Learning About Dad, Thirteen Years Later

There is a large, framed photograph hanging in the foyer of my mom’s new house in the Fan. The haunting eyes of Pakistani women and their children stare through the glass, seeming to look right through your skin and bones and into your soul. The photograph used to hang in the house I grew up in.  It was framed against a dark blue wall in the living room, near the piano I played as a kid. I remember being mesmerized by the photo when I was young—it represented a world so far away, a culture I had never been in touch with, and it was beautiful in a way that almost scared me.

The photo was taken by my father during his three months living in Pakistan. He traveled there in the early 1980s, working as a physical therapist for a man who had been in an accident in New York City. I usually remember my dad as the doctor, the athlete, and the goofball that he so obviously was. But there was a whole side of him that I barely knew as a kid: my dad the adventurer. Beyond the YMCA soccer coach, and the PhD student that could throw a mean pizza crust, was a man who once moved across the world for an opportunity to live and learn in a foreign culture.

The camera that my dad traveled with was a Canon AE-1. The heavy, metal-bodied, fully manual camera is what he used to make the portrait of the Pakistani women. It also traveled with him to Australia, to Europe, and around the United States. I don’t know when or how my dad got the Canon AE-1, but I do know that he cherished it. He once told me that Pakistani officials confiscated the camera and his film when they saw him taking pictures out of an airplane window. He never got that roll of film back, but he was happy to have his camera returned to him undamaged.

I wish I could remember when it was that my dad taught me to use the Canon. He passed away when I was ten, so I was pretty young when he taught me how to split-level focus and how to use the built-in light meter. I remember holding the camera and peering through the viewfinder, while my dad helped me support its weight. It was the coolest thing ever—a person could put their eye up to this little metal box and capture a memory that would appear on paper, and that would last forever.

When my dad died suddenly from heart failure, I forgot about photography.  In fact, I forgot about most things.  All I could focus on were the sadness and anger that I felt. He was gone, and there was nothing I could do about it. As I entered into my teenage years, I was angry that I had so few memories of my father, and I felt that I hadn’t really gotten to know him.  Stories about him were nice, but they were never enough for me. I was unsatisfied.  His death left a hole in me, and I didn’t know how to fill it.

When I turned thirteen, three years after my dad died, my mom bought a new battery for the Canon and gave it to me for my birthday. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the best gift I ever received. I immediately started shooting still lifes, landscapes, and portraits, and I won some photography awards in middle school contests. I knew that I loved using the camera, but what I didn’t know at age thirteen was that it would later connect me to my dad in an unexpected way.

Jump forward to today. That Canon AE-1 has kept me shooting pure, vivid, film photographs in an age that is digital and edited. It has pushed me to travel and see the world, in hopes of capturing beauty in faraway places. It has gone with me to Peru, to Alaska, on a road trip across the United States, and most recently, on a two-month trip to Nepal. I never thought that I would take after my dad in this way—I’m now someone who travels the world and immerses myself in different cultures. I’m his kid. The kid that took portraits of beautiful Nepali men, women, and children. The kid that obsessively captures fleeting memories of friends on film. The kid that has framed photographs hanging in the foyer of my mom’s house, right next to the portrait of the Pakistani women.

I am now twenty-three years old. When I define myself, I am first an artist and a photographer. Everything else about me seems a little less important.  My job and my location are just temporary homes for Emily, the artist. So now I look back on my childhood definition of my father: he was a dad, a physical therapist, a teacher, a soccer coach.  That’s how I defined him my whole life, because that’s how my ten-year-old eyes saw him.  Now, I look back and wonder, did my dad define himself that way? Or was his job just a home for Scott, the photographer? The adventurer? The artist? I guess I’ll never really know the answer to that question.  What I do know is that thirteen years after losing my dad, I’m learning about him in a way I never expected.

We can always learn about our lost loved ones by asking questions about them or hearing stories about them. But in many ways, we are all extensions of the people that we have lost.  This means we can learn about them just by looking deep inside ourselves. In the past few years, I have discovered more about the man my dad must have been, both through my own world travels and through growing up, than I did in my childhood years of knowing him. It’s a part of loss and grief that I never expected.

It’s beautiful and uplifting to know that my dad will never leave me. He travels with me in his Canon AE-1, and I continue to learn about him through the traits, characteristics, skills, and hobbies that I inherited from him.  I will continue to make photographs to hang next to his, and I will continue to explore the world with the curiosity and motivation that he possessed.

