I’m not sure if I believe in the idea of soul-mates—I find the concept limiting. To me, it implies that everyone who loses their true love would never have the chance of finding another. Losing a love, through death, divorce, or otherwise, is already tragic enough. I don’t know if I have never called Vernon my soul mate, but he was my life mate. From the start, I think we were connected on an unusual level. And over time, that continued to play out. It was often complicated, but somehow, our love pulled through. Ten months since his death, it’s still complicated.
Even finding him was a miracle. I remember realizing that’s what being in love is: a miracle. It’s like that for everyone who finds that connection, because you suddenly understand how rare it is. Someone that is as fascinated by you as you are by them? That’s pretty special. At least it was for me. I was 34 years old, had never been married. He was 39, and was going through a divorce.
We liked to say that we met each other when we weren’t looking. We met online, but not on a dating site. It was all very friendly and chatty. I liked his mysterious photo and the fact that he was from England. He liked the artwork I was presenting and we found ourselves with tons in common. (I think it was important for me that he liked my artwork so much…that’s probably how he got in the gate.) Our conversations got longer…they moved from email and instant messenger to the telephone. We had to think about the 8 hour time difference, so usually I would stay up late to catch him in the early morning of the next day or we’d connect in my early morning, his afternoon.
It was probably the worst time to meet him in the sense that he was going through a divorce—he later admitted he was in a daze for a couple of years after the breakup. He had a child through that relationship, which added complications. That, and the small problem of his living 5,500 miles away. The distance didn’t actually bother me. I’d grown up traveling internationally, and the fact that he was English was attractive: he was different, he saw the world differently, he had a charming accent and sense of style.
But Vernon, though he’d lived in a few different European countries, had never once been to America. I think he was less hopeful about the relationship than I was—and for good reason: there was the distance, the divorce, the daze. After a month or so of talking, he suddenly disappeared for awhile. Sadly for me, I’d already gotten attached.
That short time had seemed so special. I remember one of the first times that we talked over the phone (it must have been the middle of the night for him)—he’d taken the phone outside, looked up at the bright English summer sky and talked about how it felt to him that we were actually very close to one another, maybe visiting face to face on some different dimension, meeting up in the middle, looking down on the ocean and the continents below. I was very sad to think that had meant nothing, that it was so fleeting.
A couple weeks later, he popped online again to tell me that he’d met someone. She certainly had me beat for proximity. I was jealous and disappointed, though I had to admit he’d never promised me a thing, and at least he’d had the respect to come back and tell me. At that time, I was painting murals and doing decorative finishes in residential homes. One day, while high up on a tall leaning ladder, the ladder slid back, taking me down with it.Somehow I only managed to hurt my knee, drawing a massive bump that lasted for a few days. Despite being shaken up, I knew I’d gotten lucky with a minor injury. I thought about Vernon and my recently broken heart and applied my newfound gratitude: “Soft hearts are protected hearts….they won’t get as damaged when they fall. But hard hearts are brittle, and when they fall, they may smash to a million pieces.” I decided I wouldn’t punish myself for having loved a little too rashly.
A month or so later, he popped up online again to tell me the girlfriend was gone. I kept my heart at a distance even though I still liked him. I told myself it was clearly just going to be a removed friendship now, if that. He called me one morning: “So I talked to my mother about you. She thinks I should meet you. If I don’t, she thinks I’ll regret it.”
“What? Really? When?”
“Well you should do it soon.”
He laughed, “OK.”
The next week, I was en route to Italy with my girlfriend, a trip we’d been planning for months. She’d ordered the tickets so I hadn’t realized we would be stopping through Heathrow. I called him from the airport: “I’m in London!” There was no time to meet then, but he promised to come out on my journey home. All through Tuscany, I was dreamy about him, popping into internet cafes and telephone booths. This was really happening! But our outgoing flight was delayed for three hours. My 3 hour date with Vernon at the airport was rapidly shrinking. When the plane finally landed, the staff tried to divert us over to our connecting flight, which would be leaving within the hour. I was so disappointed, but my girlfriend grabbed me by the arm, saying: “No way, you’ve been talking about this guy the whole trip. Lets go see if he’s here”…and proceeded to pull me toward the exit.
