My parents, Gene and Rita Dorsey, from happier times.

I’ve been a blogger manqué for much of the summer mostly because I’ve been immersed in trying to finish the three paintings I’ve already written about—and I am on pace to get them done on time. But I’ve also been busy with my two other occupations—writing to earn money and taking care of my elderly parents. It feels odd to call my parents elderly when I, myself, will in short order be able to qualify for that demographic. Maybe sixty is the new forty, but I have a feeling that the milestones to come will cast a darker shadow on a narrowing path. Time feels as if it’s getting shorter by the day, which means I need to work harder to stay ahead of the clock, but I’m finding that the painting life is giving me lessons about my larger life as a human being, not just a painter, despite myself. The need to pay attention has become the central imperative of my life, in almost all activities. Writing still comes naturally, and I can do what I need to do—with the exception of contributing to this blog over the summer, clearly—but caring for my parents has become both a bigger challenge and a deeper reward. I find, repeatedly, that I’m choosing to see myself as a son, rather than a painter, on a daily basis for varying lengths of time. And I’m discovering that, as laborious and discouraging as it can be, I’m adapting to it. I’m changing in a way similar to what happened to me when I became a father, when I found myself willing to do almost anything to care for my kids, without resentment or complaint—no matter how it robbed me of my autonomy and personal time.

My brother, Phil, and I share the responsibilities of enabling my parents to continue to live independently in their condo in Penfield, NY, a twenty-minute drive from my home. My father lives most of his life now at a few points on the tiny map of his primarily domestic world: bedroom, bathroom, dining room, deck and TV room. He’s able, just barely, to shift his body from bed to scooter and thence to the bathroom, the living area, or the deck outside. His infirmities derive from stenosis, peripheral neuropathy, a brief TIA from which he partially recovered, pulmonary issues, and increasing effects of dementia—he is the same person as he always was, but greatly diminished, hemmed in, caged by his body and brain, though his sense of humor remains intact as do his gratitude and kindness. However, more and more his despair over his condition sparks bouts of anger or snarky critiques of those around him. Inevitably, whenever we are together I gaze directly at the future, my future and everyone’s future, and it has the effect of stripping away most of the layers of denial that all of us wrap around ourselves like comforters on a cold night. Old age and death watch me, as I watch them. We’re all dying slowly or quickly, and when you see that, what matters most in life is giving as much care to one another as possible. Occasionally, the demands of my father’s predicament test my equanimity, but most of the time I just surrender and do what both of them need and what my brother, Phil, is unavailable to do.

Yesterday afternoon, I stepped away from my canvas long enough to take a call from my mother. I had to do it on my iPad because the iPhone was downstairs, and I dreaded it because I had never definitively located the pinprick in the tablet’s body for the microphone. For a long time, I’ve been speaking into the data port, like a dolt, which usually has elicited an exasperated question: “Are you in the car? You’re fading.” This time I found it at the top of the case, finally, and so comms via iPad have been established, once and for all, with reliable clarity.

“Well I finished The Bostonians,” she announced.

We’d been reading this book together in parallel over the past couple weeks. Despite the recent erosion of her vision, Mom still can use lenses to decipher a recipe if she can enlarge the typeface enough: she cooks her own corned beef, makes pasta with lobster, garlic and olive oil, pan-sears sea bass and serves my father a milk shake for lunch every Sunday. For decades they have lived there happily. In the past, they’ve been able to venture out to meet with friends for lunch or dinner, play golf, and spend the winter at their other condo in Florida. Now they leave the place only to buy necessities or visit a physician.

Yet this domestic normalcy doesn’t hold anymore. A cursory description of their life doesn’t reflect the daunting emotional struggle they face. My father has declined dramatically over the past three years, both physically and mentally, and my mother has only now, at 93, begun to show signs of memory lags—a hesitation in calling up a particular word or name—the little blips of aphasia I already notice in myself, dead pixels that wink out in the screen of memory and then light up after a while, or don’t. Physically, her only ailment has been macular degeneration and arteriosclerosis, requiring a stent earlier in the decade—triggering a reaction that sent her heart racing so fast she nearly died in her hospital bed until they found the medication needed to slow it down.

