My grandmother passed away, summer of 2013 … barely a year after we moved to Iowa to be closer to our family. You have to understand … my family is incredibly small … just me and my husband and our littles, my parents and siblings, my uncle John and cousin Jason, and grandma. For the years leading up to that, we lived in California … we tried to go back for the summers as often as we could. My sister had Bay in the spring of 2012 … we stayed in Wisconsin for two months and visited my grandma every chance we got. I remember the whole family came in for my sister’s college graduation, and the girls and I sat around my uncles table with my grandma afterward … she told us about her brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents … I pieced together a family tree on a scrap piece of paper. I learned so much during that time … Looking back, I probably should have seen this coming, and perhaps I did but couldn’t admit it. She rarely spoke of my grandpa, for as long as I can remember, and whenever she did, she referred to him as, “my husband.” That spring, she finally opened up about him, just a bit … little things, what his family did, where they were from … apparently, we have this huge family we’ve never even met. Crazy.
Anyway, I made it a point to capture the things I wanted to remember about her, and I don’t even know why it was so important to do it right then, but I just had this urge to … a calling from within. I photographed her playing scrabble, choosing her words, her cup of tea, her hands … her hands with my little’s hands, them together, laughing whilst playing slap jack … I needed those memories for them … for me. I’m so glad I have them … it’s insane to think how amazing she looked then, and how quickly she went downhill in the months to come.
When we finally left to go home, I squeezed her tight … stared at her as if to memorize her face … and we left.
When I got home, I had this feeling … that voice inside my head was telling me it wouldn’t be long, and that we needed to be closer. I begged my husband to find orders to Wisconsin … we got Iowa. We moved late summer of 2012. We visited my grandma as often as we could, given the byrd child was now in public school. Winter was rough, so we didn’t get to spend Christmas up there. We visited during spring and summer … and that’s when we found out about the cancer. I was so angry … so full of regret for not talking to her more, not writing, not visiting more … I
wanted needed more time.
The cancer spread so fast, and she had very little time left … weeks … turned into days … turned into hours. I made several trips up there in between it all … each time I went back she was worse than the last. The time before last that we visited, I made a point to photograph her with the littles. My sister called my dad, who’d planned to be out in a couple of weeks, and told him that he had to come now. The airline changed his fight without hesitation or money haggling, and he was there. I feel like my grandma was waiting for him … for my daddy … hanging on to say goodbye to her baby boy.
The next trip up, we arrived very late at night … the girls saw her briefly to say “I love you, grandma” … and then they went back to my uncle’s house. I stayed with my dad and held my grandma, singing her favorite hymns … praying with her … for her … I don’t even remember if I told her “I love you” … but I do remember her asking me, “Why won’t he just take me? I’m ready.” I told her he would soon, in His time, and that she’d be home with grandpa soon, and not in pain. At this point, she could barely talk … or breathe.
I went home around 1am, crying as I drove those back country roads … thinking I’d see her in the morning. I climbed into bed with my littles and when I awoke, it was to my frantic sister … crying, screaming that she was gone … she had passed away in her sleep.
My brothers were boarding a plane when she passed, or about to do so … my dad wanted us to wait until they got here, but looking back I can’t help but wonder if that was the right choice. They didn’t make it in time … and that shattered my heart into a million pieces. I was given the task of driving out to Eau Claire to pick them up from the shuttle station … I took the girls. When they got there, I don’t know if they knew … or not … but I just started at them. I said I was sorry … that she was gone … just this morning, and that I was sorry … she just couldn’t hold on. I hugged them … these two, larger than life boys … towering over me by half a foot or so. Tears filled their eyes and … I just felt so helpless. Jordan, my younger brother, said we’re too late? All they wanted was a chance to say goodbye … to see her one last time, to hug her and tell her how much they loved her. Hours … late. Of course, she knew …
My dad didn’t let us see her, and the next thing I knew we were in the church … then at the cemetery. I was fine, or so I thought … so were the littles … until we saw her ashes being put into the ground. The girls were crying uncontrollably, as if they had just realized what was going on … I couldn’t breathe I was crying so hard. I laid one of her frogs with her and said, “I love you” … I don’t remember much after that.
