Over the next few hours, we measure and photograph each painting. I’m astonished at my father’s energy. At nearly 90, he’s still working and very active: finishing a book, writing a catalog for a show in South Korea and next month going to Italy with his current wife so he can see Venice one last time. He’s like an old battleship that just keeps cresting—so dynamic and resilient. Usually his list of accomplishments makes me happy, but today, because my mother is sick and my marriage is ending, because my life is in shambles, I resent him.
Even though my parents split up more than 40 years ago, I demand, “Why did you have to leave?” Thinking, If my father hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be burdened with the responsibility of my mother now. And maybe I would know more about staying married than getting divorced. To have failed twice at wedlock is to come smack up against my own restless nature—a predisposition I’m more than a little afraid I’ve inherited from my father.
“I wasn’t any good at family life,” my father admits. He’s standing in front of the Karel Appel portrait of my mother that she sat for in 1963, not long before the divorce. The story behind the portrait is that at first Appel painted my mother to look as elegant and refined as a Modigliani. But at the last moment he said, “It’s not right. Come back tomorrow.” When she next saw the painting, he’d replaced the graceful woman in the picture with a wild, windblown and uncontained image. My mother was heartbroken and for years hid the painting in a closet. Then one day she pulled it out and realized that, like Dorian Gray in reverse, she’d aged into her portrait. That’s when she proudly hung it on the wall.
My father smiles at my mother’s intense gaze, the pout of her red lips, the black-and-blue zigzag crown of her hair. “That’s certainly worth something,” he notes. Then he adds, “She was an original. She was interesting. I made a big mistake. I should have stayed.”
I’ve never heard him admit this before, and even though it’s her painting he’s addressing, my heart aches to think of the wreckage they made of their happiness. It makes me doubt my choice to leave the father of my child. Though in truth, mine was not a successful marriage, and the decision to end it not entirely my own.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I tell him. Meaning divorce, dissolving my mother’s house at the same time as my own, finding a new place to live, raising a son and walking into a future that I can’t see.
I’m not sure how much of this my father understands. He’s been a capricious role model, far more connected to artifacts than to family. But he must hear the regret and confusion in my voice, because he strokes my hair to comfort me. “Do you know what I realize?” he asks, as if an idea has just occurred to him. “The best part of my life happened in the middle. Look at you—you have that ahead of you!”
But from where I am, in the center of this hurricane of loss, it doesn’t feel as if there’s anything in front of me except more sadness.
The next morning we drive to the nursing home to see my mother. My father’s hat is no longer sitting lightly on his head; it’s pulled down over his forehead. He’s worried. As a man who is better at beginnings than endings, he’s never been comfortable visiting people who are sick or near death. My usually chatty father looks out the window and speaks only once, to ask me to stop so he can buy her some flowers.
Walking through the nursing home, he’s visibly shaken. It must not be easy for this lover of women to see so many of them wrinkled and slumped over in wheelchairs so far that their heads nearly rest in their laps. Out in front of him, my father carries his bouquet of yellow lilies like a flag, and I think, What a gentleman!
We find my mother in her room, sitting in her embroidered armchair, staring out the window. I’ve done my best to make it familiar for her, bringing in a few of her early-American antiques and family photographs. I wanted to hang some of her paintings on the walls, but I was warned that they might be stolen.