the four ages of man
Allan, detail, oil on linen, 20″ x 40″
About five months ago, I received a call from a friend of mine. “Kevin, It’s Vincent and Cecilia. We;re calling with some news, it’s about our friend, Allan.” Allan’s face was very familiar to me, he was always sure to come by my small, local exhibitions. Once I exhibited paintings in my house, filling even the garage with my recent works. Weaving and wending his way through the crowd, Allan spent an hour, poring over each detail, smiling a congratulatory smile when he stumbled across a brushstroke he approved of. “Well Kevin, I just have to let you know that Allan is very sick. In fact, Allan only has a few months left to live.” I didn’t know what to say, and so I remained quiet. “Kevin, you might know that Allan is himself an artist, and I own a few of his paintings. And, Allan has always had the dream of studying painting with you. I know your semester is already underway, but would you possibly be able to squeeze him into any of your classes?” I immediately assured Vincent that Allan was welcome into any class he chose.
When Allan first came to the studio, I was struck by two things. Though Allan was always a vigorous, award winning athlete, I could see that his once limber frame had been greatly depleted by his struggle with cancer. But juxtaposed with his weakened body was his brilliant face, his steady eyes, a gaze which had not only been unaffected by the cancer, but had ironically acquired a new strength. He slowly made his way along, his walker in front of him, his mouth in a soft, half smile. Mary, his ever present companion and wife, affectionately called “Mom”, carefully guided him along, helping him navigate the two steps down into the studio. “Careful, careful Dad, easy, watch it.” “Okay, Mom, I got it. I got it!”
The weeks went by, and Allan slipped into the classes seamlessly. He produced some beautiful drawings of our figure model, Becky, and even began a painting of Becky on a bike, leaning against the wall of the studio. His daughter Amy came to the studio, and he did a beautiful head and shoulders sketch of her, looking to the side. As Allan went along, something interesting happened. He got stronger. He looked healthier. He seemed more in command of his body. And then I realized that, among other things, these classes were buoying his spirits. We would pass three hours at a time, laughing, talking, joking. He would paint for three hours on Thursday morning, return home for a nap, and join me for another three hours of painting in the late afternoon and evening. I was delighted to see him grow as an artist, and yet Vincent’s words remained with me- Allan had a timeline.
Having spent the day painting with my students and Allan, I returned home one evening. I wasn’t troubled, but I was preoccupied with thoughts of Allan. Here this man was, eighty one years old, who had just come into my life as a friend. Allan was passing on soon, and I wanted to paint him. Upon asking Allan to sit for a portrait, he paused and then looked me square in the eye. He then said “I’ll let you know tomorrow.” The very next morning, he entered my studio and said “Kevin, I’d like to sit for that portrait.” We began immediately.
From the beginning, I was faced with various challenges. Would Allan’s health remain stable? Would I be able to get his likeness down in time? I was so impressed with the person of Allan, but what if, in these final moments of his life, Allan were to truly dislike the painting? Could I pull off such a large composition in such a short time? I had as many reasons to not paint the portrait as I could imagine. But I knew that this was simply my ever present cowardly side, trying to run from something great. I began to paint. My hands moved quickly, my eyes flashed back and forth. Top of his head, bottom of his chin. Left ear, right ear, the peculiar line of his eyebrows, running down t0 his nose. In just minutes, the painting looked as inspired as any work ever done by a blind, inebriated elephant with a paintbrush in its trunk. Sheesh, I thought- just gotta keep working. And so I kept working.
Though Allan was ordinarily very quiet, he began to talk. And as he began to talk, I became wholly immersed in his conversation, so much so that I forgot I was painting. I forgot my concerns. I never knew it, but Allan was a master story teller, with the ability to transport. The Irish have a word, seanchai, which means a historian and a story teller. And so the seanchai carried the the day along, his gentle narration wholly absorbing. He described his youth, how he spotted Mary across the college campus, asked her out through a third party, and was married to her just a few years later. A few months after their wedding, the U.S. government sent him abroad to Guam, as part of the post Korean Conflict troops stationed there. He had a true gift in tennis, and managed to play his way through the ranks of the navy. His victories brought him up and up, until the final rounds of the tennis matches brought him home to the final rounds of the tennis finals in Washington D.C. His tennis instruction was widely acknowledged in the world of sports, even landing him a wonderful article in the New York Times. A while later, in a job interview at Bay Shore public school, an administrator asked Allan what type of teaching position he envisioned himself in. “English” was Allan’s reponse. But the administrator probed him for more, and then declared “Allan, you are a story teller. You have a gift for bringing your listeners along for the journey. You would be an excellent history teacher.” And so, Allan spent several decades teaching history at Bay Shore public schools.
By day six, the painting was looking great. I could write very little on this blog, as I didn’t want to violate Allan’s trust, in speaking about his illness. One morning, as I readied my paints and brushes, awaiting Allan, I realized that something was wrong with the painting. The hand was wrong. Allan arrived, and made his way down the steps, his walker in front of him, his movements slow and frail. A bag hung from the side of his walker, and as he moved, it suddenly shifted- and the bag began to fall off the walker. Then, like lightning, Allan’s hand snapped out and snatched it midair, before the bag even made it to the floor. It was astonishing. And then I suddenly realized- Allan is vigorous, incredibly athletic, and the hand in his painting needed to have more vitality. Before he even settled into his seat, I was already scrubbing the canvas with steel wool and turpentine, removing the old hand quickly. We spent the next three hours painting the new hand.