I cannot tell you how painful that was for me … for my littles … my family.
So much pain … no outlet … always needing to put on a brave face because society doesn’t condone screaming and crying in public … not from a grown up. I say, why the heck not?! I was in the middle of the grocery store, and after months it just hit me like a sack of potatoes … I started crying … messy, uncontrollable tears just fell. I tried to stop, but I just couldn’t. People grieve in their own ways … mine was crying at Hy-Vee … in the juice aisle.
The byrd was in the garage the afternoon we got back from my grandma’s funeral, and she stopped me dead in my tracks with her words … “I feel God.” Her arms were raised, she had taken a deep breath, and was looking up to the Heavens. Tears fell from her face after. She said she missed great grandma … but she felt her, and God … and she knew she was safe in Heaven with grandpa, whom she hadn’t seen in 60 years ( he passed away when my daddy was wee babe). Of course, I took a picture.
Fast forward exactly one year … the next course in my degree plan was a focus on my thesis. I had been dreading the class because I felt creatively dry over the last few months. The one year mark since my grandmothers death was fast approaching, and it just brought up all of the emotions that I’d spent the last year burying so I wouldn’t have to feel it. I told my instructor what had happened the previous summer … how I was feeling … and we talked for an hour or so on the phone … he said photography can be healing if you let it be.
I came up with my thesis plan a few days later and called him back to pitch it. “Feel” … it was more than feeling, it was about the masks that society teaches us to wear, when it begins … at what age do we learn to wear this proverbial mask. I put my girls on a solid black backdrop and did some mock ups for him. He told me to dig deeper … what can I learn from this … how can it help me to heal … what is it really about ?? I wrote down a million and one emotions that I was feeling …
pain, regret, sorrow, loneliness, heartache, longing, unstable, anger …
He told me to use those … to create them … and so I did. Still, it wasn’t enough with just my children. He wanted me to dive deeper still, and use multiple ages and dig into multiple emotions and find out when that mask begins.
I photographed kids age 3 – 16 to test the limits of said mask, and found that for some it begins as early as 6! That broke my heart into a million pieces. Mostly it began around age 8-10, and varied between boys and girls … the age you realize that the world doesn’t care to see how you truly feel, and that you mustn’t show those emotions to everyone … that anything other than the “norm” is for private times at home, and even then … Some kiddos would cry right there in front of me … they didn’t care who I was! Others were reserved and wouldn’t show their emotions to me … at all. Still, others laughed … because laughter is a mask worn well … so is sarcasm.
I don’t agree with this notion at all.
My girls haven’t learned to wear that mask yet. They are 11 & 8 and they feel openly and honestly still … they aren’t ashamed to cry where others can see them or laugh boisterously in a movie theatre. I supposed it’s because I have been known to cry in the middle of grocery stores and laugh without restraint whenever it suits my fancy, so they feel it’s ok too. I am completely OK with that … I know there is a time and place for everything, but I’ve always believed that it’s important to be able to express how you feel … and sometimes, we all need to just let it out. I want my littles to know that it’s ok to get upset … to cry … to be angry … AND … to laugh hysterically, to smile so big their face hurts, to jump for joy and click their heels if they get excited …
I pray they have a few more years of this maskless life, because to feel is a gift … to show and express those feelings, an even bigger gift …
Toward the end of that class, my girls slowly began to find their happy again and the beautiful smiles that once graced their sweet, loving faces returned … I never thought that this project could be so cathartic for us all, but it was. I think through it, we all dealt with how we were feeling. Above, you can feel what we went through when grandma went Home … but below, we’ve found peace in it all. Death is so incredibly difficult … it’s confusing … the emotions alone can be debilitating … but somehow, with each other and this crazy project for school … we made it through.