Light and Shadows: Through the Window

A window acts as an inverse prism, gathering the intense pigments of the fractured world back into an immanence of unrestricted light.

—Cole Swenson, The Glass Age

Content Warning: Death and Dying

Sarah Roth // It is Sunday in Florida, and my family holds our breath as my mother breathes. We watch the rise and fall of her chest. We are seated at the edge of her bed, leaning forward and listening. The Hospice nurse, a slim woman with cropped black hair, holds a watch in her hand. She calculates the time between each exhalation. My grandmother watches with calm, holding the space, hands resting in her lap. My grandfather stands in the doorway. My father and sister are warm beside me. Death and dying is at once fast and slow, here, and I settle my gaze on the window, following the movement of the trees beyond the pane. She delighted in them. I pretend our breath—her breath—moves them. I pretend our breath is like the wind. I pretend the wind moves our chests. It’s calling you, I think to her. The world out there wants you to be a part of it.   

Just days ago, we sat across from a doctor on the back patio. Prayer beads clicked on her wrists as she spoke. “We really have no choice,” she said. “Water, sugars, proteins: we’re feeding the cancer.” It was lunchtime when they changed the bags connected to her veins and port. They swapped nutrition for more morphine, water for an empty line. And then, like alchemy, everything else changed. Her body began to become something more fragile, to unfurl. Her body needed food and water. It was thirsty in every way. We mixed essential oils with lotion and rubbed her hands and feet. We moistened her face, her lips. It was as if she were the child and we her mothers. Her whole life depending on a sequence of tiny gestures of care. We all began to gather around the bed, at the window. 

Through the window, there are flowers my mother has tended to: gardenias, birds of paradise, and gatherings of color for which I don’t have names. There is a wooden bench, a circle of stones. There are hummingbirds and insects, flitting around a bird feeder and against the window screen. It is late spring, and the garden outside is lush and heavy. The phrase bursting with life comes to mind. The vines are green. The flower bulbs are red and fuchsia and yellow. The sun casts through the window and onto my mother’s cheeks. The windowsill is simple, a plain white frame to bracket everything outside, everything inside. My mother keeps breathing, and with her, we wait.

In The Glass Age (2007), a book on my shelf since the early days of graduate school, the poet Cole Swensen also writes of looking out the window. She describes windows in terms of their meaning and materiality, and she chronicles a history of artists contemplating matters of sight. In poetry intermingled with prose, she follows most closely the life and work of the painter Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), who asked “what it is to see, and what it is to look through.” In the long arc of this day, as we gather around my mother, I remember a particular poem from The Glass Age, “The Open Window.” In this poem, Swensen writes that often in Bonnard’s paintings, “the window is where we actually live, a vivid liminality poised on the sill, propped against the frame.” It feels as if, looking through the pane just beyond my mother, we are living in the window and its vivid liminality. We help my mother hold onto life; and we hold space for her as she lets it go. 

Alice James Press (2007)

Swensen’s “The Open Window” is a meditation on Bonnard’s painting of the same name, The Open Window (1921), currently at The Philips Collection in Washington, D.C. The painting depicts a room in the artist’s home in Normandy, with a window swung open, dark light coming through. Very little of the room itself is in view. Instead, the focal point of the painting is, The Philips Collection writes, “the void at its center, the blue sky, green foliage, and violet shadow outside, framed invitingly by the window casing, walls, and a dark, guillotine-like slice of window blind.” Unlike the Impressonists before him, Bonnard painted scenes such as this one from memory. The Open Window‘s composition gives the viewer a sense of longing for what is beyond, obscured by the greenery of the forest and the blind above the pane.

There are certain experiences that surpass the architectures we have at hand to frame them. Throughout The Glass Age, Swensen is concerned with this idea, and specifically the way in which sensation (sight) can both surpass, and be held by, form (the window frame). In “The Open Window,” she suggests that an attempt to determine an ideal frame will always be complicated by excesses of experience. She writes of how the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once proposed that ‘ten to one’ was the ideal proportion of a window. However, she writes, “like a coastline, / a window is infinite, its perimeter / increasing forever without ever surpassing its frame.” Swensen delights in the notion that a window’s finite design is thwarted by its own infinite capacity. This “has everything to do with sight as exceeding,” she writes in the poem. Swensen asks the reader to consider how such excesses play out, and implies that perhaps the architecture of a poem might also hold such infinities and contradictions.

The Open Window by Pierre Bonnard (1927)

Not so long ago, my mother and I sat together in the kitchen. I had just arrived from the airport. The window above the sink was propped open, and a soft breeze moved through it. A pouch of lavender sat on the sill, and bits of lavender flowers scattered on the ground.

“Sarah,” she said. “They told me you were coming. Are you really here?”

“I’m really here,” I said. 

“Really, really here?” she said.

“Really, really here.”

“You have a choice,” Swensen writes in The Glass Age. “You can stand outside looking in, or inside looking out. It’s one of those rare equivalences-in-difference.”

Not so long ago, my mother and I would go for walks around the neighborhood. She would hold my hand, or maybe lock in step with me. She would ask me questions and I would brush them away. The sun would always beat down on us. The neighbors’ flowers would always be in bloom. She would wear yoga pants, a tank top, and a visor. She would want to know everything. She would always be hungry for more life, and the palm trees would cast their shadows onto our shoulders.

On this Sunday in Florida, as the afternoon softens into evening, the garden beyond the window darkens. The time between each of my mother’s breaths grows longer. The Hospice nurse looks at her watch, lowers it, and looks at it again. We nestle closer to one another, leaning in and listening. I rest my head on my sister’s shoulder. We take in every sound, every movement animating her body as air moves through her lungs. We take in every shift in the nurse’s posture. We take in each other. Our shared feeling is a cocktail of sorrow. And still, the birds sound through the window. And still, a sweet whistle comes from her mouth, one more time, and one more time again.

Works Cited

Bonnard, Pierre. “The Open Window.” The Philips Collection. <https://www.phillipscollection.org/collection/browse-the-collection?id=0172&page=3&gt;

Fabrizi, Mariabruna. “Order and Failure: Wittgenstein’s Haus on Kundmangasse.” April 26, 2015. <http://socks-studio.com/2015/04/26/order-and-failure-wittgensteins-haus-on-kundmangasse&gt;

Swenson, Cole. The Glass Age. Alice James Books, 2007. 

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