Day seven came, and Allan did not look well. He seemed like he was in pain. I worked on his hand more, refining various aspects. He brought along a cd of old gospel hymns, and as I painted, we listened to “Amazing Grace”, and “The Old Rugged Cross.” Tears came to Allan’s eyes. He was in pain, it was time to stop painting. I asked Allan if I could pray for him. As I placed my hand on his shoulder, he agreed with me in prayer. I called Mary, and she came and picked him up. As Mary and Allan pulled away from the building, I knew it was the last time he would be able to make it to my studio.
The next day, I set out to finish up the remaining unfinished area of the canvas. I set up the tennis racket. I began to paint, without Allan. It was a hard day for me.
In the midst of all of this, Margaret and I were counting down the days until the arrival of our baby. Margaret and I would visit Allan and Mary, Margaret’s belly swelled nine months pregnant. We sat on the couch, we talked about history. Allan was a gifted landscape painter, he showed me his beautiful seascapes, brimming with color and force. His paintings of his family, on Fire Island beaches. We slowly navigated the backyard, and Allan and Mary gave us a tour of their exquisite, Colonial Williamsburg inspired gardens, built with their own hands. As I watched Allan slowly maneuver his walker, and as Margaret waddled back and forth alongside, the joy of the arriving child commingled with the pain of Allan’s passing, like light and shadow flowing over form. After a confident day’s work at the studio, I brought over the painting and placed it in Allan’s kitchen. He carried it triumphantly to the very center of his house, removed from the wall the former centerpiece painting above the dining room table, placed my painting, and praised the portrait for the rest of the evening. Mary was speechless. Allan’s children came over, and thanked me. Vincent and Cecilia were pleased..
As is to be expected, the next few days we experienced the anxious, overwhelming expectation that comes with a pending childbirth. The day finally came, and we rushed off to the emergency room. The baby arrived in just a few hours, and I held another boy in my arms. But the doctors informed me that Margaret had encountered some problems.
The next few days were the most difficult days of my life. There is no close second to even compare these days to. Margaret was very sick, and several times we raced back and forth between home and emergency room. We ran through a hospital parking lot in a horrific storm, at midnight, newborn Quinlan in my arms, Margaret clutching her back. After a few hours, I went home and passed of my baby to my brother Sean, and he watched the newborn for the next couple of days. Serious tests were performed. I sat in a chair, beside her bed, for several days in the hospital. And many times I thought to myself, “Allan told me that he went through terribly difficult things. He simply carried on, minute by minute, day by day. And he hoped.” Time passed, minute by minute. I never felt towards any person what I felt towards my wife, as I rested my head on her shoulder. Ultimately, after much debate, a procedure was performed on Margaret, and the situation was rectified. Having returned home, Margaret was still in significant pain from the procedure. The doctors said that it would be a while before she fully recovered. Liam and Evan came home, Quinlan returned to our arms, and we made an effort to resume routines.
Vincent gave another call to me, a few nights ago. Allan had passed. The wake was on Thursday.
Sometimes, in the midst of difficulty and pain, the thought will come to mind “What is the thing that I will not be able to bear? Can the pillars hold all of this weight?” After all I had been through, I was scared of the wake, burdened by the thought of the intense emotion of grieving. But I had to go, to honor Allan. I arrived late to the wake, just in time for the memorial service. As I walked in the door, I was directed to the right. I rounded the corner, and it seemed as if time stopped. There were perhaps a couple hundred people, crammed into every seat, people standing in every corner, along every aisle. And in the center of all of this, they placed Allan’s painting. And Allan’s son was talking. Throughout the entire speech, he referred to the painting for the confirmation of his every point. It was surreal, an artistic experience so moving- it seemed as if Allan himself were in the room. Not in the corporeal sense. It seemed as if the portrait had retained something of the human spirit. Vincent got up to speak, and with charm and optimism described the profound influence that my art studio had upon Allan, and how the portrait had so deeply resonated with him. It “lifted his spirits” in his final days, and allowed him to go out with a colorful burst of autumn. Another friend, Richard, spoke. He too referred to the painting, and Allan’s final hours in my studio. As the wake came to a close, I went to thank Vincent and Cecilia for bringing Allan to my studio. They announced to all those nearby that I was the artist, and the rest of the evening was unlike any of my life. Friends of Allan approached me with the deepest gratitude, saying that the painting had truly captured this great man. A man named Ira said “This is a moving painting. You are going to take painting to places Long Island has never seen.” Allan’s granddaughter described his blissful last days, and the portrait that she cherished so deeply. Mary hugged me. His son thanked me again.
As I drove home, I thought of how circular life is. I thought of how love and suffering are absolutely inseparable. How love is not an emotion but is an act of will, how selfless love is, and the limited window of opportunity we have with each other. Such heights, such depths. And with the deepest joy, I realized that everything that I have ever dreamed of, hoped for, aspired towards in painting, had taken place.
And as I neared home, I thought about Titian’s painting, the Three Ages of Man. I don’t know when the painting was given its existing title, but it is wrong. Titian painted four ages of man. Look at the cathedral on the horizon. He painted eternity.
“You, O Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.”