At the end of his life, my father’s eyes appeared gold. Not the sclera, which went from white to limpid canary and back again at the whim of an organ whose health I did not expect to track in my father’s eyes; no, the irises themselves glinted golden yellow, like a late autumn sun at mid-day. Before – before the grim prognoses and dire predictions, despite which he lasted fifteen more years; before the endless trips to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms and hospital beds that became second homes as days stretched into weeks; before the collapsed veins and the bleeding intestines and the skin as thin as rice paper; before the poking and prodding and prying forced him into a self-induced insanity, from within which he could rant and rage and retain some vestige of control over a life belonging less and less to him and could even occasionally enter for a blessed moment into some pleasant long-ago memory, until the fantasy became less about escape and more about terror and his world became populated with Nazis and murderers and beasts that rendered us invisible and rendered him, this former Army lieutenant and signalman who once parachuted behind enemy lines outside Rotterdam, nearly impotent with fear – before all of this, his eyes were hazel, a sort of green flecked, he was a slave to his temper. As his illness – his illness because it was so intensely personal – fought with him a duel to the death, he still sent out energy disproportionate to his shrunken self, as if he were a dying supernova with one flare left in him.
At the end of her life, my mother’s eyes were pale gray, soft and quiet as an early winter sky, yet watchful, as if the soul trapped inside her implacable flesh still had something to see or say. Before – before the fall broke the elbow that never healed and made her afraid to trust her own body; before the first stroke and the physical therapy to which she refused to commit because she had to attend to my father; before the spinal disks disintegrated and the crippling arthritis attacked those clever hands that could solder a lamp or paint a landscape or soothe a child; before the two strokes and four TIAs clouded her mind, robbed her of speech and changed her from a slim, elegant and resolutely vertical creature to an implausibly horizontal one, minus three inches and plus eighty pounds, so weighted she might have sunk straight into the earth but for the ministrations of her minions and her own need to see the sun for herself – before all of this, her eyes were as blue-gray as the Atlantic or sometimes the shimmering silver of a star-filled sky. Storms roiled infrequently in those depths; from time to time one could discern a hint of steel; but never ice, never snow, never cold. As the light in her eyes began to visibly dim, confusion and clarity, acceptance and anger played across her face in a continuing cycle until she was, in the last week, overtaken by an ethereal translucence that rendered her as beautiful and unlined as she had been in her youth.
My parents were the most complementary of opposites, the one volatile and the other cool, the sun and the moon. Temperamental he most assuredly was but also logical and precise, whereas she was creative and whimsical. But then astrology is never an exact science. The advocate and the artist, they played yin to each other’s yang. They were a force of nature, those two, and partners in work, in life and in a manner that seemed to inspire admiration and not just a little envy. At times, the force of his sun threatened to eclipse his surroundings, but never her moon, which, in refracting his intensity and reflecting his glow, gathered its own force. Their combined brilliance was all-encompassing and far-reaching, silver and gold, enveloping and inclusive, stretching across eons, which is to say more than half a century at its zenith.
The moon was already on the wane when the sun finally extinguished. Her light faded through three seasons more and disappeared. It’s been some years since a part of my world went dark; even so, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of that sun and that moon in the mirror, just behind my eyes.
dedicated to James F. Stern and Hilda G. Stern