Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Curiosity Cabinet

Sure enough, the doorway effect revealed itself: Memory was worse after passing through a doorway than after walking the same distance within a single room.
Charles B. Brenner and Jeffrey M. Zacks, "Why Walking Through A Doorway Makes You Forget," Scientific American, December 13, 2011

This morning I stood before the open fridge like a sleepwalker—like thousands of other human beings at precisely the same moment—wondering what the hell I was even doing in the kitchen. I had to walk all the way back into the dining room, retracing my steps, recrossing the same threshold, just to be able to remember: retrieve your iPhone from the kitchen counter.

           Routine maintenance is built into our system to provide periodic memory dumps—like feng shui for the mind. Whenever we cross a threshold, involuntarily, our memory-garbage gets tossed. What happened to me this morning—forgetting why I'm here—is a common system glitch that we regard as a minor nuisance.

          There is a darker side, though. Because memory can be such a fickle bitch, the baby occasionally goes out with the bathwater. Just how often, we will never know, because so many memories are irretrievable. This would be a more elegant system if it weren't for the petty bureaucrat in charge of purging our memories.



          In her bestselling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing," Marie Kondo instructs her hoarding, neurotic, miserably bogged-down readers to keep only what sparks joy and dump the rest. Out goes little Johnny's macaroni art from kindergarten, most of your mementoes and the clothes in your closet, and all the books in your library. The rooms of your house will be pleasingly spacious and how you'll easily be able to locate whatever you need. Spareness correlates to self-actualization, leaving room for growth and new opportunities—and no regrets. On the rare occasion you find you've thrown out something you need, Kondo says, no problem. Just buy new.

          But I cling to all my talismans, old books and photos, cabinets of curiosity, boxes of letters, and every irreplaceable artifact, perhaps because I'm so afraid of the inevitable forgetting. I'm an unrepentant historian of myself and everyone I have ever loved. Given my penchant for collecting memories, it's odd that Marie Kondo is apparently in charge of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that runs the memory house of my mind. I demand a curator, instead I get a janitor.


I have to move to a smaller house to reduce expenses and I can't take everything with me. Where do I begin?


Because I wouldn't let my mother get rid of my father's ugly curiosity cabinet, it's now my problem. I brought it up from the basement recently because I felt I should 'do something about it'—a Victorian tabletop-display case, mirrored in the back, with a glass door. Somehow my detritus has been accumulating there, too, on top of my father's leavings. I guess this is a natural phenomenon, like layers of geologic history.


Inside the case is a cast of my Aunt Lottie's hand. We're both Charlotte Heckscher; she was my father's best friend and died nearly 40 years ago. My children probably don't know who she is.


There are other hands.




Another hand, equally mysterious.


And my father's silver baby rattle, gnawed and missing a bell.



A sepia-toned snapshot of two, pale nerds wrestling on a beach. On the back in penciled script is
August 1936
St. Peter/Nordsee
My father and his younger brother were, as my sister Dida says, "making like men." That the brothers were legendary for their suave elegance and total lack of physical ability, for me, made this worthy of the cabinet. The photo was one of my contributions.


These bits of coral had been placed there by my father long before.

To be honest, I only remembered the real reason I had brought up the cabinet yesterday, when I first opened the glass door and crossed its threshold to take out my Day of the Dead trinket. Hasta que la muerta nos separe, Till death do us part.


I bought it in New Mexico just two months before I met my future husband. It doesn't spark joy, and neither did the marriage.

Here's a voucher from the Egyptian Museum, where my former husband and I walked our two small, unsuspecting children through the Mummy Room. As we made our way through the dim, silent maze of the exhibition, our kids never noticed the black mummified bodies in the display cases. They were small and, it had struck me at the time, shamefully exposed without realizing it.

          I remember I had brought up the curiosity cabinet because I wanted to make some kind of assemblage of my marriage. I've had the idea for years but keep rejecting it because—well, who wants to be reminded of a bad marriage? Still I can't shake the idea that, once and for all, I want to make something coherent out of all the salvaged bits of wreckage. I had begun to put marital artifacts into the cabinet as a way of keeping track of them. Until, I suppose, I no longer wanted to keep track of them.

