Death and All His Friends

We have this ongoing joke in my family that — inherently due to our Irish heritage — my siblings and I have this strange fascination with death.

Maybe it’s because my dad and his siblings were the same way. Or maybe it’s because every Irish ballad ever somehow manages to encompass themes of death, and we’re just taking after our ancestors. Whatever the reason, it’s difficult for us not to lightheartedly touch on the topic in an average conversation.

It’s an uncomfortable subject, as evidenced by Phillip Toledano’s Days with My Father, a harrowing photo diary documenting the last several months of Toledano’s dad’s life as he struggles with his dwindling health and memory loss. But this story — composed of 40 striking, often voyeuristic photos, some of which are paired with text — successfully avoids turning readers away with its dismal subject matter.

In fact, Toledano manages to compellingly tackle all aspects of the apparent misery that comes with watching a beloved family member die. It’s complex territory: some moments reveal the infuriation Toledano has for the situation; others attempt to find humor in death — a strategy I, too, often employ to deflect the solemnness of the topic.

Yet the photos remain particularly poignant in nature as their simple existence alludes to a desperation on Toledano’s part to eternalize their last times together. This self-awareness is chilling, especially given the beige and gray undertones of each photo. But Toledano offsets this harshness by incorporating colorful vignettes throughout, like the times Toledano would list off a series of exaggerated accomplishments to his dad, who’d then bowl over with pride.

My parents used to do the same thing with my grandfather, who struggled with Alzheimer’s for years before dying. Instead of rehashing their supposedly mundane lives to Papa during their weekly visits to his nursing home, they’d instead recount thrilling (and completely fabricated) tales of travels to China and New Zealand, making the visits far less depressing for both parties. Should either of my parents ever suffer from memory loss, for the sake of my own well-being I’ve been instructed to utilize a similar strategy.

Perhaps it’s his intimate approach to storytelling that makes Toledano’s photo essay so relatable. To keep the reader’s attention, he intermittently reveals information about his father’s personality: his stubbornness, his ambition, his sparkling wit. An incredibly touching moment occurs when Toledano’s father apparently comes to an understanding that not only is his wife no longer alive, but also that he is losing grip of his own memory,

Typically when I talk about death, I revert to lightheartedly poking fun at the inevitability of my dog’s demise or playfully musing on the outrageous things I’d say were I to deliver my best friend’s eulogy. It takes a lot for me to think seriously about death, because who really would want to bring themselves down by thinking about something so serious and real?

It’s brave of Toledano to address death so openly. It’s a reality we will all inevitably face at some point, and by being ever-so-transparent about every component of death, he ultimately makes the seriousness of the matter more approachable for those of us who’d prefer to gloss-over the subject jokingly.

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