The following is a short story I wrote recently:
The funny thing about time is that when you think about it, you’re wasting it. I am a photographer. I enjoy taking pictures. The concept of locking a moment in time appeals to me for some reason. Things are always moving so fast, so it’s nice to be able to keep something still for a while. Photographs are reminders of the good times and the bad; they capture moments that you may not remember otherwise. They document emotions and relationships, and they catalog change – the way people change, the way circumstances change. But while we and everything around us are constantly changing, it’s important to pause and acknowledge our progress every so often.
I hang these moments up on my wall. I look at them every day, and I understand everything I’ve gone through to get where I am. I have a picture of when I broke my arm playing football when I was twelve. I have a picture of the first Christmas after my parents got divorced. The first fish I caught after my father passed away. The first time my brother shaved his head. And I have a picture of when I found Jesus.
A few months ago, my brother Tyler was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer. His oncologist told us that he had less than a year to live. On good days, Tyler was the funniest person in the world. On bad days, he was still funny – just a bit sicker. He never understood why I took pictures of everything, and he always urged me to live for the moment rather than live for the memory of the moment.
Tyler and I used to make plans to see the world and experience all of the beautiful sights people write about in books. We wanted to visit the pyramids of Egypt and the Coliseum. We wanted to take pictures of the Grand Canyon – well, I wanted to take pictures. We hoped we’d one day be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. But once his chemo started, we worried we would never get the chance to do any of it.
* * *
“We’re gonna have to let you go, Evan.” That’s what my boss said to me when he called me into his office one morning. I thought he was going to offer me a promotion or a new assignment, but apparently, I was mistaken.
“Did I do anything wrong?” I replied.
“No, not at all. You’re a good kid and a damn good photographer.”
“Then why are you firing me?”
“Not firing – letting go,” he corrected. I couldn’t seem to comprehend the difference between the two, nor could I understand why the newspaper was making this move after I had been working there for almost two years.
“Well, Evan, we can’t keep you forever. There are other options we need to explore that are more financially efficient for us. These college kids will freelance for almost nothing.”
After accepting the fact that I was losing my main source of income, my boss explained to me that “firing” insinuated that I had done something to warrant losing my job, and that “letting go” implied that it was simply because of budgetary reasons. Either way, I was unemployed – and to top it all off, my apartment had a termite infestation.
“We’re going to let you keep the camera, though.”
Confused, I responded, “But… this is my camera.”
My boss nodded his head. “Oh…” He shook my hand and walked me out. “Good luck with everything. And keep taking pictures.”
I tried to avoid going home for as long as I could. I took photographs of everything that caught my attention. Birds perching. Children laughing. A couple arguing. Asian tourists. A homeless man sleeping.
I walked into a bookstore to kill some time. I found two books about cancer. One about helping a loved one cope with the thought of dying. Another about coping with it yourself. On my way out of the store, I came across a book filled with pictures of the Northern Lights. I bought all three.
When I returned home, something was off. I placed the books down on my kitchen table and peeked into my bedroom to see a man in the corner. Quietly, I backtracked and grabbed a baseball bat out of the closet in the hall. As I tiptoed toward my room, the man stepped out and looked at me. He shook his head.
“Who the fuck are you?!” I panicked.
“Easy, buddy,” he replied as he stepped toward me. I stepped back and wound up to take a swing. “Josh from pest control,” he said, pointing to his nametag. “Your landlord let me in.”
I realized all of the extermination equipment he had with him. “Oh.”
“You’ve got yourself a major problem here.”
I misunderstood the man. “Excuse me?”
“The termites. They’re pretty bad in here.”
“Yeah… Yeah, I know.”
Josh from pest control must have noticed the books I had left on the table. “Light reading?”
“I guess you could say that,” I replied.
The man walked back into my bedroom and continued to spray whatever it was he was spraying. I followed him to see how it worked. After a few seconds, he turned to me and said, “You religious?”
“What?” I was taken aback. I had never been asked that question before, and I guess I never even really thought about it. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as “religious,” but does that mean I don’t believe in anything? I don’t know. I feel like I’ve experienced more suffering in my life than joy, and that’s evident to anyone who looks at the pictures on my wall. But is that because the moments of pain and anguish truly outnumber those of happiness? Or is it just because those are the moments I choose to highlight?
“The cross on the wall,” Josh said, as he motioned toward the crucifix in my bedroom. “It was the first thing I noticed when I got in here.”
