Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sitting by My Dad's Bedside


I'm sitting next to my dad's bed.  He's weak and out of it--drifting peacefully toward death.  I think it could come soon.

I'm playing Beethoven for him--symphony #3.  I also read some more Beowulf and also Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, looking around for some of the most beautiful language I know of.  My dad's face looks like a child's face to me now.  I so much see the family resemblance.  He has the Miller German mouth and the round head and blue eyes.  At other times of death, I have noticed this heightened awareness of the body.  It's a feeling of deep gratitude for the body that has been.  In this case, it's a body that half-created me and then that carried me, cared for me, gave me shelter and love.  My earliest memories are of riding horseback-style on dad's back.  I remember the scratchy flannel of his dark tartan Pendleton shirt.

That's my dad in the painting above.  The likeness is far from perfect.  Especially the mouth.  The painting challenges me to paint another, better portrait.  It looks enough like dad to have served as a Christmas gift to my brother Mark.  I'm also having prints of it made for my other brothers and family members.

I like the painting for how it captures much of my dad's personality and, well, self.  His camera, for instance: dad was always an inveterate photographer, more for documentary purposes than anything else.  I've heard him say on a number of occasions, "if it's not documented, it didn't happen."  So here, in this painting from a photo taken aboard a catamaran that we sailed on a sea excursion in Kauai in 2008, he's got the camera, because of course he does.  And then there are his glasses--the thick-lensed pair that darken or lighten with the sunlight.  He always wore glasses, and it was a point of pride for him that the optometrist always said, whenever he had a new pair made, that his glasses were the heaviest he had ever made.  Then there's the shirt and the hat that I recognize, and the characteristic posture.  All that make up a person.  So I learn in painting this portrait that portraits capture even more than I ever thought they could.  For a familiar viewer, they can capture the life that the body embodied.

It was a pleasure and honor to paint the picture.  I didn't think I would be able to do it--painting portraits being such intimate work.  But when I saw this photo, I thought, oh, I can paint that: that's so much my dad's self-in-the-world, the self that all got to see.  I wrestled with it--that mouth gave me fits.  Like wrestling an angel.

New gratitude for the gift of artistic vision.  Old gratitude, newly enriched, for my dad's life.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Story of Another Painting

2016

The healing power of beauty is so mysterious.

My father's life is ending.  He's nearly 81, he had a wonderful life full of love and manifold contribution--he's a lucky man.  And he was healthy for nearly all of the 81 years.  Then lung cancer struck, and now he's dying of a brain metastasis.  I will miss him terribly.

My days now are relatively normal--not living very close to my parents.  I go through my days at work and taking care of Noah and finding time with Susan.  Intermittently, like today, I manage to get down to visit.  Today I came down after my brother John sounded the alarm: it looked to him like the end was near.  So I came down today and spent several hours sitting next to him while, mostly, he slept.  His face is beginning to wear the mask of death that advanced cancer patients put on.

I laugh at myself: what I read to him was Beowulf, the ancient Old English epic poem of great deeds and monstrous attacks upon the Shield-Danes.  We are of Scandinavian stock.  The warriors in the poem are our ancestors.  I like the idea of invoking for my dad the image of the Viking warrior--our forebear.

Three postings in this blog in the space of as many days, more or less, come by virtue of my mad painting in this very difficult time.  Trump on the one hand, death on the other.  What can I control?  Where can I find solace?  Painting offers some.

I love this painting.  I painted most of it while I was down staying with my mother-in-law after my dad's first big scare.  While he was over the hills potentially dying, I was over here sculpting this lovely model's beautiful back and feet and bum with washes of gold, crimson, purple, aquamarine.  I celebrate the body through this painting.  I celebrate the body as my father's body is diminishing toward oblivion.  

It's a common classical pose: the odalisque or reclining nude.  I have no doubt that this is largely a guy thing, but the beautiful female body, and especially the beautiful female backside, signify, well, life in so profound a way--the fleeting, magnificent fecundity and grace of our lives in these bodies.  As I sought to capture the beauty of this model, it felt like I was pulling out of myself a fierce love of all that we are in this plane: the so transient miracle of our flesh.  

I love this painting.  I am so happy that I got to paint it, and so happy that I get and got to be my dad's son.