I find them in an upstairs closet in her studio – a pile of paintings, watercolors splashed onto thick slabs, paper curling at the edge. There must be thirty or more, all “rejects” deemed not good enough by her. I spread them out on the carpet: regal irises, cotton-candy peonies, scenes of blooming gardens and cobalt seas, a row of Dutch windmills, a stone farmhouse.
My oldest son, Noah, pulls one from the stack – a desert landscape, stately saguaro cactus climbing toward lavender sky, while my youngest, Rowan, is drawn to the still life, a vibrant parrot standing amidst orange tulips.
“Can we have one?” they ask. “Please? Can we pick one out to take home?”
“Janice, we found a whole stack of beautiful paintings in the closet upstairs,” I tell my mother-in-law later, as I sit on the edge of the hospital bed in the dim living room. “The boys are wondering if they could choose one to bring home.”
“Those? They’re not very good. I guess that’s why they’re stuffed in the closet.” She laughs little. “But take whichever ones you want.”
My sister-in-law Vanessa thinks to have her sign them. I hold out a selection of black pens in my palm, and Janice tests each on a slip of scrap paper until she selects the perfect one, a fine-point Sharpie. We crank up the head of the bed, and the four grandkids each present a watercolor. Sheets smoothed flat, light from the floor lamp pooled on her lap, she carefully pens her name on the corner of each.
It tires her, the signing. As the grandkids slide off the bed clutching paintings in hand and skitter off to play, she lays her head back on stacked pillows and closes her eyes. We click off the lamp and lower the bed flat. And then I sit on the couch in dusty afternoon light and listen to her breathe.
This morning as the sky poured April rain, I reached under the bed skirt and pulled out the paintings. Back in September I’d sheathed them in a white kitchen garbage bag and pushed them far beneath our bed. Now I slide them from the bag and fan them out on the floral bedspread: a parrot amidst orange tulips; cactus against lavender; Dutch windmills in a row; a stone farmhouse – her name bold in black ink on the corner of each.