The Color of Consolation

by L. S. Hicks


In the kitchen, Xiaoling Lei sighed as her father called from his bedroom, “My brushes! Where are my brushes?”

I was just in there, she thought. Why couldn’t he ask for them when I was there?

Entering the bedroom, she saw him kneeling in the closet, pulling things out of scattered boxes. “Dad, I just organized that stuff yesterday! What are you doing?”

“I can’t find my brushes,” he said as he struggled to stand and face her. “They’re by the window. I’ll bring them to you.” She pulled his loose pajama bottoms up around his waist and guided him to the bed.

Back in the kitchen cleaning the breakfast dishes, she heard him again, “My oils! Where are my oils?”

She hung her head for a moment. Everything he says has an exclamation point after it!

A bellow reverberated through the windowpane over the sink, “My oils!”

Is he outside? She stomped into the bedroom and saw him standing at the window staring blankly into the February wind, pajama bottoms down to his knees again.

“It’s too cold to open windows, Dad.” She reached past him to close it then pulled up his pajamas. “Come back to the bed.”

“Bed? No! I see a huge bird of paradise plant with humming birds—joy in motion, colors of flight! I must paint!”

“Dad, you’re blind! I know you wanted this stuff from your studio, but you can’t paint. You’ll only make a mess.”

“I paint with vision, not with sight! Where are my oils?”

How bad does dementia get, she wondered. “They’re on the table next to the bed. Come, now. Here’s the easel, and here are the oils and brushes—and here is your palette.”

A few minutes later, she was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor when he shouted from the doorway behind her, “I have found it!” Startled, she banged a shoulder under the edge of the breakfast table. In the corner of her eye saw the sugar bowl roll over the side and throw a white fan onto the wet floor as it came down in a crash.

“What do you want now?” she screamed as she stood up.

He seemed not to have heard her pain and anger. “I found my roll of canvas under the bed. Go cut and stretch a piece over this frame, and put it on the easel for me!”

In silent fury, she grabbed the frame and stepped past him.

Later, with the kitchen floor cleaned again, she came into the living room and looked at the several boxes along one wall. I’ll have to move these into my room. Why did I buy in to that Chinese crap that it’s a daughter’s duty to care for an elderly parent and bring him to live with me in such a small apartment? We’ve been American since my great-great grandfather came to work the railroads! And why did I agree to celebrate his birthday here? He belongs with my brother’s family in their big house! Sighing, she bent to pick up a box.

“No!” roared out of the other bedroom, followed by a crash and clatter.

She dropped the box and ran across the apartment.

The canvas was face-down on the floor with a few open tubes of oil paint lying next to the collapsed easel dribbling onto the hardwood floor. He was sitting on the bed with the upside-down palette peeking out from under one leg. A multicolor smear had been pressed into the blanket. “Oh, my God,” she said, “What happened?”

“I was using very tiny strokes and had to get close to the canvas—I kicked the easel.”

Xiaoling sat down on the bed careful to avoid the path of the palette, put her hands over her face, and moaned.

Putting an arm around her, he said, “It’s all right, Xiaoling. The oils feel too heavy for humming birds so I’m starting over with watercolor. Do you know where the big drawing blocks are, and my tray of colors? I need the watercolor brushes, too!”

“You have got be kidding, Dad! Look at this mess!”

“Don’t worry about it. An artist’s studio is always messy!” he said, patting her on the shoulder where the breakfast table had left a bruise.

“Dad, you can’t see, and I’m not—”

She was interrupted by a loud banging on the front door. “Miss Lei, Miss Lei, are you there.”

She hurried into the living room and opened the door a few inches. Mrs. Slater, the owner who lived below was dressed in an orange knit cap pulled down over her ears, ochre scarf around her neck, dark green overcoat above bright yellow galoshes, and mauve mittens on her hands. A toy poodle wearing a sky-blue pet vest was shivering under one arm—whether from the cold or the color combination, Xiaoling wasn’t sure.

