Once a Father

Liz Sanders

2018 - Ongoing

Arkansas, United States

Liz Sanders

December 14, 2018, at 2:03 a.m.:

I hear my dad’s voice at night, low and murmuring. I enter the pitch black darkness of his bedroom and ask him what he’s talking about : he says to me, ‘Come in, I’ll show you what I’m about to do.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, What are you about to do?’ He chuckles softly and says, in a voice that is so childlike it startles me: “Catch a whole bunch of fish.”

I remember him telling me years ago how when he was young his dad used to catch fish with his bare hands in a large creek behind their house to feed their family. I can only imagine that in this moment, in the darkness of his room, where time does not exist, he was a child again, and was reliving the moment where he learned how to catch fish with

his bare hands, like his dad.

Alzheimer's dementia is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, now surpassing that of breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. There were an estimated 5.5 million Americans living with the disease in 2017 and it is estimated that by 2050, that number could rise to 16 million. Right now, more than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

Dementia doesn’t carry the visible markers that many diseases do. Upon looking at my dad, few if any would know that he’s not fully present, that his mind is elsewhere or that he might not know what year it is. The very experience of dementia itself is one of erasure. A fogging of memory, a confusion of time and space. But also, and perhaps most importantly, erasure of the self. Of the very identity one has spent years cultivating and nourishing.

Caretaking within this experience also often goes unnoticed. My family is lucky. We are lucky that my dad was a veteran and receives VA medical care, lucky that my mom is retired and has time to spend with him, and lucky that giving him care fulfills a deep need she has always had to provide for others. But the nuances of the changing relationships that result from the disease are ever present, and the family unit is forever altered. My mom mourns the loss of a person who is still physically present, yet absent in many other ways. She is left to pick up the pieces of his fractured identity daily, even in the act of answering questions, speaking for him, and learning to live without the emotional support and intellectual stimulation he once provided.

The landscape we are born into, the environments we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with create a layered patchwork that give our life meaning. Dementia strips these layers away, forever altering not only an individuals lived experience, but the experience of love and care within a family unit. This project is a way for me to explore my own family dynamics during a time in our lives where vulnerability and intimacy is at its most salient. I will photograph both the ever-shrinking physical world my father inhabits, one that is relegated almost exclusively to

the family home, and the metaphysical world, symbolised by the rural Arkansas landscape of his youth and one that he recalls only in memory and fractured thoughts, in dreams, and perhaps even in my own imagination. In doing so, I hope this project visualizes a typical American family as they deal with loss and difficult circumstances, but also

serves as a reminder that our physical body is only half of who we are.

{{ readMoreButton }}