Special thanks to Emily Sullivan for sharing this story with us.

12 Comments:

  1. elizabeth said on September 20, 2011 at 10:41 am ... #

    that photo from pakistan has always stuck with me too. this is perfect, emily.

  2. Rachel said on September 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm ... #

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful memories. It makes me want to travel and pull out my fully manual camera again. There is an artist in us all..

  3. pete said on September 22, 2011 at 9:42 am ... #

    this makes me want to view so much of my life differently… who am i? who are the people around me? what defines a persons legacy / identity.
    thank you for sharing Emily, the artist.

  4. kerry neuberger said on September 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm ... #

    Emily,

    Thank you – my sons are 14 & 11, their father passed away Dec. of 2010. I’ve sent out requests to our friends, family & his coworkers asking them to share stories, experiences, & conversations they had with Dave that I could then compile and give to the boys at times in their lives when they may wonder how their dad would have handled different situations or what he did in different situations, and so they could also come to know the man their father was.

    Kerry

  5. frankie said on September 26, 2011 at 7:14 pm ... #

    Emily, thanks for sharing….

  6. Nina Newton said on September 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm ... #

    Emily,

    I was so moved by your beautifully written story about you and your Father. I remember him so vividly. He was a man who loved his children and family with an unmeasurable love. His love poured out of him in the way he treated all people. Scott seemed so content and happy and had a curiousity about people, places and things that he shared with his many, many friends. People loved to be around him and to be considered one of his friends. It is so wonderful that you are discovering your similarities. You have his genes and his intelligence as well as his curiosity. I hope you find his contentment and faith as well.

    Nina

  7. Michelle said on September 28, 2011 at 9:47 am ... #

    Such a captivating and beautifully written article, Emily. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  8. Shelly said on October 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm ... #

    Emily,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I lost my Dad just recently. I am a non-US resident. One of his dreams and mine too was that I could get higher education from abroad and he could visit me someday. I came to US five years ago for Ph.D and I was planning to invite my parents on my graduation this summer. Sadly, he passed away from brain hemorrhage just few weeks before my graduation. He was a very brilliant person and also an adventurer. I never realized this before until now that we have so many things in common, love for music, art, poetry, travelling to new places. Amazingly, I help my daughter in her homework the same way he used to help us. Our mentality, outlook towards life and views on many other things are very similar. I feel the same way as you feel about your father. All I can say is that our parents are the ones who shape us who we are today and we can enjoy them lifelong by knowing and discovering oursleves everyday.
    Once again, great post.

  9. Heidi said on December 21, 2011 at 9:16 pm ... #

    Your story moved me. I have a grand-daughter who lost her dad at 8 months old. Her dad, like your dad, had many passions in life. He was our historian, geographer, lover of games, sports, computers. His biggest love was music. Stories are nice, but unless there is a personal connection they are meaningless. That is why I hope one day she will explore one of his life passions and “look deep-inside” herself, too. It will be then, like you, she will realize that she is truly an “extension” of the father she lost.

  10. Crystal said on February 7, 2012 at 8:14 pm ... #

    My brother died when his kids were 9 months and 1 year 9 months. I hope, and pray, that one day, they realize the little things in his life to help them understand their father. I wish you peace and comfort as you continue your journey with the camera. Well written story.

  11. Kathy said on June 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm ... #

    I lost my Dad in a car acccident over 40 years ago. Your story helped me to have a connection with him more that anything else has. Thank you for writing and for sharing it. I think you and photography are a match, in addition to writing.

  12. Ineke said on November 30, 2012 at 11:35 am ... #

    This is really a touching story, thank you for sharing. It inspires me to keep going and realize dreams in which I can find my dad, that help me connect to him. My dad was a physiotherapist and crazy about medicine, helping people et cetera. I am a student biomedical sciences now, and my goal is to one day find the medicine against Alzheimer (it was not my dad’s cause of death, he died from a heart attack). We were always talking about this kind of disease and how terryfing it should be for people to have it themselves. I am so happy I am going to do the neuro education in a year and I will become a PhD in that field of research. I’m happy with where I am now: it helps me connect with my dad. He was very fond of this kind of research, and so am I now.

Leave a Comment

Your email is never shared.

*
*

By submitting a comment, you are agreeing to our Terms & Conditions.