I point my cameraphone at the boy who is chasing a pair of robins across the park with his newly minted stagger-walk. The robins, unconcerned, barely rouse themselves to fly a few yards away and alight again, which only taunts him to further pursuit. Every so often he turns to smile and reassure me as he gets farther away. I watch him grow smaller and smaller in the camera’s frame, reminded of the miniature shock I felt when he first learned to crawl–and promptly crawled away from me.
That night, during a midnight nursing, I review the movie on my phone and get a chill. It’s not his confidence at putting ever-greater distances between us. It’s not the harshness of the late afternoon light, the sun slanting across the park, sharpening each blade of grass. It’s one moment in particular: the instant when he changes direction, and I pivot, and the shadow of a camera-wielding giant falls into the frame. I quickly move out of the way to preserve the illusion of innocence frolicking alone, with no recorder, no interlocutor. But it’s too late: seeing that amateur videographer’s mistake, a foreshadowing of every clichéd parental mistake to come, I saw myself become my parents and saw myself as he would someday see me. I pictured him twenty years from now, a film student editing this clip. The robins and the toddler move in ominous slow motion. Then he freeze-frames on that shadow, his voice-over asking, “Who was she? Why was she sometimes sad? Why wasn’t I enough? Why does she remain so shadowy? Why do I feel I don’t know her?” Transforming the film into his own work.
At first I blame the camera for splitting us apart, for giving its own honest and merciless perspective to the scene, deathless yet suffused in nostalgia from the first moment. I would rather capture this moment, now, him curled against me in bed, nursing, arms and legs folded up like a newly hatched chick still in the shape of the egg, and my body making a sideways nest for his. His two hands clutching one of mine and bringing it up to under his chin. I’d rather preserve these moments that can’t be photographed because it’s too dark or I don’t have a hand free or a way to get enough distance to capture the two of us in any kind of frame.
But it’s not the camera itself that bothers me; it’s not the robins tempting him away or his own growing penchant for putting space between us; it’s not even my opening that space by holding up a camera, sacrificing the moment to its memory; it’s rather the realization that every aspect of my life now has joint ownership. Not just that my time and my body are no longer only mine; it’s that my experiences and memories are no longer simply my own to claim. They are in the commons of “us,” and each artifact of memory is not just my property but his inheritance, which he can dispose of as he likes.