FIVE SUMMER STORIES : FATHER
LONG BEFORE HE GOT SICK, OUR FATHER WAS down there in the cellar painting away. He had rigged up an easel for himself and suspended a couple naked light bulbs from a beam--to simulate northern light, he said--and he painted things from photographs and magazines and books. Later, he painted things vaguely reminiscent of what he had seen on walks. At the beginning of the end, he painted things nobody except himself had ever seen before. He claimed that his painting style simply evolved from representational to impressionistic to a kind of hard-edged expressionism of his own. But long before we understood what he was doing, our father had begun to escape from us. He was in the process of disappearing.
John, who is artistic, was the first to notice the hairline crack in each of the paintings. Our father was all done with his representational period. He had lined up a whole bunch of the things in the cellar, propped against the washer and dryer and the boiler and the old bikes. They were everywhere, stacked two and three deep, because he was having a sort of show, a retrospective as it were, for John and Joan, who were visiting home from California where he teaches writing and she teaches English. John and Joan have no children. They don’t go in for that sort of thing. Or perhaps they can’t. In any case, they were admiring the pictures generally, sometimes pointing out a special thing about one or another, and our father was standing by, very serious, as they assessed what they liked or disliked about his creations. All of a sudden, John said, “Look at this. Look at this.” He ran a long, skinny finger down a very fine crack in a picture. And then in another. And in another.
At the time our father just stood there, not doddering yet, not even a little bit dingy, just smiling as if he were getting some secret pleasure out of John’s discovery. There’s no telling just how much he was planning or how much he was deceiving us at that point; he was still in his impressionistic period. But there was no question that John was right: there was this line, wiggly sometimes and at other times jagged like a bolt of lightning and at all times almost invisible. It ran down the center of the painting as if it were a warning or a threat or a prophecy.
“A theme,” John said. “A recurrent theme, as if your impression of the world reflected the primal fall or as if you saw that it might all come apart at any minute.”
We laughed at that because it sounded so important, and our father laughed, and then we all went upstairs for a drink and dinner.
Not long after this, he moved into his expressionist period, where people seemed less than whole and things no longer looked like what they were. He used a lot of dark colors in this period, though some had a grim brilliance that made us look at them, and look again. Huge rocks began to appear in his paintings, boulders practically, hovering in the air as if they might fall out of the picture any minute and crush us. And those cracks down the center began to get bigger. We could see them clearly now, even from a few feet off. Everything was distorted. What he was expressing wasn’t very nice, even in the abstract.
Later when our father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and well advanced, too, he went on heavy doses of L-Dopa that controlled the shaking and allowed him to continue to paint. That seemed fine, because it kept him occupied and out of our mother’s way. He was deteriorating fast. And he was driving her crazy with things like putting the kettle on while she was out for groceries and forgetting it until it melted down flat to the burner. “He could have burned the house down,” she would scream, while he flinched at the sound. “He could have burned himself to death.” And then she would cry and scream and cry some more, until she had enough strength to go on. We were less patient with her than we should have been because we just didn’t know how bad off our father was or what it was like for her to never have a quiet thought, midnight or morning, for years as she took care of him. When she finished her scene, our father would dodder on down the stairs and paint away. It was very near the end.
He had been in his expressionist period for quite a while when John and Joan came to visit again. They stayed in the house for a week with our father and mother and got a close look at the way things were. At first John was horrified at what had happened to our father physically: the stumble when he tried to walk, the wandering mind, the uncompleted sentence. And at our mother, who seemed half-lunatic.
On the first morning, for instance, at breakfast time, she was shuffling in her bunny slippers from the stove to the table, and all of a sudden she stopped dead. She let out a long scream and pulled her hair back from her temples, wailing, “Oh God, oh God, now you see what I have to put up with.” John pushed away from the table and ran to her and said, “What? What is it?” And she cried out, in tears, in despair, “I already stirred his orange juice. I try to save him. I try. I try.” John looked over at our father who was clinking the glass as he tried to stir the orange juice with a fork, and he looked down at our mother, who was sobbing helplessly against his chest, and he looked over at Joan, who was looking the way Joan does, which we have frankly never figured out, and he said, “Something has to be done here. But what? What?”