My ex-husband brought no mementoes with him when he came to America except this little figure; it reminded him of his father. When we separated he didn't want it. This attitude makes him stronger, more self-reliant, but it also reveals his weakness.

          I'm afraid when I leave this house and close the door behind me—my parents' house, where I grew up—I will forget everything. When I first moved back here with my kids, to take care of my mother, I dreaded living here again. It meant being a child forever and trying to live in a museum. Miss Havisham is never meant to leave the heartbreak of her ruined mansion, the only way out for her is fire. But I'm not Miss Havisham, so I'll have to reinvent myself. Who might I become if I permit Marie Kondo to dump my memories?

         How do I want to remember the past? What do I want to carry with me into a new life? How do I want to live?

One of my daughter's notes, before she knew how to write


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Turn and Face the Strange

1. Planet Earth is blue
   and there's nothing I can do.



Since the news of David Bowie's death a few days ago, I've scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, deep-cleaned the dining room carpet, purged the fridge, and polished every mirror in the house. We may not be able to hold back death or manage the violent upheaval of our own emotions, but there are other ways to control our environment. When I dragged furniture from one side of the room to the other—because doesn't rearranging a room bring order to chaos?—I found a small slip of paper tucked under the carpet.

          In pencil, in my mother's handwriting, was a transcription of a conversation, titled "Sunday Night" and hastily subtitled "Preoccupation with time."


My mother, You've left no evidences of yourself.
My father, Oh, I usually leave something behind.

          On January 14, my mother and I liked to tell each other Happy C-day. That page she'd written on had been torn from a calendar in 1962 and marks the date of my conception. What are the odds that scrap of paper would turn up again on exactly the same date 53 years later?

         It means nothing, or everything.


2. Scanning life through the picture window
     She finds the slinky vagabond.
     ("Young Americans")




When I was a kid, I spent my time daydreaming and my allowance on record albums. The only way I differed from my friends was that I'd also pinch albums from my mother's collection, like Mary Martin's "My Funny Valentine", the soundtrack from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," and stuff by Charles Aznavour. Songs like these will either make you cringe or weep with emotion. 

          Beneath most of Bowie's disguises is the heart of a chanteur, like Aznavour. I think this is why he is irresistible in any guise. Whatever he sings, however he dresses, even when he's sneering, Bowie sings to you and you alone, conveys all his soulful hurt and unabashed longing, intimate, seductive, imparting meaning with every glance and every gesture. 

          Some of Bowie's most beautiful torch songs are: "Wild is the Wind" (Nina Simone's breathtaking version came first, following Johnny Mathis); "Word on a Wing"; and "Nature Boy" (after Nat King Cole's version). Just watch him. 

          As a weird, shy kid, I occasionally worried that it was a prank, that he was making fun of me and my exaggerated emotions—and all the other lonely misfits who suffer that kind of spiritual craving for passion and connection. But watch him sing and it's impossible to doubt his sincerity. It defies logic; he is unsurpassably cool, confident, and gorgeous, but he's still one of my kind. 


3. But I don't want to leave,
    or drift away.
    Yassassin!
     ("Yassassin")




Like so many other Bowie fans, in my grief I consume every word about him, every image, every song. We are insatiable  because he has vanished and we want to hold him back.

          Fans, like scientists of the surreal, urgently attempt to decipher the meaning of Bowie's obscure lyrics and images. One fan, extending condolences to Bowie's wife on her Facebook page, informed Iman that Villa of Ormen is an anagram of Lover of Iman, but with an extra letter L. I had secretly googled it myself, before cleaning the oven, briefly considering the possibility that Villa Orman, a rental property in Turkey, might be significant. (Certainly there's an Eastern influence, and what about the old Bowie song I just discovered, "Yassassin," which means Long Live in Turkish—No? No.)

          Critics are similarly baffled. The New Yorker writer, Ben Greenman, had the misfortune of publishing his review of Bowie's final album, "Blackstar," the day before Bowie's death. The next day, we would learn that Bowie had been ill for 18 months with terminal cancer. In the piece, titled "The Beautiful Meaninglessness of David Bowie," Greenman characterizes the album as "prime Bowie" because of "its willingness to embrace nonsense." 