To be honest, I had forgotten that thing was even there. My mother had hung it up on my wall when I first moved in – for good luck or something. So much for that.
Josh nodded as he probed, “So, you don’t believe in God then?”
I didn’t know what this guy was getting at.
“Well, you’re not religious, so that must mean that you don’t believe in God,” clarified Josh from pest control.
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.”
The man put down his equipment. “Then how does it work?”
“I have no idea how it works. I don’t think anyone does.”
“Somebody has to know,” Josh claimed confidently.
“Maybe this isn’t the most appropriate conversation to be having right now.” I wasn’t looking to have a spiritual debate with my pest control guy, and questioning my beliefs was not something that was on my agenda for the day. I just had my doubts. I walked out of my room.
“Sorry if I made you uncomfortable,” apologized Josh as he followed me. “But does that mean you don’t believe in Jesus either?”
“I believe that Jesus existed. He was a man – an extraordinary man, probably. But nothing more than that. The Jesus we hear about today is just the earliest version of Dos Equis’ ‘Most Interesting Man in the World.’ Just a bunch of exaggerated stories his friends came up with that naïve people misconstrued as fact.”
Josh chuckled, “I don’t always laugh at religious jokes, but when I do, I prefer them to be about me.”
I laughed, even though I didn’t understand what he meant.
“Sorry, Evan. Allow me to introduce myself.” He reached out his hand.
“You already did,” I responded, perplexed. “You’re Josh… from pest control.”
The man stepped back into my room, and since I was intrigued at this point, I followed. “I am not Josh from pest control, Evan.” He looked up at the crucifix on my wall and asserted, “I am Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”
I couldn’t control myself and began laughing hysterically. “You’re nuts, dude.” I turned around and walked back into the kitchen.
From my bedroom, Josh shouted, “You can choose to believe or not believe anything. That’s the beauty of it all.”
I didn’t really want this lunatic in my apartment, especially with all types of chemicals and equipment. But as I looked down at the cancer books I had purchased earlier, I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. What if this guy was actually the Son of God? I mean, he probably wasn’t, but if he was, I would regret not having the patience to find out. I had so many questions about life that needed answering, so why not start there? Worst-case scenario, I’d just be humoring Josh from pest control.
“If you suffered for everybody’s sins, then why is there still so much suffering in the world?”
He stepped out into the kitchen. “You think you suffer?”
“I think I know what suffering is. Everybody does. My point is that Jesus was supposed to be our savior, and religion kills more people than it saves.”
The man took a deep breath. “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, Evan. But can you prove that?”
“Can you disprove it?”
Most of us only believe what we can see. We require evidence – something we can experience and hold onto. That’s why I take photographs; they are visual proof that a moment occurred. You can look at a picture and immediately know for a fact that it happened. These moments become part of history, part of a story – a story that tracks the progress of every living thing on this planet. Things we can see, hear, taste, touch, smell – we know they’re real. That’s what separates them from fiction. Because if a story isn’t true, what’s the point of telling it?
I picked up one of the cancer help books off the table. “See, this right here. The fact that I had to buy this is proof.”
“But the fact that you had to show it to me proves that you don’t truly believe it yourself,” Josh retorted. “If you are passionate enough about something, you can convince others to believe it without showing them any proof.”
“But what if you’re wrong?” I responded. “What if you are very passionate about something and very persuasive, but just plain wrong?”
“If there is no proof for either side, how do you know what is right and wrong? The important thing is that you believe in something and stand behind it.” Josh from pest control picked up the other cancer help book from the table.
The man began flipping through the book. “I’m very sorry to hear that, Evan.”
“Doctors give him less than a year,” I said, as I flung my book back onto the table. “But if you’re really who you say you are… You can cure him, right?”
Josh closed the book and placed it next to the other books. “Evan…”
Jesus would cure him. The real Son of God was a miracle worker, supposedly. When people didn’t believe him, he turned water into wine, resurrected the dead, and cured the sick. The man walked on water, for Christ’s sake. He gave the blind the ability to see, both literally and figuratively. So, what was this exterminator doing talking about needing no proof to believe something? The real Jesus Christ provided all kinds of proof to skeptics.
Josh from pest control gathered his equipment and left my apartment. He told me he’d be back in a few days to make sure he fixed my termite problem. When he left, I felt cheated. I felt like I used to feel back in Sunday school. If Jesus was so righteous and powerful, then why were there holy wars? If he died for our sins, why were we still suffering? Why was there murder? And hatred? And cancer?
