“We’re all just walking each other home.” —Ram Das
On Friday night, my dear friend Sandy and I went out to dinner and a movie (Lady Bird). Later, we drove over to the local hospital. Sandy was concerned about a family friend of hers who had been sent to the Emergency Room earlier in the day, especially since the friend has Alzheimer’s disease, and might not be able to communicate her needs. Sandy and I have some shared history with that particular history, so we wondered allowed if it would be wise for us to go together.
Years ago, we went to check in on Sandy’s mother who had been taken to the ER earlier in the day. Within an hour or so of our time with her, she passed away in our presence. The experience had such an impact on my mindset and on my friendship with Sandy, that 15 years later, I arranged for Sandy to be with me when Vernon breathed last. These are moments that change a mortal forever.
We walked through the ER lobby, which really feels more like a TV set than a real hospital somehow. We found our friend had been admitted earlier, and we were free to visit her. As we walked through the long corridor to the main part of the hospital, both of us commented on how strange it was to be there again. She recalled to me the nights that her own husband had been rushed in for some complication of his cancer, the memories suddenly vivid again, many years after his death. I recalled the last time I had been in that hallway, walking through with my dad to find Vernon after his terrible accident. A chaplain had met us at the door, guiding us into increasingly quiet rooms, each with heavier air than the last until we saw him on the table, covered in blood. These are the memories that had been waiting for our return. Its as if they were stuck to the walls, the place with trauma changed us at a cellular level.
But the memories didn’t upset us. These things happened a long time ago, and we could reflect on that. We were able to walk through this haunted hallway and say, “Yes, I know this place deep in my body; part of me is at home here. This place, in some ways, made me who I am today. It doesn’t frighten me anymore.” We were able to walk the corridor of traumatic memories and smile at one another. Though we have experienced a lot of death together, we’ve also learned to walk near it. Our being here together made it a beautiful thing, rather than tragic. It felt more like a toast to our long friendship, and what we’ve endured side by side, rather than any kind of grief. We are traveling companions.
It was late, and the hospital floors were quiet. A giant Christmas tree was being put up and trimmed. What a comforting treat the visiting families would find in the morning. The charge nurse at the desk looked familiar. Was she one of the nurses who had tended Vernon? No, it was my cousin’s wife, but her hair was different, after growing back after chemo. We don’t know each other well, but I’ve always clicked with her when we see each other. In fact, years ago, when Vernon was sleeping in the ICU, she’d left me a note in the room, offering to bring my a coffee if ever I was around on the late shift (I never was, but I loved her thoughtfulness.) More memories. She was able to give Sandy some loose information and we went in to see our friend.
There we found her, peaceful in the bed. It was comforting to see that there was a hospital volunteer sitter in there with her, and that she hadn’t been alone the whole time. Sandy prayed a peaceful blessing over her and she responded with a word of clarity. We were also able to connect a little with the sitter, who told us that the reason she does this work is because her own son had died of cancer in his twenties three years ago, and this is her way of serving others in his honor. “I never want anyone to have to be alone,” she said. Isn’t it fascinating and wonderful how those who have experienced loss and death are able to be there for others who may be be alone and afraid at the threat of those things. Hospitals are filled with the threat of loss and death. But they are also filled with grace, surprises, history, and love. They are filled with all of humanity, at any given moment. And many of these people are going to leave changed forever.
Update: our friend was released Saturday evening, reportedly looking and acting better than she has in weeks. Her life is extended…as is hope.
I have some exciting news to share. I’ve been given a gallery show in March to show my Groundbreaking Girls series. Since January, I’ve painted well over 100 ladies…that’s at least ten a month. I wasn’t sure where they would all end up, but I kept up the discipline, and so I’m thrilled that they’ll be in a Gallery. This is a very special place in San Clemente, filled not only with local artists but also many works of my abstract expressionist heroes. When the gallery owner was testing my work on the walls, he actually took down a Joseph Alber’s print in order to make space for my relatively small paintings. The moment was not lost on me, obviously. I thought perhaps it was Joseph’s way of thanking me for painting his wife, Anni on National Widow’s Day last year. I also brought another painting (which has sold since) along…“Marisol,” who was also an artist. In her day, she had been pop-art friends with Andy Warhol, so I brought her into the gallery room with his soup-cans and silkscreened prints. With my girls on hand, it was like I was in the company of old friends. A truly remarkable experience…especially when I was offered the show.
It will be in March, with is Women’s History Month, and I will be showing at least 25 of my paintings. It sounds far away still, but there is much work to do as far as framing and preparation. And of course, there are more women to paint! I’m so grateful and excited for the opportunity. On top of that, the gallery owner is suggesting the idea that I can be the ‘portrait painter’ for the gallery, as I’m the only portraitist who is represented at this point.
