THE SELF-PORTRAIT

(This personal essay appeared in Flyway: A Literary Review, Volume 6.2, Spring/Fall 2001.) 

            My father has Alzheimer’s. Sam, his companion from social services, has been visiting him weekly in his board-and-care. Last night Sam reported that their wide-ranging discussions about World War II and the Jazz Era had turned to the subject of art. “We’ve started drawing together,” he said. “The time is right to take your father to the art store for supplies.” Given my father’s halting speech, I was heartbroken trying to imagine these “discussions.” But now I’m thrilled, because Dad’s going to paint again.

            When I was growing up in Minnesota, my father had a workroom set up in the basement of our house, an unfinished space where the concrete foundation and wooden beams were exposed. It was narrow and stretched back from the door so far I couldn’t see the rear wall. Like a dark, forbidding cavern, the room just disappeared into blackness.

            A workbench ran the length of the front wall. One bare light bulb hung from the ceiling, providing a bubble of illumination. The wood was heavily pocked and gouged, an old-looking surface, like the moon.

            My father kept his tools hung above the bench on nails and hooks. The saw had its special place, as did the hammer and several screwdrivers. My favorite was the large screwdriver with the lemon-yellow glass handle. Smaller items, like tacks, washers, and grommets, were stored on shelves in little wooden boxes, plastic containers, and Hills Brothers coffee tins. His green metal tackle box was stored under the workbench. Rods with reels stood in the corner, and rifles hung on the wall, all waiting their seasons.

            This room was too dark and scary for me ever to explore on my own, but if the light were on, I might approach. Usually my father was at work on some house-related project. He was not the type who would enjoy building his own home or ever launch a major renovation. He liked making a sticky cabinet door open smoothly or rewiring a lamp. It was a delight to him to make things work, and he much preferred his own fix to complete object replacement.

            One day, when I was nine, I came down the back stairs from the kitchen. Light glowed from inside the workroom. I didn’t hear any power tools or hammering. At the threshold I realized my father was not there. I ventured into the room, and saw something I had never seen before, a sight so splendid I was transfixed.

            On the edge of the bench nearest me, a tin can offered up a bouquet of long, thin, wooden paintbrushes with silky brown tips, in various sizes, some pointed, others broad and blunt. Tiny tubes of paint, most rolled up from the bottom and displaying the concave impression of a thumb squeeze in the middle, covered the bench top in scatters and heaps. I could read their strange and alluring names: ultramarine blue, raw sienna, thalo green, alizarin crimson, cadmium lemon. At the far end, propped against the shelves, a big wooden palette appeared to writhe with a wild, exciting mess of color. 

            Pulled up close to the bench a painted canvas rested on an easel. It stirred under the light with vivid blues the color of real sky, soft golden browns, and hunter greens. The scene was of a country drawbridge, slender and filmy in immaterial suspension, with an enchanting white horse, carriage, and rider at the midpoint. Under the bridge, women with their backs rounded over washed clothes on the hilly banks of a river. Next to them, water splashed into a half-tilted canoe. It was a different time and place, a scene fused with peaceful reverie. Peasant women, clothing, boat, and bridge all blended into the natural surroundings of grassy hills, cloudless sky and placid water, unified by the same type of brush stroke. Everything lacked individuation, was indistinct, and, if looked at up close, indiscernible.

            The bridge seemed to shine with a light apart from mere paint, as though the sun had made its way though the stone walls of our house, down into our dark basement cave, and directed its illuminating rays upon my father’s painting. The bricks of the bridge glowed with hues of violet, lime, turquoise and pink so intensely that I felt myself there, in the painting, on the hillock, walking toward the bridge. Fresh breezes from across the water blew my skirt and petticoats around my legs. My whole body became washed alive, vibrating in colors, until I felt like an exploded rainbow. I was in a world I never wanted to leave.

            The sharp, sweet odor of turpentine pierced my nostrils, infused the more familiar smell of wood chips and dust, and brought me back to my father’s workroom. I slipped out before he returned, but the colors, the smells, and the disarray altered my everyday conception of my orderly father. There was already much about him that was mysterious to me as a young girl, but now I felt he belonged to a realm of magic, in which he was the wizard. That day I came to believe that if, within the strained confines of our formal home, my father could make a picture of such astonishing beauty, my own future could someday be bright.

