It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be careful kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. — Marjory Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
I wrote two different accounts of the last few weeks of Dr Jared Noel’s life. The version that Allen & Unwin published, Message to My Girl, wasn’t my preferred version. I had written a third person account, which was less about Jared’s subjective feelings during his final days, and more about a medical doctor and a theologian exploring life, death, faith, and doubt, as one of them confronted the end. It was less sentimental than the published version and may not have had made the same initial impact, but I suspect it would have had more long-term value. We’ll never know. In the end, the decision to publish a first person account was a marketing one, and I still think that I should have shown more resolve.
I still have the first version, and dip back into it from time to time. The following is a small piece I wrote about images, after putting poor Jared through an arduous portrait session in which I shot his face from as many angles as he allowed. Jared was a keen photographer, so he played along, even though he was exhausted. The truth was, he wanted me to record as many images as I could, because he knew that they could be used to remind people of him in the years ahead.
In the photos Jared smiles his signature smile, all dimples, and innocence, and joy and delight. Photos of Jared with Hannah, photos of Jared and Hannah with Elise, photos of Jared with just his daughter. They are on the walls, in magazines, and wedged above the vanity mirror on the sideboard in the bedroom. One that I love has Jared and Hannah holding hands on a beach, the ocean to their backs, their bare feet on sand, touched by wind, touched by water, touched by one another. Photos of romance and life, of hope and never-ending happiness. So much life. Photos captured on more innocent days than this. Days of plans, and dreams, and vision and purpose.
There are photos captured on other days too. Photos that tell two stories. They say the camera never lies, but here is proof the camera tells half truths. Or perhaps the camera tells fuller truths. Images of joy and contentment, family life, happiness, celebration, , but behind the images something else. Something unseen, not captured, and more than a vignette encroaching on the image. A shadow of something far more sinister that evades the shot but is there nevertheless. The shadow of Jared’s illness.
And then there are my photos, documenting Jared’s daily decline. Jared frowning, Jared compliant, Jared off colour, Jared bored. Looking at the camera, looking away from the camera. Smiling broadly despite himself. Looking absent in spite of himself. Jared sitting patiently while I shoot random images from here, or from there, against the light, with the light, front on, from the side, let’s try the other side. One day I build a mosaic, from shots up close. Jared’s temple, his forehead, his ear, his cheek, Jared’s nose, and lips, his bearded chin, then his eyes. The closer I get the more life I see. Micro signs of life that the engagement and wedding and family photos don’t show. Dandruff. Bits of wax. The stray hairs of his moustache. The flecks of yellow and white in the corners of his eyes. The vein in his temple. The sweat on his brow. The hair pulled behind his ear. A spot of moisture on his beard.
They say the camera never lies. And what the camera sees are the signs of life. Everywhere it looks, every image it captures, every frame he fills … Jared is here, breathing, awake. His spirit is present. Sure, his colour is all wrong. The subject is static. The smile is forced. But the camera never lies. Jared is alive. Jared is Real.