Thursday was tough, I’ll admit it. The 24th was a sad day, but I had some wonderful friends come over for coffee as soon as I had dropped off the kids at their schools. One brought me roses from her garden and another took a walk with me on the beach. Though most days I quite enjoy my pockets of solitude, it was a good to get out, to move in the world of the living. I didn’t do any office work, but I did dabble on a painting —I needed to let the day leave a mark somehow before it was all over. Later, my parents took the kids and I out to dinner, and we spent the evening enjoying each other’s company, talking about everything but Vernon. I don’t know how that happened—perhaps we were too sad to want to talk about him anymore. It’s been a long Vernon-saturated year.
But I don’t know if it was just sadness for missing him. It was momentous enough to realize we had hit a year. We’d finished the year of firsts. There was a feeling somehow that we had officially reached the end of the official mourning period or something. If I were a Victorian, I would be free to stop wearing a black veil on my black hat. Even Maki, when we got home from dinner that night didn’t want the day to end. He asked a friend from school to come over and take a walk with him. I don’t know what they talked about, if anything…but I appreciated that he still needed to mark the day on his own, and he figured out how to do it and who to call. Again and again, the cream that rises from this whole journey is our wonderful friendships. That day, my bent-up heart filled with gratitude anew.
By the following day, some palpable weight had lifted (not that the future waves of grief won’t come when they will) and there was something invigorating about having a whole year behind us. We’d survived a year without him, after all. Now we know we can do this. A few days later, as planned, we got together with the tribe of friends who knit the closest during Vernon’s death…and the period after. These are the ones we mark our biggest holidays with now. We’ve become a strange sort of family, bonded by the pain of walking someone out of this world, and now we celebrate each others victories and worries with extra interest and care. Vernon left a lot of legacy around us. We raised a glass to his first year in Heaven and put candles on two cakes for two recent earthly birthdays. There was so much joy, so much connection. I could almost feel his presence there again with us. But this time it was his whole presence, nothing broken or confused. Just a gentle washing of knowing and loving. And of course there was music. There will always be music.
…and oh hey, I just now found a font message from Vernon. He knows these things.
I’ve continued to use the practice of painting as a healing balm, which has been especially helpful in these August weeks so close to the year mark of Vernon’s death ( the date is tomorrow, in fact!) You may not be able to know without being told that all of the following paintings are based on bones—at least that is where they started. I had this idea of going back to some of Vernon’s original fractures by looking at images of x-rays, then abstracting them in order to create something new. Of course, with this kind of painting in particular, the artist has very little say in where the painting will go, how it will emerge, or if she’ll even like the thing when it’s finished. There are often a lot of layers and a lot of covering up, a lot of frustration—but also, a lot of freedom and joy. Ultimately, I hoped to make something beautiful out of something broken and painful. And if not always beautiful, at least colorful.
Why bones? It was the starting place for us after Vernon’s accident—the parts that were supposed to heal most quickly. But even though they healed, they never held him up again. But bones…what are they? They are the scaffolds of our bodies on which the rest rests. Hidden from view all our lives, these are the parts of our earthly bodies that remain the longest when the rest has passed away. Bone marrow produces the blood and stem cells that keep us alive…and can help give life to others! All this thinking about our bones made me wonder: can they hold our memories too, can they hold our trauma? It sure feels like it sometimes, even if it’s merely poetic, rather than scientific association. People talk about feeling things deep in their bones, so I know I’m not alone. This series for me has been about exploring some of these things and releasing some of this pain and turning it into something else. I couldn’t fix Vernon’s broken body, but I can attempt to take this kind of healing work into my own hands, with the brush as my scalpel.
I’m leaving the working titles off as I share them because I don’t want to influence the viewing. All are oil paint.
in closing here is a poem for thought by the always wonderful Mary Oliver, called Bone.
through the pale-pink morning light.
The memories continue to resurface from last year. I hope people don’t mind my sharing so many of them. I wonder if I’ll do the same next year. Maybe. Why not? I don’t want to forget. As I’ve said before, its a lot like childbirth…such a significant thing that it seems a waste to simply forget it. And for me, talking about things helps me validate them, helps them seem real even after the events are over. I don’t know if I’m honoring his life this way because he was so much more than this for his nearly-50 years, but I am certainly trying to honor his death (which was one of the most significant parts of it.)
