A portfolio of photos laid open on my desktop as I clicked through the next set of acne-ridden faces in need of touchups. Parents paid a $19.99 up-charge to have their children’s imperfections eliminated. Puberty sucked for everyone, but as a slight kid growing into an adult that I didn’t want to be, it was particularly awful for me. While I was more comfortable in my skin, my job removing the defects of others didn’t satisfy the need to create that was slowly suffocating inside me.
I was sitting in my home office, which was also my kitchen table, when my phone rang. “Hello, is this Alex Miller?”
No, it wasn’t. “This is Alexandrea,” I said as a minor act of rebellion. The only people who called me ‘Alex’ were from my past, and I had no interest in knowing them.
The caller sighed and then began again. “This is Richard Flick, your father’s agent. I am afraid I have some bad news.”
I had known Richard for years. He had been my father’s agent since I was in high school, when my father gained some success. Richard explained my father was dying, and I needed to return home to deal with the ‘details,’ which included my father’s long-term care (however short that may be), the estate, and his life’s work. My father was an artist, one of the rarest types: he was successful before he died. Richard explained my father had pancreatic cancer and only had a short time to live. He couldn’t explain why my father didn’t call me himself.
I hated to admit it, but my father was incredibly talented. He had people, a reputation, and fans. Other artists fought for coveted internships, allowing them the notoriety to go on in their careers as students of Michael B. Miller. It wasn’t that I didn’t respect his talent or that I couldn’t learn from him. It was that there was no air left in the room for any art that wasn’t my father’s. I didn’t want to sculpt, even if I had inherited his talent for it. The medium of metal was lacking in movement and vibrance and took a long time to complete the multiple steps. I needed the immediacy of color in my life to paint and tell stories through those images. I rejected the monotone structures of Michael B. Miller and, for a while, sought vibrancy in design, fashion, and art. But with my independence also came a need to survive, and work slowly replaced passion while fear inhibited finding community.
“I am sorry, but I don’t see what this has to do with me. Surely, he has enough money to pay for a nurse or to put him in a home,” I said.
I tried to conjure a tear, but none came. He was my father in name only, abandoning me in every way except for the minimal child support the courts required and 18 years’ worth of summer breaks that my mother insisted I spend with him. I could hardly blame them, especially in high school; navigating puberty and growing up in my father’s shadow, not to mention struggling with my identity, was a miserable experience. I didn’t want to be around me any more than they did. It wasn’t until I was 18 and desperate to impress my father that I studied under him.
“Your father has decided to end treatment and spend the rest of his time at home. He has 24-hour home health care. Unfortunately, his days are numbered.”
“Dick, can I call you that?” I asked.
“Fine, Richard. You know our history. He hates me.”
There was another sigh and a longer pause. “He’s dying. Please do not delay.”
My father didn’t accept me, so I didn’t accept him, which was how we existed in the world. And yet, there was a hole in my soul. My mother died suddenly three years ago. My relationship with her was strained, but at least we were cordial. I was now 32 years old, and in a matter of weeks, I would be an orphan, and that felt even more lonely than I usually felt. On the other hand, my father’s death eased the ache of abandonment that ate at me. This would be my only opportunity to meet him on my terms, to show him I didn’t need his approval.
# # #
“What the hell are you doing here?” my father asked as I walked into his studio. They had set a hospital bed up in his studio on the first floor of his massive house, which sat on a slight rise overlooking the lake. The curtains were drawn, which gave the room a sullen, stagnant feel. He was surrounded by books he’d never again read, framed sketches of his sculptures about to double or triple in value, and windows that, when opened, displayed the view of the lake my father built the house to showcase.
I had taken the red-eye from New York and felt off-kilter, unsure if it was from lack of sleep or from being thrust into my past’s familiar yet haunting setting. “Nice to see you too, Dad.”
Dad chuckled but then exhaled, a long gasping breath, like it taxed him. “So, they told you I’m dying?”
I nodded and pulled a curtain open, flooding the room with morning sun, a rarity in the Pacific Northwest.
My father squinted and turned his head from the light. “So Alex, did you come to say goodbye — or just to tell me I could go fuck myself?”
