About the Feature
The road is white, the color of no road anywhere. The white road becomes whiter and narrower as it recedes into a sunless, ochre-tinged sky. Everything is tinged with ochre, except one house, which is all white. The white house looks as if it’s been drawn by a child: a triangle atop a square. Next to the white house is a larger unfinished house with one unfinished window, square atop a square. Its roof is a black trapezoid. There are only two houses on the street. There are no people or dogs or grass or trees. There is no horizon, just a vanishing point.
I watched my father paint this scene. He was thirty-one or thirty-two at the time; I was six or seven. We were upstairs, in a dark attic room with one small dormer window. The slant of light through that window was always thick with a stirring of dust, and my memory of that day takes place behind that scrim of floating, swirling, shimmering particles, as if we are two figures in a snow globe. The man is standing in front of an easel, holding a paintbrush in one hand and a palette smeared with paint in the other. He looks like a normal suburban dad in the late 1960s: average height and build, crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses. (I have to peer closely to see him like this, the way he looks in photographs from that era. His later self—bloated and disheveled, with flyaway Einstein hair—comes too readily, insistently, to mind.) There are several clues that this painting thing is new to him. The setup is makeshift. The easel is a foldable music stand borrowed from his wife. Instead of an art smock, he’s wearing a white lab coat. There are just a few tubes of oil paint on a nearby rolltop desk: yellow, white, green. An open bottle of ink compensates for a lack of black.
The other figure, the girl, watching and still, is young and not yet critical. These are the years she follows him everywhere, holds his hammer, fetches his coffee and cigarettes, plucks hornworms from his tomato plants, laughs at the same Saturday morning cartoons. She watches him put brush to paper, the expression on her face adoring. He can do anything, her father, beautifully, effortlessly, zestfully. A trill of pride runs down her spine.
My father painted the same subject—houses—for forty years. This is what I told the neurologist when he asked about my father’s art. It seemed an odd line of inquiry. I was there to talk about the drugs. My father was in his seventies. His feet hurt. His back hurt. His hips hurt. Lately he had been complaining that he was fuzzy headed and unsteady on his feet, unfortunate side effects of his antipsychotic medications. A few years prior, my parents had undergone a late-in-life divorce. Since then, my two sisters and I had moved my father in and out of multiple assisted-living facilities. With each move came a new set of doctors. Few of them familiarized themselves with his file, which, admittedly, was of encyclopedic size and breadth. His newest primary care physician, noting that his tardive dyskinesia increased his risk for falls, suggested he speak with a psychiatrist about eliminating or reducing his antipsychotics. His newest psychiatrist suggested a different antipsychotic, one that, I later read on the internet, might improve the symptoms of tardive dyskinesia but worsen the underlying behavior. It was alarming. While it was true that my father’s legs shook noticeably even when he was seated, and he repetitively and incessantly smoothed one hand over the other arm, back and forth, this seemed a small price to pay for what had proved a different kind of side effect, a relative lack of chaos and catastrophe. I wanted the neurologist to evaluate the severity of my father’s dyskinesia and agree with me: no medication changes. Instead, he wanted to talk about art.
This new doctor’s manner was gentle and the tilt of his head quizzical. It was the first time we’d met, and I immediately liked him. He’d read my father’s file, or at least most of it. He referred to an MRI. He examined my father’s eyes, then leaned back to observe his expression. He watched him rock in his chair, hands always moving. He recorded, using a video camera, my father’s shuffling walk. He asked him to write a sentence, anything that came to mind. My father wrote I AM LOST in shaky block letters. It was painful to witness.
The doctor made some brief notes, then turned to me. He asked questions I’d never been asked before. I was used to being called into offices to explain and discuss my father’s behavior. He had a tendency to get kicked out of places: stores, restaurants, theaters, senior living facilities—even, and most tragically, my hometown. But this doctor seemed uninterested in his volatile nature. He wanted to know everything: profession, interests, behavior, habits, family history, diagnoses, substance use. He asked me to describe a typical day when I was growing up. And he kept circling back—curiously, I thought—to my father’s paintings.
Dad painted houses because he loved houses. He especially loved our house, the house my sisters and I grew up in. The fact that he—a poor seventh-grade science teacher with two small children and one on the way—had landed in a little house on a pretty, tree-lined street in an upscale suburban neighborhood on the west side of Cleveland was, for him, a continual source of pride and bemusement. It was the summer of 1965. He was twenty-eight years old and full of energy. I imagine he was full of hope as well.
Our house came with a terrible floorplan, but Dad tried to correct it. He knocked down some walls and moved others. He removed doors and widened and arched doorways. I helped, handing him his hammer, his screwdriver, his pry bar. I held the other end of the measuring tape and, proud to be in on the joke, repeated our mantra—measure once, cut twice!—as the metal strip snapped back into place. Mostly I wrote my name on all the two-by-fours before he pounded them in and covered them with drywall. He called me his hamburger helper.
