Saturday, August 29, 2015

My Father in the Rearview Mirror

Though no one doubted the immortality of man's soul, one had learned to see the permanence of  the individual's personality as an integral part of man's external appearance. This was forever menaced by the forces of death."
William S. Heckscher, "Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr. Nicholaas Tulp"

Towards the end, I would pull my mother up in bed and bring her breakfast tray: slivers of smoked salmon on toast beside a handful of blackberries, on blue-and-white china, with a mug of strong coffee. She was going blind so she couldn't see the vivid colors and textures, and the only taste that reached her was the blackberries, which she loved. Breakfast was the only meal she didn't throw up. 

          Each morning I'd sit at the edge of her bed and ask her how she'd slept. Quite often she'd answer the same way:
Charlotte, it's so strange. I dream I'm a young woman—the age I was when I met your father—and it's a very romantic time, just him and me. You don't exist. And it's curious because when I first wake up, for a few minutes after, I'm disoriented. I don't remember anything that's happened in the intervening years. It's as if those decades never happened, and for a few minutes I don't understand that we were married for 27 years and had a child, or that he's dead. And I can't believe I'm an old woman. I simply don't understand how any of it could have happened. You see, it takes some time for me to adjust because the dream is more real than the waking. Isn't that curious?
          What makes me think of this now, while I arrange my father's more than 4,000 drawings into categories, is the identification of a genre I'd taken for granted during his lifetime, the Rearview Mirror drawings. 

          When my father, William Heckscher, gave up driving in his 80s, my mother (who was 22 years his junior) would take him on errands. Often he would return to the car before she did. Alone in the passenger's seat with an unknown amount of time to fill, my father would take a pen and a stack of index cards from his upper left pocket, lower the car's sun visor, and study himself in the mirror. His gaze, which was rarely mild, took in every sag, wrinkle, and age spot head-on. With stoicism.

With tenderness and affection.

And sometimes a touch of the macabre.

And, on occasion, with what appears like sorrow or remorse, but probably isn't.

Only rarely does he look 'happy,' but it's not very convincing.

          Most often Heckscher bears an expression of ferocity, which he wore in his everyday life—his life beyond the mirror—to indicate, "Fuck off, I'm thinking." Those who knew him avoided eye contact when they recognized this look.

          Always, though, regardless of mood, he engages his subject unflinchingly, and he never referred to his portraits as caricatures.

          My father had been devastatingly handsome in his youth. 

And he appreciated his own beauty. 

As well as his exceptionally long nose. 

Which grew longer the older he grew, and as he aged, he was compelled to accept and illustrate the physical affects of time. 
          One of the affects of time is familiarity, which bred for him, if not contempt, then a stubborn insistence on depicting the ravages of time. He liked to quote Bette Davis, "Old age is no place for sissies." This theme is clearly evident in all the later drawings of him and my mother—who is, if anything, even less idealized. 

          "Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr. Nicholaas Tulp" was first published in 1958 and is probably my father's most famous work in the field of art history. Rembrandt's painting is a group portrait depicting a contemporary (17th century) anatomy lesson. The lesson is conducted in a large anatomical theater in the presence of members of the Guild of Surgeons, as well as a large general audience (which is not shown but implicit, and to which the painting's viewers also belong). Dr. Tulp dissects the hand of a cadaver, which belongs to a criminal who had been executed only hours earlier. 
"...the human hand, dissecting and dissected."
          Renaissance portraiture has everything to do with death and immortality. Heckscher writes that artists "from the 15th century onward would be commissioned to record a man's perishable appearance in order to safeguard against the grasp of death." The audience—of the public autopsy as well as the Tulp painting and portraits in general—is intended to experience a moral and spiritual catharsis.

          In the dark, in a hospital bed squeezed beside my parents' marital bed, my father would loudly recite, 
Ich bin Wilhelm Sebastian Martin Hugo Heckscher. Ich wurde geboren, Moltkestrasse Neunundzwanzig... 
          My mother told me he would switch from German to Latin, declaring the facts of his life, during these middle-of-the-night orations. 

          It seems to me that his swan song was a way of declaring that he had existed, and that his life was important, and that he was still here. I have often wondered who was his intended audience. Himself? God? But the feeling I have is that he was formally taking his place among all of existence, and formally taking his leave.

          He was not religious—perhaps even anti-religious—yet he carried a Catholic cross in his pocket at all times, which he rubbed smooth. In his other pocket he had a small, swirly seashell, the size of a large bead, the top of which he'd worried flat with his thumb. He liked to say he was playing it safe.

