Painting The Dead

Thinking about the above photograph of Frida Kahlo taken by Gisèle Freund. Frida is in the process of painting a portrait of her dead father. By the time she created the painting, her father had been dead a decade. He died in 1941. She did the painting in 1951. A decade. Around the same amount of time my own father has been dead. 

I see my dead father in every other dead father.  

It feels like a very tender act to paint a portrait of a dead loved one. It feels loving. It feels sacred. To paint a face and a body that no longer exist. To substitute painted hair for real hair, painted skin for real skin. An exchange. You can’t have the flesh, so you settle for the paint. 

Think of how she painted every strand of his hair, every blemish on his face. Think of how she reconstructed him as a way to say that she loved him. Painting as an act of exhumation. Of course, she had photos of him, but a painting is something very different from a photograph. It involves a certain level of labor and imagination. This is not just her father as he was but as she knew him and remembered him. By painting him, she could be with him again, be close to him, to his likeness, to the version of him that she created in paint.

I often envy visual artists. They can paint a portrait, give us a tangible representation of a person, and we can see it and know that it’s real. The writer must do something else. The writer must express the intangible, the unseen, the inner world, the textures of a person. They raise the dead in very different ways and through very different means.

I can’t paint my father’s hair or skin. I can’t re-create his face on a canvas. I can’t even look at photos of him. I know he lived, but I don’t know how he isn’t alive anymore. How can that be? I wonder all the time. How is he gone? How can it be possible? How can it be true?

Silence and Speechlessness

I rarely update this blog anymore because I’ve reached a state of speechlessness. There are no words for the devastation, no language for the grief. Words are not enough. Words are limited, all art is limited when trying to represent certain kinds of pain and trauma.

Silence is my language for now. It says this cannot be said, this cannot be communicated, this lives in a place beyond any means of expression.

Eleven Years

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of my father’s death.

I laid in bed, holding a locket that contained his picture and listening to Tori Amos’s “From the Choirgirl Hotel,” an album that deals heavily with the grief and darkness that Amos experienced after a miscarriage.

In “Spark,” Amos sings:

she’s convinced she could hold back a glacier
but she couldn’t keep Baby alive
doubting if there’s a woman in there somewhere

All these years have passed and yet no time has passed. Time no longer registers in my body.

I’m always surviving, not survived. It’s never set or final. I’m never done with survival, it’s never in the past tense. It’s always something I have to do right now and the next moment and the next.

Take your life and all you love and try to imagine it disappearing. Take away the person who loved you and that you loved. Keep taking it all away. What are you? What is left? Take away more people, take away your home, take away your health, add poverty and depression and anxiety. Then, maybe you can imagine what the past decade has been like for me. Loss after loss after loss.

Feel everything you love vanish and then tell me that time heals it. Tell me it gets easier. I will answer that time only brings more pain, that the loss accumulates, that your body starts to break down, that my writing is the record of a mind and body battered and pushed past its limits.

Doubting if there’s a woman in there somewhere

I know that so much of me is gone, that the part that survives is the part that you are reading, that writing has always been and always will be the way that I stay alive. It can’t be anything else.

I’m not sure who I am or what woman remains. I think of myself always as that sixteen-year-old girl at her father’s funeral, watching her life disintegrate, feeling herself shattered. I’m not sure who this woman is who writes these words. I’m not sure I know her all that well or even like or want to be her and yet I am her and she’s all I have, along with these words.

I said to myself today Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. The last decade of suffering cannot have been for nothing. At least you can make words that can help someone else, that can voice this deep, intolerable aching. 

I guess that’s all I can do. Keep writing. Keep creating even though I am destroyed.

The Quietness of Grief

Screenshots from The Dream and the Silence (Jaime Rosales, 2012)

I think I like the quiet films about grief because they are the most honest. Grief is so quiet, it’s a kind of silence, punctuated by the occasional outburst. You feel a scream inside, but you’re never permitted to release it. For so long, I’ve just wanted to scream.


Screenshots from Solitary Fragments (Jaime Rosales, 2007)

When you lose someone and you try to pretend it didn’t happen. When three becomes two, when the whole is broken apart, and you try to convince yourself for as long as you can that you aren’t shattered, you aren’t destroyed.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like to imagine that you are just away for a little while, that you will return one day, and we’ll be together again. Could I ever fall for the lie? But what if the lie keeps me alive? I wish my brain would believe it.