In the summer he worked outside. Under the car, tinkering. On the roof, pounding. In the garden, digging. If it seemed like he painted the house every year, it was because he painted the house every year. But only one side, in clockwise rotation. He didn’t care what the neighbors thought.
Mr. and Mrs. Dewitt lived next door, to the north of us. There was a chain-link fence between our houses, which allowed Mr. Dewitt’s perfectly tended lawn to be on perpetual display. In the spring he planted pansies by his back door, and in the summer he replaced them with red geraniums. On the other side of us, to the south, lived Mr. and Mrs. Gregory. A tall privet hedge, maintained by Mr. Gregory, separated our properties. From my bedroom window, all I could see of Mr. Gregory’s yard was a large maple tree with two ceramic cats affixed to its trunk, just higher than the hedge. It looked, to me, like the cats were always being chased by a dog I was never able to see. I was fond of them, the cats. I asked if my father if we could get some. Cats? my father asked, puzzled. You want ceramic cats?
Dad favored function over form, practicality and frugality over conventionality. He cut the bottoms out of milk jugs and used the tops to shelter his lettuce seedlings. He hauled sludge from the waste-processing plant and used it as fertilizer. He collected wood for tomato stakes and cut up old undershirts for ties. I often rode shotgun when he went out to collect materials. We were amazed by what people considered trash. With a little work, a headboard could become a bookshelf. A set of shaker chairs could become a porch railing. A pie safe could become a door. Picture frames could become a pea trellis. Anything could become anything, we decided, if you looked at it the right way.
This is how I remember a typical summer evening in those early years of living in our little house on a pretty, tree-lined street: The whole family is in the backyard with my father, who is practicing his golf swing. He has a club in his hands and a spilled bucket of balls at his feet. He’s aiming toward the house, but his objective is to hit the balls high enough that they clear the roof. The balls are Wiffles—harmless—but there is one real golf ball mixed in to make things, as my dad puts it, interesting. Near him, my mother, fit and deeply tanned, is sprawled on an aluminum chaise lounge, beanbag ashtray on her belly. One arm is extended, hand trailing along the ground, cigarette between two fingers. She looks relaxed, like someone is rowing her in a boat. My sisters and I are sitting beside her, in the grass, hunting for four-leaf clovers. The grass is filled with clover; the clover is flecked with bees.
I can’t think of those evenings without hearing the bees: their low, insistent hum. Or without listening for—as I’d been taught—the satisfying click of a well-hit ball. We’re all listening for that sound, even my mother. (I have, on occasion, described these evenings for my sisters, who are younger and don’t remember. Even Mom, I tell them.) Balls fly over the roof. It’s exciting and a little risky, but not dangerous. Click, click, click. Thwack. The infrequent miss just makes the whole game more thrilling. The back side of the house has two bedroom windows. With the shades partly drawn, the windows look like eyes: sleepy and vulnerable. When my father is down to his last ball—the real one—my mother motions for us to be quiet. My sisters and I stop our clover hunting to watch. Dad rolls the ball with his foot until it’s right where he wants it. He turns to his side and looks down, waggling his club a little. I take a deep breath and hold it. I don’t doubt my father’s skill, not really, but the windows—they look like eyes. He brings the club up behind his shoulder and pauses for a split second. Then the club comes down: click. The ball springs up and sails over the roof. My father grins. My sisters and I clap. Phew, my mother says, and I think I remember her laughing.
The neurologist listened as I talked about my father. He asked leading questions, made occasional notes. Then, when I was done, he leaned back and crossed his arms, switching subtly from audience to doctor. He spoke matter-of-factly. The front part of your father’s brain, he said, has undergone significant neurodegeneration. This atrophy, this shrinking, has been happening gradually, probably for quite a long time. Perhaps decades. He went on to explain that memories are stored in a different part of the brain and remain relatively intact, so this form of degeneration—this form of dementia—usually goes undetected until the symptoms become undeniable. And by undeniable, he continued, he meant behaviors like public disinhibition, aggressiveness, impulsiveness, lack of empathy, and sometimes—he shot me a kind look—a disregard for authority that could be labeled criminal.
Sounds about right, I said. Had I mentioned that he shoplifted my wedding gift?
We both looked over at my father, who was still repetitively smoothing one hand over the other arm, back and forth. He appeared not to be listening.
You’re probably also familiar, the neurologist continued, with the ritualistic tics, perseveration, binge eating . . .
Yes, I said.
But sometimes there’s more, he said. Sometimes the brain compensates. As parts of the brain atrophy, other regions of the brain get stronger and become dominant. A kind of rewiring occurs. Executive function diminishes, but—and here he made a voila gesture with both hands—creativity expands!
Oh, I said.
He went on to say that the composer Ravel was perhaps the most famous case. He’d written Boléro as a study in repetition. One theme done obsessively. It was one of the last things he was able to complete before a neurological condition left him unable to work. His doctor documented degenerative damage to the left hemisphere of his brain. Since then, medical journals had explored similar cases of links between brain disease and perseverative artistic talent. It’s possible, the neurologist said, that your father might be such a case. Perhaps at our next appointment you would bring in some of his paintings? A progression? He sounded enthusiastic. I must have looked skeptical.