Back in September, my friend Nicole signed me up for two-weekend workshop in LA, called “How to Get Hung,” given by a long-standing and well known dealer and gallery owner in LA and New York. It was great, we met some other artists and learned a lot from the teacher. I had the intention of showing my abstract work, but she thought my paintings of ladies were more ready…it’s true, there is a large body already available. I did introduce myself at a couple of LA galleries that were recommended as a fit, but at the same time, I met the owner of the OC Contemporary Gallery, who seemed to ‘get’ what I was doing with my Groundbreaking Girls series. So I’m thrilled! I expect it to be a very special event. I’ll keep you posted.
In Early December, I’ll be showing more of my work at my parent’s annual home-gallery show. I believe that will be the first weekend in December, but I’ll come back with an official invite for that too, if anyone wants to drop by. I think I’ll be showing some abstracts there. Oooh, so much to do!
Check out more histories and paintings (there is a small show there now too!) at GroundbreakingGirls…and see what else I’ve been up to. 🙂 Thanks!
(Beware this post, it rambles…and that’s the way it is sometimes if you want to process out-loud.)
This poem came up from this day last year. I was doing daily grief-writing then. I miss that in some ways, but I can’t imagine keeping that up every day over a year. I’m grateful for that season, however.
When the memories come,
I stop what I’m doing
squinting my mind to see them clearly
But even now, they are brief,
waning like a once full moon,
white against a pale morning sky.
What I have loved I cannot hold.
Like the tail of a waking dream,
I grasp at the fading details
lest I doubt whether I dreamed at all.
I was getting ready for my pilgrimage to England, a place I always miss in the autumn. I tend to miss what it stood for once, though it does no longer. A place we were together, where even if the future seemed daunting, we would confront it side by side. If one was down, the other would pull him up. And then, when the cycle changed, the other would pull her up. When I think of life in America since then, I don’t think of Vernon and me side by side. I think of doing it alone. And when I think to the future, that is what is most daunting, but what I’ve come to accept: I’ll be doing it alone. It’s ok, I’ve accepted that, and hopefully I will be getting even better with time.
Rather than chapters of my life as some people look at the seasons of their past, I think of them as novellas, each a separate volume, complete in itself. So rather than the story of my life, I guess its more of a library. And I expect this season is just another story, perhaps a sequel to the last one. When I think that way, I can relax, grab a cup of tea, sit in a great easy chair in the company of these volumes of memories, knowing there are shelves upon shelves yet to fill up.
Notice Vernon’s amatic font on the pillow? Apparently he still refuses to be relegated to the shelf,.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
― T.S. Eliot
“But being alone is a different situation completely. Being alone is a state of being; loneliness is a state of mind. When you’re alone you’re forced to realize all the things you don’t have, sure, but you’re also forced to realize all the things about yourself that you couldn’t when you spent your days memorizing someone else. ” —Adrea Cope
My therapist told me that I should be journalling again. I’ve written some things down that I’m not ready to share publicly this stage of the game…but it is helping me process. Writing is like squeezing the toxins out the muscles, its a real work out. It’s also like swimming, stretching out at last, suspended. I’m out of practice, but just in time, I’ll be starting up with a new writer’s group next month. I miss writing.
I miss writing, but I don’t know what to type here most of the time. When Vernon was with us, writing every night or morning was a part of my survival routine. But now I realize that taking care of him, dropping everything to rush up with every emergency, fussing over who would pick up and watch the kids if I was home late…that kind of saved me too. There was a great purpose to my life, more intense than any purpose I’d been called into before. It was awful, but it all kept me going…the rollercoaster, the unknowns, the familiar, the faith and lack thereof.
And then early grief was another stage, and in that, I gave myself a new purpose: I’d take care of the kids, make sure they got some psychological healing, pursue the dreams and path I’d been given. There is something to that…I’m happy about the way I handled that time. But now…we are in the second year, and though there is no official timeline, I have to say I’ve been shocked by how hard it’s been. What was I thinking…that having a plan, keeping myself busy was going to keep loneliness at bay? Because I’ve felt so lonely. I’m struggling with the common elements of grief that people usually feel in the early days (but again, there is no official timeline.) I wake up in the night, I struggle to fall asleep in the first place, I cry a lot. I miss him.
But these days, I don’t miss Vernon Version .02 so much as before. I’m starting to acutely remember and miss the Version I married and had children with. The great thing about doing life with him, the thing that underscored our relationship even when we disagreed or if life felt boring, was that we were a team. One could never fall too far, one could never get too sad or crazy without the other being there to lift one up and back into modern life. We could make decisions about parenting together—we could make decisions about what we were doing on the weekend, for that matter. We could encourage each other’s dreams for the future. Mostly…it was good to know you always had someone on your side, someone that knew and accepted you as completely as they could and still loved you.