“Alexandrea.” I glared at him. He was a shell of the man I once knew—at least 50 pounds lighter, bald and ashen. I took a deep breath. I was here for closure, whether or not he wanted to give it. “I’m just here to say goodbye.”
“Fine, I’ll make it easy on you. Thanks for stopping by. Go with god. Be happy. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”
Tears pricked and welled, blurring the room. This was what I got for hoping he’d ever accepted me. I hated him. He was selfish and narcissistic, and I knew better. I had hoped that he would see, on his deathbed, that my life had value even if it didn’t look like he thought it should. I folded my arms over my chest, pressing my fingernails painfully into the skin on the backs of my arms. “Go fuck yourself, you miserable….”
“Enough!” Stella interrupted.
We both straightened. Stella had been my father’s housekeeper and cook for as long as I could remember. “Alex, leave him be,” Stella ordered. She had left East Germany, but it never left her. Stella was a stern, miserable woman and always had been. She scared both of us more than either of us would admit.
I considered telling her again that my name was Alexandrea, but Stella had already pulled the curtains closed and returned to the kitchen. I narrowed my eyes at my father and left him.
I sat at the kitchen counter as Stella slid a plate in front of me. It held three fried eggs, the whites so undercooked they were clear and runny, three links of sausage, and white toast with butter smeared so heavily it puddled in the craters. It was a miracle that my father hadn’t succumbed to heart disease before cancer got him.
“Eat,” Stella ordered.
“Stella, I don’t eat any of this. I am still a vegan.”
Stella raised an eyebrow, walked to the freezer, and pulled out a bag of frozen corn. She maintained eye contact with me as she threw it down on the chopping block and slashed the bag with a meat cleaver. Then poured the frozen corn kernels on top of the breakfast she had prepared.
So Stella hadn’t changed.
“Why are you angry at me?” I asked. “I’m not the asshole that is refusing treatment and being dick about it.”
“No, you are the asshole that can’t get out of your own way. Jesus—you are just like him.”
“I’m nothing like him,” I said, anger roiling through me.
“You know how he is. What did you expect? Your father is a brilliant man. He thinks the art, he lives the art. This is how brilliant men are. You expect too much.”
Stella’s loyalty was to my father, and she was probably hurting worse than anyone else, but she shouldn’t take it out on me. Stella had been caring for my father for years, enabling his poor behavior because of his talent and success. She had to believe in the persona he and his people created, but I didn’t.
“Stella, I know you think he walks on water, but so help me… you work for him, and when he is gone, you….”
“What? You’ll fire me? You can’t. I work for the foundation, not him, and not you.”
My father started a foundation to provide funding for small groups of interns that studied under him, much like I once had. The interns lived in bunk houses behind the house, creating their own work while working on his catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive listing of all his work.
He was a well-known artist and was paid ridiculous amounts for his massive sculptures. The art world celebrated him. They raised him up on a platform and fed his ego. His interns were extensions of his arrogance, and his catalogue raisonné proved the value of his life’s work. Several of his pieces were on loan to museums or in galleries, with price tags that further inflated his self-importance.
# # #
Turpentine and plaster dust lay thick and heavy in the warm morning air. My father’s studio was huge and comprised of several rooms on the bottom floor of the house. They placed his hospital bed in a corner. I supposed he lived and breathed art, and he’d also want to die in it. The rest of the studio held every art supply one could possibly need along with his drawing table still holding a sketchpad waiting for the next piece that would never come. Artwork filled the rest of the space in varying degrees of completion. My father sculpted, almost exclusively in the abstract, first in clay, then in plaster, and finally in bronze. He used form, shape, and lines planned out and often in series, changing minor elements with each new piece. His art was measured and intentional, unlike the broad and reckless strokes that he colored people with.
“You know how to make an entrance,” Richard said from the patio door to Dad’s studio.
I had left my father less than an hour ago, and Richard was already sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Richard’s hair was more grey, and he was heavier now, probably from years of Stella’s cooking, and it showed under expensive cashmere sweaters and linen trousers. Richard still wore the same fancy shoes he always had.
“He’s really dying. How long does he have?” I asked, not looking up.
“A week, maybe,” he said, stepping into the space.
I set the canvas down and faced him. “You didn’t think to ask him if he wanted to see me before you told me to come out?”