It’s a theory, he said shrugging. There’s a lot we don’t know about the human brain. Some find comfort in the mystery.
This was an interesting—maybe even generous—way of looking at my father’s messy life. I wasn’t sure if I was buying it. I wasn’t sure if art compensated. Almost everyone who’d ever known my father, I told the neurologist, had a theory. Bipolar disorder was perhaps the most widely proposed. (Except, my mother had always pointed out, he was rarely ever depressed.) The principal who finally pushed my father out of the classroom cited anger-management issues. One aunt said that my grandfather had been even meaner, so maybe it was hereditary. Another aunt remembered that my father’s twin had died at birth, suggesting something might have also happened to my father during delivery. An uncle noted my father’s many high school football injuries. Then there was the drug use; he’d become addicted to painkillers after falling off a ladder. Also, the high-speed car crash he’d had returning home from a casino. The neurologist listened to my litany, then said that he was quite certain of his diagnosis: behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (or, for short, bvFTD). And yes, he agreed, a change to his medications might prove destabilizing.
As I got older, I still helped my father with projects around the house, but more reluctantly. I would put my book down with exaggerated slowness. Heave a sigh when he asked for a hammer. Withhold a smile when he told one of our inside jokes. Then the jokes became rare and had an edge to them. He rarely laughed. Noise bothered him: The television blared. Our neighbor’s radio squawked. All children shrieked (including his own). They should be seen and not heard. My sisters and I tried hard to follow that dictum. We crept around corners, did our homework behind chairs. This became my mother’s strategy too. She was always somewhere else, even when she was right there.
Then, the year I turned thirteen, our house began to look different to me. The house hadn’t changed, or it hadn’t changed changing, but I saw it in a new way. That summer my father had started painting it a new color. A deep yellow, almost gold. As was his custom, he’d put away the tarps and brushes at the end of August, having painted only one side. Three quarters of the house was still white. One morning I banged out of the back door and rounded the corner that bled from white to gold, believing in my father’s practicality. That afternoon I returned home from school with a different, more jaundiced eye. Did someone say something, whisper something, at school? I wish I could remember. But something in me had blinked and refocused. It was like the optical illusion I’d marveled over in fifth grade: beautiful woman or hag? Definitely hag. Once I’d seen it, I couldn’t stop seeing it. The pea trellis was an assemblage of picture frames. The porch railing was a row of chair backs. The unfinished paint job was embarrassing.
It was 1974, a difficult year in a difficult decade. Our president was a crook. Lake Erie was dead. We started locking our car doors when we drove to the east side for cream horns. Then we stopped going at all. There was a discernable tension everywhere. Inside our house, even more so. My mother still sat in the sun until she was tan as butcher paper, but she didn’t ask anyone to hunt for four-leaf clovers. She rarely spoke at all, except to lob an occasional barbed remark. She quit making meals, doing laundry, cleaning the house. One day, she took a shovel and viciously attacked the peonies. When she was done there was nothing but a mangled pile of vegetation. My father used the space to plant something practical: an apple tree. Our lawn shrank and the vegetable garden got bigger. More sludge was hauled from the waste-processing plant. Heaps of tomato stakes and old rags proliferated. Milk jugs rolled around the garden like tumbleweeds. When our old Plymouth died, Dad left it in the driveway, up on blocks, and started his seedlings under the rear window. Mr. Gregory let the hedge between our houses grow a foot taller. Mr. Dewitt put up a fence, as tall as the city would allow. Then the Gregorys took down their ceramic cats and moved away. The Dewitts put their house on the market and moved one door over. Our new neighbors didn’t plant flowers of any kind.
I missed them, the flowers. The spring after the Dewitts moved, I asked my father if we could plant some. Flowers? he shouted. His anger was often disproportionate in those days. Flowers?
But a few months later he came home with flowers in the trunk of his car. He’d been golfing, and on his way home he’d seen an exceptionally beautiful and very rare plant growing along the side of the road. As he said this he lifted the trunk lid with a flourish. Vivid orange blossoms sprang out like shooting fireworks. They looked exotic, like something from far away, perhaps a rainforest. The color is very rare, he told me, and the flowers only last one day. I helped him plant it next to the back door. Later, my mother saw me admiring it. It’s just a ditch lily, she said. Common as a weed.
Dad called the women in his art classes posy painters, and by this I think he meant not that they were untalented, just unserious. In art, as in life, flowers were frivolous. He made an exception, though: Sunflowers by Van Gogh. (My father called him Vincent, as if he were a friend.) I’m not sure exactly when he hung Sunflowers at the top of the stairs, but it was shortly after he’d stopped teaching, due to an unspecified mental illness. He never shared his diagnosis, even with my mother. He kept us guessing. Crazy? one of us would ask the others. Or crazy like a fox? another would reply. He was in his mid-fifties by then, had a lot of time on his hands, and painting became his vocation. He took up watercolors. The speed and unpredictability of the medium suited him. He churned out painting after painting and considered almost every one display worthy. If there was a blank bit of wall, he slapped a picture of a house on it. A rare exception was the spot—prime real estate—where he hung Vincent’s Sunflowers, by itself, between two windows.