I stayed up most of the night thinking about this. I realized that the man I spoke to was just a delusional guy from pest control. He was not Jesus Christ. There was no Jesus Christ. Nobody was going to perform a miracle and cure my brother’s brain cancer, so I had to enjoy my time with him while I still could.
I woke up the next morning and began reading one of the cancer books I bought. It was called I Woke Up Tomorrow. In the book, a man tells the story of the way his relationship with his wife changed after her breast cancer metastasized to her lungs. He became obsessed with the future and wanted to do everything in his power to fix her. He took her to countless doctors, trying to find a cure for her disease, but ultimately to no avail. Before she died, she told him that he had to let go. They loved each other more than anything, but the man’s wife knew that he would regret spending his final moments with her trying to fix her cancer. She would rather him just worry about the present and appreciate the time they still had together.
The title of the book was in reference to a dream the man had while his wife was still alive: “I woke up tomorrow, and she wasn’t there. I remember thinking how scared I felt, now that I had to face reality alone. But when I awoke for real, I realized that this was exactly how my wife was feeling. She was basically facing the inevitable alone because I was still convinced I could fix the unfixable. I was in denial, and I knew this was something I was going to regret when tomorrow came.”
I put the cancer books aside and began flipping through the book about the Northern Lights. The pictures were incredible. My father always used to tell Tyler and me stories about them. He was an amateur astronomer and traveled to see the sight several times, claiming that there was nothing quite like it. I couldn’t let my brother die without seeing them.
When I researched the Aurora Borealis on the Internet, it seemed like we were in luck. The Northern Lights were expected to be visible as far south as Maine in the next month.
“But we live in the Bronx,” contested Tyler, as I explained this to him on the phone.
My plan was to take a little trip up to Maine to see the spectacle for ourselves. I didn’t have a job to worry about and I had some money saved up, so it was the perfect time.
My brother refused to buy into the idea. “I’ve been on enough adventures, Ev. Chemo, radiation – I’ve had it. And the last thing I do before I die is not going to be driving up to Maine.”
“You don’t understand. It’s the Northern Lights, Tyler.”
“I do understand.”
After an awkward silence, I changed the subject. “I met Jesus yesterday.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He’s an exterminator, apparently.” I realized how silly it sounded.
Tyler laughed at me. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He was not the religious type, either. We were raised Catholic and received Confirmation and all that, but neither of us had faith in a higher being. And ever since Tyler received his terminal diagnosis, he didn’t have much faith in anything. “Why don’t you take a picture of him?” he said to me sarcastically. That wasn’t such a bad idea. I just had to wait for Josh from pest control to come back.
Two days passed, and I felt like I had been waiting forever. I wondered if he was actually coming again. I felt like it’d been so long since I saw Josh the first time, and I began to question whether or not that was real. I remembered there being a man in my apartment, and I remembered having a discussion with that man. But I could not remember what his face looked like or how the conversation began.
I finished reading the cancer book I had started, along with the other one. It was called What Was I Like? Written by a woman with terminal cancer, the book expressed how the terminally ill want their loved ones to remember them for who they were before they got sick, and how they don’t want their illnesses to define them as people.
Maybe that’s why my brother didn’t want me taking pictures of him. He didn’t want me to remember him the way he was with the cancer. He didn’t want me to perceive the last year of his life through a lens – he wanted me to appreciate it for what it was, and leave it at that. The memories that mattered to him were the times before we knew his hourglass was bottom-heavy. The vacations we took, the laughs we shared, the pranks we played on Mom. The fights we had over stupid things, the bruises, and the bloody noses. But why did it have to be like that?
I developed my photographs from the other day and hung them up on my wall. As I was hanging the last one up, there was a knock at my door.
“I didn’t think you were coming back.”
“I get that a lot,” replied Josh from pest control, as he carried his equipment into my bedroom and examined the room for termites.
I grabbed my camera and followed him into my room. “Josh,” I said, to get his attention. I snapped a photograph of him just as he looked over to me.
“What was that about?”
“Proof,” I responded. “For my brother, and for myself.”
Josh nodded his head and continued looking around my room. “Fair enough.”
Why didn’t he have a problem with it? Why wasn’t he mad at me for taking his picture? The real Jesus wouldn’t want somebody plastering his face out there for everyone to see.