            When my father arrived from Paris this summer with one large suitcase and a briefcase, he offered up his important papers to me. Among them I found a diagnosis in French for organic brain syndrome. While we waited for an American neurologist to review his case, Dad turned sixty-four. That’s young for Alzheimer’s. The neurofibrillary tangles and plaques have mounted their attack in the speech center of his brain. He has trouble retrieving words. His conversation sometimes trails off. “I was just going to tell you . . .” Within that dimensionless silence, our shared grief is palpable, as we wait for the words, which seem to have fallen away, like autumn leaves from a tree.

            Not long ago my father was an actor. His bread-and-butter was in character roles for soap operas and as a model for printed ads. But he loved the stage and each season played in summer stock and Off-Off Broadway: Menelaeus in The Trojan Women, Teresias in The Bacchae, Gloucester in King Lear, and Teleyegin in Uncle Vanya. His venues included Hartford, Brandeis, The Charles Playhouse in Boston, and New York’s Lincoln Center. For the last five years, he’s lived in France, where he worked as an English tutor and also performed the voice-over for a BBC production of the life of William Faulkner. He appeared in movies, on radio shows, and made a number of film narrations.

            All this my father accomplished at a late age, after over twenty years as a salesman. He had started out selling toilet brushes, mops, and cleaning liquids. The Massachusetts-based company that manufactured these home products expanded quickly in the fifties. My father read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and eventually became a manager with his own territory in the Midwest. Then he had his gall bladder removed. The operation seemed to be a major turning point in his life. Afterwards, it was as though a certain bitterness of spirit had been removed with the poisoned organ. He realized that he had become successful enough in business to begin to pursue the acting career he had abandoned as a young man. And that’s what he set out to do at the age of forty-four. Now this man, who thrived throughout his whole life on his love for the spoken language, seethes with frustration as he tries to complete a mundane sentence.

            As I walk into his rooms, I see a small pencil sketch of his loveseat, casually displayed on his sitting room table. Maybe a shift from the verbal to the visual is just what he needs. We’ll transform his sitting room: throw down canvas cloths to cover the carpet, create a variety of lighting options, and put up shelves. I can envision every media, neatly organized, watercolors, pencils, oils, pastels, and charcoals. And I’ll get jelly jars to display an array of brushes and knives.  I look forward to our shopping trip.

            When Saturday arrives, my time is tight.  I have only a couple hours. My little boy is waiting for me, and so is a grad school lab experiment write-up.

            My father’s dressed and ready. He settles quickly into the car.

            “Dad, you won’t have time to do much before Monday.” That’s the day Sam visits. “But at least you’ll have your supplies, and then you can get oriented.”

            He doesn’t respond. He seems a little morose. Maybe he doesn’t understand. I figure it will dawn on him when we get inside the store. A tall, gangly salesman stands behind the counter.  It’s early and we’re the only customers. The salesman asks if he can help, and I explain that I’m with my father, who’s recently retired and is an artist.

            “He’s in the market for just about everything. He needs paints, papers, brushes, an easel–the whole shebang. We’re going to set up an art studio.”

            My father walks off towards the furthest corner of the store. In a tone of voice more hushed, I add, “He has Alzheimer’s Disease and is a little slow.”

Then I realize my father is not as far away as I thought he was and may have heard. I feel my innards cringe and the heat of shame flush across my face. I’ve betrayed him.

            Gently, as if to make amends, I lead him in and out of the displays of sable brushes, shiny bottles of brilliantly colored acrylics, tiny tubes of oils, smooth and unblemished palettes, and an assortment of mixing pots. He is clearly not as excited as I am.

            “What color oils would you like?” I say at the rack of white tubes, neatly arranged.

            “No!” He emphatically rejects them all.

            “No?  What do you mean, no?  Well, okay, maybe that’s too much to start.  But you might as well buy them now, so if you change your mind, we don’t have to make another trip back.”

            “No!”

            I take him to the watercolors, pastels, acrylics, and charcoals in succession, and at each station meet with the same response. Something is wrong with him. I know he wants to do this. He’s just turned belligerent for no good reason. I don’t have time to leave and come back another day when he’s more in the mood.

            I traipse with him over to the drawing pads. Let’s start over, I tell myself. Paper first. I grab three pads off the shelf: large, medium and small.

            “No!” He repeats. I disregard him and carry the pads over to the drafting tables. 

