An Eye on the Game

Alzheimer disease - my battle with his battle.

Did he know what was happening to him?
Did he realize what the 'coming attractions' were; when he told me to wait so he could put the ribbon on his head, before I took the picture? This damn picture.

by JR Hager II
At one time I saw this picture too often! It's one of my family's favorites—when they finally got to see it, that is. I kept the contact sheet, with the rest of 20 small images on the roll I shot that Christmas day, hidden away in my negative file, never printing it because it would make me wonder about these dreaded thoughts he must have tangled with. I think I only printed one from that roll. One of Blitz the dog drinking out of my uncle's martini glass. But I still saw this photo, and too much. I knew I shouldn't have even used the magnifying glass on it, when it was still a wet contact sheet. I could have just looked at the others on the roll. It's all I had to see.

Yes, the prop was a good idea and made a cute, memorable shot, but, it was bitter-sweet, and gave me a 'pause' I was uncomfortable with. This was his last Christmas, well, his last functional Christmas. Did he know that too? The next one was spent in the hospital with a blank face, not knowing anybody in the family, and seemingly, not even knowing it was Christmas. He died of Alzheimer disease soon there after.

No, I couldn't print this picture ....
....afraid of the thought of "his thoughts" at that moment, and how maddening it must have been for him.

Being a photographer, there were always other pictures to look at and study, to busy myself with, so it was easy, in some respects. Thank goodness it wasn't a framed mantle piece image constantly glaring at me from a piano top or shelf, and nobody else in my family had this picture of Poc, or knew of it. And nobody ever asked about it. The room was full of people when I shot it. Maybe I wasn't alone with these thoughts that were haunting me - the reason they didn't ask about it over the years.

Poc. That's what I called him when I first laid my baby eyes on him. It must have sounded cute to all that were around because it stuck. Everybody in the family called him Poc there after.

Just because this picture wasn't out in the open, nobody else had one, and I had other subjects to keep me busy, doesn't mean I didn't see it frequently, when I least expected. Let me explain. Being a good photographer requires pre-visualization of an image, (seeing the picture in the mind's gallery before taking it). The only trouble is, when it's in this gallery there's no getting it out. All pictures remain where they’re hung—at least thats how it is in my gallery. The gallery I constantly carry around with me.

This picture, this image especially.

This is Poc. This is my dear grandfather who died of this dreadful, 'Hitler' of a disease. We use to pass ball, play ping-pong, and particularly; bowl. Like his brother Art, he loved the playing of games and magic tricks. To have a good time, be with family and enjoy the simple pleasures of life - this mattered the most. It was their motto, and games; their ritual to enhance life.

After time had done its mending, or tried to, I finally faced the fear head on and printed a full 8x10 of Poc. As you can see, the picture is out of hiding, and also hand toned. I thought he would like me to brighten it up a bit. He always thought black and white photography was so dark and gloomy. He almost made me cry when he said Ansel Adams’ work would have been better in color.

Sure, I needed a push to do this, but it had to be done. I wanted a good look at it, and a good look at Poc; what I got was a surprising look at myself, and how I let fear control me and hide the positive side of my grandfather. It was a slow process, but a sure one—like watching a print start to appear in the developer tray. As Poc's profile rose from the once blank white paper, after a few of my tears fell into the bath, my smile rose along with his image. I found that there was so much more to Poc; than just the 'freakin' Alzheimer's disease.

I saw Poc again, as it were, only this time in a different light, emerging from the reddish darkroom light, shedding a different light on my grandfather. For me, he walked out of a different ball-park, or rather; a different bowling alley, when I left the darkroom that day. My thoughts of granddad adjusted themselves right along with my eyes as they adjusted to the bright afternoon light.

You see, my grandfather liked the playing of the game, any game, better than wanting to win, or trying not to loose. He played the game to the fullest, and when it was over he'd recap it in his head, the certain moves or positions to keep and the ones to change. Actually he couldn't care less whether he had lost or won, to him every game ended the same. A lesson. He was as happy at the end of a tight, competitive match as he was initiating it. But he really liked games that were more between the player and themselves, rather than simply against an other team. 

The game, and only the Game was important .... I learned from him, beyond the frivolous things that went on at the side lines. He would have made a wonderful coach; could never guarantee a win, but the players would sure love their game, and learn, love, admire and cherish the moments with their coach, as I have with Poc.

So, I think he handled those moments of desperation and anguish, with this disease, the same as he had always handled a game. And whether or not he put the ribbon on his head as a light-hearted rebuttal to a horrendous realization, I'll never know for sure. I like to think he did, though, and happy to have been there to capture it.

As if he was just starting another game—ribbon in place for all to see and to remember him as a sincere player of good cheer, posing for the camera only briefly before he gets back to the next play; no matter what was on the scoreboard. Keeping his 'Eye on the Game.'

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