I despised ninth grade Algebra. Just couldn’t conceptualize the process of finding the unknown, the value, the solution to both sides of the problem. My father, once a draftsman, later an astute and successful businessman, took time each Saturday morning to drill and test my skill and knowledge.
“You’re too impatient, in too much of a hurry,” he admonished, as I erased away my errors.
At the time it sounded to me like he was the one in too much of a hurry, too anxious for me to get it, grasp it, make it right on blue-lined paper.
Nonetheless he showed incredible patience with my efforts, and he always rewarded my willingness to plow through explanations of binary relations, propositions, statements, and unit circles. My father had great vision and believed back then, in 1967, the day would come when I would have to make my financial way in the world, even if I was a girl. Toward that end, he expected me to have a career, not a job, and when he asked me what I wanted to be, my fantastic aspirations probably sounded as foreign to him as the lexicon of algebra did to me. My desires certainly caused his brow to furrow, his soft, hazel eyes to flinch at my youthful ignorance, his full, supple mouth to tighten in consternation. I wanted to be successful like him, but I didn’t want to be him. He was a boring businessman. And I craved to be something a little less listless, a famous artist, perhaps, or a Pulitzer-Prize winning author.
He never dismissed my fantastical dreams. He didn’t get where he’d gotten in life or business by being stupid or unobservant. The man who could work any room could work me to his way of thinking. So his reward for my algebraic efforts was to expose me to those potential career opportunities I espoused, the ones that took years of training to skillfully develop, resulting in even more years of personal sacrifice, rejection, and most likely, limited success in that there are just so many stars in the sky the eye can see before the sun finally goes down.
After my Saturday lessons, my father would pack me into his late model, shining black Newport Coupe with the white leather seats. We lived in St. Louis that year, and only for that year, and we’d wind our way through the back country roads with hairpin turns, meander across the Missouri River until we came to rest at the door of the St. Louis Art Museum. Inside the Romanesque building, we roamed miles of polished corridors bordered by clean white walls and lofty ceilings, speaking to each other in the same whispered tones we used in Church on Sunday.
I gravitated to the surrealists, but my father, the father of five, a businessman with two feet firm on solid ground, drew me away to the still life collection.
“Look at how real that apple looks? Makes you want to taste it. And the handle on the vase makes you just want to grab it and sip from it, doesn’t it?”
At fourteen, reality wasn’t my thing. I hungered for spaces undefined, abhorred rules and technique. As with algebra, as with all other things in my early life, I ached with impatience to just do it, drink in the experience, feel it--not think about it first. Blurred lines, nebulous figures, a brush of Cadmium Red slashing a Titanium White canvas suited me just fine.
But Dad had other ideas. One day, after our visit to the museum, he decided to teach me to oil paint. Cutting a square piece of Masonite hardboard, he handed it to me.
“But it’s brown,” I complained. “Canvases are white. How am I supposed to paint on that?”
“We’ll buy a canvas after you’ve experimented with this.”
With a learn-to-draw book at his fingertips, he showed me how two different sized circles layered one atop the other could form a perfect pear; the way a single circle could contour its way to a well-shaped apple. We sketched a still life, an arrangement of fruit and a vase on a tabletop, like the one we’d seen in the museum. He daubed out the oils on a paper-plate palette, then handed me a sable brush. But before he could explain the next step, I steeped the brush in Forest Green, greedy to fill in the lines of the leaves gracing the stem of my perfect pear.
“Wait!” he said, halting my hand. “You need to paint the background first.”
“Why? That’s boring.”
“Yes, but it will save you from having to re-paint the objects on the tabletop. You always paint the background first.”
Sighing, I leaned my elbows on the old Harvest table where we sat, rested my forehead in the palm of my hand. What fun was it to paint if I had to follow a formula? I might as well work on algebra. Just the same, I wiped away the Forest Green and baptized the brush in Cobalt Blue. I worked the corners of the Masonite hardboard with all the disinterest of a child forced to build a puzzle from the outside, in.
“You have to develop patience,” he said, sensing my frustration. “It’ll pay off in the long run.”
In the early fall of my sixtieth year, I found myself sitting in a dimly lit room with a Hospice nurse, my father reduced to nothing more than a brilliant life stilled and at repose. The memory of our algebra lessons and visits to the Museum and his insistence that I must paint the background first rose to mind that morning like an ascendant moon. I always credited my father with shaping me, mentoring me. I’d expounded on the life lessons he’d taught, the practical advice he’d given. The memories of algebra and art lessons always lived in me. But until now, they had hung in the shadows like the Cobalt Blue background of that still life we once painted together on a Saturday afternoon in St. Louis when I was fourteen.
On this particular day in early October, with few hours left, memories like these comprised the foreground of my life. They represented the vase to be sipped from, the lush fruit to be tasted, for the last time. It had been a long journey, nine years, and in this last year I had acquired what my father always wished for me: to sit still and watch, to touch without speaking, to comfort without explaining, to be patient and accept.
It is an utter irony, of course, that he wished so much for me, because he himself refused to accept the dice-throw, to give in to the stealthy thief called Alzheimer’s. The last year, the bitter end of a passage that had stolen away his brilliant mind, confused his language, distorted his reality, detached him emotionally from a wife of sixty-two years and five children, was, indeed full of bitter-sweet lessons.
