A Photographer’s Frank, Tender Portrait of Her Parents’ Final Year

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The old couple lies belly up on a white duvet, linked at the hands like a pair of chained paper dolls. Their slack faces have the look of Greek masks: slits for shut eyes and black sockets for nostrils, mouths turned down like sickle moons. Is this eternal rest or an afternoon nap that just resembles it? The portrait appears midway through “Till Death Do Us Part,” a tender, visceral series of Bob and Mary Behrens, octogenarians from Texas in the sixty-seventh year of their marriage. The photographer, their daughter Becky Wilkes, captured the shot a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, during what turned out to be the final year of her parents’ lives.

“God, this sun feels good!,” November 30, 2020.

“This used to not be so hard,” February 16, 2021.

The Behrenses were born a mile apart, in 1931. They met in high school, through the Catholic Youth Organization, and wedded in their early twenties, after Bob served in the Korean War. He made a career at the telephone company Southwestern Bell, working his way up from installer to executive. She bore four children, got a graduate degree as a young mother, and taught fifth grade in Houston. In retirement, the Behrenses earned real-estate licenses and volunteered at a hospital in Waco—Mary manning the gift-shop register, Bob pushing gurneys in the E.R.—before ending up there as patients. Bob was admitted in January, 2020, with congestive heart failure. Shortly after, Mary suffered a stroke. For a few weeks, they healed in adjacent suites, but, while Mary improved, graduating to an independent-living unit, Bob deteriorated and was moved to hospice care. Then came COVID. Wilkes, who’d been visiting the hospital with her siblings, made a prompt decision to relocate their parents to her own home. Her brother and sister drove them over with some of their belongings, and that night Bob ate his first full meal in weeks, tomato soup and a grilled cheese.

“Have I moved that needle yet?,” April 10, 2020.

“I look pretty damn good for an old woman,” April 8, 2020.

“Bob, It’s gonna be ok,” November 19, 2020.

Wilkes and her siblings didn’t expect their father to last more than a few weeks. Bob, at six feet one, had shrunk to about a hundred pounds. Mary could barely get up from the couch. Some of their strength returned, though, in the course of mornings spent resting together in bed or rolling their walkers down the wooden dock behind their daughter’s home. As a child, Wilkes rarely witnessed her parents’ affection, but “Till Death Do Us Part” consecrates it. Bob and Mary tag-team crossword puzzles, FaceTime with great-grandchildren, and help squeeze each other’s feet into orthopedic shoes. To accommodate the couple, Wilkes and her husband scrounged up waterproof bedding and installed bars in the bathroom. Puttering about the house, Bob and Mary often look less like senior citizens than like unself-conscious kids. Wilkes’s father, whom her brother describes as a “professional piddler,” is pictured fussing with dominoes or shelling a plastic tub’s worth of pecans. Her mother appears tart and playful, bringing the nozzle of a handheld nebulizer to her lips as though it were a party streamer. Their geriatric accessories are the primary reminder of their frailty. In one portrait, Bob and Mary sit side by side on wooden rockers, their backs to the camera as they admire the secluded view of a lake. Their walkers are set behind and beside them. Like all of the shots in “Till Death Do Us Part,” this one takes its title from the couple’s own words: “Should I tell Daddy that we’re dying?”

“Our afternoon delight,” November 2, 2020.

“Does a-s-s-i-s-t work,” August 16, 2020.

Wilkes, a stay-at-home mother who studied chemical engineering in college, didn’t pick up photography until her own children were grown and out of the house. Her early work includes elegant studies of shoreline litter—golf balls and beer bottles, rusty nails and takeout containers—plucked from the waterfront and compiled in taxonomical collages. Before her parents moved in, she had little experience with portraiture, and for “Till Death Do Us Part” she established a single ground rule. If Bob and Mary closed a door behind them, she was not to open it. Otherwise, as an artist’s statement takes care to note, she considered them “fully compliant”—even while canoodling under the covers in a portrait cheekily titled “Afternoon delight.” One wonder of the series is Wilkes’s frank treatment of her parents’ bodies. Bob mounts a scale with a single leg, like a flamingo stepping onto a flat rock (“Have I moved that needle yet?”). Mary, shot from behind, strips down for a steam shower (“I look pretty damn good for an old woman”). Under Wilkes’s lens, her parents’ bare complexions resemble everything from pale, under-proofed dough to crisp parchment paper. Mary, towelling off her breast, wonders at her own dark veins, as visible and sinuous as country roads on an old map.

“Bob, I’m signing your life away,” January 2, 2021.

“Take me with you,” January 2, 2021.

On New Year’s Eve, nine months after the pair moved in, Bob fell while doing yoga with his great-granddaughters. “That’s what you call an accident,” he said, trying to laugh it off, but his hip was broken. A few days later, back at the hospital, Wilkes captured her father’s last moments from her mother’s perspective. Mary authorized the doctors to discontinue his life support (“Bob, I’m signing your life away”) and, at the very end, pressed a wallet-size photograph of herself into his limp, familiar fingers (“Take me with you”). She survived two more months, dressing and undressing alone (“This used to not be so hard”) or reading under Bob’s blanket in his old spot on the sofa (“Maybe if I sit right where he sat”), before succumbing to complications from pneumonia.

“Bye, I love you,” March 5, 2021.

Bob and Mary loved sunshine, fresh coffee, and square dancing. They left behind four kids, nine grandkids, and more than a dozen great-grandkids, including, as Wilkes put it in the obituaries, one or two “unnamed imminent arrivals.” Wilkes shot the memorial. She kept shooting afterward. She shot her parents’ idle walkers, folded up in the garage, and the golden boxes that hold their cremated remains. She staged a local exhibition of those photographs alongside “furniture” that she fashioned from Kleenex and incontinence pads. On the gallery’s windows, she stuck vinyl transcriptions of text from the condolence cards that her family received. She didn’t realize until too late that she had almost no photographs of herself with her parents from their last year together. “In retrospect,” she writes in her artist’s statement, “I recognize there were times when I used the camera to separate me from the moment I was witnessing.” “Till Death Do Us Part” preserves those moments in a compendium of caregiving: Bob and Mary for each other, and their daughter for them.

“That water just talks to you,” May 29, 2020.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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