“What’s the purpose?” my father asks.
My father suffers from Alzheimer’s, a man who read constantly and wrote poetry every day while on the train to New York City, walking through the woods or sipping coffee in his easy chair. A carefully folded piece of paper and a mechanical pencil were in his shirt pocket ready for the words that needed to escape from his brain, expressing his experience of the world and the beauty surrounding him. Now his shirt pocket is empty unless I remind him that he may want a pencil handy during our day together.
Up until a month ago Dad was still able to find a few words to write on the carefully folded paper I tucked into my sketchbook for him. I sketched while he struggled with words.
On a Walk In The Woods
Chris looks to her Dad for poems
Pencil and paper are even on hand
Imaginative phrases would really be grand
The breezes are silent
The shadow from waving leaves do beckon
But the words being sought are oblivious
Nowhere at all to be found.
But wait, did I hear a couple just now?
I had better write them down.
They just might work, somehow.
His poems expressed the difficulty he was having, searching for a part of himself that felt distantly familiar yet unreachable. As I drove home after our Thursday together I consoled myself with the fact that he was still able to write a few words, he was able to speak, to walk and to know who I am.
In mid October, after thirty minutes of searching, Dad’s paper remained blank. I decided to try something new.
“What’s the purpose, Chris?” he asked as we ate our Bronx Bombers and Chili, pencils in hand, sketchbooks open.
“Why am I doing this?”
“To brush the cobwebs from your brain, Dad.”
“But what’s the goal?”
“To coordinate your eyes and your hand.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Maybe it will wake up parts of your brain that are starting to fall asleep.”
“What’s the purpose?”
“To have fun, Dad.”
He smiled, rearranged his lunch, looked me square in the eye and said “I wouldn’t want to try and do anything simple…”
Writing a short poem or just a couple of words on a piece of paper had become too difficult and too frustrating for both of us. I decided to try tricking his brain by teaching him how to draw. I thought that if he focused all of his attention on following the light and dark shapes on an object, it might force another part of his brain to kick in. I learned how successful this technique can be when my son and I did exercises morning and night to reprogram his brain so that the words on the page would align themselves properly and he would be able to read. Mike is now a rocket scientist.
I am not expecting Dad’s brain to stop shrinking. He is eighty-eight years old and has lived a life that should have protected him from suffering the horrors of dementia. He walked five to seven miles a day, danced three to four nights a week, read constantly, ate relatively healthy food and was an active member of his community. His body is strong and healthy. Perhaps it is for myself that I want him to continue communicating with me and with his loved ones. He appears to be content to sleep all day. He forgets that he forgets.
“What’s the purpose?”
I forgot the point I originally wanted to make when I started this post which was to say that in searching for answers to Dad’s question, I realized that I had lost track of why I draw daily contour drawings of one sort or another. I told Dad that by not looking at your paper, you draw what you see rather than what you think you see.
Last night my eyes were tired when I finally got around to my contour drawing. My subject was the monster aloe plant that lurks beside me now that it’s too cold for it to live on the front porch. I lost concentration almost immediately and began to draw what I thought I saw rather than what I was really looking at.
“Do you draw like this, too?”
“Every day, Dad.”
“Why? You already know how to draw.”
“It’s more about learning how to see, Dad. There is always a new way to see things.”
The memory of the little magnifying glass that my father carried in his pants pocket came to mind. Each morning before he left for work he would take a walk around the yard exploring leaves, stones and bugs with his tiny magnifying glass.
“There is always something new to explore, Dad.”
Drawings: Drawn first with fountain pen filled with heart of darkness ink, followed by watercolor washes.