It seems like yesterday that I held his hand and told him it was okay to let go. That we would all be fine. Our lives were set on a sure and promising trajectory, thanks to his years of love, sacrifice, and guidance.
The hospice nurse told me that hearing is often the last sense to go. I believed her because as I reminisced with my dying father, his eyebrows would raise occasionally.
He seemed to acknowledge and understand each revisited memory. Unable to speak and cocooned in that protective coma, his mind could still access my words. Their meaning. And the difficult message that it was okay to cross over the veil.
The facade of immunity
Obituaries are instructive if we take the time to read them. They contain the full constellation of human experiences. From young love and marriage to work, family, legacy and the final struggles of aging.
A few years before I lost my father we strolled the cemetery where he had bought a plot. “Johnny, look at all these headstones. Each one is a story,” he said to me. “So many lives. Marriages, mortgages, children raised. Promotions, demotions. Dreams met, others lost.”
My father was an administrative law judge. A historian, bibliophile, and polymath. In early adulthood, I began to truly appreciate his wisdom and insights. That day in the cemetery he conveyed an important message: None of us are immune from death.
I remember seeing a man in the distance, standing with flowers above a gravestone. I wondered what he was thinking.
“Don’t fear your mortality, because it is this very mortality that gives meaning and depth and poignancy to all the days that will be granted to you.” — Paul Tsongas
Youth and good health create the facade of immunity. We think we’ll live forever. But as the years pass and our bodies succumb to the vicissitudes of aging, we begrudgingly accept reality. We are mortal and will die someday.
What matters is how we live our lives.
I remember better when I paint
PBS aired a fascinating documentary about Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Specifically, how they come alive when given the opportunity to create art. Here’s a short video from the documentary.
As one expert in the video states, “The creative arts are an avenue to tap into a non-verbal, emotional place in a person.” The documentary further explains that “People still have imaginations intact all the way to the very, very end of their progressive disease.”
“The medical profession has come a long way in recognizing the healing benefits of art. My hope is that someday the arts will be considered as significant in everyone’s lives as breathing fresh air, eating clean foods, and performing physical exercise.” — Renée Phillips
The documentary illustrates the awakening of one woman who seems permanently lost in the fog of dementia. And yet, with the patience of a young artist, the woman slowly emerges from her cognitive decline and begins to create art. She starts to express herself artistically. She unveils a deeper expression, beyond the parameters of normal conversation.
Portal to the soul
In an essay titled “Why The Arts Are Key To Dementia Care,” writer Anne Basting notes:
“How can we stay connected and foster what has come to be called the ‘personhood’ of someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s?
The answer is the arts.
A symbolic and emotional communication system, the arts don’t rely on linear memory and rational language. Rather, the arts engage our intuition and imagination. Their building blocks for expression are movement, gesture, words, patterns, sounds, color, rhythm, texture, and smell — to name just a few. As the access to rational language falters, a person’s imagination can soar.”
In another article titled “Art Therapy And Dementia-How Creativity Helps Unlock Alzheimer’s Patients’ Thoughts and Fears,” the following observation is shared:
“Art therapy is helpful for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients,’ said Dr. Daniel Potts, neurologist, and dementia specialist in Alabama, ‘because it enables an individual who is having trouble communicating to bypass the language problems they may be having and communicate and express themselves in a different way.”
“It gives an individual a sense of accomplishment,’added Potts. ‘They’re losing their cognition, but art therapy gives them a way to create and get some satisfaction. It allows their true self to be expressed when it otherwise can’t.”
In essence, the mind may be faltering but artistic expression miraculously remains. Perhaps the creative arts are the final portal to our souls?
Your creative spirit will save you
As creative people, we spend a lot of time anguishing over our art, writing, success, recognition, and legacy. We fiddle with our websites, enlist social media, wrestle with our creative compulsions and soldier on.
We have little choice. Our creative expression must be released. At times our artistic efforts bring great satisfaction. On bad days, we experience deep frustration. Such is the path of an artist.
“Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?”― Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay
My father was a weekend oil painter. His full-time devotion was to the law, history, books and intellectual pursuits. Yet I remember the cartoons he used to leave in my grade school lunch box.
Those amusing caricatures, jokes, and notes of encouragement. I also cherish the oil paintings he left behind, that hang to this day in my home.
I like to think that in the twilight of my father’s last days, beyond the logic of law and ordered thoughts, it was his creative spirit that comforted him. Perhaps my colorful memories of summer and past vacations caused his eyebrows to dance. Maybe that artful muse lay beside him, caressed his face and said, “Rest now. You have lived, loved, worked and created things of beauty.”
Beyond love, I believe the greatest gift is our creative spirit. She dances with us, even in the throes of Alzheimer’s and fragility of old age. She will accompany us beyond the indignities of infirmity, to the ultimate mysteries of living and dying.
It is our creative spirit, that gentle lifelong companion, that will save us in the end.
(Article adapted from “How Your Creative Spirit Will Save You” in my book “An Artful Life- Inspirational Stories and Essays for the Artist in Everyone.”)
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Get my free weekly newsletter here.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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Illustrations by John P. Weiss