If I throw a railroad at you, you should duck.
Noni fought the early stages of dementia until in 2006, when it got much worse. Lenny put his paint brushes down to become Noni’s primary caregiver until she died in 2012. Either Way It’s Perfect tells the story of those six years.
Noni in a word, was witty. She loved language, knew several, and enjoyed an occasional startling syntax. You might say, as Lenny does, that she was the master of the one-liner. They came to be called Nonisms. Even as she slipped into that strange and altered universe of dementia, she never lost her playful ways of expressing herself. For a while she was able to write them down, but when she no longer could, Lenny did it for her. After she died Lenny worked from his drawings and the photographs people took during her illness, and went on to paint more than three hundred watercolor portraits. Together with the help of art book designer Laura Lindgren, they combined Lenny’s pictures with Noni’s words, and arranged them in sequences, leaving spaces on the pages that create moments where we can pause and participate.
In a discussion with his friend Jerry Kearns, an artist who also lost his wife, Lenny tells Jerry,
“Artists are people who don’t look away.” And Lenny seemed never to look away. He was always there with Noni, taking care of her, making dinner for her, tucking her into bed, helping her fall asleep, getting her to the bathroom. We learn that the two became partners in her care, and much more than that. They were travelling companions on a journey that could have been hers alone, but Lenny chose to go with her. And this book allows us to join them, just for a little while.
Noni holds up a towel and says “We can do this instead of dancing.”
Lenny: “I don’t see the connection.”
Noni: “There isn’t any.”
As I sit with this book I am surprised, though I probably shouldn’t be, by how uplifting it is. The psychiatrist Jonathan Salk, who has accompanied other couples through this process, explains in a beginning essay how hard it is to watch a once bright human being inexorably fall away. But reading Noni’s words wrapped in Lenny’s art, he found himself melting into laughter or marveling at their wisdom. “This book is without sadness,” he noted.
Looking at the book of Seurat’s drawings, Noni says,
“We don’t drink like that anymore.“
Much of the art in this book is part of a series, an artistic practice that in Lenny’s hands, seems uniquely capable of carrying the burdens wrought by of the many stages of this illness. With its fickle, sideways progression, it relentlessly fragments a world that was once whole. A painting of Noni shows her one way, the next a little different, and the next different still. Some are like instant replays, only the color and perspectives seem slightly altered. At times the paint is allowed to drip. They seem to say, if I can just see her one more time, if I can capture this next moment, I can keep her with me, I can make life whole again. They are an artist’s way of getting to know what he’s up against, while still holding on.
At times Noni liked to cover herself in a scarf, a towel or a sheet, and Lenny painted some of them. On the right side of a two-page spread, Noni’s eyes and hands peer out from behind the delicate watercolor blues of a textile, where Lenny a pattern made up of Noni faces. On the left are the words:
“Noni was not anxious,” Lenny tells us. This is unusual, especially when we consider other recent works that try to illuminate the effects of an illness so determined to hide from us, to separate us from our loved ones, even as dementia has come to occupy more public, discursive and artistic spaces. Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of a person slipping away and struggling for security in The Father, relays a tense foreboding, at times frenetic, as when he surprisingly demonstrates he can still tap dance. Then, with fear in his eyes he says to his daughter, “You’re abandoning me. What’s going to become of me?” In Elizabeth is Missing, Glenda Jackson plays Maud, who seems forever lost, constantly seeking her friend, struggling to find her way and to solve the puzzles that haunt her failing memories. These filmic renderings of dementia are valent attempts to get us inside the character’s head, to experience the confusion for ourselves. But they are nothing like this book. They seem to reveal more about artistic conventions than the experience of dementia. Elizabeth Is Missing is a marvel of mystery genre. And The Father seems like an homage to a great actor more than anything. It’s not that they lack craft, or great acting, or that they are not compelling. It’s just that in Either Way It’s Perfect, Noni and Lenny seem to have created an entirely unique visual narrative, one that surprises, startles us, sweeps us away with its compassion and its stark truthfulness and the simple, yet utterly complex power of its expression. The visual intensity of the water colors, the texts of Noni’s words, of Lenny and Noni’s words together, in the blank spaces on the pages, the choreographed work comes together. They sweep us up and carry us into unexplored corners of ourselves where we encounter, and can be surprised by, our own humanity.
In the movie the narrator says, He put a bullet in his head.
Noni: That’s not a good position to be in.
In the US we’ve suffered the loss of half a million brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. But dementia was here before the pandemic, and will remain with us after it’s gone. Many of us have experienced a loved one being taken from us, and as Lenny says, “I hope that this book contains beauty, humor and love, and that even in the face of tragedy, it can bring some solace. It is a kind of visual memoir of a sad, but loving journey, and I offer it to help in the grieving process.”
The book is about how love changes loss, makes it bearable and allows us to grieve. Its art tells a story about what it means to love, and to be loved.