Six photos of my father at 91

I have chosen to tell a story based on six photographs I took of my father, Ivio Duranti (1918-2009) in the last year of his life. He was never diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s disease, but he definitely had some of the symptoms of dementia, including memory loss, disorientation, apathy, reduced speech production, and occasional hallucinations, even though he seemed able to recognise family members and friends all the way up to the end of his life.

In the Spring of 2009, my wife Elinor Ochs and I were spending a sabbatical quarter in Paris. On May 13, my father was going to turn 91, and even though we had seen him recently, I decided to go back to Italy again to celebrate his birthday with him and my mother. It turned out to be the last birthday of his life. By that time he didn’t talk much and spent most of his time lying in bed staring at the ceiling or sleeping. He would occasionally watch television, but it wasn’t clear whether he could follow what he saw and heard.

On the day of his birthday, my father was able to come, as usual, to the table for lunch with the help of a caretaker, who dressed him in an elegant shirt, placed him in the wheelchair and fed him whenever he became tired of lifting the fork from the table to his mouth. At the end of the meal, we brought out the cake. My father loved sweets and I was hoping that he would be happy at the sight of the Torta Mimosa I had bought at one of the local cafés. But when you look at the three photos of him sitting in front of the big cake with the number 91 on top, he doesn’t look happy at all. He seems to be struggling with something. If I had to force a reading of his looks, I would venture to say that he is either lost in the midst of the activity and unsure of what to do, or the opposite, that he is too concentrated. He is certainly not able to show appreciation or interest in what he has in front of him. And he was not able to smile for the camera.

In the first shot (1:35pm) he is looking down at something that must have been a birthday card. In the second shot (a few seconds later) he looks up at the cake with a worried or perhaps disappointed face. In the third image (1:36pm) he looks straight at me, apparently straining to keep up his head, still very serious and as if waiting for something to happen.

I also have three other photos I took of him the next day. He is in his wheelchair during his morning routine, reading from a Rome daily newspaper. It wasn’t clear to me then whether he could actually read and process the information printed in the paper, but my mom didn’t ask such questions. So the paper had been opened up for him on a square table situated in the middle of the small study across the hall from his bedroom. From where I took the photos, one can see in the background a portion of the almost floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books I had bought while I was a student of literature and linguistics at the University of Rome. One can also see a pile of folded towels on a smaller table and another pile placed on a box on top of a wooden cabinet. That’s where my mother’s old but still functioning Singer sewing machine was kept.

In the first photo of this second set (taken at 8:23am), my father is looking at the lower portion of a page of the paper with a large colour photograph. His right hand is under the paper and lifts the page up a little bit. His left hand is placed on top of the paper. With his pinky he holds down the page on the left while the other fingers are on top of the page on the right, bent as if trying to keep track of where he is reading. His glasses have slipped down and are resting on the tip of his nose. He is wearing a shirt that, judging from the way in which his left sleeve folds, has become too big for him. The fact that his leather watch band is tied around his cuff suggests that his wrist might have shrunk to the point that there were no more holes left on the band to secure the watch in place.

In the second shot (taken a few seconds later), my father is holding the paper in almost exactly the same way but has turned left to face me. The look in his eyes appears ‘concerned’, as if he was wondering what I was doing or why I was taking a photo. His lips are tightly closed, like in the other photos.

In the third and last photo (8:25am), my father has returned to look at the paper, while holding his reading glasses in his left hand, which is resting on the edge of the table. His lips are still closed but his facial expression has changed. He is no longer ‘preoccupied’. The best way for me to describe him is “looking forward to reading the rest of the paper” or (to try a much richer interpretation) “you keep doing what you’re doing, including taking photos of me in this not very favourable situation, and I’ll go back to reading the paper”. I don’t remember if this is the last photo I took of him. We went back to visit the following summer and I might have taken a couple of other photos, but this is my favourite photo from his last year of life. It is a less disturbing and, comparatively speaking, hopeful photo. Why? Perhaps because my father seems engaged in the activity and resembles a bit more the man I used to know. When I look at it for more than a few seconds, I can even start to see him smile.

Alessandro Duranti is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he teaches courses in linguistic anthropology, phenomenology, and the culture of jazz aesthetics. He has written about political discourse in Samoa and the U.S., intentionality, agency, and the role of improvisation in musical and verbal interaction. His books include: From Grammar to Politics: Linguistic Anthropology in a Western Samoan Village (University of California Press, 1994), Linguistic Anthropology (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and The Anthropology of Intentions: Language in a World of Others (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is currently working on cooperation, creativity, and the role of the unexpected in human interaction.

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