After breakfast, John took a look at the new paintings and, as he admitted later, he should have noticed how things were. Each picture had a thousand different fractures but there was something new; in the center, a kind of dark cave opened up into the canvas. “You could hide there,” John said. “You could disappear forever.” The newest painting stood unfinished on the easel, the same dark colors with their odd brilliance, the same fractures, fissures, cracks, but in the middle where that dark cave should be, there was empty canvas. Our father had left an absence in the center of things, for later.
The days that week were very long, John said. Our mother slept sometimes, but mostly she raved like a madwoman, in desperation and devotion to our father, who merely sat, silent, or went for slow, slow painful walks with John. The days were all right and the evenings were all right, but at night our father was impossible. Sitting with them in the living room, like old times, he would nod and smile and make a little rambling comment now and then, but when they wanted to help him to bed, they found he had become nearly paralyzed. His limbs would not bend, they were like stone, and John and Joan together could barely move him. But they had a method. They would pry him from his chair, pulling and pushing until they got him upright, and then they staggered him between them to his bed. He was bones only, but he was heavy beyond belief. Our mother would scuffle around saying, “See? Do you see?” and run ahead to ready the pillows, to pull down the sheet and blankets the way he liked, then “Do you see?” It took an hour to get him into bed.
“This is not the worst of it,” our mother said. “You don’t know. He pees in the wastebasket. He does. In the night he gets afraid of the toilet. So help me, God.” John laughed and our mother laughed and said, “I’m not crazy yet, I guess, because I still know it’s funny . . . in a way. And once he’s up, you never know what he’ll do. He’ll boil water and burn us down or go out on the street in the middle of the night--he’s done it more than once--and there’s no one who cares or who can help. . . .”
She stopped then because our father suddenly appeared from bed, stood smiling at the door and moved across the room to his favorite chair, walking easily now, his limbs unstuck. “Oh no,” she said. “Don’t let him sit. He’ll fall asleep and we’ll never get him up.” And she was right. In less than a minute, he slumped down into sleep and they had to go through it all again: prying him from the chair, getting him upright, staggering him down the hall to his bed. It was exhausting. It was frightening.
“How is this possible?” John said. “He was stiff as a board and out like a light, and it took an hour to get him into bed, and then minutes later he appears as if he’s all set for a jaunt in the country. This isn’t possible.”
Our mother laughed this time, with bitterness and gratitude that someone saw at last what it was like, but before they could even get a drink and try to recover, there he was again. She ran ahead to do the pillows, but she was 76 and nearly done herself, and as they were staggering him to bed, she came apart, and shouted, “Bastard life, what kind of bastard life is this? I want out, I want out, I want out.” But there was no way out, and she knew it, so she hurled herself into the hall closet, and tore the clothes from hangers and threw the hangers on the floor and, screaming, crouched there in a wretched corner, screaming still. Our father, paralyzed and dumb, snapped out of it and said to Joan, “That poor woman, that poor woman.” And tears came as he said, “She’ll die.”
The next morning when our father went downstairs to paint, John made arrangements for a home, and then he called us to our father’s house and gave a speech. Our mother cowered in a chair.
“We must not deceive ourselves,” he said. “We are sentencing our father to death. Because he is old and dotty and frail and cannot be responsible for wandering or peeing in the night, we say yes, this is impossible, he must have specialized care. But what we are really saying is: We cannot cope with this, so we must put him away. And he defies us, our pretensions and excuses and our lies.” John teaches writing. He stands like a professor, wringing his hands as if that way he could squeeze the instincts out of them. “He defies us,” John said, “by being, now and then, shockingly rational and sane and simple. One minute, we think he’s lost it. The next, with his words and with his smile and with his knowing acceptance of this impossible situation, he tells us that we are putting out of our sight and our concern a living, feeling, suffering human person--who is my father and your father and your husband--and on and on until we can never forget and, if we are honest, never forgive ourselves. Something must be done here. But what? What?”
Thus, it was settled. Our father would be put in a home and our mother would be saved, in a sense, and we would all live with what had to be done.
John went downstairs to get him, to tell him how it was, to break the hard news. And then we all went down. But our father was not there.
The paintings were there, spread around the cellar, the huge boulders in them ready to fall on us, the fractured surfaces, the dark caves. But our father was not there. He was gone.
His last canvas stood on the easel, finished now but unlike any of the others. In the center where there should have been a cave, there was the door our father had gone through. The door stood open to a silver night. He had disappeared. He had escaped, leaving us with all our business incomplete, our goodness, understanding.
In the end, our father painted clear untroubled air and, quicker than our love, he entered it.