          After Bowie's death, Greenman was compelled to add a postscript. Determined to stand by his original premise, he suggested that Bowie still may have been exploring mortality as an abstract concept rather than heroically facing his own mortality. He insisted that "the album's contribution to the vexing question of human existence lies in the way Bowie struggles to articulate the human struggle to articulate." 

          Bowie himself gave only one helpful clue about its meaning, via an official spokesperson, "'Blackstar' is not about the Middle East situation."  Thanks, Dave.


4. At the center of it all
    Your eyes.
     ("Blackstar")




          Even philosophers have weighed in on David Bowie's death. Emmy van Deurzen, an existential psychotherapist, was interviewed by Zoe Smith for The Guardian's special supplement on Bowie (January 12).
I have already come across several clients today who said they felt incredibly upset because David Bowie had meant so much to them. They use terms such as 'he saved my life,' or 'this song got me through secondary school' or 'the grief I had when I was divorced'...Our assumptions as a society are that it is primitive, or too exaggerated, which is a no-no...We have regimented it all very carefully and cut ourselves off from these emotions. Then when this kind of thing hits, people somehow step outside of that and they rediscover the wonderful sense of communion that we have in grief.
          At the same time, of course, grief is so very lonely. At its core is the terror of rupture, abandonment, annihilation. Because the nature of grief is solitary we strive to share it, and for the very same reason we can't. Grief is a diamond: every death we endure reflects back to us every other parting and each death brings us one closer to our own. And at the center of it all, each of us is the lonely witness.


5. Panic in Detroit.
    ("Panic in Detroit")
"I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude."—Oliver Sacks

So many of us were moved by the way neurologist and author Oliver Sacks shared with us, in realtime, his experience of dying. In "My Periodic Table," one of his final essays, Sacks describes the curious comfort of detachment and the symmetry of how it has linked the beginning of his life to its end.
I have tended since my early boyhood to deal with loss—losing people dear to me—by turning to the nonhuman...The elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.
And now at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence—an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence—I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.
That Sacks wanted to share his intimate feelings about dying provides us with comfort. His detachment and lucidity have comforted me, as an ideal of poise I might learn to emulate or perhaps find already within myself when the time comes. But his calm, resigned tone bears no resemblance to my raw experience with grief and loss, which is marked by terror, rage, and cold panic. 


6. You're a flash in the pan,
     I'm the great I am.
     ("Blackstar")


The night before my father died, he lay like a statue in a hospital bed that had been jammed up against a window in the corner of the bedroom—a bedroom my parents had shared for a quarter of a century. I remember that when the bed was first introduced my mother tried not to cry. (Later in the hall, she had blurted out in tears, "This is the beginning of separation.") That first day of the bed, when I was alone with my father for a few minutes, is the only time I can recall being nervous around him. 

          "Well, you look comfortable, and you have a nice view here." I  pointed out the window towards a quince tree my grandmother had planted 25 years before. My father did not return my smile.

          "If you like it so much, let's trade places."
My father, posing after a heart attack.
Bowie in "Lazarus"
          Anyway, the night before my father died, he lay still as a statue and, though he was unconscious, his eyes were open. When our bodies are laid waste the fat pads above our eye sockets melt away. The skin of our eyelids shrinks back into the sockets so we're unable to close our eyes. 

           After several seconds, my father's chest would abruptly rise and fall, but between breaths, he was frozen. The shallow, mechanical breathing seemed to have nothing to do with him, as though someone were operating bellows. The statue, the bellows, we had been warned by the hospice nurse that these are signs the end is near, perhaps only hours away.

          The monkey at the foot of the bed had turned his back to my father; he seemed a bit hunched and faraway, chin in his hand, lost in thought. Once in awhile he would hop around on the bed and press his face right up against my father's face, screeching. Then he'd look straight at me, baring his teeth—he may have been grinning—before turning his back and seating himself again. 

