The Life of My Dead
“The life of the dead is placed on the memories of the living. The love you gave in life keeps people alive beyond their time. Anyone who was given love will always live on in another’s heart.” ― Marcus Tullius Cicero
Who Lives And Who Dies
As far as they’re concerned, all the people in the photograph above are dead.
With the help of this photo we can still see them, and by telling a story I could conceivably reanimate them, temporarily.
Of course I could only do that with the three individuals I know. The others came to me pre-dead, and I’d have to resuscitate them solely through fiction. Perhaps with actors’ voices and sound effects I could create a radio dramatization, and you, with eyes closed, could then see them even better.
Introductions. My mother is the little girl on top, in the middle. I never met her father or mother, sitting on the left, or her uncle, in the middle. Her aunt and her husband, are at right. I called her Bunia, and she played a big part of my childhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I got stories! The two other girls on top remain two dimensional, unknown to anyone I know, but very possibly rejuvitated in someone else’s thoughts.
My mother bequeathed this and other old family photos to me when she was in her 70s. I am very grateful that she thought of laying tracing paper over some of them, indicating on it who the people were. A majority of them never came over from the Old World.
Even if I can’t animate many of them, the ones I do have names for can get attached to a genealogy, a place on my family tree, which I didn’t think of watering until one of the roots came up through the living room floor.
Memories—a rain forest that silently sustains us.
Being first generation immigrants, what very little I know of my family came to life through my mother’s telling. I had no particular interest in asking when I was younger and there is nobody left to breath life into those people—for example her father’s other five siblings—who can’t get out of the one or two time-frozen positions I’ve seen them in, in sepia tone, in posed photographs.
Nudges To Nurture The Dead
As with living friends whom I have come to associate with certain animals— cats, dogs, elephants — so likewise some of my dead people come with memory triggers through animal associations. And so, whenever I see a monkey, I think of my sister Christa; whenever a pig, my friend Cathy.
Making my way around the city I photograph some object variation of the related animal and post it on their FaceBook pages, which helps, I hope, to keep the website’s deadly algorithms from knowing they’re dead, and nourishes their memories with their friends who might see the posts.
My dead artist friends show up regularly and talk about themselves, life, and of course their works on my wall, in the boxed archives I visit on occasion, and now on the internet. As much a pleasure as those visits are, inspiring even, I wish time’s passage wouldn’t drag more and more of the creative souls I associate with towards these limitations.
Cultivating The Dead
This is my sister Christa’s Facebook Cover Photo.
I created this digital collage in 2009, utilizing a childhood photo of her; the red branches from one of her art pieces. Although over the years my sister and I were occasionally distant, I was very grateful for the closeness we shared in the last decade.
[Sidenote: Burning Man is an event I have traveled to repeatedly over the last fifteen years.
What it is: Once a year, tens of thousands of people gather in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. In this crucible of creativity, all are welcome.
One very important shared aspect of the culture of the event is the annual creation of a large Temple made of wood, where people share and hear stories of loss — leave totems to their loved ones and let go of that loss—’forgiving themselves.’ As David Best, creator of many of the temples, has said, “everything is sealed up, never to return.”
At the end of the event the Temple is burned!]
Christa was sick with cancer for a number of years. She supported my repeated trips to Burning Man, enjoying them vicariousy through my photographs and stories. Since she could not go herself, she gave me artifacts to place in the Temple for her every year.
She died in 2012 . I took some of her ashes in a little monkey-art box that she had given me, and brought them, along with my thoughts, to the Temple. The phoenix rises from the flames— as my sister does from my burning memories.
One of her last emails to me:
“ I’m going to rest … maybe nap … this has been along, hard day :) love and hugs.
When tomorrow starts without me, don’t think we’re far apart, for every-time you think of me I’m right here in your heart.”
Days Of The Talking Dead
I talk to them, not out loud (not yet), and they’re all over the place, especially all over New York City.
Familiar and obscure things can make them come around any corner. I might be in the Bronx and a few of them will suddenly be walking alongside, still teenagers as I last knew them, reminding me of our excursions to go tripping at the Botanical Gardens.
Those who were a big part of my life show up quite often. Sometimes we reminisce about some past events, but sometimes they come back just to provide a quirky perspective on the present. They remind me that after I join them, as merely another inhabitant of photographs (and a few YouTube videos), these stories will fully dissolve and never be shared again.
I talk about them. I breathe for them so they can be around to meet my friends. So badly I want some of the living to meet some of my dead; though surely some would not get along.
My dead sometimes give me a stern look in response to some of the stories I tell. And some stories are such fun that they show up over and over.
For example, if for whatever reasons Mick Jagger has shown up in conversation I’ve loved sharing my mother’s passing remark regarding seeing Mick on TV once—”He can leave his shoes under my bed any time.”
Dressing Up The Dead
When people who are important to us die there’s devastation. Every day filled with their raging absence/presence. Letting go is a process, individually designed for each ending. Eventually they skip a day, maybe two, and over time return only for occasional recurring visits, both vivid and vague. As with all things that visit from Memory, we adjust our dead, we dress them just a little bit differently with each visit, with each story telling.
Hindsight Of Things Past
In 1970 I left New York City, aged 18, with my girlfriend, Gail, 16. She fleeing an abusive father, I refusing to register for the Vietnam War draft.
Just runaways. We parted a few years later in Chicago — with an emotional secret cavern between us, in the shape of a baby daughter we had given up a year earlier for lack of being able to provide for her.
As progressive new lives came along, I only occasionally wondered what became of Gail. As to the child—I could not sustain the thoughts when they came around, the scorching pain of being unsure that the world had treated her well.
In 2017 I was located, via the mystery of DNA, by the daughter Gail and I had. She was 47. The indescribable joy and relief to find out she had been adopted by a family who had given her great love and opportunity came with the flip-side revelation of the dark tragedy which had, unperceived, shadowed my own life back in New York. Gail had been brutally murdered in her home in 1982. She was 28, was married and the mother of a three year old.
The remergence of all this made me look through my boxes of papers and photos among which I found a handful of photos and some long-forgotten letters I had written to my mother in The Bronx while Gail and I lived underground in Chicago.
I took selections from the letters, fragments that revealed the everyday lives of these two people in the distant past, and put them together in a small book, framed in a prologue of the past and an epilogue of the present.
JUST RUNAWAYS : Fragments from the correspondence to my mother — Chicago to New York, 1970/71
(Available from author.)
Love Become A Funeral Pyre
That summer I bundled up the letters and took the parcel to the Temple at Burning Man.
Flames reforging memories. An art performance, a formal farewell. Something to do with love and letting go.
Bringing Out My Dead
Maybe — like one does with children and pets—I’ll have photos of my dead available on my cell phone to introduce to my new friends and family. They’re not Shakespeare or Sinatra, who will be walking and singing all around the planet today. No indeed—for some of my dead my little stories may be their last oxygen tank.
And so I thought I’d take a few of my dead for an outing today and maybe introduce them to you.
© AleXander Hirka 2019. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph of the author being indoctrinated about the afterlife, which he went on to discover in the passing decades only happens in the thoughts and stories told by others.
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