“Take me home, please,” he’d beg. As the months progressed, I stopped telling him he was at home, because the place where he and my mother resided had grown foreign to him, had become a way-station, a vacation resort; “this place” with “this nice lady” who did “nice things” for him. Nice as she was, he longed to go home.
Home, depending on where he was in the stage of the disease, might be the last place we lived on the east coast of Florida before he and my mother moved to the gated community on the west coast. It might be the too-small house with three bedrooms crammed full of youth beds and kids sleeping side-by-side in Tampa. More often it was the home of his youth, in the hilly regions of the Ozarks, in a tiny town of a few hundred people, in an old Victorian belonging to his grandfather and grandmother who had largely raised him, as well as his cousins when fathers were hauled away to work for the WPA.
“We sat nineteen for dinner almost every night,” he once told me. But then, his brows furrowed, his voice grew heavy and serious. “I’d sure like to go back there. Can you call my grandmother to come pick me up? Or my mother? ”
By then I had learned to never say, “Dad, they died a long time ago,” because he grieved their passing as if it had only happened. Instead, I made excuses. Grandma’s car is in the shop, Great-Grandma is helping the neighbors who have the flu.
That satisfied. That, we were told, was called compassionate deception.
I learned not to cry after each of these episodic lapses. I learned to tell a lie and be happy that my lie soothed his agitated mind—at least, until the next time he begged to go home.
One day in March, to give my mother respite, I sat on the couch at his side, turning the pages of the old photograph albums filled with brown-toned pictures of him as a tow-headed boy, hugging his puppy Bob-Dog. We read through newspaper clippings about his grandfather, a county Democratic Party chair, and about the candidate Harry Truman coming to town and having dinner in the dining room in the old Victorian that regularly seated nineteen. We discussed my father’s attempt to volunteer for service at the beginning of World War II, even though he was underage, and his suspicion that his grandfather had pulled strings to have him turned away by the recruiter and sent back to finish his high school education in the hilly small town in the Ozarks.
That day, we had been sitting for hours, fumbling through the photo album front to back, over and over. Each time he told his stories front to back, over and over, without skipping a detail. Then, suddenly he paused and stopped talking. He examined his left hand, stretched his fingers, scanned his neatly clipped nails. After a few minutes, he gradually lifted those hazel eyes of his, the ones that used to flinch at my youthful ignorance and fantastical dreams. He searched my face, scoured it, and I could tell by the look on his, that he was present, he was whole, he was lucid and cognizant.
With a break in his voice, he said, “Who would’ve thought something like this, could ever happen to me.”
For a few, brief moments, he remained wholly in the moment. He raised his voice. It sounded strong. He pounded his fist against the arm of the dark green leather recliner placed within a few feet of my mother’s olive green one. He reminded me that he’d never let anything beat him in his life. His entire life was a testament to that. Nothing had ever beaten him, and he wouldn’t let this beat him, either.
I could only agree.
Within two months, we moved him to a memory care unit, and because his battle had been so long and tedious, the end came sooner than we expected. In that last month, when I arrived to visit, I found him curled in a wheel chair, his eyes closed, his mouth dropped open, sitting in the common area with the other residents and their aides, the smells of cafeteria food emanating from the small kitchen, the scent of urine and air-fresheners mixing with the after-shave his caregiver had spread on his smooth and sinking chin.
“Daddy,” I’d whisper, taking a seat next to him. He’d open his eyes, and while he didn’t know my name, couldn’t say I was his daughter, or even that perhaps he thought I was my mother, those hazel eyes of his told me that he knew he belonged to me and I belonged to him. Turning, he’d curl into me and away from his chair. He’d nestle his head on my shoulder like my boys did when they were babies. I’d pat his shoulder, rub his arms, remain silent, and passive, and patient, and accepting.
He needed to be still, to retreat to an inner life. I didn’t want to move, to hurry, to be in too much of a hurry. I wanted to wait this out, see it through, solve both sides of a problem that required him to leave us and us to let him go.
Later, in the dim light of the tiny room where the hospice nurse had mandated quiet with a look as severe as that of a Mother Superior’s, I sat sometimes alone, sometimes with one of my sons, or my sister, or my brother or my mother who possessed an inner strength and peace I had only just discovered. Outside, the day was sunny, but in the Florida fall, on that last day, the sun painted the landscape a soft amber hue instead of its usual brilliant gold and the air smelled clean, like springtime. We knew a harsh winter awaited us, nonetheless.
“He is going easy,” the nurse said. “That’s the way we want it. It may take time, but that is the best way.”
As the sun shifted, its rays broke through an opening in the window blinds. The cascading shafts of light reminded me of the illumination of the foreground of that still life we painted one afternoon, back in the sixties, when I was only fourteen and he was younger, then, than my oldest son was now. I realized at that moment, as the light moved across the blankets covering his gaunt body that my father was the background to my foreground, the thing that had to be painted first so that everything else could stand on its own merit.
I took a deep breath. I waited. I did not hurry, I was not anxious to go away from him, but I knew it was time for him to leave me. His life would still.
And mine would go on.