Vincent painted four sunflower canvases during a frenzied week in the late summer of 1888. The most famous, the one my father had a reproduction of, is the last, the one that now hangs in the National Gallery in London. All four paintings are titled Sunflowers, so to distinguish it from the others, it’s sometimes referred to as Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers or, more commonly, “the yellow one.” It depicts a yellow vase on a yellow table filled with yellow flowers surrounded by a yellow background. To state the obvious, Vincent was experimenting with color that summer.
He was thirty-five years old. He’d spent the previous two years in Paris, living with his brother Theo, and the previous eight years living off him. Now he was in Arles, a town in the South of France, trying to establish an artists’ colony. It was a thoroughly cockamamie scheme for someone as volatile, as quarrelsome, as Vincent. He’d never successfully lived in close proximity with others—even Theo—and his opinions were too strong for easy camaraderie with other artists. How desperate Theo must have been to have endorsed, much less bankrolled, his brother’s plan.
It was rocky from the start. Vincent arrived in February, during a record-breaking cold snap. That winter and spring he was ill with stomach disorders and fevers. Mouth sores and toothaches made it an ordeal to eat. The house he rented was dilapidated. He spent too much of Theo’s money fixing it up and buying furniture, causing some friction between the brothers. Paul Gauguin, the only artist who considered joining him, strung him along, refusing to commit: he was ill; he was broke. Winter turned to spring, spring to summer. Still Gauguin had not arrived. Vincent’s hopes of an artistic utopia ebbed and waned. By the end of the summer, he was lonely, desperate, manic. Painting feverishly. Drinking too much, thinking too much. The mistrals worked on his nerves. The sun was devilish, would have made him crazy, he joked, if he hadn’t been that way already. He turned to the sunflower, a late-summer bloom he’d successfully painted before, as a subject. I console myself, he wrote to his friend Emile Bernard, reconsidering the sunflowers.
His intention was to fill the room where Gauguin would stay with many large sunflower canvases, but he completed only four. The first three paintings were more conventional—huge yellow flowers against blue backgrounds. By the time he got to the fourth, the sunflowers he was working with were in various stages of wilt and wither. He painted them that way—drooping, unpetaling, dark with seed—using three chrome yellows, yellow ochre, and a little malachite green. It was a stretch, an experiment: one color—yellow—done obsessively. A limitation turned extravagant. A lowly, rustic flower elevated to a high yellow note. A cry of anguish, he later told his sister, but using a symbol of gratitude. What am I, he’d once written, in the eyes of most people—a nonentity, an eccentric or an unpleasant person—somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low. All right then—even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. Vincent took it all, everything he knew about life—the failures, humiliations, broken friendships, failing body, electric nerves, alienated family—and translated it into screaming, luminous yellow.
After my sisters and I left home, my parents divided the house up, room by room, officially foregoing the pretense of common ground. It was a convoluted accommodation, made, they hoped, to avoid divorce. My mother’s rooms featured a lot of turquoise, her favorite color, and were simple, casual, and uncluttered. My father used a lot of deep reds and dark woods. He filled his rooms with stuff, most of it meaningful to him, although sometimes the meaning was only that it had been a good bargain or had been clandestinely procured. My mother claimed most of the first floor, my father most of the second. When I was home to visit, I stayed in an upstairs bedroom. Sunflowers greeted me at the top of the stairs. In a different kind of household, it would have been a portrait of Jesus, bronze-skinned and glowing, gazing solemnly into the middle distance. But the purpose, it seemed to me, was the same; it was a declaration of faith. It said: This I believe.
But what did he believe, or what did I think he believed? That he was a mad genius, of course.
There were twelve or thirteen steps leading to the wall where Sunflowers hung. The treads were covered by braided-rag rugs my grandmother—my father’s mother—made from old coats over several summers in the late 1970s (a decade or more before my father began filling the walls to overflowing). In those days, my grandmother stayed with each of her four children for three months of the year, arriving at our house in early June with a couple of paper sacks filled with toiletries, books, and clothes. She had watery gray eyes, a hairy mole on her cheek, and, through hard work and some cunning, had survived both the Depression and an abusive husband. Whether or not she “accidentally” dropped her hearing aids in the toilet was a matter of some debate, but by the time I knew her, she had firmly retreated into a world of silence. I remember her braiding by bad living room light, nodding rhythmically over her work, ignoring the reverberations around her. Occasionally she would lift her head, look around with mute intelligence, then return to her small, hard way of never saying an unkind word about anyone.