            “How about one of these, with a really good light so you can work at night?” He turns his back and starts to walk away. I round him, forcing him to halt. He’s almost a foot taller than I am, but I manage to confront him face to face.

            We’re in the middle of the floor, amidst a dizzying array of light fixtures with adjustable, rotating arms, long plastic T-bars, and innumerable tools I’ve never seen.

            “What’s wrong with you, Dad? This is not the time to be thrifty. Or paralyzed by fear.  I know it’s been a long time, but once you get these home . . .”

            The salesman approaches.

            “Can I help you make a decision here?”

            Suddenly Dad starts yelling at the salesman. 

            “Nothing! Nothing!” He bellows, flinging both his arms through the air as though to dismiss the merchandise in its entirety.

            The salesman retreats to the counter, perplexed, and I back off, too, finally comprehending my error.

            “I’m just going to the front door for a breath of air,” I tell my father, then leave him alone.

            Why did I feel compelled to mention his condition? I guess I thought that if I alerted the salesman, things would go more smoothly. He’d understand why I was doing the talking. What a mistake I’ve made. I was trying to prevent the salesman’s potential discomfort. I promise myself never to do this again. My role is to represent my father’s mission, not to divulge his medical condition to everyone we encounter.

            My father calms down and, from my vantagepoint at the front door, I watch him begin to walk the aisles. He picks up an item from one display, carries it a few paces, and puts it down in another. He’s jumbling up the store’s inventory. I can barely restrain myself from interfering, then remind myself it’s the salesman’s job to straighten up, not mine. It takes my father more than twenty minutes, but he makes his own choices and comes to the counter with his selection: a few charcoals, a set of pastel crayons, some watercolors, three brushes, a large pad of paper, and two sketch pads.

            “I’m sorry, Dad,” I say after parking in front of his board-and-care. He rolls his eyes back into his head to let me know he’s disgusted and then pats my knee as if to say, in the end, it’s okay. I watch him climb the stone staircase. He’s lost his stage posture, one of commanding presence. His shoulders are rounded. The single shopping bag of supplies swings at his side, as he takes each step slowly.

            I have to accept the gigantic discrepancy between my fantasy art studio, the one I imagined setting up for him, and what’s in his small shopping bag. He’s way ahead of me. He has carefully chosen the few things that he believes will help him begin to express himself again, modest means for a tentative foray. He knows art can, at best, transform some small amount of fear into courage. I have to admit I could use some courage myself, to confront the mind-death that stalks us, turning off neurons, like light switches, minute by minute inside my father’s brain.

            Time passes so smoothly I have to consult the calendar before I realize four weeks have passed since our trip for art supplies. My father is always upbeat on Tuesdays, the day after Sam’s visit. By Sunday he’s already looking forward to the next meeting. This Sunday his voice on the phone sparkles with excitement. He invites me to tea, which is served upstairs in the late afternoon. He says he has something to show me first.

            I drive the ten blocks straight uphill from the Marina District into a cul-de-sac adjacent to Presidio Park. My father lives in a mansion that’s been converted for a handful of independent elders. He stands behind the stone balcony, holding his gray head higher than usual, looking strong and handsome in a navy turtleneck. I climb the stairs. The smell of eucalyptus is in the damp air. He smiles broadly. His bright blue eyes are as wide as the sky. As I near him, I feel his nervousness, anticipation, and the leaking out of a little bit of restrained joy, full of the surprise he has in store for me.

            He ushers me through the front hall and kitchen. Volatilized extract of the vanilla bean hangs in the air, the smell of fresh-baked cookies. We pass other tenants and staff. Dad introduces me imperiously.

            “My daughter . . . for tea.”

            We descend the narrow back stairs and round the corner past the old, gated elevator that goes down to the garage. The two rooms my father occupies on the ground floor, formerly servant’s quarters, are not in keeping with the grand dimensions of the house. As soon as we are in his sitting room, a private coziness envelops us. The gray day makes the rooms a little dark, but the view across the street, a handsome, wood-carved door and red geraniums standing up to the winter weather, adds a note of cheer.

