My ears strain to hear his constant chatter as I take orange halves, breathing deep their scent, and push them over the top of the little juicer. My palm feels the hard ridges belonging to the circular piece that spins methodically round and round as I press hard against it. It scrapes the pulp off the peel to spin below as juice slowly trickles out of the small spout at the bottom and into the ornately carved glass below. The tiny glass sends me back to the days of my youth. Of sitting at my grandparent’s kitchen table after a night of sleeping over with my sister. Poached eggs, grapefruit and canteloupe before us as well as my grandparent’s loving eyes and warm voices drifting melodically in a shared space made sacred. A time of memories being woven deep in the fibers of my consciousness. My heart winces as I know my grandmother is no more. Her remains now in a marble urn atop my grandfather’s dresser. Those days gone forever.
I answer in short phrases as I catch the majority of the conversation. The fragments I can’t quite make out I try to fill in with what would make sense and am relieved when I can finally turn the little apparatus off and place a fresh glass of orange juice in his outstretched hand. It shakes profusely, an outward symptom of his Parkinson’s.
I feel a sudden surge rise forth within me. Compassion. I want to bring him comfort, joy. He looks so vulnerable and weak, laying in a bed that has been put in his living room for his convenience. He has lived such a long and extraordinary life. He tells me stories of being in WWII, of working for the Associated Press designing art for their publications in New York City and of losing his young wife to cancer. He is an accomplished painter who has managed to bring to life the ocean, busy harbors, fighter jets and Marilyn Monroe on simple canvas. I look around and marvel at his talent. Pure brilliance is captured within the frames that adorn the ordinary walls of his humble abode and his eyes brighten as I voice my appreciation towards them. Others that come here to care for him that I talk to think him a silly old man that rambles on and on. I see him as a genius and if one only cares to listen he reveals a life where splendor shone daringly at its crest. I seek to bring him some sense of peace and ease as he now sinks to the trough of a wave he once fearlessly mastered.
He does enjoy his talking. I keep listening as I start his breakfast and place his pills before him. Mind still full of energy and ambition, he rattles on about the art classes he is still teaching and businesses interested in products he sells that have his artwork displayed on them. Mugs, coasters and other such items. At a time and condition in life when many just decide to lay down and succumb to the encroaching illness that is slowly ravaging and inhibiting his body he is still making business deals and sharing his wisdom with a new generation. All of this makes me want to shake my first at nature. At the cruelty of life that would hinder the dreams of someone truly passionate towards a life worth living when so many seem perfectly content sleepwalking through it. Many times it is those of us who reside comfortably within the confines of mediocrity that are free from such impediments as faltering synapses and dying brain cells that bring rise to shaky hands and the permanently afflicted gait that causes him to grab hold of furniture in order not to fall when he tries to navigate without his walker. Something I gently chide him not to do!
Later on that day he asks me to come up to his studio with him. He is still trying to finish a painting that he began months ago and every time I’ve caught glimpses of it my heart sinks more and more and my consciousness shudders at the realization that his gift has withered away and no longer manifests itself in the form that once defined it.
He longs to just make one more piece of art. To paint a portrait of his daughter who died years ago of cancer. I hear every time he speaks of her that she was the bulwark of his family and a constant source of joy and strength, of inspiration and love, especially after his wife died. And now she is no more like so many others he has known and loved.
The painting consists of crude lines and now her visage is inundated with a dark hue of blue. She looks sad and disfigured. There are two places where you can see he started her forehead and either one would make sense if the other were absent. As my eyes settle on the image before me he laments that he is having trouble deciphering the differing colors and thinks he might have added too much blue. An understatement if I’ve ever heard one. That’s all there is, varying shades of blue.
His eyes are slowly failing him even after multiple surgeries. I begin to sort out the different tubes of acrylic, caked so heavily with multiple layers of different paints I have to look at each one’s opening, putting them one by one up to my eyes and scrutinizing them carefully, to tell what colors they contain. He laments openly at the condition of the painting and goes to point to the eyes of his daughter in the printed photograph and the unthinkable happens. His fingers wet with paint now smudge one of her eyes that have been gazing at him for so many months. He takes the photo down immediately and reaches for a piece of paper towel but he gets the paint from his fingers on it and as he desperately tries to clean the photograph he gets it even more embedded with dark acrylic paint. He looks up at me, pain's precipice etched in his features in the form of a woeful expression and asks if I can help.
I reach out and gently take hold of his shaking hand that is moving towards the picture once again. In despair it squeezes tightly the crumpled piece of paper towel wet with paint. I cup his hand with both of mine and slowly take the paper towel out of it. I place it on the table. The picture is not a glossy photo but a printed copy so one cannot just wipe away the dark smudges of blue and black. They are absorbed in the fibers of the paper.
I tell him I’m so sorry. That I will try but I don’t anticipate any success as I think any more efforts to remove the paint that is there will just ruin the picture even more. Eventually he tires of the pursuit and pins it back up beside the canvas. Now two distorted faces of a daughter he once cherished with his whole being stare gloomily back at him. The brilliance of the lake skirting the periphery outside of his window and whose surface dances with the sun’s rays shining from on high is a stark contrast to the mood within the small room. A room stacked with canvases and frames, layered with heaps of tubes of paints and brushes and in this moment impregnated with sorrow. I tell him that perhaps he could have some lunch and come back to all of this another time. He thinks that’s a reasonable suggestion and I help him downstairs.
When I leave that day he is sitting in his favorite chair and it appears as if his spirits seem to be in order once more. His usual optimism revealing itself in the form of future plans. As I look back a final time I see him close his eyes in fatigue. I silently hope that his dreams take him to the ships and sea that have so long been objects of his adoration. May the sound of busy harbors and lapping waves cradle his consciousness in a temporary peace that can only be attained in the comforting folds of the depthless world of the dreaming state.