Wednesday, 28 October 2009

At my Father's: cutting a figure


He is ill, small and frail in his armchair. He is in pain, a pain that has taken him by surprise. We are visiting him, having driven up to London on my first free day for a good while. He himself remarks how small he is. He has lost weight. We talk an hour and a half or so. He tells us what he has been through and how things seem to stand. It is not a complete or fully orderly account. I watch his hands. I am shocked to find myself thinking, 'Nosferatu hands. When did he get those?'

In the picture above he is newly married. He is a survivor, as is she. What they have survived has cast a permanent shadow on them but in the photograph they are happy, relieved, in love. They possess a certain vigour and voluptuousness. And yet now, when I look at them as they were, I feel younger than they were then. But that is because I now know him to be old - ninety-two to be exact - and because I don't feel old. Like him, I think of myself as someone young. He thinks of himself as someone young to whom age has happened out of the blue, much as pain has happened: I think of myself as someone young to whom age is waiting to happen. What will happen is a little like what I see in front of me. But that won't happen to me, not exactly.

We ought to see life as a shape that comprehends the entirety of our years, as if what we were contemplating were some perfect median, as if time were not linear but a three dimensional package, its three-dimensions forming a body: our body. Our body-mind-spirit. Our passage. The young always see the old as having been old from the start. The very fact of them having been young so long ago means that they have always been old.

There are moments when I think I can see the shape of my life as a shape, I don't mean progress, I don't mean career. I mean a shape. An incomplete shape, maybe no more than the ghost of a shape. It is, nevertheless, oddly cheering and miraculous to perceive a shape. One ought, after all, to be able to perceive shapes. Poets perceive shapes, don't they? That is what they are supposed to be good at.

Well, I will carry on trying to be good at it. My father will carry on sitting in the armchair. Then he will lie down in his bed and try to keep his food down. And he will get up in the morning and sit in the chair again. I wonder if it is harder for him at his age to see the shape of his life? Everything seems hard for him at the moment. Maybe it is the writer's responsibility to read and render that shape in language, a shape that isn't entirely a story but a kind of median that contains all the hard things yet cuts a figure in space as much as in time.

1 comment:

dana said...

The suddenness of this decline still surprises me. I saw it in my grandparents. One day cleaning the house, next day in the hospital with a broken leg, and on down, on skids, to the end. I suppose it's just as shocking when it happens to you. Each year I tell my parents, you have to keep it going for 10 more years! Now waiting for mother-in-law, turning 84 the day before my birthday, still living alone, to go next. Here's hoping the non-existent US elder care system doesn't eat her alive.

What a gorgeous photograph. The gentle happiness, loving gesture, and awareness are all there. Her face has a porcelain doll quality.