On September 6, I wheeled my bicycle past the bed of zinnias at the front of the house and rode downtown to the National Art Gallery. On the second floor I went looking for Van Gogh. There are two small paintings – zinnias and geraniums in a green bowl, and zinnias and geraniums in a vase. 1886. His zinnia year. I look at these paintings every time I come. On the adjoining wall is a painting of irises. 1889. No vase; they grow straight out of the ground of the mental asylum where he was living. His iris year, when he was in more distress than ever.
My father was very ill on September 6. He was much on my mind as I looked at the flowers, not least because he loved to garden. Then passing through the long gallery of early European art, I saw my father in the flesh and stopped. It was a painting of Job, 1631, oil on canvas by Jan Lievens. There he was, an old and depleted man in a grey loincloth, with thin arms, sunken chest, white beard, bare purply feet, supplicating hands and eyes. I sat down on the bench and stared, took out my distance glasses and looked some more. I realized that I would always be able to visit my father in the final days of his life by coming to this painting.
Over the next days, watching him die, his head back, fingers fluttering at his beard, those unseeing eyes trained on the ceiling, I was watching a figure straight out of an old master’s painting. They studied the old and dying with a powerful scrutiny. Without my knowing it, they had prepared me for everything.