All that aside, Mom reads more books than I do. It’s her solace, her reward, both an escape and an engagement with narratives that give meaning and perspective to her own life. It’s the one thing she looks forward to in her day, the hour or two in bed after my father has fallen asleep when she can let a storyteller take her by the hand and lead her mercifully through someone else’s younger life. She spends all of her day, every day, caring for my disabled father, who has declined more and more rapidly, both physically and mentally, in his 90s as he wanders deeper into the waste of advanced age. His struggles are hers, though my brother and I live close enough to visit and help her through one crisis after another, or simply show up to do repairs and solve technology issues or fix equipment or, most often, take them to a medical appointment. Mom can’t see well enough to actually read the words on a page, unless they are dramatically enlarged on the computer screen, so she listens to voice-acted books downloaded from Audible. In the past, she always kept an eye on the Sunday Book Review, sampling best-sellers, and reading mostly classic American authors. Her syllabus through the years included all of Hemingway and his biographers. (She and my father had met Hemingway’s son, Jack, once in Sun Valley, and he told them he hadn’t read a word of his father’s novels and never would, which wasn’t a surprise, considering how Hemingway had abandoned him and his mother, Hadley, in Paris.) Over the years my mother has read books by Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt and Tom Wolfe, as well as one-off hits like All the Light We Cannot See, and has, in the past, eagerly consumed everything John Irving published, as well as dozens of other authors. Recently, she read Winesburg, Ohio, but couldn’t cotton to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The prose, which in The Great Gatsby has almost never been equaled, just put her off. She always preferred Papa. Having exhausted the available catalog of audible books by John Steinbeck, she now relies on me for suggestions. For example, I spotted a new Anne Tyler book in the Sunday review and downloaded it for her, but her reaction was that it felt like a sandwich and soup after the fine cuisine of James and Tolstoy

This past spring, I nominated Anna Karenina, because I’d decided that, while I paint, I would start listening to whatever she was “reading”, so that we could talk about what we think of it as we make our way through it. Tolstoy was one author I had neglected to read in my younger days, with the exception of his later essays and some of the longer stories. We both loved the novel, the sort of book that couldn’t be written now, given our culture. What followed were long discussions about the characters. I explained to her how Levin’s slow enlightenment, in parallel with Anna’s moral and psychological decline—they both confront suicidal urges with radically different outcomes—was a retelling of Tolstoy’s own harrowing spiritual journey. Levin is Tolstoy’s avatar, and what happens to him in the book is a fictional portrayal of the mental agony that led Tolstoy to discover a new interpretation of the New Testament, a fresh reading that ended up inspiring both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

She told me that as the end of the book neared she kept hoping for more and more chapters, she was so spellbound by Tolstoy’s world and the generosity of his vision. On the other hand, she has yet to finish Resurrection, partly because it bores her but mostly because Henry James has sauntered decorously into her path and, after four of his novels, addicted her to his voice. We started with Portrait of a Lady and made our way through The American and What Maisie Knew and now The Bostonians. I have a list of seven other novels, though I plan to spare her the complicated syntax of his final three great books. She was as ambivalent about the voice in What Maisie Knew as I was, and it was only a comparatively brief sample of the prose in The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. It’s easier to read than to listen to the incorporeal Jamesian sentences of those last novels, which seem to want to detach themselves from the physical world and feed the consciousness of his characters directly into the reader’s mind, like the umbilical data cables in The Matrix. He likes to pack a paragraph of thought and feeling into a sentence that feels as if it is constructed to make you forget how it started by the time you’ve arrived at the period.

I had finished The Bostonians an hour before my iPad played its little steel band ring tone riff.

“What did you think?” I asked. “I liked it. I think it ended exactly the way it should have.”

“I think so,” she said. “They did get together but he had that last comment about how she would be in tears again.”

“But you can see it’s true. He wants to silence her. He wants her at home, not in public.”

“I just couldn’t stand to see her end up with Olive. I was so disgusted with that woman.”

“Olive was a stalker. She was making money off Verena’s genius, wasn’t she? They all were. It wasn’t healthy.”

“I liked Basil.”

