Some fathers play golf in their spare time, others fish or tinker with cars. My father painted. And made things with clay, fanciful frogs, dragons, impossible pachyderms. He wasn’t a big talker; Mom used to say that art was how he escaped having to.
A year before he died, June 2010, we sat at his kitchen table in the Sonoma house. A row of pills waited on the slick oilskin tablecloth beside his plate. Things I’d grown up with, like the ornate wood door from a monastery mother had made into a coffee table, clashed with his second, much younger wife’s leather sofa and electric piano.
His favorite painting, a young woman on a green chair, hung behind him. Others covered the walls all around us. Precise geometric ones from his hard-edge days back in the sixties. Elusive surrealistic montages from the seventies that Mom said revealed his animosity towards women. Landscapes and portraits from later still. Each painting a piece of an intractable jigsaw puzzle.
Amongst these clamorous, discordant reflections of himself my father slurped his soup and gummed a soft sandwich, content, or so I imagined, to let his work do the talking. His dark eyes fixed on what I couldn’t see, a world of his own.
“There are so many,” I said, wanting to bring him back.
“A painting a week,” he said between mouthfuls. Soup dribbled from the corners of his mouth. I handed him a napkin.
There was so much I thought I needed to know. Did he never dream of acknowledgement, recognition? Did he regret not having tried? Dad had congestive heart disease. His brain was blood starved. Our time was short. I wanted to know how it felt to live with his art all around him. Was it enough? Was it too late for me?
“You were, are, a great artist, Dad.” I caught myself. I’d spoken as if he were already gone.
He stopped eating, spoon suspended midair, and looked at me instead of the middle distance. He blinked then smiled. In that way that always seemed a little bit sad, or maybe just introspective, with a touch of the ironic in his drooped eyes. He returned to the soup, chasing an errant meatball with his spoon. It was his favorite, Italian wedding soup. I brought him some most every week, in a Styrofoam tub from the market deli not far from his house.
A year earlier, August 2009, a phone call changed my life. Sacramento summers are always hot. That summer seemed hotter still. The baked car was a torture device, walking outdoors, minimal steps from one air-conditioned space to the next, a journey through the center of the earth.
It was a weekend. Still in pajamas, I lingered over coffee, trying to enjoy the last cup that somehow never tastes as good as the first. Out the window, the swimming pool shimmered blue in the sunlight. The plastic chairs were draped with damp beach towels. The warmer outside air sieved through the screens. Not yet ten, it was already time to close up the house.
The phone rang.
It was Sara, my father’s wife. Though they had been married nearly thirty years, she remained ‘Dad’s wife’. There was never any notion that my sisters and I had a familial connection with her, or her children. The words stepmother, stepdaughter, or stepsister, were never used to describe what we were to one another by virtue of their marriage. When we visited, she chose that time to run errands.
She wouldn’t have called unless she had to, unless it was something important. I leaned over the cool kitchen countertop, grabbed a notepad and a pen. My heart pumped too fast in my chest. I regretted that third cup of coffee.
“Joe fell,” she said. “Only this time he wouldn’t get up.” Her voice was shaky. Not so much upset, I didn’t think, as rattled. “He was at the refrigerator, getting milk for his cereal, and he just collapsed.”
I asked if it was another stroke. He’d had a bad one at his eightieth birthday party when his head dropped onto a white porcelain plate with an awful ka-thunk, just before the entrée was served.
“Oh, he’s always doing this,” she said. I imagined an impatient hand batting the question away. “We can’t call the ambulance every time. We agreed on this. It’s no use. And such a waste. So always I let him rest and then after some time passing he gets up. Only this time he didn’t.”
She sounded, I thought, exasperated. But I knew that Sara’s accented English lacked nuance; she sometimes came off too blunt or harsh.
“You see how it was,” she said, as though anyone would.
I forced myself to mimic Sara’s matter-of-fact tone. She’d called. I didn’t want her to hang up. I asked how long it lasted, how long before he got up.
“Three days,” she said, “Maybe four. Hard to keep track. So much the same.”
I wrote it down, underlined it. The pen bit into the paper. Three days, maybe four. I must have misunderstood.
“I kept him comfortable, of course,” she said. “I brought his blanket and pillow. He drank through a straw, one of those,” she struggled to find the words and then sounded pleased, relieved I thought, when it came to her, “a plastic one. The one that bends. I sat on a chair and read to him. He likes me to do that.”