When I think of climbing those stairs, I’m always looking down, searching for the twisted plaid of my favorite Sunday school coat. Dust motes swirl around my ankles. The air is stale. (In other words, I barely remember the time before my mother ceded her claim to the upstairs, when the air smelled of vinegar and Pledge and the windows still opened and she would lean out of them, precariously, and shake her mop at the world.) I’m taking the steps two at a time—in flip-flops, in slippers, barefoot, in boots— rounding the top quickly, turning left, yellow at my elbow, a smudge in my eye. What is it about another person’s deeply held belief, when you do not entirely share it and cannot escape it, that feels so perilous?
Vincent didn’t end up in Arles, the location of his famous breakdown, by accident. He came for the colors and summer sun, but most of all he came for the countryside that inspired the artist he most revered: Adolphe Monticelli.
When Vincent turned to art—after failing at multiple professions, including teacher, bookseller, and lay preacher—he did it with a vengeance. He thought about art as obsessively as he created it. As a critic, he had a high, somewhat moralistic, bar. He disdained artists who painted exotic works from memory or imagination. An authentic artist, he felt, worked on outdoor scenes outdoors and simply picked the flies and sand out of the paint. He was skeptical of clever technique. Vincent wanted to see the character behind the canvas. In the picture, he said, I look for, I love the man—the artist.
The artist who best met his stiff criteria was Monticelli. A native Provençal and friend of Paul Cézanne, Monticelli had bounced around the art world without attracting much notice. He was a drinker and, near the end, a pariah. His arrogance turned people off: I paint for thirty years from now, he said when confronted with criticism. He died, slumped (or so Vincent had heard) over a café table, two summers before Vincent arrived in Arles. His tragic backstory only increased his stature in Vincent’s view. He admired the freedom of Monticelli’s work: the wild brushstrokes, eccentric colors, heavily textured dabs of paint. In letters to Theo, Vincent defended Monticelli’s talent, and his madness, vehemently.
Well, no one had ever accused Vincent of healthy attachments. He channeled Monticelli artistically—the influence is clear—and used him psychologically. And I think very, very often of that excellent painter Monticelli, Vincent wrote to Theo, who people said was such a drinker and insane, when I see myself coming back from the mental labor of balancing the six essential colors, red—blue—yellow—orange—lilac—green. He firmly intended, he wrote to his sister, to take Gauguin, when he arrived, to Monticelli’s old stomping ground in Marseille and promenade with him on the Canebiére. Vincent, who’d never actually met Monticelli, would dress exactly as he’d seen him in a portrait, with a big yellow hat, black velvet jacket, white trousers, yellow gloves, and a reed cane.
What is it to us if there is or isn’t a resurrection, he wrote, when we see a living man rise up immediately in a dead man’s place? Taking up the same cause, carrying on the same work, living the same life, dying the same death?
The summer I turned thirty, my father and I spent an afternoon at the National Gallery, where Vincent’s Sunflowers—the yellow one—hangs. Dad was no longer teaching. He was managing his mysterious malady with a complicated combination of antidepressant and antianxiety medications, plus yoga. Medicated, he was less explosive but still wildly unpredictable. It was the beginning of what I now think of as my humoring-him years, a fraught but happy rapprochement after almost a decade of estrangement. (Those of us who managed to maintain a relationship with him still had to withdraw, for reasons of energy and our own sanity, for long periods of time. It would be another fifteen years or so before my mother withdrew permanently—her cello stretched across the backseat, a box of miscellanea in the trunk—and my caregiving years would begin.)
We—my parents and I—were in London, the last stop on a two-week driving tour through England. It had not been a relaxing trip. A different inn every night. Unfamiliar winding roads. Lots of cold rain and my father in the backseat with the windows rolled down. (Open windows had always been his preference—growing up, my sisters and I kept sleeping bags in the car to keep warm.) I did all the driving while my mother chain-smoked in the seat beside me. She tried to help navigate, but the wind-whipped map and my father’s refusal to roll up the windows infuriated her. Also, the steering wheel, situated on the right-hand side of the car, and the car, hurtling along on the left-hand side of the road, unnerved her. She was jet-lagged and road-wired and—even then I knew—marriage-weary. It was on this trip, lost in a little village, that I saw something I’d never seen before (or since): my mother crying.
We’d been driving all day and were having some trouble reaching our lodging for the night. We’d found the village without much trouble and could even see the inn, a large stone structure that had formerly been a manor house. It was looming in the near distance, but I couldn’t find a road to it. My mother made a few suggestions, then my father leaned forward and took over the navigation. Mom got quiet. Every turn he suggested was a wrong turn. The inn might as well have been a mirage. It was maddening. If it’s Tuesday it must be Brigadoon, I recall joking, just to keep things light. I’d been away for a while, starting my own life, building a career, putting some necessary distance between myself and them, but it turned out I hadn’t forgotten how to be their daughter, how to suss out potential outbursts, to tread softly, to shoulder the weight of shifting moods. I pulled to the side of the road and parked. Someone—me—was going to have to ask for directions. Dad said he would come too. We walked to a nearby pub where a bartender wrote directions on a napkin and urged us to return later for a pint. I felt myself relax. It had been a day of normal travel-related stress, nothing that a round of cold beers and some fish and chips couldn’t fix. That’s what I thought, until, on the way back to our rental car, we rounded the corner and I saw my mother sitting on the curb. She had her head in her arms, and her shoulders were heaving. It caught me up short. I didn’t know how to respond to something so unexpected. Then she stood up and said quietly, You left me, and got back into the car. So did we.