“Oh, thank goodness it’s you, dear, and not some burglar. Now, when I rented these rooms to you, you said you were a quiet person. There’s been too much noise from you this morning and you’re scaring poor Teddy to death. Are you moving the furniture? If you’re going to move furniture, you must tell me first so I can take him for a walk.”

“Yes, Mrs. Slater. I’m sorry. I’ve been a bit … um, clumsy today. My family is coming over to visit later, and I’m cleaning up.” God, I hope she doesn’t realize Dad will be here long term—first she’ll raise hell, then she’ll raise the rent. And if anyone tells her our family name can mean thunder….

“Well, will they be noisy? They can’t be noisy, dear. Teddy has a heart condition and noises give him palpitations.”

“Yes, Mrs. Slater, I know.”

Mrs. Slater started down the stairs in a swirl of color. “I’d better take him out for the afternoon just in case.”

As Xiaoling closed the door, she heard another shout.

“I found them!”

God, what now, she thought. She walked into his bedroom and saw him drop a stack of drawing blocks onto the table and the paint tubes laying there. A short arc of cadmium yellow came down on the bedside rug just in time for one of his bare feet to grind it in. “Aghhhh, Dad!”

“What? Oh, Xiaoling, bring me two jars of water so I can mix the colors and clean the brushes!”

“Get them yourself! And pull up your pajamas!” She stormed back into the living room and sat down in the overstuffed chair facing the front door. He came out of his bedroom and spoke to her, but she ignored him. Leaning her sore shoulder into a pillow, she drifted into sleep. The twins coming up the stairs jerked her awake, “Aunt Xiao, Aunt Xiao!” Her brother and his wife joined in, “Xiaoling! Hello!”

Opening the door to hugs and kisses and shouting she thought, I hope Mrs. Slater is still out. “Mei, how have you been? Kua, how’s the job? Hi, kids, how’s the university treating you two?

“Where’s Grandpa!”

“Where’s Dad!”

“Here’s the cake!”

Xiaoling stepped back to let them in. “Grandpa is painting.”

Kua raised his eyebrows, “Painting?”

“Don’t ask—and don’t go in his bedroom. Sit down everyone and tell me the news while I get the cake ready. Sorry about the mess, I’m still trying to get his things put away.”

Mei ducked back out the front door, “We left some stuff in the car. Come on, kids, help me bring it in while your dad and Aunt Xiao catch up.”

In the kitchen, Xiaoling opened the cake box and put the dragon-decorated cake on a platter.

“So, is he settling in?”

“I don’t think he knows he’s moved, Kua. This past week has been hard and he makes too much noise. What about assisted living?” She unwrapped two eight-shaped candles and looked at him hopefully.

He shook his head, “You know that’s too expensive. The ones that will accept his Social Security and Medicare are places where old poor people go to die. We have the twins taking most of our money for school, and how much could you chip in? All you have is that annuity your husband set up before he died last year. Besides, it’s the youngest daughter’s duty to…”

“Kua, don’t lay tradition on me again! What about your extra bedroom?”

“The doctor said somebody has to watch him. Mei and I both work.”

“I don’t think I can do this, Kua, I…” She sat down, crying silently.

“Look, Xiao, I… I’ll go check on Dad.”

She sat up wiping her face then pushed the candles into the cake frosting, Lucky, lucky eighty-eight—not!

Kua yelled, “Xiaoling, get in here!”

Oh, no, she thought, now he’ll yell about the mess in there and Dad not being dressed.

As she turned into the bedroom, the watercolor painting on the easel took her breath. The bird of paradise blooms seemed real enough to touch, executed in bright yellows, oranges, and blues, opening out of scarlet bracts while broad, dark green leaves floated in front of a rich bokeh of lighter greens and darker oranges. Two humming birds hovered among the blooms with wings a-blur, all ochres and mauves, and sheens of neon green and sky blue, their long, needle-thin beaks searching for sweet nectar.

She glanced at her father lying back on the bed with his tray of colors tilted in one hand, dripping a rainbow across his motionless chest—then she looked back into the painting where a third hummingbird perched on a frond just out of reach, balancing against a breeze, and watching her with one twinkling eye.