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Sean Kirst: Two lives bound together and one last, shared sunset

David Torke is a Western New York photographer. He sees an image as an emotional doorway into what used to be, a strategy that resonates in his photographs of Buffalo. In a tattered rooftop or crumbling art deco lettering, Torke will find some insight about the city as it was, lost moments that somehow provide new life today.

In two photos Torke captured of his own parents, the approach feels almost like prophecy.

David, 55, posted those images last month on Facebook. He offered them in quick succession, accompanied by simple captions. Say what you want about social media, but it can allow for instant and stirring moments of unexpected communion. If you happened upon David's posts, you did not forget them.

Each one portrays Jean and Arnold Torke, his mother and father, at intimate — even vulnerable — moments in their 80s.

The first shows them side-by-side in a field in Sheldon, in Wyoming County, looking toward the horizon. Power lines run off into the distance; far away, you see the vague outline of two silos. The August sun is falling in the sky, and David's father stares intently toward blue hills through the early evening light. His mother, equally reflective, is wrapped in a blanket.

Both, at the time, were coping with dementia. In the summer of 2016, their son would often take them on long evening rides, maybe to Letchworth State Park or to pick some fruit in Niagara County, maybe on gravel back roads not so far from their East Aurora home.

Sometimes, if a place — any quiet place — was overwhelmingly beautiful, David would pull over and grab some lawn chairs from the trunk. They'd all settle in, amid the quiet, to allow their thoughts to wander where they might go.

"My parents," David said, "would get lost in each other's worlds."

On one of those evenings, he captured the image that would later take on a new level of meaning. David posted it to Facebook at 10:36 p.m. Feb. 18, with this caption:

Arnold Torke (July 3, 1931 - February 18, 2018)

 My father saw his last sunset yesterday.

Arnold had died, at age 86Beneath the picture, David's friends lived out a 21st century form of communal mourning, offering an explosion of digital condolence. He did not post again on Facebook for 43 hours. At that point, he put up another photo. This one had been taken in May in East Aurora, at the Absolut Care nursing home where his father – as the dementia grew worse – spent the final months of his life.

The couple had stayed at home, together, for as long as possible. David remembers, during that time, how he would often be working in his studio, near his father's bed. Every night, his mother tucked in her husband and gave him a kiss before he slept. Arnold would always respond by singing the famous song about Miss America as she entered the room.

That routine, that rhythm, went on for a long while.

It was symbolic, David said, of their entire marriage.

"That love was present, that support was there, through all the ups and downs," he said.

Finally, it reached a point where his dad could no longer live at home, and David would drive his mother to the nursing home — typically three times a day — so his parents could spend some time together. Once last spring, while his mother seemed lost in thought, Arnold reached out — affection so deep it was almost expressed as reflex — and gently clasped Jean's hand.

David raised his camera and caught the image, their hands together, his mother's face expressing weary concern.

On Feb. 20, less than two full days after the death of his father, he posted that photo on Facebook, with this caption:

Jean Torke (July 7, 1935 - February 20, 2018)

I guess they really liked one another.

The symmetry of that passing seemed to fit their long romance. Their July birthdays, David said, were only four days apart, and they had been married 61 years. They met at a Christmas dance in East Aurora, the only place Jean Torke would ever live, not long after Arnold finished serving in the Air Force, in Morocco.

Arnold and Jean Torke hold hands, last spring. (David Torke image)

Arnold returned from his service with a trophy. He bought a white Triumph TR2 overseas, a beautiful sports car, and somehow he came up with the money to ship it home. It was an ideal choice for long rides on those Erie County back roads, but a larger priority suddenly emerged.

"My father sold it," David said, "so he could buy a diamond ring for my mother."

The couple raised two daughters and a son in East Aurora, and they quietly made their house available to other children going through hard times. David and his sister Susan recently uncovered some scrapbooks kept by their father when he was a young man, family artifacts they studied for the first time.

The detailed scrapbooks capture a youthful sense of wonder that they never saw in Arnold as they grew up.

David's childhood memories of his dad involve an intense guy, driven by his work in sales and management in the corporate world, a father who kept his emotions carefully contained. Even at the nursing home, Arnold's disposition was so gently pleasant — and so internal — that many on the staff called him "Mr. Buddha."

A few weeks ago, David expected no reaction when he did what he felt a son ought to do: Despite the dementia, despite the almost guaranteed certainty that there would be no response, he told his father the truth.

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David told him that Jean's condition was getting worse, that the chances were strong that she would not live a whole lot longer.

Abruptly, unexpectedly, his father frowned, a flash of intense grief that came and went like a spasm. If David's sister hadn't been there to see it as well – she even thought, for an instant, that she saw a sign of tears – they both might have questioned if it happened at all.

The next day, at the nursing home, their father died.

Believe, if you choose, that it is all coincidence.

Or believe, if you prefer, he willed himself to make the passage first.

However you see it, within two days, his wife followed the same path.

David's brother-in-law, Paul Moylan, a jazz composer, wrote a composition for the funeral at East Aurora's First Presbyterian Church. David's niece Naomi played the cello on that piece, and his sister Susan closed the service by playing "Danny Boy" on flute while Paul joined her on piano, an achingly poignant tribute for two lives so bound together. Afterward, time and again, old friends said to David:

Your parents just didn't want to be apart.

David wonders. How can he possibly know for sure? The one place where he finds certainty is in the meaning, the driving purpose, of all that used to be.

On this side of a sunset, that's why he took the pictures.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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