I picked up the blunt black crayon and started drawing shapes on the yellow construction paper.
“Remember when you showed me how to do this, dad? I was four years old, and you told me I could make anything I wanted to make.”
We were sitting in the common room of Home Life, an assisted living facility. It wasn’t home, and it wasn’t filled with family. But Home Life was a lovely place, only three miles from our home.
“All I could make that day was unrecognizable geometric shapes. And you told me they were beautiful, imaginative shapes all my own.” Dad continued to stare blankly at the table. Or maybe at the construction paper, or the shape I was drawing. Perhaps he was staring at nothing; blank eyes, no facial hint of emotion or recognition.
“Then you showed me how to trace around other things, and cut out those shapes. My weird, bumpy ovoids became lumpy circles. I couldn’t seem to keep my pencil next to the round lids all the way around. My polygons became squares.”
Dad turned away from me and the table and stared out the window at the Home Life grounds. The surrounding trees were painted vividly in autumnal colors. Burnt sienna, brilliant orange and yellow, fire engine red, several shades of green, and even a hint of blue here and there.
“Remember autumn, dad? You loved the fall, even though we had to rake a ton of leaves.” He continued to stare out the window. “And when I decided I hated fall because of all the raking, you told me how to make it fun. How to make all my chores fun.”
“Pretend the leaves are aliens, you said, relating the chore of raking to my love of science fiction. The aliens are coming for us, and we have to gather up all those on the ground before they mutate into zombies and attack us.”
I put my hand on dad’s shoulder. “That tactic worked for what? About ten minutes? Then I waved my magic wand, the rake, and turned all the aliens into dead leaves, telling you we were safe now, and I was going to go inside and have milk and cookies to celebrate.”
Dad turned his head to stare at my hand, then blankly at me. Then he looked at the table and the construction paper. Or at least in that general direction.
I cut out paper yellow leaves and started drawing on a brown piece of paper. The black crayon didn’t show up, so I switched to yellow.
“I remember the first crayons you bought me, dad. Eight different colors, two rows of four in one box. Do you remember those crayons? Or what I drew first with them?” He continued to stare in the direction of the brown paper.
“I drew a picture of you, me, and mom, standing outside our house on a sunny day. Stick figures, to be sure, but I knew the tallest one was you, the one with curly hair was mom, and I was the short stick figure standing between the two of you. One of my 3-fingered stick hands held yours, the other meshed with mom’s.”
Dad didn’t say anything, of course. He just turned to look out at the trees again. Or at least he looked at or through the window. I finished drawing and cutting out the brown leaves. I didn’t say anything else while I drew and cut out some red leaves. What could I say?
When only one of two people sitting at a table is saying anything, and the other doesn’t even know who is talking, it gets more and more difficult to carry on a useless monologue. Dad’s Alzheimer’s killed conversation on days like this. Or mangled it into bits and pieces when he felt like talking.
I looked at the left-over papers, filled with leaf-shaped holes. Not bothering to draw any more, I decided to cut out weird shapes; lumpy circles, and many-sided pseudo squares. I didn’t want to waste the paper. Dad looked on in silence.
With two pieces of paper left uncut, I chose to stop making leaves. On the pale blue sheet, I drew an outline of the first building I designed. The elegance and uniqueness of the Museum of Architecture were lost in the bulky, speckled lines of blunt crayon. The underlying color mimicked the multitude of glass surrounding the building, at least. Without reflections, however.
Dad looked at my latest drawing with the same blank gaze. He had his good days and his bad days.
“Just like you told me, dad. I learned to make whatever I wanted to make, training to become an architect.” Still just a monologue. He turned to look at or through the window again.
One piece of unused construction paper lay on the table. I pulled it over in front of myself, picked up the yellow crayon, and drew a somewhat circular shape near one corner, yellow crayon spirals spinning out from the center. With the black crayon, I drew several short, black lines radiating out from my crayon sun.
I didn’t need to use shapes for tracing any more. I drew a reasonably accurate representation of a simple house. Two straight vertical lines spaced widely apart, one long horizontal line across the top, two lines angling up, and a shorter horizontal line connecting them. My house had a roof now.
I drew a three-sided rectangle in the middle; the front door. Two small squares, bisected in each direction, provided windows. One jagged line of green across the bottom completed the house standing on grass.
It’s amazing how simple things can totally engage even the adult mind. My dad, the paper leaves, the brilliant foliage outside, all fell away. I was lost in the act of creation.
Human figures were still beyond my skill, so I added a tall stick figure, with a hat. I drew a shorter stick figure, with curls on top, a little over an inch to the side. Then I added a smaller figure between those two, 3-fingered hands connecting to the tall shape with the hat and the medium shape with the curls. I paused, moving my finger and the crayon off to the side of the paper.
Dad’s finger stretched out and tapped the figure with the curly hair. “Julie,” he whispered hoarsely. I looked at him. Twin lines of moisture tracked down his cheeks as he looked back at me, pain reflected in his watery eyes. Julie, my mother, succumbed to cancer six months before dad fell victim to Alzheimer’s. “My wife. She died.”
I nodded, my own eyes started to leak. I don’t know if I looked happy, sad, or simply confused. I hated bringing painful memories back, but I loved hearing his voice.
H moved his hand over to the drawing of my Museum. He pointed at the building. “Museum.” Then he picked up a pair of the paper leaves, one yellow and one red. “Leaves.” He smiled. I cried, a very wide grin splitting my face, and I nodded an emphatic yes. Then dad looked at me again.
“My wife Julie died.” He frowned. “I wish I could tell her again how much I loved her. How much I still love her.”
“She knows, dad. She knows.”
He held up the light blue paper, with my Museum on it. “My son designed the Museum of Architecture.” He smiled. “I am so very proud of him. And I love him so much. I should tell him how I feel.”
“I’m sure he knows, dad.”
He gave me a wistful look and smiled. “You remind me a lot of my son.”
“You remind me of my father.”
I hugged him, and he almost hugged me back. Then he turned to look out the window again. “He hated raking leaves, my son did. I hope he knows how much I love him.”
“He does, dad. I do. And I love you, too.”
I told him goodbye. As I turned and headed for the door I heard him say “I think I’ll give him a call.” When I reached for the door handle, my cell phone rang. As I answered it, I turned back to look at him. He held his phone up to his ear, as he stared out the window at the leaves.
“I love you, son.” I heard his voice through my phone.
“I love you too, dad.”