There was only one person waiting at the gate: Vernon, of course. For once I was at a loss for words, and my friend did most of the talking while we walked across the airport. We had less than fifteen minutes. “I’ll hold the plane!” she announced, waving back through the airport scanner. Vernon and I looked awkwardly at each other. I asked him if he wanted to visit me at Christmas, now that we had officially met. He said yes and we kissed goodbye at the gate. We both knew how strangely romantic this meeting was. Not far into the twelve-hour flight home, I decided long distance relationships were too expensive in time, money, and emotions…if we were to make it work, we’d have to start by figuring out how to eventually be in the same place.
So that’s the story of how we met. We did first meet online, but we always preferred to say we first met at the airport. Both are true. Either way, it was our kind of miracle. Twelve hours later, I arrived home to a text that he had been wandering around the airport for another hour, dazed and confused…and happy.
Selfie (before selfie was a word) as a reverse photo from mini digital camera (before smart phones!) in Venice, Italy on our honeymoon, September 2006)
The following entry is from my Groundbreaking Girls website. This week, I’ve been particularly encouraged by the sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. All of the ladies I paint are inspiring, but every so often a mentor comes along at just the right time. I cherish those moments of this project. Thank you, Barbara, for being the fill-in mentor this week.
“A woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children –one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that images grow in one’s mind.” —Barbara Hepworth
Dame Jocelyn Barbara Hepworth ( 1903 – 1975) was an English sculptor, one of the few female sculptors of her era. She was revolutionary in her style and approach as she carved massive Modernist sculptures by hand. She was also the mother of four….three of them, triplets. In her lifetime, she did achieve some international success, but she was often thought of as provincial because she was a mother and therefor lacked the freedom of her male contemporaries. Still, the focus of her life and her attention to her children in each season caused her work to be extra special, which aficionados especially appreciate now.
Artist’s note: I was drawn to paint Barbara Hepworth after receiving an email from my husband’s first girlfriend (a friend of mine too) in which she remembered visiting the Barbara Hepworth house in St. Ives, Cornwall, when they were art students. I remembered visiting it too with him (over 20 years later) when we visited St. Ives with my traveling parents. I love when I paint a person, and learn about about her, and hers is just the message I need to hear. Granted, this is often the case when I paint artists and writers…but her story came to me in a time when I was really struggling with the idea of trying to be an artist and support my family as a single mother. I was trapped in the story that I couldn’t do it all. So finding out that this woman whom I already admired (I’ve touched her work in its natural habitat!) also had TRIPLETS (along with a first child from another marriage) was a kiss of life to a hurting soul. Granted, she was a genius, but I am inspired. Yes, please, Ms. Hepworth, I’d love you to be my mentor! <3
“I found one had to do some work every day, even at midnight, because either you’re professional or you’re not.”—Barbara Hepworth
Grief comes in waves, they say.
We accept this as a mercy,
sweet relief from the idea of
All Grief, All the Time.
The thing about waves, though—
they aren’t consistent.
Sometimes they are long, shallow rollers,
not unpleasant to move through at all.
The dips and rises almost make you feel
more alive for the moment.
A part of something vast, something majestic.
There may be a weird self-satisfaction
in finding you are still affected by loss,
as if somehow that validates the ocean of love
you surely must have carried in your heart.
But then the big waves move in again
pulled over by the moon or some dark creeping undercurrent
from the other side of the world,
just when you are feeling safe and strong,
overconfident in your swimming skills.
These are the storm wave that crash down hard, relentless in rows,
holding you under, tumbled with the rocks for three minutes at a time,
(which in grief-hours, is at least five days straight.)
The gasping, the panic, the bewildered lack of breath.
You are shocked less by the wave, but the fact that you didn’t see it coming.
And the brief, bottomless understanding that it will come again.