          The monkey wasn't real, but it was no hallucination. Something unseen was present in the room, waiting, playing, and inhuman. I don't know why, out of all possible creatures, I saw a monkey. Nor can I explain why I had been briefly convinced my father's spirit was preparing to fly straight out of his open mouth (his mouth stayed open, like his eyes) and up into his self-portrait that hung on the wall behind him.



As the story goes, God introduced himself to Moses from the flames as I am. While everything else in the cosmos undergoes a continual process of change and becoming—we're born, we age, we move, we die, we change our minds—only God is uncreated and unchanging. We're a flash in the pan. Only God is

          That smug bastard. 

          In the song "Blackstar," after a haunting mystical interval—inflected with Middle Eastern sounds, electronic percussion reminiscent of machine gunfire, and something like Gregorian chant, where Bowie plays a scarecrow called Button Eyes—there is a slick, jazzy switch. The bandages and buttons are off, and now Bowie looks straight at us, wearing an elegant suit, just a little disheveled. We recognize him, leering and shimmying, thumbing his nose at us while he croons.

I can't answer why,
Just go with me.
Ima take you home.
Take your passport and shoes,
And your sedatives—Boo!
You're a flash in the pan.
I'm the great I am.




          I know this fucker—he's the same guy who sent the monkey. Oliver Sacks never mentioned this asshole, and that's probably why I pick David Bowie to be my death doula. Rather than minimizing fear or being detached, Bowie faces fear head-on and creatively, with gallows humor. Bowie fully inhabits his fear and we go with him, at times gladly. 

          I often sing when I wash dishes, but I was startled earlier to find myself swaying my hips and singing, I'm not a pop star, I'm not a porn star, I'm a Blackstar.


7. Like the leaf clings to the tree,
    Oh, my darling, cling to me.
    For we're like creatures of the wind.
     ("Wild is the Wind")      
 
How I spent my summer vacation (Chilmark Cemetery, Martha's Vineyard, July 1976)
My beauty checklist, age 13:
Black attire— 
Cheeks sucked in—
Talcum powder for snow-white tan—
While I've been bingeing on "Blackstar" and "Lazarus" in these days after Bowie's death, I found the need to take a break once in a while—to cleanse the palate, or prevent overdose. I admit I have used Justin Bieber ruthlessly ("Where are U Now") and, according to my ListenOnRepeat stats, "Yassassin" has cheered me up 187 times.




          In thinking so much about Bowie, I realize what had particularly inspired me
 growing up (besides his outrageous music, charm, beauty, and the way he moved). Bowie didn't shake his fist, or whine, or even explain himself. Instead of making grim speeches defending his sexual orientation, he gleefully humped his guitar player on stage. He seemed to have fun exploring the limits of various aspects of himself, and he wanted us to pay attention. 

          In early interviews, he loved to be shocking and irreverent for the sake of being quotable, but I imagine he occasionally permitted glimpses of authenticity. For example, in a Playboy interview from 1976, Bowie says people ask,
"How dare he have such a strenuous ego?" That, in itself, seemed a danger to some people. Am I, as a human being, worth talking about? I frankly think, Yes, I am. I've got to carry through with the conviction that I am also my own medium. The only way I can be effective as a person is to be this confoundedly arrogant and forthright with my point of view. That's the way I am. I believe in myself with the utmost sincerity.
This is a potent example for an awkward, shy teenager. Of course we loved him.



          Nearly 30 years later, Bowie was happily married to his second wife, the supermodel and entrepreneur Iman, and he seemed to have shed some of the old arrogance. In an interview in 2003 with CBS News-60 Minutes, Bowie was disarmingly open about what drives his art.
Searching for music is like searching for God—they're very similar. There's an effort to reclaim the unmentionable, the unsayable, the unseeable, the unspeakable. All those things come into being a composer, into writing music, into searching for notes, and pieces of musical information that don't exist...
I guess taking away all the theatrics, all the costuming, all the outer layers of what is, I'm a writer, is what I do. I write. I started examining the subject matter that I write about and it really only boils down to a few songs, based around loneliness, I guess to a certain extent, coupled with isolation; some kind of spiritual search, and a looking for a way into communicating with other people.
And that's about it. That's about all I've ever written about in 40 years, you know. It's not really changed. And I address it in different ways throughout my life. I've changed it, maybe tried to find another approach each time, tried to find another way into the questions—by kind of disarming them [laughs], creeping up on them as somebody else, or whatever.
          I like to imagine that loneliness and isolation were banished for a decade by the success of his second marriage which, by all accounts, was uniquely stable and loving. Bowie stopped touring in 2004 because of a cardiac event he suffered onstage and didn't produce any music between 2003 and 2013. I hope his frenetic drive to create was calmed because he no longer felt isolated.

