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A Life, Developed

Malerie Yolen-Cohen

The last roll of film I ever developed was from a dead man.

Before digital cameras reduced photographs to pixels - images that fly through cyberspace like Captain Kirk beaming back to the Enterprise - a young man lived in our house. This nineteen year old, a boy really, moved in with us so he could teach grade school kids about his country, Israel. Ilan came for a year, leaving three younger brothers and Russian parents behind, but never quite out-of-reach, with telephones and email connecting them like the strongest of threads.

On the day he moved in, Ilan was worried about his proficiency in English. "I don't want to be a..." he started, then grabbed his dictionary. "An encumbrance." I knew right then that I'd have to bone up on my own English vocabulary.

Thin and tall, with straight black hair he'd gel to a high sheen, Ilan began each day standing at our kitchen sink, sipping instant coffee - black - nibbling on toast and staring out at the surrounding landscape. He loved our property - set on a river - with clusters of trees rising from the opposite bank. "Whoa - this is so cool," he'd say of everything, everyday. Then he'd snap a picture.

Ilan courted life through a lens. He kept his Olympus with him at all times - never knowing what would inspire him. It could be a frolic in the woods with his friends. It could be first snow covering our lawn. It could be the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at night. Or it could be me, goofing around with my son's ski mask.

His camera sat by his side when he plowed his car into a guardrail on a snowy January afternoon. Unlike Ilan, it emerged unscathed.

The hospital called me first, and I rushed there to find Ilan unconscious, on life support, his black hair still perfectly coifed. Twenty-four hours later, after his bereaved parents had flown over from Israel to find their first born warm to the touch but brain dead, I decided to go home and comb through Ilan's things. I needed proof that up until the day of the crash, Ilan's mind was fully engaged in life's miracles, however small. And I knew I'd find those miracles in the coils of negatives still undeveloped.

There were four rolls of 36. I took them to a local One-Hour-Photo lab.

The pictures told the story of Ilan's life in America - the life of a mature teen seeing the humor and simple beauty of a new culture. There were Michiel and Yifat making silly faces on the train to New York. There was Leor pushing Daniel down in the snow. There was Ilan with my oldest son flipped over his back - being a cool "big brother." There were pictures of his students and photographs of autumn trees blazing with color. He took shots of houses outrageously festooned with Christmas lights. And shots of snow falling on stark trees, right outside the window of his room.

I took the piles of photographs to the hospital and gave them to Ilan's parents. They shuffled through the stack, crying and smiling, still in shock. How could these pieces of paper be more alive than the body in the next room breathing only though machines? .

Those were the very last rolls of film I ever developed. Since then, I've been taking digital pictures that remain, for the most part, flashes of color inside my camera. There's something earthly and real about the results from old fashioned 35mm film . Digital photos are ethereal - belonging to the spirit world. Ilan must have taken thousands by now.


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