in my diary. Who are the photos for? What purpose do they serve?

I contemplate some potential answers…

Icons of life, artifacts of an experience, an effort to freeze time, or hold a moment completely still for perpetuity. Do they sadden me when I see them? Sometimes. For when I look at them, I can feel myself being transported to that moment, or an illusive memory of that moment in time, seen from the context of decades past.

They are the stories that should continue to be told to the next generation. They are part of my personal history, my own story, Keith’s stories. They speak volumes, without the details of a formal narrative. And since Keith is not here to tell his stories, then they will have to speak more for him, too. They will be part of a family’s history, told around the campfires of future cool autumn nights.

Here is another entry I found where I was contemplating the meaning of all those photos gathering on the shelf:

on a shelf…

…the photos all fit on the shelf down in the basement. Albums representing an entire family’s history fit under the coffee table. A few select photos, framed, hang on the walls, icons of a family life.

How do these tell our story? Is it how we wish to build our history? who will retell it to the next generation? or will the stories be lost?

The photos, all boxed up and mostly labeled, fit on a shelf in the basement, to become archaeological relics of a lifetime gone by. How will the new story be told? What new roads will we travel? and who will travel them? Who will join us? and who will leave us?

The photos, selected and still loose, sit stuffed into an album yet to be created, an album that captures snapshot moments of a life gone by, memories still fresh as the morning dew, 34 years in the making… a worn-out coffee table shelf holds a family’s history, ready to be retold during quiet moments of reflection, or when the urge to cry overcomes me and I desire to re-enter memories of a life gone by, a life well-lived, well-built of love, creativity, beauty, caring, family…

What life shall I build now?

— mjf, 9/19/12

Photo below: Large fungi grow off an old tree stump behind the workshop at Perry Road. I felt like Alice coming across this giant, waiting for a pipe-smoking caterpiller to show up.


[Note to reader: I wrote this to someone who shared feelings of guilt about not being there often enough during their best friend’s dying days. I hope it provides some relief to others who share the same feelings. – mjf]

Dear friend,

I wanted to write to you to express some thoughts about how you may be feeling about your loss, your dearest friend’s death.

You mentioned that when you saw your friend’s husband at the funeral that he came to you with a big hug saying how you were such a good friend to her. But you felt you didn’t seem to deserve that, in part because you seemed to feel guilty for not spending much time in person with her in the last year.

But I’m here to tell you that your friendship was felt and truly appreciated. This is based on my own experience, especially with some of my and Keith’s closest friends, ones who could not be there often in those three months.

There is a difference between friends who impose that friendship upon the other, and those – like you were to your friend – whose friendship was strong without imposition, regardless of the physical distance that separated you. Those small gifts you sent, the emails to her daughter or her husband, each and every one of those small moments were huge. For they carried with them the strength of years of sharing and love, support and understanding. They carried with them a gentleness that acknowledged that sometimes space is good, and emotional support is more than for the dying, it is for those who suffer the waiting.

I’m sure your friend – during any coherent moments in her last weeks and days – recognized that. I’m sure she could see it in the faces of her loved ones, that they were receiving the love of dear friends like you who helped buoy them from behind so they could face what was ahead for them.

Be thankful for the gift of friendship and love you shared with your dear friend. And continue to support her children and husband with the same gentle touch that you shared before. Let them know your pain, too. For it will remind them that the grief is not theirs alone, and the journey to healing is one borne with others who knew your friend in different ways. It is an awakening journey that allows them to see their loved one in a different light. It is a journey that will be different for each of you, but one that will be beautiful and painful nonetheless.

Be thankful knowing that your small touches even from a distance were probably more appreciated than all the impositions of personal space that those geographically closer may have been unable to avoid. As harsh as it may seem, there are times during this summer’s dying process that I wished others would have let us be. Email was so much easier… I could read it on my own time, cry a little when it touched a nerve, and close the letter. But a phone call was harder to ignore, though still possible. Text messages were easier. They didn’t require the power of speech, something that often eluded me for my voice would begin cracking from the pain of retelling some worry. But the occasional email, or the simple voicemail saying “I am thinking of you and I don’t expect you to call me back” was often enough. As harsh as it sounds, having someone there all the time was sometimes more stressful than being left alone. It is hard to say, really, how much is enough. I’m sure it’s different for others. But my little family found that the distraction of the doorbell, or the pressure of wanting to find something for another to do because you didn’t want them to feel their offer of help was unappreciated… it sometimes added more pressure to a stressed family rather than help relieve any.

So I share this thought with you, that you’ll lift any veils of guilt from your conscience about not being there more, especially in the end. They knew you were thinking of them. They knew they could call on you. And they knew you loved and cared for them deeply, and would share in their pain of losing someone. And just knowing how much you meant to your friend, and how you reached out with those simple and kind gestures, ones that were unimposing but probably always arriving at just the right time, those helped them ride out the last waves of an impossible storm. You were one of those precious life-rafts they could reach out to hold onto when the time came. And it did. That hug at the funeral said it all.

With warmest wishes and sincerity,