Aristotle believed that the heart was the primary organ of the soul, because it pumps blood through our body, and allows communication to the five senses. Leonardo thought that a part of the brain that he called the imprensiva was the seat of the soul. The raw, physical reality of life is flesh and blood. We are born, we live, we die. But the limiting reality of our physical existence leads us all, whether religious or atheist, to in some way, search for meaning beyond the five senses.
In the course of my life, I have been born, experienced being a child, I've grown up, and watched my mother grow old. I have also experienced love, marriage, and the renewal of life in the birth of my two sons. And I've experienced myself growing older. Perhaps in some way it is the events of this cycle of life, death and renewal that allow us to reach beyond ourselves a little.
This November will be Elliot's second birthday. He was born during the first semester of my PhD program. I was so exhausted from staying up studying until 2am to stay awake for part of the time that my wife was in labor. But I did wake up when she was starting to push. Even though it was a hospital birth, they let me pull Elliot out with my own two hands.
Several years before we moved here to the Phoenix area, my mother began to develop Alzheimer's. It was a rough time for the both of us around 2006–07. I was living about a mile-and-a-half away, and neither of us had any money. My small efficiency apartment was infested with mice and roaches, and I was living on boiled beans. My mother started to wander out of her apartment at all hours of the day and night; they call this 'sundowning.' She had a harder and harder time keeping her apartment clean. I would go over there to clean the dishes, and there was a pile spilling out of the sink, with so much rotten food on them that they began to collect maggots. Her trash overflowed, and would spill out all over the floor, and collect in piles in other parts of the house.
I slowly watched my mother begin to lose her mind. In the end, we had to move her into a nursing home, where she is still. As I've visited her over the years, she went from being the wanderer, to being more sedentary, to eventually losing communication skills and becoming mute. I always bring a drawing pad and a camera with me these days to the nursing home. The more images I have to remember her by, the better.
When I draw her picture, I often sense a great deal of vulnerability in her eyes. She looks afraid, she looks lost, but she still looks beautiful. I think she has a sense of pride in this drawing in particular.
And sometimes that certain kind of strength, and even stubbornness come through when she looks at me.
When I've visited her more recently, she still has that kind of confused look in her eye. But when I touch her, or give her a hug, she still feels warm. She still feels like my mother, even though her mind is fading away, and her memories, at least the ones that she can communicate are gone. And even though she can't speak, I know that she knows that I am there.
Once my mother was in the nursing home, I began to look back at the memories I had of her. I found an old self-portrait that she took when she was seventeen. She was quite the avid photographer. I painted this portrait from it:
But as we grow old, and life fades away, there is always renewal. My children bring light, love and laughter into the world. They drive me crazy. They exhaust me. But I love them more than anything.
Whatever dark times have passed, I merely have to look at my kids playing, and my life feels like the days of halcyon.