A few other things happened on the way to London. As we drove through centuries-old villages, my father, predictably, became interested in the houses. He was fascinated by their ancestry, the evidence of age and changing of hands. He loved their antique windows. He let himself in through garden gates so that he could show me how, over time, the glass panes puddled and became visibly thicker at the bottom than they were at the top. I recall having to explain to more than one homeowner that we were looking at the window, not through the window.
If his curiosity was infectious—and, for me, it was—his appetite was insatiable. One night, while staying in a quaint inn with lots of dark wood and faded textiles, I became aware of how much, and how indiscriminately, he was eating. The table between my room and my parents’ room was carefully arranged like a still life: damask table runner, silver candlesticks, bowl of wax fruit. Every time Dad left his room, he reflexively grabbed a piece of fruit, took a bite, and put it back. By morning nearly all the fruit had teeth marks. Before we checked out, I turned them bite-side down.
One night, we attended a performance of King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Company. My mother and I had boned up on the play before the trip; Dad flipped through the CliffsNotes on the way to the theater. I was anxious about his ability to sit quietly through a four-hour play, and I was right to worry. He held it together until the last act, when Lear, mourning Cordelia, asks, Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all? This must have reminded my father of something he’d just read, because he loudly informed me—and everyone in the audience—that there were more animal references in King Lear than in any other play by Shakespeare. When the lights came up, I quickly propelled him to the door.
I recall doing a lot of that: rushing him, wrangling him, shushing him. Anything to get him back in the car. Then more driving. More smoking. In the backseat, Dad hoarded candy and read travel guides. He shouted out a steady stream of trivia, facts he gleaned from damp, chocolate-stained pages. Did we know that King Lear’s father was a leper? That Charles Darwin thought earthworms were the reason for Stonehenge’s sinking? That a battery-powered bell at Oxford University had been continuously ringing for over a century, but nobody knew how it worked?
By the time we got to Trafalgar Square, my mother wasn’t interested in seeing any paintings, no matter how famous. She stayed outside with an Agatha Christie novel to read by one of the fountains. Dad and I went into the museum and found the room where Sunflowers resided. He nabbed a nearby bench and sat on it cross-legged. I sat next to him and worried that a museum guard would reprimand him for sitting disrespectfully. No one did. A similar Van Gogh sunflower painting had sold, a few years prior, for almost $40 million. My father mentioned this a few times, a little too loudly. I got up, wandered around other parts of the museum, and when I came back he was still sitting there, cross-legged. By this time I was annoyed at how pretentiously he was absorbing a picture he already had at home. The frame was better, and you could see the thickness of the paint, but it felt, to me, like he was performing. Like he wanted me to say that someday his paintings would also be worth $40 million.
It had been a long trip and not an easy one, but I wish now I’d been able to sit there, quietly, with him. I wish I’d understood how afraid he must have been: recently dismissed from a job that defined him, feeling his disease deep inside him, sensing the misfiring and rewiring of his brain’s synapses. How comforting Vincent and his sunflowers would have been, how triumphant in their decline. In the picture, I look for, I love the man. But I couldn’t focus. I was worried about my mother, aware of how long she’d been waiting.
When we finally emerged from the museum, she was right where we had left her, arms crossed, book closed. White lines spoked out from tightly pressed lips. You missed it, my father exclaimed, gloating. You missed the best part of the whole trip! He was too excited to read her body language—or maybe he didn’t care. My mother rolled her eyes. Behold the artiste, she said dryly, and gathered her book.
That Vincent suffered from some sort of affliction is without dispute, even by Vincent himself. In the 130 or so years since his death (assumed a suicide), myriad forensic psychologists and psychiatrists have tried to diagnose him. Bipolar disorder is perhaps the most widely accepted diagnosis. Vincent chronicled his bouts of depression, and the pace of his painting indicates a type of mania. (By some accounts he created, during his brief artistic career, one work every forty-two hours.) At the time, Vincent’s doctors made general notes of mania and delirium but ultimately diagnosed him with what is now called temporal lobe epilepsy, a form characterized more by mental abnormalities than seizures. It’s also possible that Vincent’s alcoholism contributed to his deterioration. His drink of choice was absinthe, a spirit with a very high alcohol content, one that also contains thujone, which in high doses can cause yellow-tinged vision. Frontotemporal dementia is occasionally mentioned. Other suggestions include lead-paint poisoning, childhood brain injury, schizophrenia, syphilis, and sunstroke.
