There was a day when my father was early in his dying, but late in his illness—after he’d stopped speaking but before he’d last lay down—when I drew his portrait.
I had been painting, drawing, coloring, and sketching constantly during his months of decline. I’d started with painting classes before he’d taken ill; after each I’d send him a photo of my emerging landscape, or buffalo, or imitation Hopper nude, and he’d send encouragement, advice, or an idea that I could keep in mind while I continued.
This was after he’d turned the living room into a studio: spreading butcher paper across the wood floor, grouping handfuls of color pencils and pastels into plastic cups that used to hold protein shakes, pushing the couch into another room, and pinning each work, as he finished it, across the crowded bookshelves so he could take a picture and send it around. (We sent encouragement, too, just as he did with us.)
Later, in Ohio, my brother-in-law built him a real studio, in the barn. A large, bright space where he could, and did, make and hang multi-panel pieces that he put together effortlessly during the nights he and my mother stayed there. It had been his dream to have a studio like that; to name it, and work in it, and open it up to friends and visitors and other artists.
I imagine he spent many expansive days in that space, days made more meaningful by the trance of creation—and by the limit illness imposed.
Later still, when my father began to recede silently into himself, and I’d moved cross-country to spend the last months nearby, I began to inhabit his studio. It was a space where I could be alone, to think, and feel, and process all that was happening—none of which I wanted to happen. It was a place where I could be with the feeling that he had recently been there. A place where I could create where he had so recently created.
Like a child who sits on the couch and finds the seat warm from the body of a parent who’s just risen, in his studio, I not only drew and painted and sketched to pass that difficult time, but I drew on his paper, painted with his paints, sketched with his pencils, while breathing air he’d just warmed with his exhale. When I finished a piece, I’d hang it on his cork-board wall, right next to where his work had hung—my thumbtacks reusing holes he’d made to hold up his final creations.
Or, if it was one I thought he’d especially like, I brought it into the house to show him.
The house was warm and busy, buzzing with family movement and the needs of the everyday. But it was also full of his death. The barn was silent and airy, quiet and still, but it was full—somehow, still—of his life.
In the barn, that summer, I also discovered two things: my relationship to creativity, to art, to art-making, was tied up in my relationship to my father, and that that relationship would soon have to change.
Year-end markers are essentially meaningless. But they give us a focal point, which can be good—helping us appreciate the passage of time, take note of growth, reckon with loss, experience things we hardly had time to process when they first occurred.
Looking back at 2020, it’s painfully cliche to call the year “unprecedented” or “unlike any other.” Yet to pretend otherwise is foolish.
Unlike another year, where we may judge ourselves against what we didn’t do, could have done but didn’t, where we didn’t go, who we didn’t meet, one silver lining of 2020 is that we’re entitled to judge ourselves only against what we managed to get done. This was not the year for expansion, or experience, or extension. It was a year of simple survival, interiority, girding ourselves, and getting through.
It was a year defined by limit. And within that limit, meaning is born.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am looking back at 2020 and noticing how much hard interior work took place—how many pieces of art, of life, of living, I made with butcher paper spread across the floor and the couch pushed into another room.
I estimate I’ve done 5,000 push-ups. I’ve written more than 500 pages. I’ve read over 40 books—books I never otherwise would have read, on spirituality, and history, and health. Some of them I’ve even read twice.
I haven’t been to a single cafe, or eaten even once in a restaurant (since March). I’ve traveled nowhere internationally. I’ve made no big strides in exploring the world. I hardly care.
This year I’ve done many simple, hard things, some of them every day. Like journaling. Like breathing. Like listening, with open recognition, to the voices inside me telling me—urging me to understand—who I am and what I want next in life.
I’ve called upon an intrepid self-reliance, and a willful and stubborn creativity. I know that comes from my father, because I recognize it from the air I breathed during those long days in his studio. It’s the breath that drove him to make art even as he heard the echo ticking from within the crocodile’s belly.
My father is on the chair where he often rests.
From there, he can see out across to where the kids watch TV, where the adults gather for tea.
There, he sits patiently, like an old man waiting for a delayed train.
On his lap, a knitted blanket; one of his hands (already paralyzed) resting on top. The other, on the arm of the chair, flexing, squeezing, counting time: index finger petting thumb, thumb petting index finger. A glint of calm knowing in his eye.
That’s what I drew—or tried to. Beaming, I hold it up for him to see.
“It’s you, Pops,” I say.
Before, he would have acknowledged it, critiqued it, encouraged it, laughed and commented on the likeness (“Is my nose really that big?”).
Today he looks up—and looks through.
He sees me. He smiles. He doesn’t see himself.
The portrait—all the art I was making—is no longer for him.
From here on out, it is for me.
Happy 2020, friends.
Onward to creative joy,