            He turns to face me, strokes the short, white hairs of his mustache and then rubs his hands together. He walks me over to the loveseat in front of the window and settles me down by patting my shoulders straight on. He crosses the room, pulls a chair out from the table, and turns it around. From behind the table, he pulls out the large, new sketchpad. I try not to betray too much excitement, but I already have a pastoral vision in mind. The memory of the painting in the basement resurfaces, and now I can identify it as a reproduction of a Van Gogh. He props the pad on the chair. He stands quietly for a moment, then, with the ceremony of slow-motion action, fingers the edge of the cover and carefully peels it up.

            The entire page, corner to corner and top to bottom, is dense with charcoal. At first, it looks like ruinous scribbling, all hard-pressure strokes, thick and black. A mental picture of my father seizes me, one in which he is as an aged, mad kindergartner. Then the lines, broad and angular and piled on top of one another, reorganize themselves from scrawl into image. I see it. An impressive head emerges, the head of a man, startled hair going in all directions, as though by electrocution, face old and furrowed, with deep hollows that grow progressively darker and blacker as they circle around the only two white spaces on the page. Empty eye sockets. The whole face cries the pain and anger of the condemned. There is no mouth.

            I’m paralyzed. It’s a hideous self-portrait, a shocking expression of feelings I don’t want to admit he has. I could deal with sadness, pathos, and there is some of that here, as I sit riveted. But mostly, there’s an unbearable combination of anger and loss. Anger in the visible pressure of the broad, dark black lines and . . . what is it that unhinges me? A faceless face teeming with fury beyond desperation. Loss of definition, of self, of identity. It’s too true. And I don’t want to know about it. I’m possessed by an instinct to flee. I can’t look at it, so I stand up too soon, walk over to him, and give him a quick hug.

            “It’s wonderful!” I say in a way that sounds so obviously forced. “I’m glad you’ve taken up drawing again.”

            He deflates, a little baffled by my response. I know he expected an analysis, loving feedback on technique and details. I can’t do it. I can’t even look at it again.

            I wanted art to bring him back from the void into which I feel him slipping. I felt compelled to perform a miracle, to find the way the disease could be defeated, to somehow preserve his memory and identity, to refuse to allow him to disappear. Against all rational thought, I believed I should be able to do this. I begin to wonder whether my desperate need to make him whole isn’t in some way aimed at securing my own place in the world, a place which, with the burdens of caregiving, appears more and more tenuous each day.

            “Let’s go up for tea,” I say, hoping that when I get away, I will feel a little more at ease. I can’t help taking one last, quick look before we leave. I half regret it. Oh, how convincing I can be when I claim to wish to know his internal experience. What’s really going on inside my father scares me silent.

            Upstairs the fine bone china painted with yellow flowers is set out on the dining room sideboard. Warm cookies form a mound on a crystal plate, which is lined with a lace doily. I pour my father some tea and put a cookie on the saucer. As I hand it to him, I’m aware that I’m unable to stay here among these refinements.

            “You know, I haven’t been feeling well today,” I say, blessing the white lie. “I need to go. How about a seat in the solarium?”

            He settles in an easy chair there while I remain standing.

            “Sorry I’ll have to pass on tea, Dad. Give me a call later?”

            He’s content under the ficus, among the ferns, unconnected to what transpired downstairs. He takes my leave on face value and blows a kiss.

            As soon as I’m alone, I feel guilty that I walked out so abruptly. In my mind’s eye, I see the horrific image he’s created and am terrified. How does he endure it? I prefer to think that his blundering for words, his vague moods, and strange behaviors mean that he’s slipping away from himself, as well as me. But he knows his isolation and has found a way to express it. This is his triumph of the moment. Although the disease will get him in the end, I can’t help admiring how he refuses to freely give it an inch. Despite his considerable losses, he is stubborn and demanding of himself. It is the way he has always been.

            The drizzle outside thaws me. Tomorrow I’ll recover from my expectation for a pastel and be able to look at his charcoal again.  Perhaps I can tell him that while I can’t grasp the full depth of his anger, I am truly sorry he has to suffer this disease, and let him know, too, that his claim to the world encourages me to make my own.

            And just in case the words fail, I decide to make time to take him on our favorite walk, around the duck pond at the Palace of Fine Arts.  He’ll put his arm around my shoulders, as he always does, and I’ll put mine around his waist. It’ll take a minute for my shorter stride to catch up with his longer one. The salty air swirling in over the treetops from the bay will freshen our faces and sweeten the silence. Our strolling together will surely remind him, as he journeys within his wordless wilderness, that I am still by his side.