“My dad is trapped inside an empty head//everything has fallen out word by word,” narrates the Belgian artist Eva Cardon, professionally known as Ephameron, in Us Two Together, a visual poem about her father’s battle with early-onset progressive aphasia (a type of dementia), which slowly diminished his ability to discern sound as language.
You won’t find moving anecdotes nor a meditation on the beauty of the small things in life here. “I wanted to avoid the anecdotal. If I wanted to elevate my story into a literary project, my work needed to become relevant to a wider audience reading about terminal illness,” Ephameron writes in the introduction. Nor is there any plot to speak of: the work’s loose, non-traditional narrative structure mirrors the gradual cognitive decline of dementia. And while Ephameron does portray a specific type of decline and drifting, she manages to convey a universal meaning to it. Her narrative technique, both visual and verbal, could easily be applied to any type of progressive loss — an illness of the mind, of the body, or a gradual estrangement between former friends or lovers.
In fact, Ephameron gracefully depicts the onset of a neurodegenerative disease, which is not tangible, by fully portraying the tactile fragility of paper as it gets adorned, and weighed down by the artist’s hand. Her illustrations look like collages, with cut-outs, tape, and some loose brushwork that illustrate the fragility of a mind that is inexorably succumbing to the onset of dementia: one page is a close-up of his ankles and feet, with the shoelaces being held together by tape, a chunky piece of which connects the ankle to the pale-green sock. Elsewhere, a portrait of him depicts his eyes first stricken through with a thick squiggle of pencil then further concealed by two layers of tape. She makes skillful use of white space, allowing the illustrations room to breathe and reach their expressive potential, while punctuating them with sporadic blocks of text. The digital typeface documents her thoughts; the neat, inky cursive reproduces her father’s personal notes — “May,” reads one “in front of you and looking at others, the text is a plank” “I am an empty egg” — which become more and more sparse as his condition worsens. Bold, upper-case lettering represents her father’s speech, which — we can’t help notice — becomes more and more incoherent (“Well yes….about two more; ”Can I ask you?” “Lostese glu, ha be ben, mee mee mee).
While at times a heart-wrenching meditation on illness, Us Two Together resonates in multiple senses, as we navigate a pandemic and as many find their livelihoods upended. It presents a tragedy in slow motion, replete with lyricism and tenderness.