The Painting of You
By William Michaelian
Author’s Press Series Volume 1; $10.00, paper
Long before we knew the term “Alzheimer’s Disease” we knew the signs. We called it senility, dementia, forgetfulness. I remember going to see my great-grandmother, then in her eighties, and finding half-eaten hamburgers in her cupboards with the clean plates. I remember another great-grandparent who spent all of her time in a single twin bed, staring at the ceiling, her lips gently moving as if speaking to someone up there. Her eyes were twin vacant holes, the pupils large and black, nearly blotting out the colored iris. Sometimes she would turn her head and stare directly into my six year old face, and it scared me, the emptiness, the lack of anything there, the body still animated, but the mind vanished, or vanquished by an invisible disease.
Alois Alzheimer gave us the technical name for how we lose our loved ones, piece by piece, to a disintegrating mind. He was a German neurologist who lived 1864-1915, and it is for him the disease was named in 1907. But names and pathologies do not help us when faced with loss. They do not mitigate the grief of the family, and the stress and crushing weight of caring for one whose mind has fragmented and floated away.
William Michaelian, in his new book, The Painting of You, takes us on a journey as he cares for his mother who suffers from the disease. His mixture of poetry and prose is rich and evocative, the kind of writing that does not lose itself in sentimentality but nevertheless inspires a deeply emotional response in the reader.
The book is organized chronologically, like a journal, and begins as Michaelian must spend more and more time each day at his mother’s home, amongst family heirlooms, photographs, and artifacts of his history. It is a poignant irony that even as she remembers less, Michaelian must remember more, realizing that memory can be handed down from one generation to another, and that part of his responsibility is not only to care for his parent, but become the guardian of her memories.
“Now she is eighty-three,” he writes in the opening entry, “and the sunlight on her face remembers me. / It remembers the boy I have been and will never be again, caresses the lines / and fences with eyes blind to my disgrace, inscribes a message on the wind, / seeks, blesses, grieves, attends, ceaseless in its toil, eager to begin…” The light is fading on her, and the son finds he must bear witness to the decline and watch over her gradual dissolution.
Mixed in with his poetic ruminations, Michaelian includes memories and reflections on his own half century on earth. He describes his origins as a writer, his days in the fertile soil of central California, the powerful symbolism of the vineyard, the farmlands, the heat and dust. We see “pumpkins and a field of corn, / Melons, apples, gourds, an ancient wooden trailer / With buckets of bright chrysanthemums.”
Entries include poetry, journal writing, dream reflection, and much of it has appeared in the writer’s other books, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, and on his websites williammichaelian.com and Recently Banned Literature. (I have written previously about his work on this blog.)
Michaelian brings us to new realizations and revelations, often about the commonplace and ordinary, but he makes us see the world differently. This is a writer who always makes even the mundane poetic. His writing is haunting and sensory, addressing simple things in a profound way.
One such entry in this book is “From Common Objects, Hidden Dreams: A Daily Journal,” where he writes of his mother’s dish towels that were a gift from Michaelian’s grandmother to her daughter just after his parents’ marriage in 1943. “In other words,” he writes, “my mother is using sixty-two-year-old towels.” He goes on to catalogue the other things she has from that time: measuring cups, bread pans, clocks, canning implements, tea sets, tables, and pictures. He calls her house a museum, and his mother, in more lucid moments, asks him if she has too many pictures on the walls. When he suggests she remove some and asks which he should take down, she smiles. “None of them, of course,” he writes. “None of them, forever and ever, as long as the two of us shall live.” This launches Michaelian into the poetry of reflection: “Generations watch and listen from their places on the wall. Armenians, Swedes, lunatics. Farmers, poets, revolutionaries. Angry, happy, surprised, proud. In the dark of night, their remembered spirits leave the frames and drift about the rooms.”
The book builds to a breaking point: Michaelian finds himself exhausted with the demands of caring for her. His sleep-deprived body aches, his family suffers, the stress begins to threaten his health. His mother is aware of the progression of her disease, and one morning at breakfast tells him: “You know, I just realized something. It dawned on me that I’m never going to get better, and that I’m really just dying—and too slowly.” It is a heart-rending moment between mother and son. “Such sudden logic,” he writes, “from someone who almost always has difficulty telling the time.”
So the ending is inevitable, and Michaelian must seek care for his mother in a facility that can deal with her degenerative state. “I’ll never forget my mother’s face / at the window as I drove away / from the nursing home.” After all the days, we reach the end, and nothing can soothe the departure. From his final entries in The Painting of You, we see that this decision and his eventual taking-over of his mother’s home as his own were difficult days for the writer. He is the keeper of the museum now until the day comes when he must pass the torch to his children and grandchildren.
In The Painting of You, he speaks of what is lost, the joy of living, the pain of regret, the desperation of fading memories. Michaelian describes how memory is a fluid thing, passed from parent to child. It is in this transmission, this thread that runs through the ages, that we discover who we are, what led to this moment, and life is reduced to its most important elements: family, love, the joy and heartbreak of being alive. This is the moment we hear the whispers of history, when the ghosts sit down with us and tell us stories. In the immense darkness of a winter’s night, he evokes the disappearing world of his mother, memories of life and family, the delicate smoke of dreams. His words are profound, rich, elemental, the poetry of history, the sepia-toned mystery of who we are, what we have lost, and what we must never forget.
Addendum: Thanks to sanjeev for adding on as a follower to The Teacher's View.
*Update: William Michaelian's second book in the Author's Press Series has now been released. You can order the book here. The specifics are as follows:
No Time To Cut My Hair
By: William Michaelian
Author's Press Series Volume 2; $12.00, paper
Also available as an e-book