8. Let's dance!  for fear your grace should fall.
    Let's dance! for fear tonight is all.
    Let's dance! Put on your red shoes 
    and dance the blues.
     ("Let's Dance")


For those of us who grew up with Bowie, there's a feeling that he has chronicled our lives as well as his own, and in doing so he's made us braver, more interesting, and more significant. To carry on without Bowie means, in some sense, that we're on our own. We must depend on ourselves to write our own story and find its meaning. Honestly, life without Bowie is lonelier. 

          The first time I watched the "Lazarus" and "Blackstar" videos, before Bowie's death, I was appalled. I tried, but I couldn't watch all the way through. I took one look at Button Eyes (the cadaverous scarecrow) and that desperate Lazarus figure in his deathbed, arms outstretched, and saw my father. 

          We know now that Bowie had been channeling his own experience of illness and dying directly into his art. He recorded "Blackstar" during chemo and learned his cancer had metastasized in November, about two months before his death. 

          Bowie's longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, who worked with him on "Blackstar" said Bowie knew this was to be his parting gift. "His death was no different from his life," Visconti said, "—a work of art." But Visconti also shared that Bowie had called him only a week before his death to say he wanted to make one more album. There were five new songs already.

          Bowie, like Oliver Sacks, had been working right to the end, but was unable to complete his final project. What more did they have to tell us? It's an urgent, almost unbearable question. 
When my mother was just six, she was summoned to the bedside of her older sister, Alice, who lay dying of rheumatic fever. Alice, the bossy know-it-all, beckoned with an index finger. 

          "Come here, Araxie, I want to tell you something, " but my mother wouldn't budge. "Come over here, it's a secret," Alice said, but my mother just shook her head NoWhen my mother told this story in her 80s, she looked just like a stubborn six-year old self. 

          I'm angry and frightened just like my mother but, at times, it's curiosity that overwhelms me.
Photo by Colin Lincoln Holloway
A friend recently shared a mysterious picture he took of shadows on snow. The image appears to be the delicate imprint of an angel's wings. But look closely and you see the imprint was left by a large bird and that dark hole in the center, gouged into the snow between its wings, is the gash where the bird snatched its prey. 

          My photographer friend had the last word. "Yup, sure looks like those things," he said, "but it was a duck. I watched it take off."


"Sometimes the interpretations I've seen on some of the songs that I've written are a lot more interesting than the input that I put in." Bowie once said, and that's really no help at all. But he was never offering advice, just his way of seeing the world at a particular moment.

          At a particular moment, T.S. Eliot writes, "The journey not the arrival matters."

          Another moment, Bowie declares, "The truth is, of course, there's no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time."

          The voices we hear are our own echoes. They mean nothing, and everything. Meanwhile, I must clean my house.


Saturday, August 29, 2015

My Father in the Rearview Mirror

Though no one doubted the immortality of man's soul, one had learned to see the permanence of  the individual's personality as an integral part of man's external appearance. This was forever menaced by the forces of death."
William S. Heckscher, "Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr. Nicholaas Tulp"

Towards the end, I would pull my mother up in bed and bring her breakfast tray: slivers of smoked salmon on toast beside a handful of blackberries, on blue-and-white china, with a mug of strong coffee. She was going blind so she couldn't see the vivid colors and textures, and the only taste that reached her was the blackberries, which she loved. Breakfast was the only meal she didn't throw up. 