Here was a delightful, yet sad, memory that showed up today on Facebook. Do you remember this? He’s eating chocolate ice cream.
He hadn’t been officially allowed to eat anything for years (although we did sneak him milkshakes and chocolate when no one was looking, things he could safely swallow without breaking into a choking fit) but when I finally signed off on his Advanced Directive, the nursing home allowed him to have whatever he wanted from the cafeteria. And all he wanted was chocolate ice cream…ambrosia of the gods. It was such a gift to be able to give him some small pleasure. I love remembering how he enjoyed it.
Today, I got a letter in the mail from the hospice company. They send check up letters every so often, just to show they still care, but I haven’t taken them up on any of their offers of support. (I should, I just get so busy.) Anyway, today’s letter included a lovely poem by Margaret Mead. This stood out to me especially as she was one of my early paintings this year in my Groundbreaking Girls series, and also one of my favorites.
Here is the beautiful poem:
To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore, gazing at a beautiful sea – remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest and its grand majesty – remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity – remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.
On This Day in History: The kids started school last year and I went up to Costa Mesa with my packed bags, planning to stay near Vernon as long as I needed to (which turned out to be eight days.) No matter what, I was NOT going to miss his death…at least, I hoped I wouldn’t, and I wanted to make myself as available as possible.
This year, we have another week till the kids go back to school. They aren’t thrilled about it (though Maki has a better attitude than his sister this round—he wants to see his friends) and so far, I haven’t been thrilled about it either. It’s been a really great summer. I do love that late wake up time time without the morning rush. It’s been great having so much down time to ourselves …and with each other. This was the first summer in three years that we could be mostly home and relaxed in it. Granted, Maki and I went to Norway, and he stayed a few extra weeks. But even that gave me extra time with Justine to just cuddle and arrange play dates. I feel like we got some some equilibrium back between us. We aren’t so stressed. She’s not so nervous that I’m going to leave each day and not come back. Yes, I still work from home and she still wants my attention at the most inopportune times, but I feel like we’ve relaxed into it. I hope we can take this into the year. Whatever happens, I know we got through the last one..and the three before that. It can’t be any worse, can it?
I’m not sure if I have introduced out latest member of the family on this blog. Introducing Benson, the Hamster. Justine finally got him on her birthday in June after six months of plans and promises. He’s the smallest sort of starter-pet but now we can’t imagine life without him. He’s a total mental health pet for her…and if I’m honest, for me too. 🙂
So here we are…at almost a year, perhaps a little fragile, but also kind of empowered in the fact that we’ve almost made it a year. That has got be worth a piece of cake at least, right?
I received a surprise email yesterday from an old student friend of Vernon’s, someone I’ve never heard from before. I’ll share some of it here to keep it in the Vernon-archives. It’s pretty funny.
He and I produced the show catalogue together – a statement by each artist, plus some drawings. He typed it all up on his wonky typewriter, I formatted and xeroxed it, and we spent hours collating and folding it. The front cover was a joint effort, and the back was by Vernon: a picture of DuChamp’s ‘Fountain’ with the text – “He took a fountain and named it urinal”. I had a copy until a few years ago but, alas, I can no longer find it. Perhaps he kept his? What I do still have is our 1989 degree show catalogue. If you don’t have a copy, let me know and I’ll scan you a copy of Vernon’s photo.
Both Vernon and I had an active dislike of the college tutors, who were more interested in drinking in the student bar and chasing after the prettier girls. We quite often ended up in arguments with them, both separately and together. On one occasion, we were given an exercise: paint an object, accurately reproducing the colour and tone. Most people chose a predictable assortment of things – a piece of fruit; a vase, and so on. Vernon painted a cornflakes box flat grey, and then painted his canvass the same. The tutor was annoyed and attempted to humiliate Vernon by saying he hadn’t reproduced the colour correctly, at which point Vernon pulled out the can of house paint he’d used to do both objects. We really weren’t popular.