In a letter to Theo, written in Arles, Vincent euphemistically attributed his poor health, and Theo’s, to a rather too artistic way of life. He also thought it was hereditary. Take our sister, Wil, he wrote, she has neither drunk nor led a wild life and yet we know a photograph of her in which she has the look of a madwoman. As it turned out, hereditary illness wasn’t a bad thesis. A little more than a decade after Vincent’s death, Wil was committed to an insane asylum and spent her final forty years there. Theo died months after Vincent, possibly of syphilis, but the cause and even the date of his death are uncertain. Vincent’s remaining brother, Cornelius, fought in the Anglo-Boer War and was said to have been killed in action, but conflicting reports state he shot himself.
The yellow vase is filled with fifteen sunflowers. Six bald blossoms face forward, their centers an odd-looking green. The remaining nine flowers twist and sag. The arrangement is unnatural. The tallest flower is too tall. The vase itself appears flat and a little crooked. Everywhere yellow bleeds into yellow. The table is golden yellow, the background lemony yellow; little differentiates surface and space but a faint blue line.
Vincent’s fate, at the time he painted this, was exquisitely balanced, on a line just as tenuous. He’d come close to irrevocably wrecking his most cherished relationship—his friendship with Theo—yet continued to recklessly spend his brother’s money. He was ill in body and mind but crackled with ideas. He brooded incessantly about death while brimming with crazed, desperate hope. Things, he thought, might still work out. Gauguin would finally arrive. They would bond in an ecstasy of artistic energy. They would push each other in new directions. They would exhibit broadly, appeal critically, sell triumphantly. People would travel from far-flung places to witness their creative utopia. To prepare, he had his ramshackle rental house painted butter yellow. He furnished it carefully, thoughtfully, obsessively. He drank. He dreamed. He painted. He cut off his beard and shaved his head, donning the character of artist/monk. He stocked extra bedding for impromptu visitors. He bought a dozen extra chairs for Gauguin’s (inevitable, he believed) acolytes.
Of course, that’s not how it turned out. Gauguin arrived in October, a few months after Vincent finished his sunflower canvasses, looking less ill than his many excuses had indicated. From the start there was an explosive competitiveness between the two men. Vincent blazed through a dozen paintings in the first few weeks; Gauguin completed only three or four. Gauguin was dismissive of Vincent’s methods (accidents of thickly applied paint, he wrote in a letter to a friend) as well as his colors (shit, shit, everything is yellow). He disparaged Vincent’s icon, Monticelli, deeming him eccentric and sloppy. They clashed over everything. Then, in December, the weather turned ugly. Wind and rain forced the two men to work inside together. Tempers flared. Two days before Christmas, Vincent received the surprise news that Theo was engaged. It made matters worse. Vincent was likely offended by Theo’s secrecy and very likely worried about his continued support. The fighting escalated.
On Christmas Eve, Vincent arrived, bandaged and bleeding, at the door of a brothel, proffering a severed ear wrapped in newspaper. Gauguin, hearing the news, cabled Theo, who immediately boarded the night train from Paris to Arles. It was a trip Theo had been avoiding for nearly a year. In Arles, on Christmas, he visited Vincent in the hospital for a few hours, just long enough to be reassured that Vincent would survive. Then he jumped back on a train bound for Paris and his awaiting fiancée.
Lately I’ve been dreaming, again, about houses. A poet friend told me this is not unusual. Houses in dreams, she said, are a symbol of one’s own psyche. Carl Jung, it seems, had a famous dream about a house. In this dream, he was in a finely decorated room that he didn’t recognize but knew—the way you know things in dreams—that it was his own house. Not bad, he thought. He explored more of the house, then realized he hadn’t been to the cellar. He found the entrance beneath a stone slab. He descended narrow stone steps and entered a low cave cut into the rock. There, he found two very old, half-disintegrated human skulls. Then he woke up. Regarding the context of his dream, he wrote: Certain questions had been on my mind.
I think back to all the things I told my father’s neurologist, because he was willing to listen. I spoke about my father’s passions: painting, gardening, golfing, traveling, woodworking, cooking, cycling. About his love of houses, and the years upon years, decades upon decades, of paintings he had done of houses. I talked about his energy, restlessness, recklessness, playfulness, anxiety, volatility, grandiosity, gambling, shopping, shoplifting, hoarding, self-medicating. The divorce and subsequent crack-up: psych-ward commitments, restraining orders, assault charges, jail time. The car accident that finally wrecked him physically and killed his dog. And then those sad, strange, gentle years, when his memory was fading but he still had a spark. The way he held out his arms when I was leaving and said, I cherish you.
There’s so much to say about such a man. So why, when I’m at my desk, trying to set down my thoughts, do I too often end up writing about Vincent? I want to talk about the collateral damage of an undiagnosed (or undisclosed) mental illness. I want to explain how this leads, for all concerned, to confusion and isolation. How easy—inevitable even—it is to view such a person as a tangle of character flaws and not someone with a condition. I want to talk about love and ambivalence, to acknowledge my father’s suffering and confess my own resentment and exhaustion. But then I find myself writing about the lowly becoming transcendent, art compensating, beauty in brokenness. I wax on about sunflowers.
