Christina Hartmann | Empowering Goa
My father died two years today. About four days after his death, he delivered a little surprise.
My father had been taciturn under the best of circumstances, speaking only when strictly necessary (and sometimes not even then). His emails to me revolved around the obligatory and the legally required: brief “Happy birthday” messages, reminders that I had to pay taxes, notices of address changes. He performed those necessary communications without fail. Anything further was “nothing talk” and therefore not worth his time.
After my mother divorced him, my father went from taciturn to silent. The business-like emails became fewer and fewer. He stopped replying altogether, the cursory “fine” too much for him now. My last birthday during his lifetime passed without a message.
The little contact that I wrangled out of him in the months before he fell surrounded the sale of the house in which my sister and I had spent our adolescence. I sent him a dozen emails asking him how he was doing, how the packing had gone, and if I could do anything to help. Fine, fine, and no were his one-word replies. I made only one request: “Dad, could you keep that painting that’s hanging in the hallway? The one of the tree? I’ll pick it up the next time I go home. Thanks and love you!” I received no reply to that one, but knew he had gotten it.
That painting had been one I had done during high school. It was of a lush tree with yellow sunlight shimmering off the green leaves. It’s not a particularly skillfully done painting, but it was the best one I’ve done and will ever do. You see, I’ve lost the acuity in my central vision along with my peripheral vision as result of retinitis pigmentosa which is part of Usher syndrome. My painting days are over, as I was never particularly talented and any hope on improving matters is far gone. That painting reminds me of the days when I didn’t have to think of my more carefree days when blindness was still a distant prospect and I could enjoy visual art with ease.
The next time I saw my father, I asked him about the painting. He looked at me blankly then said, “The one your cousin painted?” I said, “No, Dad. That was my painting. Remember?” He looked crestfallen and said, “I left it in the hallway.”
I sighed and said, “I’ll go to the house and ask if it’s there, all right?” with more sharpness than I had intended. I’ll admit to feeling a flash of anger and a profound sense of disappointment. When I had been younger, my father had been the most reliable person in my life. He delivered on every promise he made: he picked me up regardless of the time or weather; he helped me build a volcano for a science fair; and he practiced softball despite my lack of talent. His reserve didn’t matter because he showed up without fail. Now, he could no longer be relied upon. He had treated my mother poorly, causing the divorce. He had stopped replying to my efforts to communicate. The father I had once known was fading away. He was getting older and so was I.
I asked others to take me to my old house, as I can’t drive and it was too far away for me to walk. Nobody had time. So, I left thinking that the painting was lost to me forever. I hoped that the family that had moved into the home hadn’t simply tossed it into the dumpster. I wouldn’t have blamed them a whit. That painting had meaning only to me.
Then he fell and broke his neck. A few days later, he elected to go off the ventilator and died a quick, painless death on his own terms. My sister and I were there to make our farewells. (More details here.)
What follows death is a curious mixture of emotion and practicality. The practical, business side of death entails signing insurance papers, clearing out houses or apartments, and picking out a funeral home. My boyfriend and I were tasked with picking up “something” from the old house.
The woman who stood in the doorway through which I had passed many times hugged us both when we came in. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I would’ve gone to the service if I had known.” It turned out that she, her husband, and their four children had recently moved to the area. It was good to see the house filled up again with life instead of a single man.
She led us to a box full of pictures. One was of him when he was young and handsome, reading an engineering book, one of my favorites.
The woman explained that my father had told her and her family all about how he had raised his family in this house, had two daughters who were now a doctor and a lawyer. (My father omitted the fact that I had left law for writing.) “He was so proud of you both,” the woman said. “It was sad watching him close a chapter in his life. He loved you all so much.”
Even though my father had rarely spoken of sentimentalities, I knew he loved me and was proud of me. It still reassured me to to hear someone say it aloud, even if it was hearsay and inadmissible in court.
When we went back to collect my father’s things, I found the painting with everything else. He had remembered, after all. Just a little late. He was still my reliable ol’ Dad, the guy whom I could always count on.
That painting is now hanging in my office. Thanks, Dad.