“He might not say it, but he does. You know he’s leaving all of it to you. The art collection, the foundation, and the property.”
“What if I don’t want it?”
Richard shrugged. “You could sell it. The catalog is done, all the inventory is there. But if you sell it all at once, it will flood the market, devaluing the work, and eat into your profit.” He shrugged again, almost looking like he didn’t care. “You’d make out okay. You could upgrade your crappy apartment, quit your job photoshopping zits from kids’ faces. And keep on being miserable and wasting your talent.”
“Screw you, Dick.”
“Right back at you, Alex.”
# # #
For a week, my father and I existed with little interaction. The home health nurses came and went, administering the morphine drip that kept him sleeping most of the time.
Except for Richard and Stella, no one came to see him. He was in varying states of consciousness, and it didn’t feel right to leave him to die alone. So I sat in his room and suffered through the awkward recognition that no one but I, the estranged child who had returned, who was no longer his son but certainly not his daughter, seemed to care that he was dying.
I was relieved that neither of his two living ex-wives came to visit. My father was as shitty of a husband as he was a father. It was a miracle I was his only child, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a few illegitimate children surfaced now that his estate and collection might be in play.
There wasn’t much for anyone to do but wait. I tried to talk to my father, make him see I liked who I was, that we didn’t have to be like this, but each time, he pressed the little red button and floated into morphine oblivion. The days passed in a fog of upended routines. My father was no longer lucid and slept in a drug-induced evasion while I fought to come to terms with our past.
Returning to the house on the lake was both a privilege and a penance, a retreat to a home that was never mine. I rolled my neck, shaking off the feeling of danger. I knew I was safe here, far from the small-minded bigots of my adolescence and the one in the bed in the studio downstairs.
He was dying, but to the art community, he would live on, celebrated for his contribution to the art world, but never condemned for his faults. I was like him once, creative and so caught up in the production of art that impressed gallery owners and critics. But the weight of his genius rested on me, and so did his sins.
I needed to leave his house, escape his shadow, and transition into a version of me that was not only physically an expression of my true self, but to create art in that reflection. It was the right choice for me then, even though the consequences rippled through our relationship. Now, as I sat in the comfortable, three-thousand-dollar chair I pulled in from the living room, I considered my options. I wasn’t the same person I was when I left. We fought, him refusing to understand and me refusing to relent. Now, I was comfortable in my skin, and shame no longer defined me. But I wasn’t living a full life. I wasn’t creating the work, expressing who I was and still wanted to be. I was lonely, living alone in a cramped apartment. My job paid the bills but offered no social life. I needed art and community, and until now, I’d been hiding from both.
The only noise in the room was the quiet hiss of the oxygen tank and my father’s slow, dragging breaths. He didn’t stir and didn’t even open his eyes. His breaths had come slower and slower throughout the afternoon. The nurse said it wouldn’t be much longer. Richard said his goodbyes that afternoon and hadn’t been back. Stella came to his side as she did every evening, straightened his blanket, gave one solemn nod, and left.
My father was a lost soul, broken and lonely. I hated to admit it, but he was similar to the person I was just a few weeks ago. I had retreated, blaming others for the isolation I insisted upon. It was my fear of what others thought that kept me in the shadows. Looking at my father’s life draining away, surrounded by the art that he substituted for relationships. He had built walls around his need to connect, forged of metal and lacking warmth. I then realized I didn’t want to be that person anymore.
Moving quickly, knowing what I needed to do, hoping I would be back before his last breath, I collected the bare minimum of what I needed: a canvas, a handful of brushes, and as many tubes of paint as I could carry. I slid the chair out of the way and set the canvas up against the end of his bed. I was lost, wondering, but what I found in this home that was never mine was not the bigotry but the freedom to be creative. I may never trust others, but I knew I could trust myself.
In long sweeping movements, I let the tears fall. I spread the paint across the canvas, deep hues of blue and gold. Soon the brushes weren’t enough, and I abandoned them, using my fingers, then my entire hand to spread the paint. And in doing so, in letting myself feel the pain, the betrayal, and the fear; a picture, clear in its intent and sacred, came into being. As I looked up at my father, my hands smeared with paint, I realized that his chest no longer moved, and I no longer needed his acceptance because I had my own.