          Each morning I'd sit at the edge of her bed and ask her how she'd slept. Quite often she'd answer the same way:
Charlotte, it's so strange. I dream I'm a young woman—the age I was when I met your father—and it's a very romantic time, just him and me. You don't exist. And it's curious because when I first wake up, for a few minutes after, I'm disoriented. I don't remember anything that's happened in the intervening years. It's as if those decades never happened, and for a few minutes I don't understand that we were married for 27 years and had a child, or that he's dead. And I can't believe I'm an old woman. I simply don't understand how any of it could have happened. You see, it takes some time for me to adjust because the dream is more real than the waking. Isn't that curious?
          What makes me think of this now, while I arrange my father's more than 4,000 drawings into categories, is the identification of a genre I'd taken for granted during his lifetime, the Rearview Mirror drawings. 

          When my father, William Heckscher, gave up driving in his 80s, my mother (who was 22 years his junior) would take him on errands. Often he would return to the car before she did. Alone in the passenger's seat with an unknown amount of time to fill, my father would take a pen and a stack of index cards from his upper left pocket, lower the car's sun visor, and study himself in the mirror. His gaze, which was rarely mild, took in every sag, wrinkle, and age spot head-on. With stoicism.



With tenderness and affection.


And sometimes a touch of the macabre.



And, on occasion, with what appears like sorrow or remorse, but probably isn't.


Only rarely does he look 'happy,' but it's not very convincing.



          Most often Heckscher bears an expression of ferocity, which he wore in his everyday life—his life beyond the mirror—to indicate, "Fuck off, I'm thinking." Those who knew him avoided eye contact when they recognized this look.

          Always, though, regardless of mood, he engages his subject unflinchingly, and he never referred to his portraits as caricatures.




          My father had been devastatingly handsome in his youth. 


And he appreciated his own beauty. 









As well as his exceptionally long nose. 



Which grew longer the older he grew, and as he aged, he was compelled to accept and illustrate the physical affects of time. 
          One of the affects of time is familiarity, which bred for him, if not contempt, then a stubborn insistence on depicting the ravages of time. He liked to quote Bette Davis, "Old age is no place for sissies." This theme is clearly evident in all the later drawings of him and my mother—who is, if anything, even less idealized. 




          "Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr. Nicholaas Tulp" was first published in 1958 and is probably my father's most famous work in the field of art history. Rembrandt's painting is a group portrait depicting a contemporary (17th century) anatomy lesson. The lesson is conducted in a large anatomical theater in the presence of members of the Guild of Surgeons, as well as a large general audience (which is not shown but implicit, and to which the painting's viewers also belong). Dr. Tulp dissects the hand of a cadaver, which belongs to a criminal who had been executed only hours earlier. 
"...the human hand, dissecting and dissected."
          Renaissance portraiture has everything to do with death and immortality. Heckscher writes that artists "from the 15th century onward would be commissioned to record a man's perishable appearance in order to safeguard against the grasp of death." The audience—of the public autopsy as well as the Tulp painting and portraits in general—is intended to experience a moral and spiritual catharsis.

          In the dark, in a hospital bed squeezed beside my parents' marital bed, my father would loudly recite, 
Ich bin Wilhelm Sebastian Martin Hugo Heckscher. Ich wurde geboren, Moltkestrasse Neunundzwanzig... 
          My mother told me he would switch from German to Latin, declaring the facts of his life, during these middle-of-the-night orations. 

          It seems to me that his swan song was a way of declaring that he had existed, and that his life was important, and that he was still here. I have often wondered who was his intended audience. Himself? God? But the feeling I have is that he was formally taking his place among all of existence, and formally taking his leave.

          He was not religious—perhaps even anti-religious—yet he carried a Catholic cross in his pocket at all times, which he rubbed smooth. In his other pocket he had a small, swirly seashell, the size of a large bead, the top of which he'd worried flat with his thumb. He liked to say he was playing it safe.

          The Rearview Mirror portraits and their relentless, daily attention to the persistence of self as well as its erosion, remind me of Tantric meditations on death as a means of preparing for the inevitable. This talisman aspect of his self-portraiture must have occurred to him.

