Cézanne ward at three o clock in the morning is a separate world and it is alien. As I rush in through the rubber edged double doors I hit a wall of tired, heavy air. The doors, which I had opened with such force, hiss and suck themselves closed behind me. Enclosing me, trapping me in this other world. The panic of the middle of the night phone call, the hasty throwing on of clothes, the lunatic drive to the hospital, the gut wrenching sobs are all sealed outside those doors. I look back with deepest longing.
The corridor stretches ahead like an exercise in perspective. The air is both hospital-warm and dire-dread cold. My breath becomes shallow in order to survive the thin, uncertain atmosphere. I focus on the point where the walls of the corridor meet in the distance and begin to walk towards the room. My head turns from side to side, taking in for the last time the burnt orange hues of the Cézanne prints on the walls, one exactly midway between each room and the next:-
Still life with a Compotier,
Still life with Apples and Oranges,
Still life with a Peppermint Bottle,
Still life with Basket
Onwards they march to the vanishing point.
I recall two short months ago when he came here, how we had moved steadily along this corridor, sliding the oxygen tank behind us easily across the highly polished floor, stopping at each picture, naming it, examining it, finding details to share. Down one side and back up the other, sometimes twice a day. Making sure his muscles stayed functional. Later we had shuffled the journey, later still I had wheeled him, then he stopped leaving his room. But we remembered the pictures, and I had bought him a book of Cézanne’s life and work to keep him in touch with those images outside his four walls. To push him further we had planned how we would view them in the flesh, after, after, after.
We had noted things Cézanne had said. Written large some of his more bombastic words, and those said about him. I pictured them now.
Zola had said,
“I have great hopes for him.”
This was sellotaped on the right hand side of his table.
Pisarro commented that,
‘He would astonish those too quick to condemn him.’
This was sellotaped on the left of his table.
And, the best of all, Cézanne himself had said,
“I begin to feel stronger than everyone around me.”
This was a large A3 felt tip penned poster on the wall before him, at eye level.
We had chuckled over the subject matter of some of Cézanne’s work – Still Life with a Commode, Still life with a Skull – or even worse, a Pyramid of Skulls. We hung fuzzy, internet-downloaded, desktop-printed versions of them in his room. Three weeks they had stayed there. The commode came down first, we replaced it with watermelons and pomegranates. All the skulls came down two weeks later. We didn’t replace them.
We had laughed. The echo of that laugh draws me the last few steps to the picture before his door. ‘Still Life with a Cherub’, a chubby figure of fun, with tight curls, but, oddly, no arms. I stare at it. He’d always addressed it as we passed,
‘Quite armless,’ he’d quip at first. Later he’d sigh a wistful,
Later still he had murmured,
‘Still life, there is still life!’
I put my finger to the cool glass, as if to stroke the rounded cheek. It is indifferent. It has no memories, no favourites; it is merely a picture of a plaster cherub. Simply an artist’s attempt to portray light and matter.
As I look I recall what we chose to ignore about Cézanne during those long weeks of hope. The artist’s unpleasantness and aggression. His refusal to acknowledge his child or marry the child’s mother. An embittered, isolated individual who collapsed whilst painting in the fields, his lifeless body carried home on a laundry cart. A solitary man whose work had been ridiculed during his lifetime. Not a fitting subject to compare with the man in this room. This good, steadfast, tender man, precious and irreplaceable, the one constant in my life that I have always taken for granted. He had held me at birth, led me, guided me, cherished me, given me away, taken me back when life turned sour, until I was ready to leave again. From birth to middle age I have leaned on him, taken strength from him, agreed with him, disagreed with him, fought him bitterly and loved him deeply at the same time, as only a daughter can.
I falter at the threshold. I won’t enter the room feeling this way. I will not contaminate its atmosphere. I look back the way I have come, striving for equilibrium, for strength. My dread slowly subsides. Eventually I enter and sit beside the bed. The weighty air settles around me.
Still life, still life, still…….…the thought will be acknowledged. It insists.
Although he has been retreating from the world, day by day. Although I have heard no words, I have kept watch.
I watch still.
His eyes move beneath their lids. Paper-thin lids traced with deepest purple threads where blood still flows.
Still life. I watch the lashes flicker on the transparent cheek. Lashes re-grown full, dark, beautiful.
Still life. I hear the softest sigh of his resting breath. I touch my lips with butterfly gentleness to the warmth of his soft, pale mouth.
Dawn steals through the un-curtained window. Silver strands of light inch across the floor and I watch as they climb towards his face. I raise my eyes to his and find that they are open. The corners of his mouth lift. He smiles his smile.
“Everyone is waiting. I can see them all.” His eyes flicker, close.
“There is still life,” he says later, or maybe we just share the thought.
There is still life.