From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

The Artist

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

Pablo Picasso

The people in the small town in which our family lived called my dad the miracle man. Martial artist, photographer, worker in wood, skilled fly fisherman, the big laughing Swede excelled in everything he put his mind to. My hero, my inspiration, there was nothing he couldn’t tackle and win. And he taught me to do the same—or die trying.

But his attitude was severely tested when, in his late fifties, Dad’s fishing-buddy doctor sadly shook his head and turned away. The news of his mysterious illness scared my dad. It scared me, too. I didn’t know he wasn’t invincible. But I should’ve known his Viking spirit would defy the odds of his six-month sentence the way he always defied the odds—every time.

He became housebound, having to give up the pleasures of his trades, the pleasures of his hobbies. To assuage his growing frustration, Dad took up painting. But as his hands became crippled, his fingers bent and gnarled, he used too much color; bold colors I helped him mix, colors flaunting the ashy sickness creeping over him like a choking weed. Determined and unwavering, Dad painted hour after hour. He slashed his brush on the canvas in wild controlled strokes, the painted rivers becoming pits of fear brooded over by great swirling fogs, gray and damp with thunderclouds, heavy and swollen, raining grief on his favorite fishing spot till, finally, he obliterated the sun and denied it light. There were no dreams on his canvas, no hope, no miracles.

It was awful watching him, and I quaked in fear wondering how I’d cope when the proud warrior crumbled, dreading with an inner chill the thing I could not speak of.

As the days and months and years passed, he painted on in wooden resolution, precisely focusing his images in exact compositions, as if he could find through the rivers of loss tidy answers to the suffocation of a life.

I cried the day he laid his brush down in exhaustion, the day he retreated to an interior place in his soul I couldn’t reach. He turned his face to the wall, his six-foot frame broken, his black hair long turned white, his warrior fingers in clenched-like claws. I stared at the thin, bent back and cried, listening to every wheezing breath.

Every day I visited the once proud and handsome man and it was the same. He would not turn to me. He would not respond. I went away. I grieved.

One day, perched on the edge of his cot and looking at his silent face, I wondered how long it had been since talk of the glory days, the days of his superb strength, his raucous laughter. His bigger-than-life dreams scattered now like dust on the burial cloth of many canvases. But it didn’t matter, as suddenly I perceived the cramped and embittered spirit of Dad had, in a wink of time, transformed. Perhaps it had been transforming over long, lonely years, or days, or hours, and I just hadn’t noticed it. Ashamed at my lack of perception, I realized that somewhere, somehow, his soul had sweetened, grown; a winter thawed in a river of refreshment in the forgotten arms of God.

I understood with growing excitement that a new art had been painted in the secret places of his being, an art that was still drying in pristine shades, conceived in the sphere of awesome courage, tenacious will and stark imaging.

A few days later I found Dad with a paintbrush in his hand, marveling at the careless, brilliant light that spilled from the uppermost corner of his canvas like laughter washing the mountains gold, the shining river crystal blue. The light sparkled on leaping salmon, on gleaming pines that lined the riverbank, and on the fisherman radiating robust health as he cast his line far downstream. I looked closely. It was my father. He’d found his way to a place free from pain, where he was gloriously whole once again.

“What’s the answer, Dad?” I questioned, quietly wondering at his peace. But I knew the answer. He’d learned to embrace life the way it was, not the way he wished it to be. I looked at his smile and knew him to be a happy man. He’d wrestled his demons, crushed them under wobbling feet, a conqueror rising from the pit of destruction to conquer one last and glorious time. How I loved this man with eternity beckoning him closer and closer, one foot on Earth, the other in heaven. How he loved me, his princess, forlorn at the thought of losing him.

He paused in his work. “I have so little to leave you with, Janet,” he said sorrowfully, shaking his head.

I swallowed the lump in my throat as I touched his bent and bony shoulder. “Dad, that’s not true,” I gasped, appalled. “This long, weary illness of yours has given me something no one else will ever be able to give!”

He looked surprised as he smiled with the humblest smile I’d ever seen and, putting down his brush he waited, looking quizzical. “What’s that?” he asked in a burst of gentle humor.

The lump in my throat grew as he teetered slightly, holding onto my arm for strength. “You’ve taught me the art of living, Dad. And it’s a masterpiece. It’s something to be proud of, a legacy I prize beyond measure. You’ve run the race; you’ve fought the fight. You’ve won.”

My father cleared his throat in embarrassment as tears poured down my cheek. I gently hugged him, and he wiped my eyes, my hero, my giant. I knew he would go soon, that this would be his last work. Together we turned to the canvas. “I need to be painted into that picture, Dad,” I said, nodding at the golden stream. “I want to stand beside you.”

Janet Hall Wigler

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