          But he also found these portraits funny as hell, and enjoyed showing them to people and even displayed them in scores of photo albums and copied them onto personalized letterhead. Ultimately, nonattachment was not his thing at all; he loved himself immensely. On his grave are chiseled the words "Gratia Dei Sum Qui Sum": Thank God I Am Who I Am. 

          He drew death portraits of his parents, Siegfried 



and Hully.


          Most astonishing are his portraits of his brother, Henry. Among the 4,000 drawings, only one portrait of Henry exists besides the portraits of his dying. It features Henry, my father, and me as busts on pedestals.

Henry, who was awarded medals for bravery and was (unlike my father) highly rational and logical, suffered from paranoid delusions as a result of advanced Parkinson's Disease and dementia. Here are the first portraits of Henry dying, shortly before he was hospitalized. 


On the back of the second portrait, my father wrote
"Henry at height of paranoia, 1990."

"Paranoia" is written in Greek, like a secret code for a terror that must not be named.

          What follows are portraits made in the days leading up to my uncle's death. I would leave work at lunch to visit Henry and often I would find my parents already there. My father would have pulled up a chair to sit beside his brother, but I noticed he never removed his winter coat or hat. As if to underline the fact that he wasn't planning to stay. 

          He would always take a pen and index cards from his pocket and draw in silence. The only conversation I recall having with my father during these visits was where we agreed that death was something to be avoided at all costs. I told him that when I did finally meet Death, I hoped to kick his ass. My father added, in his elegant British-German accent, "Jah, I kick God in his hairy, wrinkly popo and give him a beating he won't forget." We laughed. Other than that, I don't remember my father ever discussing Henry's dying or his death.

After these portraits, he began writing the date on the back, and then the time and, as the time of his death drew nearer, he would write the minute.
February 17, 1990
HDH-February 27, 1990
6th day of his coma (coded in Greek)
"HDH-March 10, 1990" 

13 March 1990 
March 15, 1990
Friday, March 16, 1990
"HDH-March 17, 1990
His deep coma"
"HDH-Sunday, March 18, 1990
10 to 2 pm"
"HDH-Tuesday, March 21, 1990 
"HDH-March 21, 1990"
"HDH-Friday, March 23, 1990"
"HDH-March 24, 1990
8:12 pm"






 The next portrait was drawn about 12 hours before Henry's death.


This last portrait was sketched in haste while he was standing over Henry's body at the funeral home the next morning.


"HDH-Hodge Funeral Home
March 28, 1990
12:00 noon
          As we left I asked to see his drawing, which he was apologetic about. "Not very good, I'm afraid," he told me. 

          I wonder what my father would think of me studying his drawings and attempting, at times, what seem like scholarly and iconological interpretations, which was clearly his department. Most likely, he would find the psycho-spiritual references to be "Quatsch" (verbal nonsense). But he would most certainly be flattered and pleased by all the attention.

          My mother didn't draw, but if she had, she wouldn't have drawn self-portraits or death portraits. She was one of the least vain, most pragmatic people I've known, and an avowed atheist. This may be why the discovery of my father's Rearview Mirror portraits draws me back to my mother's dying. The death of our parents and siblings brings us unavoidably closer to our own mortality. My father practiced approaching death through his drawing and, to some extent, through his scholarship. He did it fearlessly, but at a safe remove. My pragmatic mother had no buffer. Her 'practice' was in tirelessly caring for Henry and my father during their long decline. She was unguarded and, it seems to me, unprepared. But I could so easily be wrong; it may simply be that I was unprepared for her death. Perhaps her repeated dream-return to the early, romantic days with my father and her difficulty waking to reconcile herself with the passage of time was practicing death. 

          I drew my father's portrait only once while he was dying, when no one was looking. I felt guilty but the urge was undeniable. I was surprised to find that portrait among my father's drawings. The only explanation is that my mother put it there, as part of the historical record. 

          When my mother died and I was alone with her body, I took a picture of her. I felt the same shame as I had with my father's portrait but, again, that feeling was no match for the urge to preserve her physical presence even as it was vanishing.