An Unlikely Muse

I am a communicator of ideas, words and images. I am a natural observer and recorder of life through multiple platforms of lingual and visual artistic expression. Some photographers are inspired by their children like Sally Mann was in her “Family Pictures” series, or they cope with the realities of an aging parent through documenting the process like Ed Kashi did in “Losing Herbie: Dad’s Slide into Dementia.” Others are moved by the physical shape and form of their lovers, or impacted by the power of an outdoor landscape. My first photographic muse was Shayna, a middle-aged, slightly gray, golden retriever.

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I was approaching 12-years-old when I picked up our family digital camera, a first generation Canon PowerShot, and developed a brilliant and completely original idea to take pictures of my K-9 best friend. In hindsight she was more than a family dog, Shayna was my first photography teacher. Every day when I came home from school, I would grab the camera and we would set off to walk the berm behind my South Florida home that runs along a breathtaking nature preserve. It was in the expanse of my backyard that I developed an appreciation for the outdoors, a love for all animals whether pawed, winged or scaled, and a passion for communicating the majesty and importance of conserving the world’s ecosystems.

230721_1915420599671_4133696_nMy love for visual communication began alongside my furry childhood companion. Even though my first photo story was technically a thousand-image series of a dog catching a Frisbee and sniffing flowers in fur-shedding glory, without Shayna my initial exposure to this story-telling medium may have never come to fruition. Exploring with her was more than an after-school routine, it contributed to a time of enlightenment during my pre-teen years that urged me to observe, absorb and record the world around me. I developed into a highly detail-oriented young adult who jotted down phrases in a moleskin notebook about my daily encounters. They were descriptive notes illustrating curiosities, quotes, ideas for poetry or article writing—I was seasoning myself for my undergraduate years where I would delve into the real world of reporting and draw upon those first lessons in observation with my K-9 and a camera. I came to learn that verbiage is an art form as much as the image.

Shayna lent me some old dog wisdom by means of her human-like grins and the reassurance of her wet-nosed nudges, facilitating an understanding of the fundamental aspects of photography and life: patience and timing. Taking pictures of the abundant wildlife of my backyard with a low megapixel camera was not easy. We would prowl on our bellies, her nose burrowed in the grasses and my camera framing something in the distance between the thick green blades. We would prey on our subject: my camera at my eye, finger hovering over the shutter button waiting for the decisive moment. It took patience to remain alert for the heron to spread her wings toward the sunlight ready for flight, and precision to anticipate the hawk’s capture of his snack in the marshland before us.

Photography became my unique form of meditation and a means of cataloguing experiences. I developed an obsession with the idea of preserving a moment in time and reliving it in a two-dimensional digital or printed form. I was in middle school the first time my photography was published. I won an online competition called “Your Shot” for my local newspaper. The photographic moment was of Shayna running toward me with all four paws suspended off the ground, her typical human-like smile on and our house blurred in the background. I would go on to be my high school newsmagazine’s photo editor, exploring my passion for the craft through the publication. My photo subjects shifted from dogs to capturing campus events, teacher profiles and the talented artwork of my peers.

229451_1915152192961_4526661_nShayna passed away in May 2011, and could probably win a Guinness World-Record as the world’s most-photographed dog. After the sunset, we would return from our expeditions and lay together on the Mexican tile floor of my home, cooling our bodies from the hot and sticky south Florida afternoon. I would look through the pictures from that day on the small digital screen, showing each one to Shayna for approval. I owe my pursuit of this photographic passion to Shayna, my unlikely muse. One thing is certain: if my dream of being a multimedia journalist does not prevail, I could always be a dog photographer.

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A Virgin to Death

by Bailey Edelstein

We are speeding 90 miles an hour, headed south on the Florida Turnpike. Our 60-pound dog, Bentley, thumps from one side of the trunk to the other as we weave around the cars. My mom puts on her hazards and answers the phone to someone saying, “It’s happening.”

“I could be a great ambulance driver,” she says to lighten the mood.

I envision a similar road race ten years from now, but instead my mom is rushing to witness the birth of my first child. This early September afternoon, we aren’t in a hurry to welcome life, but we are speeding to witness someone’s last moments. That someone was my 82-year-old grandfather, Marvin Jack Edelstein.

When we pull up to the street of my grandparent’s Lake Worth home, everything seems the same from the outside: the familiar withered and discolored pinwheel spinning in the humid Floridian breeze by their front door, a full driveway of cars permanently displaced by boxes and piles of junk that has accumulated in their garage since they moved their lives here 27 years ago. I even see my Grandma’s tacky white Chanukah bush, visible year-round from her living room window and decorated by a single strand of dusty blue LED lights.