The familiar smell of burnt coffee in the near empty carafe, the dog at my feet, and beyond the window, the pool still blue, still sparkling, were all links with reality, with things I understood. My ninety-year old father, curled up on the floor beside the refrigerator, sipping juice from a bendy straw, was not one of those things.
“Three or four days,” I repeated, thinking, hoping, she would correct me.
“Yes, yes,” she said. “But I couldn’t wait anymore. A neighbor helped me clean him up and get him inside the car. Your father is so heavy. He doesn’t look it, I know. But really he is. You can’t imagine.”
Her words came faster still, an unedited stream. Dad was at the hospital in Santa Rosa. A shuttle was on its way to take Sara to the San Francisco airport. She had a flight to Maryland to catch that afternoon, to be with her daughter who was beginning cancer treatments. “I’ll be back in two weeks,” she said. “I thought one of you girls should know.”
Her mind was on the other side of the country, with her daughter. Getting Dad to the hospital, calling me, were items on her ‘to do’ list, things that needed to be ticked off before she could leave. I could understand, and yet, I couldn’t.
I imagine if she hadn’t been so worried for her daughter, if she’d had time to think, it wouldn’t have come out so raw, so stark. It was surreal. So much so, that now, four years later, it’s hard to believe the conversation ever happened. But it did. One thing my father used to say about me, and I don’t think he meant it kindly, was that I have a mind like a steel trap. I remember things. Things I sometimes wish I didn’t.
On the two-hour drive from Sacramento to the hospital in Santa Rosa, I had plenty of time to think. One line kept repeating, like a nightmarish hiccup. Three days, maybe four. I imagined the worst. My father, with a pillow and a blanket, stiff with arthritis, curled up on the dingy linoleum with its faded pattern of rust-colored bricks.
I obsessed over what was underneath the fridge. Bits of desiccated food, insect carcasses, mysterious mounds of dust, rodent droppings, lost buttons perhaps. The dark spaces beneath kitchen appliances are frightening, I think. It’s where things go to hide.
The I-80 glistened in the heat. I drove fast, past dry, brown fields, interspersed with fast food restaurants, gas stations and every imaginable big box store. Alone in the car, the radio down low, the hypnotic thrum of the tires devouring the road, other thoughts began to intrude.
She said a neighbor helped clean him up. Holding the phone, I pictured two women struggling to pull a clean shirt over Dad’s head, swiping his face with a wet cloth, perhaps flattening his unruly thatch of hair, some of it still stubbornly black, amongst the wispy gray, and the white.
Exiting onto State Route 12, winding through the low hills, it occurred to me that after four, three, even two days on the floor, unable to get up, unable to reach the restroom, there would have been plenty to clean up. I tried to grip the steering wheel but my fretful fingers, clammy, damp with sweat, kept slipping.
He seemed so small, shrunken in the hospital bed, hands resting on a thin blanket, eyes closed. Tubing snaked from under the covers to a bag half-filled with milky urine. An IV drained into his bruised arm. I drew up a chair. Closed my nose to the hospital smells, antiseptic, yet alive with sickness, with death.
His eyes fluttered open. He turned toward my voice, his gaze searching, unfocused; his diminished eyesight the result of an earlier botched cataract operation.
“It’s you,” he said, surprised, disappointed I thought, as though he’d expected someone else. He asked how I’d found him. How I’d known. He rubbed his jaw, said it hurt like hell, that he must have cracked something when he fell.
“She said you were on the floor a long time,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “she’s very pragmatic about these things.” He inhaled, pulling air in through his nose, letting it out with a resigned sigh. “Don’t ever get old,” he said. “Seriously. Not if you can help it.”
He told me a story, eyes mostly closed. It made him laugh to tell it, wincing, yet laughing still, the deep ironic chuckle he reserved for those rare ‘life is stranger than fiction’ moments we sometimes shared. It felt like a gift.
“The Valkyrie came for me, to haul me off to Valhalla, I guess,” he said. His chin strained upward, neck stretched long to release the memory. Sharp clavicle bones poked through the thin fabric of his gown. “They were these great, strapping Norsewomen.” He shuddered at the thought, horrified and fascinated. Dad had a thing about big women. He painted them often enough. My mother was large sometimes. Sara was small, birdlike.
“It gets better,” he said. His eyes opened and shut dramatically. Despite everything, he was enjoying himself. “I suppose it wasn’t my time. I rode in their chariot, a ridiculous, jingling contraption, like Santa’s sleigh. I held on for dear life. Can you imagine?” He clutched handfuls of blanket. His bony shoulders heaved and there were tears in the corners of his eyes. “Next thing I know I’m on the operating table.” He said that he was frightened at first, and cold, shivering and alone, until the angel came.
