I sat for a really long time with my Dad Sunday afternoon. His labored breathing was like a metronome, a weird combination of great labor and steady rhythm. His eyes were vacantly half open, and it’s reasonable to assume (I did at the time) that he had no idea I was there. It was lunchtime, and I was headed to see my mom, only intending to stop in with dad for a moment, because the death bed vigil for a man no longer there seemed ridiculous. But I sat, for just a minute.
Every so often there would be a hitch in his breathing, and I would look up quickly, into his eyes, hoping it was the end. But then the metronome would resume.
Once I’d been there an hour, I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t a painful afternoon or a pleasant afternoon, it was simply time suspended, a day with me in my mind and Dad in his. But as the sun started to fade, I realized that if there was any light making through Dad’s sunken, half-opened eyes to the brain behind, it was likely the last fading sunlight my father would ever see.
Sharing that moment suddenly mattered to me a great deal. He was an artist. The light was the thing:
Malfunction has a way of clarifying function. As dementia etched away my father’s brain, he lost the ability to draw and paint. But from the window of the Albuquerque apartment where he and my mother have lived in recent years, he could look out at the Sandia-Manzano mountain chain and just watch that great big New Mexico sky. He didn’t know much, but in the moment, he always knew what the clouds were doing.
I’d take him for a drive, and we would stop for a short walk (it was all he could do) in the bosque. He would stare at the twisting forms of the old cottonwoods and talk about them, pointing and composing paintings in his mind.
The project now, beyond the relief of it being over, is to carve my way back through the last half dozen years of dementia and rebuild the memory of something else.