They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but there are thousands more it doesn’t show.
My niece recently snapped a photo of her grandpa, my dad.
The picture shows him wearing a clean red shirt and khaki pants. It doesn’t explain that someone else chose his outfit and dressed him that day, as someone has had to do for more than two years now.
The picture shows his red cap, emblazoned with OSU — Ohio State University. It doesn’t explain that he’s been a Buckeye fan all his life, including now, when he seems to have little comprehension of people, places or things and has not put a meaningful sentence together for at least four years, but will still pore over his Ohio State Alumni Magazine as if he understands every word and will still grin when he spies a scarlet-and-gray-clad team, player or fan.
The picture shows him holding a football. It doesn’t tell you that football was his passion — playing, watching, coaching, studying and often obsessing over it. It doesn’t show that he will still catch the ball — no matter how high, wide, fast, straight or arced it is tossed — but then refuse to throw it back.
The picture shows a name painted on the ball: Eddie Rolph. It doesn’t explain that Little Eddie was what the folks in Rittman, Ohio, called him — the small teen who was crazy about football and was on the high school roster for four years and didn’t reach his full height of 6-foot-1 until long after he graduated.
The picture shows Ed’s birth date: 10-7-34, which means he is 79. It doesn’t reveal what makes him look much older in person: a vacant look in the blue eyes of a man with a once-genius IQ, and several missing teeth due to the difficulty his caregivers face in providing adequate oral hygiene because he clamps his mouth shut when they attempt to brush his teeth.
The picture shows him looking intently at the ball. It doesn’t reveal that every time Ed catches the football, he turns it so that the lettering is right-side-up and then studies it as if he can still read.
Though you might not notice it at first, the picture reveals a neatly folded towel on Ed’s chest. It doesn’t explain that the towel is there to catch the drool from a former businessman who is forgetting one thing after another in his steady decline, including how to swallow.
The picture suggests other people nearby. It doesn’t identify the photographer, a young woman named Shara who — of Ed’s 15 grandchildren — probably knows him the best, or his daughter Brynn, who has shared heavily in his caregiving.
The picture shows the Meramec River in the distance. It doesn’t explain that Shara and Brynn have maneuvered Ed’s wheelchair outdoors, down a hill and onto a deck on a bluff and positioned him out of the shade because he has always loved sitting in the full sunshine.
It doesn’t show the other people in Ed’s life:
• The staff at the memory care facility where he now resides, who can only guess at who he once was.
• His wife of nearly 55 years who took seriously her vow of “in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part” and has stayed by his side throughout this battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
• Three more children, myself included, who live far away. Too far away.
• Three sisters who saw their younger brother quickly grow — physically and mentally, from little pest to strong tower — and then quickly shrink.
• Fourteen more grandchildren, some with vivid memories of a smart and vibrant grandpa, and some who can only recall the shell of that person.
• More relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers, each with their own perspectives of the boy, the teen, the adult and the old man that distinguish the individual named Ed Rolph.
The picture suggests nostalgia. But it doesn’t portray the range of reactions and responses that people have had to Ed’s affliction — from denial to frustration to despair to humor to resignation, from seeking solutions to giving up hope, from staying connected to trying to forget.
The picture tells a lot. But it’s only a snapshot in the photo album of Ed’s life.
Besides the obvious lessons here (take lots of pictures, treasure your photographs), there’s a bigger one that I don’t want to miss, especially as a caregiver.
The person in front of you at this moment — handicapped, aged, infirm, disabled — is just one picture of the full person. To be a better caregiver — or friend or neighbor or daughter or sibling — consider carefully what that picture is telling you, but remember that there are thousands more.