“What did she look like?” I said, not wanting the story, the sound of his voice, to end.
“Blonde,” he said, “and quite attractive. She stayed with me through the whole thing. Peering over my shoulder with this beatific smile.”
Later, standing at the busy nurses’ station, distracted by the announcements, the dinging bells, a clattering cart loaded with steamy covered dishes, I learned it was true. Dad had just come out of surgery. They’d gotten him into the shower shortly after he was checked in. He’d doubled over in the stall. X-rays revealed an abdominal abscess.
Likely it was drugs that made him so talkative that afternoon. I was still grateful.
Days later, I told most of the story to my mother. “Your father always had a thing for blondes,” she said. “I’ll bet it was the anesthesiologist.”
Whatever she was, angel, ghost, hospital staff, she got him through.
Dad and Sara lived in an aging ranch style home on half an acre. There were fruit trees out back, peach, plum, apricot, citrus, and a sagging fig tree in front; dark fruit, bursting in the heat, littered the weedy yard. A nursing home was directly across the street. “They wheel the dead bodies out at midnight”, my father liked to say, always with the same conspiratorial glint in his dark eyes.
I plucked the key from a hook under the banister. It was right where she’d said it would be, left there for the ease of ambulance drivers and the fire department.
Just inside the front door were two stout statues, a mix of rhinoceros, stegosaurus and Dad’s imagination. Their hides were improbable colors, shiny blues and greens, their backs broad enough for a toddler, for the grandchildren and great grandchildren to ride.
And in the foyer, on the right, a painting, six-feet tall, a naked man, his skin a sickish purple, wearing only a medieval helmet. When I was a teenager, this imposing knight, whether guard or dungeon master, I was never sure, hung at the top of the stairs, just outside my bedroom door. He had become an old friend. I was sorry for him, trapped beneath that helmet, arms forever stiff at his sides, fingers clenched.
The closed-up house smelled of dust and something moldering, as if the lumpy carpet had been steam cleaned and never thoroughly dried. Cobwebs clung to the cottage cheese ceiling.
Even miles away in a hospital bed, my father was everywhere. The house was a museum. Tangible, undeniable proof of him was all around me. Many of them from the first home I remember, in San Francisco, near the zoo and Ocean Beach. Each object and painting held a story, a bucket of memories, the good, the bad, the forever unknown. I wondered whether he would make it home this time and what would happen to all of it if he didn’t.
I collected the newspaper from the driveway, checked the mailbox, watered the young lemon trees; Dad was worried about them.
A Wilco CD, a gift from my son, still sealed in the plastic wrapper, had been in my car for months. On the drive back to the hospital I unwrapped it, slid it in.
Perhaps it would have been the same with any music or with no music at all. One song, about death and staying forever together, seemed to have been written for me. I played it over and over, repeatedly pushing the back button when it ended.
I cried then. For my father. For those three days, maybe four, on the kitchen floor. For his blonde angel. I cried for his art, gathering dust on a dead-end street at the edge of the Sonoma Mountains.
And then, I cried for myself. My father would die. And so would I. Like most people I suppose, I was living my life as though it would never end, as though I had all the time in the world. The obvious truth became clear that day.
My life was more than half over. One foot in the grave, as Dad would have said with a morbid chuckle.
I was fifty-five. I’d wanted to be a writer for so long the dream was part of me, like an organ, an extra heart. I woke with it each morning, plots and dialogue spooling in my head. I drove to work with it and fell asleep with it at night. In my mind I was already there. My novels were in libraries and bookstores. Literary awards and rave reviews were framed in my writer’s den. I appeared on Oprah, Ellen and Letterman. I was witty. Skinny too.
Only one thing was missing. I wasn’t writing.
Not that I hadn’t been busy. Two failed marriages. A single mom twice over. I’d supported my family, clawed my way up the ranks from lowly clerk typist to Executive Director of a state agency. I’d put the two oldest through college.
Excuses. All of it.
I checked into a motel; the house had too many ghosts. For two weeks I shuttled between that Sonoma motel and the hospital. At night I tread water in the darkened pool, the air and the water sultry, the same. And I wrote. Picking up where I’d left off in my twenties. I wrote about my Dad. And about hard choices and no regrets. I wrote about art for art’s sake.
That was four years ago. I didn’t know then what I am just beginning to understand. The hard part, finding my painting a week, doing it justice, had only just begun.
My father lived for two years after the fall, weakened and dependent. A painting a week. That was his parting gift to me.