The walls are not actually white, but a not totally unpleasant pale taupe. The sheets are white, though I supplement them with a blue and white geometric print comforter, which I remove from the closet, unfold, and put back at the foot of the bed every time the aides fold it up and put it away. And it’s true, he is warm, and the room is warm, but I know he likes it this way, and I know the blue and white comforter has been on his bed since 1978, and it’s pretty and ordered and architectural and civilized, and he would like that, not to mention the whole normal-life-ness of it all.
If he could see beyond the blue and white comforter folded over the footboard, he could look beyond to the grinning cherry-lipped sock monkey sitting on the desk, and behind him the full-size French flag pinned to the wall. The flag is new. Not new but newer, and still the red edges which hang toward the floor are a fringed jubilee of red threads from so many summers high atop the rafter at the peak of the beach house, burnished by the sun and whipped into a Marseillaise frenzy by seabreezes and Northeasters and summer suns. Our older version, which we still have, split into thirds at the color joins one winter, the white section ripped completely apart. My father sewed a white pillowcase between the blue and the red and ran it right back up the pole, undeterred, until one of us gifted him the new version, which was perhaps less fitting but rather more socially acceptable among some of the less imaginative locals.
The drawings that fill the walls are black on white, an aging white that claims an “I’ve been around the block and I’m still the best looking gal you’re liable to lay eyes on” cachet, and it’s true. The houses, varied and elegant and in no way restrained, are all hand drawn (“there is no art in a straight line,” my father said), and show evolutions of design and clientele and becoming and grabbing back and unleashing again. Above them is a long rectangular work made my grandmother, a Paris art student who spent her later years tearing up perfectly nice books to make collages that are rather stunning.
The large and exuberant artworks on the not-quite-white walls were made by his children, of which I am one, and framed and hung and moved from house to house and office to office by my father over the course of 49 years. That’s love, or at least the love I know.
And so the room is not very white. I won’t let it be white. But white is for beginnings and I see them everywhere here: the once blank pages, laundered and bleached sheets warm from the dryer, the cord for the call button, the slats of blinds that let in or keep away the light.
There are moments when he looks like he’s praying, and you might think prayer is white, but I think not.
I wonder if there is enough to hold him here, but he was never one to walk away from a challenge, or sit quietly. Never one to be bored or tired or to say “I’ve done it all” because when you’re game to take on the world, there’s always always more and backing away is never even a smidgeon of a thought. And you can say, “but there is fatigue,” but I’ve never seen that, or any kind of “been there done that” because creators can’t not create, can’t stop making the world new and bright and more than it was.
Some find it hard to wait in rooms like this, to watch and breathe the breaths and count the seconds between, to dampen the forehead and smooth the ruffled hair, to watch the face I’ve known for 60 years morph through the day from the rattling of an 86 year old man with pneumonia to a man of 40 taking a 20 minute rest between the morning feat and the afternoon magnificat. The familiar snore that might stop of a sudden with an abrupt sitting and then a booming voice and jubilant invitation to walk the beach or lay a terrace or thrust fingers into fresh-boiled crabs or hoist a kite.
The pillow is white. His hair is white. His breath comes in staccato bursts that punctuate the Rachmaninoff like a practiced bow. The watching and holding of a heart is joyous, and not unlike the watching of his children as they slept in early days, or my mother through her final nights. This man who almost never slept is sleeping, and I watch, and I’m not sure what this is like, other than a heart breaking.
Fifteen years ago I bought a house with white walls, which had come into vogue again and were shown in all the crisp magazines. I whitewashed the floors and gave it a good go, but within a week I had bought paint in pretty greens and set about glazing the walls until they sang, or perhaps more accurately, until I sang. It’s funny that we can love something without being able to live with it.
One day soon, and perhaps tonight but no longer than next week, the room in which I sit and he lies will be white again. Not because I have removed the colors of a life but because he is gone, with his fully-feathered largeness and 86 years of stories. There are little breaths now in my ears — a soundtrack of life. They sit with me while I wait outside the door during changes or turnings, and sing with me while I walk to the end of the hall and back to get the blood moving.
It’s funny how many times you can think, “He’ll be fine as soon as we can get him home.”
For Sherman Pardue, 1929 – 2015, child of New Orleans, who loved my mother and his, architecture, travel, music, New Orleans and French cuisine, furniture design and fabrication, cooking and family, spending many weeks of the year sitting on the lawn of the family home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He was a spirited pianist, playing entirely by ear, a prolific writer, a determined gardener, and a lover of fish ponds, designing and building them for every home of every family member throughout his life. He took joy in everything he did, researching the process and going at it full throttle, as comfortable laying bricks and digging drainage ditches as taking pencil to paper and designing estates or writing poetry. He shared his love of exploration, both territorial and philosophical, with his children and grandchildren, and was delighted when his eldest grandchild Jason followed him into the field of architecture. He studied at NC State School of Design and Harvard, attending small groups with Frank Lloyd Wright and studio sessions with Buckminster Fuller, and received a national award for Classical Design in 1992.
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