“I did too, but James gives you a pretty balanced look at what’s going to happen. Basil wants her to quit advocating for women and just be there for him. He said that she can go on speaking and using her talents, but only at the dinner table. She’s not going to be able to bear it. She’s in love with him, and I wanted her to marry him, but Ransom needs to wake up. James keeps you guessing what he thinks about the women’s movement back then—it was a sort of circus with all the other contemporaneous spiritual movements—but I think in the end he sympathizes with the idea that women need to be free and equal, just as the blacks in the south did. He brings up the parallel many times.”

“That’s fine, but what happens to the family?”

There was a personal stake in this conversation. My mother had chosen the traditional path: to be the business executive’s partner both at home and in society. And it had worked for them and for us, as sons: she was devoted to her kids. The challenges of raising us constituted all the fulfillment she needed in life. My father made enough to support all of us. Discussions around women’s liberation had taken place in our home while I was growing up, decades ago, and the dilemma is at the heart of what’s happening now in the lives of my children. My father was an advocate for feminism and my mother wasn’t opposed, but she distrusted the overreach she felt was built into it. She predicted that children would suffer.

It’s a question that is being raised and resolved again, in opposing ways, in our family right now. My wife was able to quit working for the early years of our children’s lives, just as my mother had done, but then Nancy went back into teaching full time. My son and daughter have worked many years in Los Angeles in the film industry. Christin suspended a Los Angeles career that took her through various positions at companies like New Line Cinema and Skydance after having her second child and is now happily exhausting herself as a full-time mother. Her simple justification: “Family comes first.” My son, Matthew, has worked for a decade cutting movie trailers at Seismic Productions, and his wife, after having their first child late last year, has decided to hire a nanny and return to her job with Ellen Degeneres. I’m watching from the sidelines to see how this works out—once Laura has a second child, I’m expecting she’ll have second thoughts about driving off to work every morning. Yet they won’t be able to survive without two incomes, having just bought a modest but astronomically-priced house in Encino. It’s a little ranch, squeezed between two others, with 2,000 square feet, no garage, no basement, of course, and a limited attic for storage. It’s just one step up from a starter home, at best, despite the price tag. The insanity of the economy we’ve been creating for the past decade troubles me. This is not going to end well, for the country. They have no choice but to have two careers. Feminism happens to serve the capitalist system quite well—because decades of wage stagnation have required both parties in a marriage to have careers now, and that’s a recipe for stagnant wages. Flood the market with labor and wages stall. As a result, single-incomes aren’t enough for most families.

“Well, I don’t think Henry James was thinking much about child-rearing, What Maisie Knew notwithstanding. In this case, he was just wondering if Verena’s talents will fester and create a lot of suffering for both of them. And how long are children around every day anyway? It’s only for a few years and then they’re off to school.”

“But they are home by three,” my mother said, essentially advocating for the choices she was able to make sixty years ago.

And so we debated a question that America settled decades ago: women need to have all the rights and opportunities as men, and children will be raised as best they can be despite the absence of one or both parents for much of the day. As it turned out, my mother was very happy and quite fulfilled without a career.

And now it’s my turn to juggle work and family, taking care of them, as they took care of me. This has become one of my most vital roles right now, when I put down a paint brush—and partly why I haven’t been contributing as readily to this blog. I’m working on a personally imposed deadline to complete three challenging paintings, and all the while my parents are requiring more and more assistance. I have been over at their condo for an hour or two, or three, every few days over the past few weeks. I had to lift my father off the bathroom floor last week, when he appeared to all of us to be dying. He had lost strength in his legs, stretched out on the tiles, gazing up at the ceiling with dazed eyes, and when I got there he was having trouble breathing, could hardly speak, and didn’t seem able to respond to questions. I managed to leverage him up by following my younger brother’s example from a previous mishap—slipping my arms under his, squatting behind him, locking my hands at his breastbone and then lifting his 160 pounds with my legs to the point where I could slide his butt onto the wheeled transport chair beside him. He had collapsed out of weakness from pneumonia in his right lung and an infected bladder—the outcome an episode a couple weeks earlier of incontinence. E coli was the villain. My brother showed up and called 911, and the paramedics got him on an IV, which helped restore some alertness, and took him to Highland Hospital.