“Son, brother, father, lover, friend. There is room in the heart for all the affections, as there is room in heaven for all the stars.” —Victor Hugo
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads, granddads, great-granddads, and people who step into all those roles for those who need them, regardless of bloodline. This is one thing we have learned over the years: that family isn’t always related, but it is relational. I’m grateful for the men in my life, My own father in particular has always been (and continues to be) a loving, wise, and creative influence in my life, and I have also been impacted by my father-in-law, and before that, my grandfathers. I am also thankful for the men in my life who have been mentors and stand-in dads when perhaps I needed another point of view. I’m thankful for counsellors and pastors and male friends who have walked beside me and given their support or advice when necessary.
There have been a few nights lately when Justine has been sad about the fact that she doesn’t have a father. When I tried to console her, she said: “You don’t understand. You HAVE a dad, and I don’t. It’s not fair!” It struck me that she’s right: I do have a father, and I am reminded to be extra grateful. She doesn’t understand the idea of having lost a partner, a mate, because she’s never been defined by that. She’s never been a wife, of course—she is a child, defined only by having parents. When one parent (or in worse circumstances, two parents) is removed, the child is at a loss for awhile in understanding their anchor to society. Everyone else in her class seems to have a mom and a dad, regardless whether they live together. It’s not like Justine lives in an orphanage…but she recognizes the difference, even at her young age. Something in her identity is imbalanced, as much as I try to tell her she has friends (and she has me!) As much as I might try to help her reframe her thoughts, she is very aware that she is a kind of orphan. Something has shifted in her identity, in the way she sees herself, and the way that she perceives she fits into the world.
I know Maki feels a version of this too, though he talks about it much less. We have each had this massive existential rug pulled from under us, each in our own way, and it’s impossible to not be aware of that. What I didn’t plan for today was that it would be a hard day for the kids. I’ve learned over the past few years to be wary of Mother’s Day: how to plan the day so I don’t compare myself to other mothers being taken out by their husbands (and children), not to expect much, but also not to ignore the event in case the kids DO want to celebrate. But since I do have a father, I thought about celebrating him, not my late husband. It never struck me till today that the kids would feel the loss.
Every discomfort we have is an opportunity to learn compassion. From now on, Father’s Day will not just be a celebration of the wonderful men in our lives—those who have guided us and unconditionally loved us, whether related or not—but a memorial day as well for all those beloved dads who left us too soon. (It’s always too soon when it a dad.)
Here are some pictures shot on Father’s Day, 2014, the year before Vernon’s accident, Glad we did this, because they are some of my keepers.
“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”— Barbara Kingsolver
I haven’t gotten far on my memoir, no surprise there—at 15 minutes a day, I’m just five pages into the project, but my mind isn’t letting me write very much at a time. Its octopus tentacles often prefer to wander off the page, yet I’m putting the minimal time in as a discipline. What has been happening is that I find the exercise of writing does open my mind to memories…but perhaps at other times of day, most likely when I’m not sitting at a notebook or the computer. It’s as if that morning writing time is a key to a portal that peeks into the secret garden of the past. I’m opening myself to the possibility that memories of life with Vernon will chose to flit through, to honor me with their presence, perhaps in the afternoon, perhaps another time. Memories of the early years—so sweet, but fiercely scattered. They are much like little hummingbirds, catching my eye in the sunlight, and as I get close, they skirt away again…perhaps not to return. But another might come through later—when I’m dressing, or exercising, or driving, or painting, a postcard memory will come through. I’ll have a sense of that distant place for a moment, and think: I really should write this down. But even as I reach for the keys, it may have passed. In a way, these are more like waking dreams, which I’ve always been terrible at catching. I’ll have to rest in the glow that they were there, just outside the net of words, and be moved that I remembered for a moment.
My hope is that they’ll accumulate into something I can tuck away and access like a favorite story book or an old letter. This strange new season is teaching me to be open to the echoes of memory as they play across the screen at the back of my eyes. And I am a little more open to them every day, learning to enjoy the light scattering off of tiny jeweled feathers for the moment they are there, keeping the gate open so they can come any time….and maybe putting out a little sugared water, dyed red.