10 years ago today my Dad died. I was living here in America while he and the rest of my family were back home in New Zealand. I missed the last five years of his life. It is not something you adequately account for when you decide to live in another country. I think I had imagined the possibility of getting the call you never want to get but I never really believed it would happen. I was sure I’d have another twenty years with my Dad; that I would get to do wonderful things for him; that I would get to see him become all cute and old. It was midnight when the phone rang. We’d had a few wrong numbers so I didn’t answer it. It rang again at 12:30 but, again, I didn’t answer it and didn’t think much of it. When the phone rang again, first thing in the morning, I knew something was wrong. This time I answered. It was my Mum. I tried to pretend I wasn’t worried and as if it were any other phone call I just said - as I would any other day - ‘What’s up Mum!?’ Very quietly she said ‘Your Dad’s not well.’ She went on to tell me that Dad had cancer throughout his body and that he might have as little as six months to live. As it turned out, he had just three.
I was devastated and panicked. I knew I had to get home immediately. It took me a couple of weeks to get my life organized and get home but when I landed there he was. He had decided to pick me up at the airport himself – not knowing that people with tumors in their brain were not allowed to drive cars because of the risk of seizure – and when he saw me he took a long deep breath and just held me. ‘Now I’ve got ya with me.’ For a long while we did not move and we did not let each other go.
The next eight weeks were both brutally painful and unexpectedly magical. I had always loved my Dad but in this eight weeks I ‘fell in love’ with him. The language may sound odd but it's true. Our relationship had not always been easy but as I went through this experience with him I realized that I could never love anyone more than this. Even more than that I realized I may never love anyone as much as I loved him then. His cancer was aggressive and cruel but he never once complained. When we went to the hospital for his radiotherapy he would say how bad he felt for the ‘really’ sick people and would cheerfully thank the doctors and nurses as if they had just saved him and given him a clean bill of health – when in fact it was the opposite. I was in the room with him when he was told he probably only had about a month to live and that he should get his affairs in order. I wanted to punch the doctor – who seemed smug to me though I am sure now he wasn’t – right in his face. Dad laughed and said ‘I’ll see you in a year.’ The doctor said that he hoped Dad was right but he knew he wasn’t.
I tried to imagine what must be going on in his head. What does it feel like when someone tells you that you only have four more weeks to live? Four more weeks to spend with your family? Four more weeks to be in this world? I knew that whatever we said or did to try and help him there was a battle inside that he had to fight all on his own. We were all around him, loving him, but in some other inescapable way I knew he was totally alone.
I was with him almost every day. In that time the only moment of ‘weakness’ – it wasn’t weakness... the only moment of vulnerability he shared with me was one day sitting on his bed. He was looking at the ground – or perhaps his feet – and very quietly, his voice breaking, he said ‘Karl. Nothing’s getting any better.’ I don’t remember saying anything in response. I don’t think he wanted me to. He just had to say it. We just sat and hugged each other. He never spoke about it again.
So many things happened in that eight weeks. I saw terrible things I will never get out of my head. I saw beautiful things in my Dad that inspire me to this day. I did all the things you would expect someone to do for somebody they loved and then many things I may not have imagined I could do – that you may not know that you could do. I got to know what it feels like to love somebody so much that you KNOW there is nothing you wouldn’t do to help them. And not to just say that. Not to just feel that. But to KNOW that. I learned that there is a difference between those things. I had always SAID that I loved my Dad but I didn’t really KNOW it until then.
The day I shot this picture - on a little Nikon D50 long before I would take myself seriously as a photographer - it was mild and overcast. A perfect day to shoot a portrait. As I was clicking away my Mum came past and asked me if I'd like a picture with my Dad. For whatever reason - probably because I was happy caught up taking pictures of him - I said 'No. That's OK. We'll get one another day.' "Another day" never came. With what went on in the next few weeks we never did. And today I do not have a picture of just me and my Dad. I regret that every time I look at this picture - which is every day as I have a large print on my wall in my home and in my studio. I am so grateful for this picture. There is nothing more valuable than this. But when I think of the moment I lost to be in it with him it breaks my heart.
My Father Fotos project is about giving people the opportunity to make sure that this does not happen to them. It is about recognizing that time is precious and that nothing is promised. It is to show that an image is of real value – in fact that it is priceless. It is to document and celebrate the good work men do in the act of Fathering and how vitally important that is. But even more than that it is about starting a conversation that allows men to think about their roles as Fathers and their roles as sons in ways most of them will never have done. It is about helping men tell and share their stories within this complicated relationship in the hope it will liberate them to connect with other men in ways they may not have imagined they could; ways that, in most cases, nobody bothered to teach them; yet they get blamed for not knowing how. This project is to help men ‘fall in love’ with their Fathers – no matter how difficult their journey together may have been – the way I did with mine.
Don't wait too long. Don't think you'll do it another day. Know that this is of greater value than you can currently imagine. Don't wait until you can no longer do it to feel what I feel. Pictures are more than proof. They are the icons of your life. Don't miss your moment.
Both this blog and this project are inspired by and in honor of my Dad: Raymond John Dominey. A beautiful man and an imperfect but wonderful Father. It is the beginning of a conversation. One that I have been having with myself for a life time. I hope you will get something from it. I hope you will join in.