Remembrance of Things Past
When art is all that remains.
Posted March 30, 2014
One spring morning, while entering the nursing home, I held the door open for a middle-aged man who was leaving. As he crossed the door’s threshold, an alarm sounded, and two security guards emerged, then guided him back into the facility. A petite, dark-haired woman approached, thanked the guards, and spoke soothingly to him. I could tell she was his wife.
“He’s new, Doc,” said a guard. “He’s much younger than the other residents and people don’t think he’s a patient. They let him out. So we have an ankle monitor on him.”
Approaching the couple, I spoke with his wife as Charles was escorted to his room. He’d been a resident for only four weeks. At 55, he suffered from early onset dementia which had progressed rapidly.
“It’s terrible,” said his wife, Helen. “He doesn’t recognize me anymore; he just seems comfortable around me. He gets worse every day,” she said in a quivering voice.
“Tell me a bit more about him,” I said.
"He was an art historian and taught at Yale. He began deteriorating two years ago and now he’s completely out of it. He can’t even find his way around the nursing home…but has a knack for getting to the front door. The only thing he remembers…and it’s all he talks about…is art.”
After seeing the other patients, I went to his room. The sight greeting me was astounding. Every square inch of wall space was covered with reproductions of paintings from virtually every era of art. At least 50 pictures hung on the walls. Books were stacked everywhere—all were about art and the history of painting and sculpture.
A closer look at Charles revealed a vacant look of befuddlement in his eyes. He approached me tentatively, shuffling, slightly bent, and smiled vacuously. I introduced myself. He looked confused.
“Do you know where you are?” I asked.
He shook his head.
Then, something astonishing occurred.
Pointing to a reproduction of Renoir’s painting Luncheon of The Boating Party, Charles’s posture changed dramatically; he straightened up and assumed a professorial stance. “This was painted by Renoir in 1881,” he said. His eyes sparkled with life. His voice rose, was no longer flat or lifeless. “This painting includes some of Renoir’s friends in his circle. Aline Charigot was his favorite model, and she’s shown toying with the little dog in the painting’s foreground. Renoir married her shortly after this picture was painted.”
Charles described in exquisite detail, Renoir’s virtuosity of technique in the painting, and talked enthusiastically about the artist’s life. Charles was a compendium of information about Renoir and the era’s impressionists. It was as though he was giving a college lecture. He was vibrant and full of life. He was truly a changed man as he went on about Renoir, Degas, Monet and the others.
“He only talks about art,” his wife told me later. “It’s all he remembers. He can’t find his way to the dining room or recognize anyone, but he can talk about schools of painting. It’s like he’s teaching again.”
Helen knew her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease would worsen progressively. Yet, she treasured this window of time when his ability to retain—at least for the time being—the love and memory for art, which had been so meaningful in his life, remained. Sadly, Helen and I knew the day would come when Charles would lose this one remaining domain of intellectual functioning, but until that time, art would continue to nourish and sustain him. And, perhaps art, in all its richness and beauty would bring comfort to Charles, until this last vestige of memory would be lost to him.
Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier