In this one you are sitting in a tweed jacket, with your broad back to the camera. Did we plan it that way? Or was it one of the candids? Your head is turned to the left, almost, but not quite looking back over your shoulder. It is your profile. At 20, I think, my little brother, my baby brother, has become so handsome.
I notice through the lens on my square format camera, you look like Matt Damon. I know everyone says that, but I see it now. You are turning one side of your face away from the lens. You hide a pocket of pimples on one of your lower cheeks. These portraits are to be for your girlfriend so you are careful. You are saving your usual joking for later.
As your sister, I have never noticed your features in just this way before - through the lens, even though you were the first portrait I ever took when I was eleven and you were seven. I remember you were digging in the side yard with a small travel shovel, wearing a red bandana, dusty, around your neck.
But I have not ever attended to the spirit in your brown, brown eyes as I do today, as your photographer. They are deep tunnels into your expression, caves under a strong shelf of earnest forehead.
Behind you now are the gnarls of roots from the base of an ivy-encased tree-trunk. They will work perfectly in the image, I think, with the tweed, with the shape of your nose, and the lines in your thick brown hair, where the gel has been combed through, and dried.
Later, I will spend hours in the dark room, with this image especially, bathing the photo paper in attention, light, chemicals, and time. There are other pictures we make that day on the cliffs of San Clemente. The sky is a big laughing blue mouth, above the heart of an abandoned mission, whose white stucco is succumbing to the knots of bougainvillea, palm, and wild lemon trees.
There are those other images we make too. I am using a tripod, to still the camera, to catch your movement, as you leap up into the open window with its wide ledge, for another cool shot. A modern boy, okay, a “man” you remind me, in these beautiful ruins. You smile, and we talk about riding bicycles, about my daughter's dentist appointment, and about the passing of time.
I reload more black and white film while you tell me how you will have a picnic, and surprise her with your framed image. I listen. We scan the mission and landscape for more settings. Everywhere is perfect. And your crisp white shirt, rare tie, and wingtips make you look vintage from behind the lens. As if you are not of this time.
Now we wander to the dark shaded place by this old tree. And you rest on something broken on the ground. Maybe, it’s part of an old stone bench used by some contemplative monk. And it’s in this moment -the one that you turn your head to the left - that I think how dear you are to me. I think how lucky I am to have this kind brother who looks a little like Matt Damon, who so often makes me laugh, but who is this day as somber and adult as the old tree.
I take the shot, and it’s the last on the roll. We are out of film, so this is the last image I will make of you today, of your back and profile turning away. As if you are going away somewhere. A good ending to the series, I think. You give me one of those young man hugs with one arm and say thank you.
Later this evening, you will call and say, "I know I haven’t told you this in a very long time, but I want you to know, I love you."
And I am happily pain-free at this moment. I pack my camera bag and plan to head to the dark room – still free of knowing that this is also the last image I will ever make of you again. It’s the last time I will ever see you in this short life of yours.
Now, decades later, I see you everywhere, in the hills and tiny flowers. In the trees and bright sun. I love our conversations. I hear you breathing in clouds, laughing with the night crickets.
Fold the words that describe your sadness into an origami of the heart. Fold your story of grief inside you, knead it deep into your love, where the alchemy of complete and divine wholeness rises in the presence of that dark silence.
Every day is precious, you advise. Every day, care. Fall in love with life more and more. Let your lungs be like giant flowers inhaling, free. Take life by her delicate hand and run along the shore. Every day, suit up!
Year after year I hear you and I sense there is no end. There is not a beginning. There is just now, forever. There is no loss, there is no gain. There just is, you say, chewing on a long piece of bright green grass you twirl in your white teeth.
Jon - God's gracious gift
Leonard - Brave, strong as a lion
Cooper - August 25, 1971 - May 2, 1993
By Jill Cooper
Version originally published by Rebelle Society