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Five Summer Stories : Father

July 02, 1989|JOHN L'HEUREUX

LONG BEFORE HE GOT SICK, OUR FATHER WAS down there in the cellar painting away. He had rigged up an easel for himself and suspended a couple naked light bulbs from a beam--to simulate northern light, he said--and he painted things from photographs and magazines and books. Later, he painted things vaguely reminiscent of what he had seen on walks. At the beginning of the end, he painted things nobody except himself had ever seen before. He claimed that his painting style simply evolved from representational to impressionistic to a kind of hard-edged expressionism of his own. But long before we understood what he was doing, our father had begun to escape from us. He was in the process of disappearing.

John, who is artistic, was the first to notice the hairline crack in each of the paintings. Our father was all done with his representational period. He had lined up a whole bunch of the things in the cellar, propped against the washer and dryer and the boiler and the old bikes. They were everywhere, stacked two and three deep, because he was having a sort of show, a retrospective as it were, for John and Joan, who were visiting home from California where he teaches writing and she teaches English. John and Joan have no children. They don't go in for that sort of thing. Or perhaps they can't. In any case, they were admiring the pictures generally, sometimes pointing out a special thing about one or another, and our father was standing by, very serious, as they assessed what they liked or disliked about his creations. All of a sudden, John said, "Look at this. Look at this." He ran a long, skinny finger down a very fine crack in a picture. And then in another. And in another.

At the time our father just stood there, not doddering yet, not even a little bit dingy, just smiling as if he were getting some secret pleasure out of John's discovery. There's no telling just how much he was planning or how much he was deceiving us at that point; he was still in his impressionistic period. But there was no question that John was right: there was this line, wiggly sometimes and at other times jagged like a bolt of lightning and at all times almost invisible. It ran down the center of the painting as if it were a warning or a threat or a prophecy.

"A theme," John said. "A recurrent theme, as if your impression of the world reflected the primal fall or as if you saw that it might all come apart at any minute."

We laughed at that because it sounded so important, and our father laughed, and then we all went upstairs for a drink and dinner.

Not long after this, he moved into his expressionist period, where people seemed less than whole and things no longer looked like what they were. He used a lot of dark colors in this period, though some had a grim brilliance that made us look at them, and look again. Huge rocks began to appear in his paintings, boulders practically, hovering in the air as if they might fall out of the picture any minute and crush us. And those cracks down the center began to get bigger. We could see them clearly now, even from a few feet off. Everything was distorted. What he was expressing wasn't very nice, even in the abstract.

Later when our father was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and well advanced, too, he went on heavy doses of L-Dopa that controlled the shaking and allowed him to continue to paint. That seemed fine, because it kept him occupied and out of our mother's way. He was deteriorating fast. And he was driving her crazy with things like putting the kettle on while she was out for groceries and forgetting it until it melted down flat to the burner. "He could have burned the house down," she would scream, while he flinched at the sound. "He could have burned himself to death." And then she would cry and scream and cry some more, until she had enough strength to go on. We were less patient with her than we should have been because we just didn't know how bad off our father was or what it was like for her to never have a quiet thought, midnight or morning, for years as she took care of him. When she finished her scene, our father would dodder on down the stairs and paint away. It was very near the end.

He had been in his expressionist period for quite a while when John and Joan came to visit again. They stayed in the house for a week with our father and mother and got a close look at the way things were. At first John was horrified at what had happened to our father physically: the stumble when he tried to walk, the wandering mind, the uncompleted sentence. And at our mother, who seemed half-lunatic.

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