He was so handsome. And so kind, generous, intelligent. Such an oddball (that was probably my favorite.) My therapist says this is a normal stage with normal feelings. Maybe I haven’t grieved this version of him yet. Or maybe this is just a part of the healing, no labels necessary.
My widow-mentor and friend, Sandy Hazen, sent me this link about the difference of being lonely or just alone, which is very good.Truthfully, I quite enjoy being alone, but the loneliness is an unwelcome house guest that hasn’t quite left yet. Other widowed people I’ve heard from say it takes several years to feel normal again…not just one, as society sort of leads us to believe. (Where do we get that, anyway?)
As my therapist says: “Maybe this is normal. It takes time….no telling how long.” And that’s not a bad thing, though uncomfortable. But I have faith.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak about Vernon to a class of Design students at Chapman University in Orange, CA. The professor, Rachelle Chuang is also an artist who showed near my mother at the Laguna Art Festival this summer. She incorporates a lot of lettering into her collage work (you can see her work here) so when my mother told her about Vernon, whose work she was already familiar with, she invited me to speak to her Typography class about ‘the man behind the design.’
I brought a lot of his antique sourcebooks, some photos, and a notebook of type sketches. I think the sketches impressed the students more than the 51 fonts he made for Google between 2010-2013. One was impressed that there were Pokemon drawings mixed in with all the lettering. Another couple of students poured over how straight his lines were: “It doesn’t look like he used a ruler. I can’t make that straight of a line WITH a ruler!” (I’ll share some of his sketchbook pages at the end.)
Of course I couldn’t tell the class how he made his designs. I never understood the workings of his font-design software. In fact, when he worked, he was such a multitasker, that it was hard to tell if he was actually designing or just plucking away at the keys, listening to loud music or some British comedian or even a news channel. It seems he was doing all of them. He had the kind of mind that could handle a lot of things at once, and yet he was able to hone into the tiny details that ensured that the weights and the kerning were even, printing out page after page of a single letter, comparing them at different sizes to look for differences only a type-designer’s eye could see.
But I could talk to the class about the philosophy behind his work. He was involved in the Open Source community, which allows users to collaborate, share and change the software codes freely (as opposed to Closed Source, whose codes closely guarded by a commercial company.) Vernon loved the idea of sharing information on the internet and being able to get his fonts into the hands of the people, so that they could custom make their own websites and publish their own materials as they chose and not be beholden to the few companies that seemed to hold the keys at the time. When Google began to pay him for his work, which would be made free for anyone to download, he was attacked by the powers-that-were. In his mind, I think he was a bit of a modern day Design Robin Hood. At the time there were only a handful of fonts that one could use on the internet…but now Google shows almost 850, and many of the traditional font foundries are happy to get on board. It was the way the future was going, and Vernon just happened to be on the spear’s head. He was also generous in other ways: happy to teach others to make their own fonts, and would guide anyone who emailed him questions to an answer.
The other thing I could share to the class was my own feelings about being a creative maker. When I look at Vernon’s body of work online (only what was published in a few short years) I am amazed by the fact he was able to work so fast and put so much out there. We had no idea that he would be struck down and die young. None of us do. But we all have a chance to contribute and leave a legacy. It’s so easy to focus on getting things perfect (in our eyes) and hoarding our gifts because we don’t think someone is willing to pay enough for them. Van Gogh never allegedly sold one painting in his lifetime, but there were 900 more waiting to be discovered (and sold for a high price) after he died. If he hadn’t made the work, that wouldn’t be the case. His legacy became more important than his life. I encourage creative people not to wait: make more work, share your work, let it take on a life of its own, free it up to find the people who WILL appreciate it. When Vernon died, we didn’t care about the things he owned, we cared about the things he made. I barely remember the infuriating moments or his weaknesses, but I remember his generosity, his kindness. And after speaking about his work, I realized his brain damage and years of disability were just a season in a greater life. I remembered his brilliance. Thankfully we have these fonts speaking out to our family (and still being used around the world) to remind us of his contribution.
Life is short, some are shorter than others. We are all uniquely gifted. This is your time to share yourself…who knows what legacy you will leave.
(A meme I discovered from one of Vernon’s font’s, Amatic.)
Anyway, Rachelle (the professor) suggested the possibility of curating a small exhibition of his work, perhaps in the university library…we do still have a lot of his old sourcebooks to show his inspiration. We’ll see…to be continued. 🙂