For My Nana; from the lightning connections in the brain to the sweet essence of memory. Because I never got to say goodbye.
These are photographs. I found them in a box. I found the box in a gun cabinet, on the bottom shelf. The air in the box was thick with rust dust and crumbling cardboard. The dust was from the old film coated with the musty chemicals, stale ammunition and disintegrated canvas cases. When I opened the gun case, I breathed in the film before I saw it. I tasted it in my mouth and ingested the ripe chemicals before I projected it onto my dark basement wall. The shotgun cases of frail film clicked and rustled in the old brittle cardboard. These carved skeleton cases of film served as my encyclopedia, collection and dictionary- an archive on lost time. This collection is the proof that any of this happened; evidence of the unrelenting cold weak northern light and the thickness of darkness.
I visited Lauri Lappi everyday for three months. I walked into his house and I quietly prayed I would not find him dead. I sniffed the air in short huffs as if I could smell death. Inevitably, I found him sleeping on the couch, splayed out straight - evenly distributing his weight on each tattered cushion. A tugged blanket from over the back of the sofa made a small tent over half of his sunken body. Last year, he was diagnosed with Dementia. Each day, he struggles to maintain his independence.
When I heard the knock, I wasn't surprised. I knew Lauri didn't sleep well; he was prone to nightmares. Lauri opened the door and it creaked loudly- but he couldn't hear. He muttered, "Who is there? Who is that? Are you sleeping? I know someone is there, but I don't know who… I have forgotten. I had a nightmare. I dreamt…I can't remember…"
It was about three in the morning and he couldn't read the clock, couldn't hear my voice, and couldn't remember what he was doing. "It's ok, Lauri. What were you dreaming?" I stumbled out of my room and jerked on an oversized sweatshirt. "Do you want some coffee?" Lauri yelled.
I walked over to where he was feeling his way across the kitchen. I flipped the light and it buzzed yellow. I touched his forearm. "Lauri, I think its too early for coffee still, its only about three in the morning." I bellowed it into his left ear- he wasn't wearing his hearing aid.
"OH! Oh well, I guess it is a little early. Where is David? Is David still here? What time is it?"
The conversation went on like this for a little while longer. Soon, he tired and wandered back to his room. He shuffled on the old carpet down the dark hallway. He flopped messily on top of the rumpled quilted comforter and prayed to God, clasping his hands tightly as his cloudy eyes glimmered in the darkness.
At the age of 88, Lauri lives alone in the house he built for his family nearly 60 years ago. He built and designed this house with his own two hands. He built the furniture. He dug the well by hand and made the water clean to drink. He erected its roof. He cased the windows and hung the cabinets. He is a builder, an engineer, a craftsman. Lauri was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in Champion, two miles from the house he built. The UP is a place rarely visited by outsiders. It is a lonely northern partner, half of a state. It is an outpost, a frontier; people who settled and live here are pioneers. Lauri Lappi is a man living a 19th century lifestyle in a 21st century world. He has not heard a newscast in eight years, and he has not read a newspaper for nearly ten.
Waking Hours 7:30
I woke up around seven. Lauri was already yelling to his sister, Aili, over the phone.
"HOW ARE YOU FEELING?" he roared at Aili.
I could hear the whistle of his hearing aid over Aili's amplified voice. "Oh I am fine, I am doing fine today," Aili replied. "Any news?"
The UP has been sheltered from technology, news, movies, music, fashion, and much of the Internet. Until 1957, when the Mackinac Bridge was completed, it was nearly completely isolated from the lower peninsula of Michigan. People who live in the UP thrive on a diet of solitude and separateness. Instead of skyscrapers, traffic sirens, and back alleys, the UP is dense with expanding natural forest, raging rivers, and cedar stands. Logging roads create an endless network of trails and tracks and dead ends and vistas. Even the ground is unforgiving. There are more rocks and gravel then dirt and decomposed matter; more iron and mineral than fine sand and dainty powder. Every winter, dead animals decay and sink into the boulders that grew out of the lava and glaciers. The matted putrid animal fur rests under the snow until the spring comes and grinds the icy granules over the soft coats until it makes more dirt and rocks and metals.
"Well, I don't have any news that I can think of. Reyna is still here I think. I don't think David is here," Lauri said. "Julie and I are going for a ride into Baraga today. Do you want to come along?" Aili asked. " Sure! What time are you going? What time is it now?"
Every year in October, an unrelentingly cycle of harsh weather begins, bringing winter temperatures that last for several weeks between 10 and 20 below zero. From October until May, nearly 250 inches of snow falls. Daylight lasts from nine to three. Ghost towns disappear beneath heavy icy layers behind cedar stands. Backwoods logging trails vanish along with all signs of life.
I leaned over and spoke directly into Lauri's ear, "How about I make us a sandwich for lunch?" I asked.