“Some people are going to believe, and some aren’t,” Josh stated. “That’s just how it goes.”
“What about all that ‘believing without proof’ shit?” I inquired.
He put his equipment down and stepped towards me. “You obviously have your reservations about me, so if this is what you need, then so be it.” Josh saw that I was uncomfortable again and took a step back. “Who am I to deny you your necessary proof?”
I took a quick look at the cross on my wall. “It’s just that… You haven’t answered any of the questions I have.” The man didn’t respond and resumed checking for termites.
We all have questions. About faith, about life, about what comes next. We all want to know why things happen the way they do. But we can’t expect some exterminator to come into our lives one day and give us all of the answers to these questions. Even if he does claim that he is Jesus Christ.
“What, are you going to give me that ‘salvation lies within’ nonsense?” Josh took a long look at me, but didn’t say anything. “What about my brother?”
“What about him?”
“Are you going to save him? Cure him?”
The man took a deep breath before answering, “Evan, I can’t do that.” I turned and walked out of the room. Josh followed me into the kitchen.
“Why can’t you?” I pleaded with him. “I don’t understand.”
“And you may never understand. You may hate me for it.” He picked up the Northern Lights book I had left on the table. “You may even give up on faith altogether.”
“Maybe I have already,” I muttered.
Josh wore a faint smile on his face and put the book down. “Why do you like taking photographs?”
“Because they are proof that something is real. They mark our progress. They allow us to press the pause button on life and freeze a moment in time.”
“But wouldn’t a pause in time impede progress?” Josh contended. “Progress is not something you can take a snapshot of and hold onto. It’s a process; it’s intangible by nature.”
If this man standing in my apartment was the Jesus Christ, why would he choose to reveal himself to me? Why me, of all people? “Tell me how you know that you’re Jesus.”
“I just look up into the sky and I know,” the man responded. “I know that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, and that I was brought into this world to help people.”
“Then help my brother Tyler,” I implored him.
The man turned away and walked back into my bedroom. He collected his equipment and came out of the room. “You’re all set here,” said Josh from pest control.
“So, that’s it?”
“Yep, termites are taken care of,” he assured me.
“You’re not going to help my brother, are you?” I solicited once more, as Josh stepped out of my apartment.
The man turned back towards me and uttered, “Orchard Beach, ten o’clock tomorrow night. Bring Tyler.” I closed the door behind him as he walked away.
The next night, I picked my brother up and drove to the beach. All I told him was that he was going to meet Josh from pest control, who had claimed he was Jesus Christ. Tyler thought the whole thing was dumb.
“He’s probably going to kill us,” he theorized. “Here we are, thinking I’m going to die of this awful disease, and then some maniac just slaughters us both after luring us to the beach.”
“This is important, Tyler.” I tried to get him to take this man seriously, but he needed some convincing. I showed him the picture I took of Josh the day before.
“Just because he has a beard doesn’t mean he’s Jesus,” my brother reasoned. Perhaps I needed some convincing as well.
We arrived at Orchard Beach around 9:56pm. The wind and the waves symphonized, creating sounds of organized chaos. I removed my shoes so I wouldn’t get sand in them; Tyler didn’t care. We walked up and down the beach, but there wasn’t a person in sight.
“So, where is this guy?” wondered Tyler. It was 10:08pm.
“Maybe he’s late,” I suggested. “He said ten o’clock.”
Tyler laughed at me. “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is running late?” I shrugged my shoulders, without a response. “Alright, Evan, I played along. But it’s late and it’s cold, and I just want to go home.”
I begged him to stay a few more minutes, hoping that Josh from pest control would finally show up. Tyler turned and began walking back to the car. “I’ve waited long enough for him,” he said.
Frustrated, I took a seat in the sand and looked up into the sky. I felt like I swallowed my throat as my eyes captured an image of something I thought I’d never see. I called for Tyler, but I was certain not to let my eyes wander from the spectacle.
My brother turned around to witness the wonder our father had described to us so many times. Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights. The closest thing to a miracle I had ever seen.
“Jesus,” Tyler whispered, marveling at the sight. He walked over and sat down next to me. We sat on that beach all night, gazing into the green brushstroked sky our father had painted for us years ago.
Taking a picture is a way of remembering that something happened. These photographs are not necessarily for the moments you want to remember, but the ones you are afraid you might forget. I looked up that night in astonishment, and as I turned and saw the smile on my brother’s face, I knew this was not one of those times.