COMING RIGHT BACK
Jeffrey and I had been told by a mutual photographer/friend, for over a year, that we needed to meet each other. I have always loved photography (and photographers), and after a year or so, he introduced us. He was visiting Los Angeles, and invited Jeffrey to my home. Jeffrey came with a lovely young woman he was dating, and when they arrived, we were well into a pint of Jack Daniels and smoking Camels without filters. Jeffrey did neither, but we discussed and argued photography, among other things. Jeffrey would bring photographs from his car, one at a time, as it grew late. It was enchanting, the gasoline of the bourbon, the fire of our common passion.
I was extraordinarily impressed with his work. As the night wore on, his date became tired, and asked Jeffrey if they could go. Jeffrey responded, “Sure,” and as he rose, he turned to me and asked, “Can I come right back?”
It was the most honest and romantic question I’d ever been asked. He returned without his friend, and we have been together ever since, married for nearly 26 years. We moved to Harlem, and have lived our lives together, collecting images, words, paintings, and lifetimes of experiences. We have raised a wonderful girl into an amazing woman. We have planted trees here, and once, led a march against violence against black women and girls.
None of this made a difference when he was diagnosed with cancer in the autumn of 2008. Seeing your life partner in pain is excruciating. You wish to take it from them, even within yourself. The notion of their non-existence is unthinkable. You weigh your options, and ultimately you take the biggest long jump you can, hoping to land a winner.
After researching the treatment options, we chose to go to Toronto, for a nerve-sparing procedure that would save both our lives together, and our lovemaking. I refinanced a mortgage on our apartment, Jeffrey had the procedure, and we were back in New York within 4 days.
I remember the Toronto airport being nearly empty when we left, and I ran as fast as I could, pushing Jeffrey in a wheelchair, and riding on the back. It was as if we were outrunning consequences. Yet, without belladonna and morphine, an unbearable pain roared up within him, and we spent New Year’s Eve in Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Emergency room, with me crying like a woman whose husband was dying, while he was calmly being managed for a common complication with the procedure he’d endured. Our paid-off mortgage on our apartment had been refied, and as he healed, the mortality of our coupledom seemed as tenuous as it had been when we’d gotten his cancer diagnosed. A few thousand dollars later, we bought the best digital SLR available at that time, within our shrinking financial parameters. He fidgeted with it for a couple of weeks, before I demanded that he go out and shoot.
Jeffrey has been a street and commercial photographer for decades, but we went to Riverside Park, with the winter blowing cold off the Hudson. He immediately began shooting, and wandered off, toward the naked trees, the sky, the river, and atypically, avoiding people.
Yet the first images he took were at the bottom of the hill, at Morningside and 110th Street, where Morningside Park languishes, yet dangerous, like a fist, beneath Columbia University. The trees were stark, some naked. Are they dead? Thousands of trees die every year in New York City. We don’t know if they’re dead until spring, since they are indistinct from those simply hibernating. They stand together, leafless and potentially lifeless against gunmetal skies, or the ludicrous blue it can occasionally silhouette, a mirthless joke of our thanatophobia.
When we looked at the images, I was struck down by those leafless trees. I was leave-the-room weak from looking at those things that pointed at me in an accusing or, God help me, prophetic way. Still, they were mesmerizing and autobiographical. I recalled his romantic question from the lens of our circumstance. Could he come right back? Would he come right back?
He went back to work at the New York Times within a month, and shot on the street on his off times. Because of what we politely call our unpredictable bodily functions (“accidents”), I packed a small tight bag for him to leave at work, of a total change of clothing (which he never needed). I assured him that nothing could stand in his way (a lie). Yes, death is in all our paths, but if that, or an unanswered call to nature, meant that either of us had arrived at our destination, so be it. The letting go, ultimately, is still a freedom; even if it is one you’d rather avoid.
These early images were ghostly, some even ghastly, hard to behold. The Olds, who persevere here despite the growing economic burdens they represent to so many, trudge through crowds of Youngs and tourists alike; the bone of this place. These portraits of lived-in faces are surrounded by hordes of those whose lives seem to lie before them. Yet, we all share a common straddling of the chasm of mortality. Who, after all, is elderly? Is it the dying young, the centenarian, or those in the vast middle? None of us really know. We know from Rwanda, from Auschwitz, from the Lord’s Resistance Army of children in Uganda, or World War I, where the flu epidemic stole millions of souls indiscriminate of ordnance…One photograph Jeffrey made of the face in the crowd was of a woman. Her face hangs there, haunting. It scared me. Me! Me, who scares others; me who will not back down. Inside, I was in the fetal position in the corner, weeping. Outwardly, I was doing everything. When Jeffrey went back to work, it was as heroic as anything I’ve ever known. Tits up and eyes dry, I rediscovered another one of the things I love in him. He is willing to face that, the hard and the bad, virtually emotionless. I am only acting. He is better at it. In his rare cruelties, he is genuinely at his most truthful. He is my man.
As spring came, as the leaves returned to the trees, and the heavy dark coats gave way to the sexiness that spring fever brings, his images reflected it ALL. He reflected it. His color returned, along with our intimacy. His photographic jokes returned, his hard drives filled and stacked into terabyte visions. He had come right back. But we really don’t come back the same. Just as he had come right back our first night together, we were different. We had warped scarily and magnificently into another us.
On 9/11, we had the Grace to be together. I had a photo assignment to shoot a rich child’s bedroom. Our daughter assisted me, and Jeffrey came along to take the files back to the Times once I was done. But before we’d left, the television newsreaders were nattering about a plane that had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. We knew nothing but scattershot newsbytes and a wildly driving stranger, screaming, ”They did it again! They did it again!” as we tried to hail a cab.
We arrived at the rich boy’s apartment to photograph his rich things. We were greeted by a giant man in a small robe. The furniture was over-sized, and the wife was bustling about, explaining the provenance of this, the purveyor of that. A heretofore invisible uniformed housekeeper materialized too, as we were all summoned by the big rich man in his very small robe. We were called into their living room to watch their big rich television. Jeffrey sat next to the giant man, on the oversized couch, looking child-sized in comparison. We watched in horror, all of us, as the buildings fell.
We packed my kit, and went across the street and ate breakfast. People were crowded around a man who had a transistor radio at a newspaper stand. For the first time in our lifetime in Manhattan, we were all, strangers, searching each other’s eyes. The streets slowly became carless and full of people walking north, some crying, some dazed. Most were determined, steel-eyed. I remember thinking, oddly, about that romantic moment so long ago. Can we come right back? Will this place, this city that contains parts of the whole world, be struck again? Will we all be destroyed? Will my husband come home tonight?
Soon after, I sat with a woman whose portrait I was to take before 9/11, in Tribeca. Her husband was ‘missing’. We never said it, but we both knew he was not coming back. I held her as she wept, saying words without meaning. I babbled. We both knew. We here, those left behind, are not the same. And so it is, that we never quite know, if we will indeed come right back. The collection of images Jeffrey took in that year of his own coming back reflects that to me. I know that some day that will not be true. But Grace, this time, allowed him to come right back, after cancer. That year of 2009 was neither a safeguard nor a cure-all. It was the promise to every single one of us—that one day we will not come back.
Jeffrey Henson Scales, my beloved soul mate, my best friend, did come back. We are not the same. We are both different, more cognizant of that scythe that hangs over us all. I see it in these photographs of that year that rang in with Happy New Year! and cheers and squeals, and fireworks, while my own thundering heartbeat was muted by the shameless racket of my own sobs, as I sat alone in the waiting room of the cancer hospital. But he did indeed come right back, in 2009.
Meg Henson Scales, 2010