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.