          The Rearview Mirror portraits and their relentless, daily attention to the persistence of self as well as its erosion, remind me of Tantric meditations on death as a means of preparing for the inevitable. This talisman aspect of his self-portraiture must have occurred to him.

          But he also found these portraits funny as hell, and enjoyed showing them to people and even displayed them in scores of photo albums and copied them onto personalized letterhead. Ultimately, nonattachment was not his thing at all; he loved himself immensely. On his grave are chiseled the words "Gratia Dei Sum Qui Sum": Thank God I Am Who I Am. 

          He drew death portraits of his parents, Siegfried 

and Hully.

          Most astonishing are his portraits of his brother, Henry. Among the 4,000 drawings, only one portrait of Henry exists besides the portraits of his dying. It features Henry, my father, and me as busts on pedestals.

Henry, who was awarded medals for bravery and was (unlike my father) highly rational and logical, suffered from paranoid delusions as a result of advanced Parkinson's Disease and dementia. Here are the first portraits of Henry dying, shortly before he was hospitalized. 

On the back of the second portrait, my father wrote
"Henry at height of paranoia, 1990."

"Paranoia" is written in Greek, like a secret code for a terror that must not be named.

          What follows are portraits made in the days leading up to my uncle's death. I would leave work at lunch to visit Henry and often I would find my parents already there. My father would have pulled up a chair to sit beside his brother, but I noticed he never removed his winter coat or hat. As if to underline the fact that he wasn't planning to stay. 

          He would always take a pen and index cards from his pocket and draw in silence. The only conversation I recall having with my father during these visits was where we agreed that death was something to be avoided at all costs. I told him that when I did finally meet Death, I hoped to kick his ass. My father added, in his elegant British-German accent, "Jah, I kick God in his hairy, wrinkly popo and give him a beating he won't forget." We laughed. Other than that, I don't remember my father ever discussing Henry's dying or his death.

After these portraits, he began writing the date on the back, and then the time and, as the time of his death drew nearer, he would write the minute.
February 17, 1990
HDH-February 27, 1990
6th day of his coma (coded in Greek)
"HDH-March 10, 1990" 

13 March 1990 
March 15, 1990
Friday, March 16, 1990
"HDH-March 17, 1990
His deep coma"
"HDH-Sunday, March 18, 1990
10 to 2 pm"
"HDH-Tuesday, March 21, 1990 
"HDH-March 21, 1990"
"HDH-Friday, March 23, 1990"
"HDH-March 24, 1990
8:12 pm"

 The next portrait was drawn about 12 hours before Henry's death.

This last portrait was sketched in haste while he was standing over Henry's body at the funeral home the next morning.

"HDH-Hodge Funeral Home
March 28, 1990
12:00 noon
          As we left I asked to see his drawing, which he was apologetic about. "Not very good, I'm afraid," he told me. 

          I wonder what my father would think of me studying his drawings and attempting, at times, what seem like scholarly and iconological interpretations, which was clearly his department. Most likely, he would find the psycho-spiritual references to be "Quatsch" (verbal nonsense). But he would most certainly be flattered and pleased by all the attention.

          My mother didn't draw, but if she had, she wouldn't have drawn self-portraits or death portraits. She was one of the least vain, most pragmatic people I've known, and an avowed atheist. This may be why the discovery of my father's Rearview Mirror portraits draws me back to my mother's dying. The death of our parents and siblings brings us unavoidably closer to our own mortality. My father practiced approaching death through his drawing and, to some extent, through his scholarship. He did it fearlessly, but at a safe remove. My pragmatic mother had no buffer. Her 'practice' was in tirelessly caring for Henry and my father during their long decline. She was unguarded and, it seems to me, unprepared. But I could so easily be wrong; it may simply be that I was unprepared for her death. Perhaps her repeated dream-return to the early, romantic days with my father and her difficulty waking to reconcile herself with the passage of time was practicing death. 

          I drew my father's portrait only once while he was dying, when no one was looking. I felt guilty but the urge was undeniable. I was surprised to find that portrait among my father's drawings. The only explanation is that my mother put it there, as part of the historical record. 

          When my mother died and I was alone with her body, I took a picture of her. I felt the same shame as I had with my father's portrait but, again, that feeling was no match for the urge to preserve her physical presence even as it was vanishing.