My mom rushes inside. Death is something she’s witnessed all too often in her life, mourning the loss of her older sister to an accident and later her father to lung cancer. I knew she wasn’t so sure she was ready to confront it again. I sit in the car, contemplating like the nervous father-to-be outside of a hospital room, reluctant to see his wife in labor as she strains to bring their child into the world. This is one of many parallel moments I notice between birth and death. I feel an urge to be at my grandfather’s bedside, but apprehensive at the thought of being under the same roof as a dying man. With hesitation, I decide to go inside.

The first image that came to mind was a painting of the deposition of Christ—our family members are positioned similar to famous artistic depictions I’ve seen of this moment: sons, daughter-in-law, grandchildren and spouse encircling my grandfather. Marvin’s German Shepard looks up at me with eyes of desperation. She is curled up on the twin bed beside her master, snout resting between the cold metal bars of the hospital bed, barely touching his once mobile fingers that fed her chicken from the dinner table. We are all there gathered around him, the purple Target sheets standing out in their master bedroom of 70s decor where the faint smell of moth-balls never subsides. We plead with him audibly or pray silently. Stubborn in life and with death, Marvin wasn’t letting go. Stubborn like a baby breached in their mother’s belly, prepared to enter the world in the slowest, most painful way possible.

The labored breathing of the sick and dying is a sound no one wants to hear. Five, 10, 20 minutes, an hour passes and nothing happens. My “Papa,” which is what the grandkids called him, was ailing from Hotchkins Lymphoma for a few months, which was discovered while he was in rehab after having a kidney removed. The wretched sound of a raspy breath making its way into a pair of 82-year-old lungs was unbearable. In birth, heaving sighs and grunts of frustration and pain of women in labor are rewarded with the cry of a newborn.

The hospice nurse checks his respiration levels and pulse, with the expectation for the irregularities to worsen. They also monitor the breathing, blood pressure, and pulse of the mother in labor for any abnormalities. The nurse adds morphine to ease the incommunicable pain of the dying man and I immediately think of the drug as a twisted equivalent to an epidural.

I am sitting beside my grandma, who is distraught and tired of watching her husband slowly succumb to dehydration. In birth, two lives are at risk: that of the pregnant woman and their unborn child. Similarly, in death I observe the lives of the ailing and their spouse in fragile states. My grandparents were joined by 57 years of marriage, whereas a mother is bound to her child for nine months, followed by the rest of their lifetimes together. My Papa’s death was as prolonged as a 12-hour labor of birthing a child. I realize then and there, that bringing a life to Earth and reaching death are both arduous tasks—you have to work to die.

My grandpa and my dad posing with me on my high school graduation day in May 2011.
My dad, my grandpa and I on my high school graduation day in May 2011.

The reality struck the next morning as I lead another hospice worker into the room to dissemble the bed my grandpa had lay upon for the past two weeks. It is not the empty space in the room nor the indents the hospital bed-frame made in the carpet, it is Marvin’s white orthotic sneakers, with his socks stuffed inside that helped me begin to understand this new reality.

I quickly turn away and walk outside to the porch to my grandpa’s garden, or what is left of it. I put on his soiled, white gardening gloves that are three sizes too big for me. I start pulling the invasive weeds that are suffocating his beloved orchids. I begin laboring out love, envisioning each weed I pull as a release of a weight that was holding my grandfather’s presence on Earth, hovering above his home and his family. “It’s OK,” I find myself speaking to him as I had the day and night before, like coaxing a new mother through the slow release of pressure in her uterus. I encourage him to go, to give that final push into the unknown after death. “It’s time. Everything will be OK,” I whisper.

– – –

Two days later, as my grandfather’s body is lowered into the earth at his funeral, I feel my knees quiver and stomach churn. I find myself searching for more promising imagery, other than the gaping rectangle cut out of the cold, hard ground. That space would serve as an eternal home for his body? What a stark contrast from the warm and hospitable womb of a mother that houses us all before we enter the world.

Some people are anguished by the thought of death, even though it is one of the central acts we all have in common. Perhaps it is because death links us with an uncertainty, whereas in birth a family-unit is there to witness the arrival of a wet and wailing newborn with tears of joy, not tears of sorrow. You can’t predict what happens after you die, just like you can’t predict the future of a child once they are born. The only certainty in life is inevitability of death.

Until September 6, 2014, I was a virgin to death, and for quite some time the notion of birthing a child will also remain a mystery. Looking back, I realize that every living thing witnesses a singular beginning and ending. There aren’t any in-betweens with birth and death. The dark optimist in me thinks of death as a one-time toll we must pay to allow new lives to take our space on Earth.