It was the last thing any of us wanted. Hospital stays for anyone in the family consume your life, and my father hates those stays with the sorrow of a small child. My wife had had a life-threatening emergency with a strep infection in the spring, and I spent nearly a week driving to and from her room twice a day with food and supplies. In these situations, little work gets done: the concentration needed to paint or write can’t coil itself tightly enough to drive the momentum required for the flow I need. But there was no hesitation on my part: the ability to shift into this outer-directed gear has become second nature, directing my attention to something other than myself—the task at hand. I’ve been doing this for my parents so many years. I’ve surrendered to it, gratefully now. It’s the best thing I can possibly do with my time. There is no choice really, when you see what needs to be done—what is the only good thing to do. It becomes its own reward. So with our father, my brother and I spent several days commuting to and from the hospital, picking up our mother, spending time at his bedside, and then returning home to get in some hours of work, while the other brother drove to pick her up and take her home in the evening. This was only one incident in a long sequence of similar events, throughout the years since Dad turned 80. Somehow we are managing, thanks to my mother’s tenacity and strength and health, to keep them both out of a nursing home, though lately we’ve begun to wonder how long she’ll be able to cope with his deterioration.

One of the most crucial ways I’m trying to be there for my mother, through all this, is by reading these books along with her. As much as she and my father need our physical presence to solve myriad problems—I put in an hour trying to clear out the ductwork for her clothes dryer last week—these reading sessions are in some ways a life line. More and more she has no one to talk with her, since my Dad’s ability to converse about anything has become minimal. To talk about Tolstoy sustains her and revives her and gives her something to look forward to, both the act of listening to the stories and then the phone calls where we talk about them, in our little two-person book club. The key element in all of this is just the simple act of paying attention. Someone cares enough to engage in a half-hour conversation every day, listening to the challenges and pleasures of the past twenty-four hours. Everyone craves attention and so few other people are actually willing to give it: spouses, children, parents, friends, and employers. It’s surprising to discover that, these days, one of the best ways of getting focused attention from anyone is to call a Sears repairman or some independent plumber and simply enjoy how those hourly rates can inspire the most intense and helpful work on your problems that money can buy. You can get, along with it, some intelligent conversation—some of the liveliest talks I’ve had in recent years about nearly any current event or life predicament have been with some of these sharp and independent workers. It’s probably as good as psychological therapy, which is one other way to pay for the luxury of having someone else listen to your problems, looking for solutions. Bartenders, of course, are always a fallback.

As Iris Murdoch pointed out repeatedly, when you pay attention to someone or something you give up autonomy—you have to willingly submit your freedom to the service of something greater than whatever you feel like doing at any given moment. This is as true in my family life as it is in painting. It can be incredibly easy and unconscious, when you’ve done this so much that there’s no resistance to whatever needs to be done, but it can also be achingly difficult. Paying attention is risky: once you do it, you find yourself drawn against your will into an undertow of obligations to the task that has it’s own momentum, because you end up caring about the people you’re helping more than you did before you opened yourself up to their predicament. That momentum can be painful, a riptide that exhausts you if you fight against it psychologically. But if you give in to it, it can be a tail wind. The caring leads inevitably to the rededication of time and energy to someone else. That means sacrifice. But a sacrifice can also be a loss of weight, a lightening of one’s own load—you give up your attachment to what you think you want to do in order to do what you know you need to do. There’s buoyancy in it, if you let yourself go.

I’m learning from all this, learning about myself and about what matters in life. Every day I’m recognizing more clearly that to pay attention is the most fundamental human faculty, from which everything else springs. What means the most to both my father and mother is not that we solved the problem, but that my brother and I cared enough to show up and talk to them about it and try to help. The attention is what they crave more than anything. And as much as I remind others in the family that this is the case, being thousands of miles away makes them less and less able to show they care. It’s up to the two of us now. Everything else humanly possible grows out of paying attention, as Krishnamurti—and many others before him—observed in all of his lectures. It’s there at the root of every skill, every instance of learning, every meaningful human gesture, peak emotional moment, and pleasurable indulgence. Most of what I regret from my typical day can be traced to inattentiveness. Before all else, in painting, I have to pay attention. It’s both the first and last step, as that sage observed. Once I’ve done that, I have to pay even closer attention.

  1. No Comments