And return to Christmas Eve, 1888. Theo is on the train from Paris to Arles, a trip of almost five hundred miles. He’s fearing the worst. The note he hurriedly leaves for his fiancée says as much: Oh, may the suffering I dread be staved off. I shall keep my spirits up by thinking of you. There’s no reason to doubt Theo’s love for his brother, but they’d been apart for a year, had separated under difficult circumstances. Theo had finally won over the woman he’d loved for years, and his happy preparations are interrupted—yet again—by another of Vincent’s calamities. When Theo arrives at the hospital he finds his brother stable, if not completely calm. The young doctor on holiday duty diagnoses “overexcitement” and declares he will be fine in a day or two. Theo is relieved. He attempts to engage Vincent in conversation, broaches the question that is so urgently on his mind: Does Vincent approve of his engagement? Vincent’s replies are elusive and withholding. Marriage shouldn’t be the main object in life, he says, then lapses into mumbled bits of philosophy and theology. At some point during their visit, Theo crawls into the hospital bed with Vincent. They reminisce about their childhood, a scene Theo later recounts to his mother. How poignant, she writes in reply, together on a pillow.
I turn these events over and over in my mind. I consider the timing of Vincent’s breakdown, the brevity of Theo’s hospital visit. I read again the words—how poignant— and hear a caustic intonation. (In short, my mother’s voice.)
And I go to bed and dream, again, about houses.
Years after he hung Sunflowers at the top of the stairs, my father rearranged his attic bedroom—the room where I watched him paint the white house on the white road—to look like Vincent’s painting of his bedroom in Arles. My father didn’t say this is what he’d done, but there was something so familiar about it that once I saw it I couldn’t unsee it. His room was about the same size as Vincent’s. The window was where Vincent’s window was. The bed was where Vincent’s bed was. My father hung clothes hooks where Vincent hung clothes hooks. He hung paintings where Vincent hung paintings. One difference: the painting over Vincent’s headboard was a landscape, and the painting over my father’s headboard was Starry Night. Another difference: my father attached a railing to his bed, because by this time he suffered from night terrors and would buck and thrash so violently that he frequently fell out of bed.
I never did show my father’s paintings to his neurologist. The progression (and degression) he’d been interested in studying was too painful to consider. By the end, the colors my father chose to use had become darker; the houses were shakily drawn and solitary. But he kept painting them, the houses, over and over, trying and trying again to convey . . . something. If we had been letter writers, my father and I, I might have echoed one of Theo’s final letters to Vincent: Your last pictures have given me much food for thought on the state of your mind at the time you did them, Theo wrote. How your brain must have labored. . . .
Seven years after his dementia diagnosis, my father died in a nursing home. While we waited for the undertaker to remove his body, my sisters and I stuffed his clothes and miscellaneous possessions into black trash bags. Then we divvied up what had mattered most to him: his paintings. I wanted only one, the first one, the one with two houses on a white road. My sisters chose their favorites, pastel houses from the earlier years, a few of them adorned with ribbons from local art contests. Then we emptied the walls of the rest of his life’s work. It was an intimate undoing and felt, I imagine, the way it must feel to ritually wash a body before burial. I should one day like to show by my work, what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. It had been easy, when my father was alive, to look away. The maelstrom that surrounded him was so overwhelming. I thought about my mother, who had been so young—half the age I am now—when she was swept up into that maelstrom. I thought about my grandmother, how she had witnessed, and endured, her husband’s violent and inexplicable deterioration—and then, again, her son’s. For the first time, I thought I understood why she had retreated into her world of silence. If I could, I thought, I would do something similar. I’d seal off the later years and step backward into the dusty attic of our little house on a pretty, tree-lined street. My father would be there, paintbrush in hand, wearing a white lab coat. And I’d be there with him, the watching girl, the adoring girl. The girl with the not-yet jaundiced eye.
The main symptom of my father’s final decline was leaning. By this time he had a lot wrong with him—congestive heart failure, uncontrolled diabetes, advanced dementia—and was bedbound and mostly mute. But it was the lethargy and leaning that seemed to indicate to the doctors that the end was near. They couldn’t say why he was leaning, but he tilted so dangerously to the left that the nursing staff were continually nudging him in the other direction.
The night before he died, I dreamt he fell out of bed. I was sleeping in the chair next to him. The aides came in, sometime in the wee hours, and changed his bedding. I’d propped pillows on his left side to keep him more upright. When the aides repositioned him, they put the pillows on his right side. In my groggy state I took note of this. I fell back asleep, thinking that, in the morning, I needed to let them know they were doing it wrong. Then I heard a thump. I saw my father lying on the floor. He was in distress, so I picked him up. Somehow I knew—the way you know things in dreams—that it was dangerous to put him down. He was heavy at first, but with each step he got lighter and lighter. I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t know where I was. There was barely anything in this dream but my father and me. No people or houses or grass or trees, just a colorless road. And ahead, no horizon, just a vanishing point.
About the Author
Stephanie Harrison’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in dozens of journals, and she is the editor of the anthology Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen (Three Rivers Press, 2005). She has received grants from the Ohio Arts Council, the Florida Arts Council, and the Greater Columbus Arts Council.