"Well, sure! I don't know what is in the fridge, but use whatever you want. There might be some salami. Grace got me some salami. Chris went shopping for me this week and she got me some broccoli and cheese and salami. I think…is there bread?"
"Ill find it and look around, don't worry I know my way around your kitchen by now"
"Can we have some coffee?"
Chris, Lauri's eldest daughter, and Grace, Lauri's youngest daughter, are responsible for making sure that he has enough food and that his bills are paid in a timely manner. They pay for the upkeep of his house with the pension money from Cleveland Cliffs. Lauri's newfound dependence on his six children has had a significant effect on his family. Grace built an apartment for him after he is no longer able to live independently. But Lauri does not want to leave his house. With his father, Matt's help, Lauri bought the eight acres of land for five hundred dollars in 1946. He paid for all of the building materials in cash. Lauri never paid a mortgage, he never had a credit card, and he never owed money.
I put a hot salami sandwich in front of him with a glass of milk and a cup of coffee. I took his hand gingerly and guided it over the steam of the coffee and the warmth of the toasted bread. I took his other hand and pointed with his finger as I explained. "OK, on this side is a salami sandwich, and then you have some broccoli and some carrots. I made some hot coffee on your left, and your milk is on your right side" Lauri nodded and smiled in my direction.
Idle Time 15:00
Dementia is an isolating illness. The plaque that grows on the brain is the only physical proof of the barrier that exists between the patient and the people around them. An absence takes over. Each day that I spent with Lauri, he lost more of who he was. His identity, once so clearly defined, became muddled and distracted. When I began visiting with him, his long-term memory was intact. By the time that I left two months later, his long and short-term memories were scrambled and fused together. His children watch as he turns into the antithesis of what he once was- messy, unkempt, disagreeable, and idle.
"I need to go get the mail. Is today Tuesday? I have to bring my garbage cans in on Tuesday. Lets go get the mail. Do you want to come with me?"
As we walked out to the mailbox, Lauri chats incessantly. He talks about his past, nothing current. Everything exists in lost time, elastic intervals of space bouncing between subjects. His service in the Navy segues into early memories of his father. Memories of his father seeped down into life as a mining engineer.
"Have you heard that story before? Have I told you about that yet? That story of me and the horse?"
"Yes, you have told me that before." Sometimes I let him tell it again, because I know it's a story he loves. The memories of his first horse, Jim, are the only thought he has left now. Lauri spends nearly 90% of his time alone. Lauri is fiercely independent and frequently has visitors. However, being blind and deaf has taken a toll on Lauri and his mind is rarely stimulated. Without regular stimulation, the brain falls dormant and stiff, atrophied like a muscle left unused.
"I think I am gonna lay down for a little while. Are you gonna be ok? Do you want some coffee?"
"I can get it, don't worry about it. Do you want some coffee?"
Now that Lauri has very little creative or intellectual outlet, he spends most of his time resting. Once a week, he attends the same church he has gone to for nearly 60 years. He was raised in a religious community of Finnish Apostolic Lutherans. Apostolic is a branch of Lutheranism brought by the Finnish immigrants during the late nineteenth century. It prides itself on upholding a strict and austere lifestyle without alcohol, dancing, and popular entertainment. Many followers have a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.
"Are you coming to church with us this week?"
"Yes I think I will come this week again."
"Did you like last week? We don't have a fancy church or anything like that. Our pastor, Andy, we are lucky to have him. Church is like a holiday time for me. I get a chance to hear some singing, I like singing…will you come to church with us again this week?"
"I'm going to go home now and make some dinner for myself. I have to go to bed and then I will come back and visit with you tomorrow. Is that ok?"
"Well, sure! You can come back. Just give me a call and give me a chance to get dressed in the morning."
Sometimes, Lauri and I spoke about how he wanted to be remembered. We spoke about death- his fear of the unknown and his anticipation of eternity. The Lappi family uses its faith to cope with the heartbreak, loss, and loneliness. To watch a parent become helpless, and face death alone is grueling and exhausting in a world in which we all search so deeply for connection and acceptance. The Lappi's are a model of good management and agreement during a time that could be filled with infighting and disagreement. I believe that is why Lauri feels so at peace while he knowingly faces his own death.
When I left and went back to D.C, Lauri and I said our goodbyes. I don't know when I will be going back to the UP, but when I go back, he might not remember me. I think he knew that too.
"I am going to go back home and write about you now. I wont be back tomorrow to visit you, but we will talk soon"
"You are not coming tomorrow? Well, what about the next day?"
"Well, I need to go home and I can't stay here. I need to go back to DC"
"Oh I see, well, then I guess this is goodbye"
This archive taught me about being human. I first projected the photographs into the shadowy area downstairs in between the spiders and their webs. This archive reminds me of stillness and solitude. It reminds me that I was indeed there, even when I am far away in the center of urban cacophony. Even when I feel as though I am drowning in light pollution and crushed by the fragility of the darkness, I can look at this archive and remember.