The Gift of the North

The Norwegian trip last month was so healing and wonderful in so many ways, but one of the surprising gifts was the effect it had on my artwork. I came back from that light-filled expanse, not wanting to lose the surreal sense of space and grandeur. I thought I’d want to use the time I was away to write, but no words came. I just was present, drinking coffee and eating cheese and homemade bread, listening between languages, taking hikes, and realizing people survive in expanses without many other people, and have for ages. Something jarred me—in a good way. As it was, my brain needed some jarring, so I was open to the change.

Anyway, when I returned, even on the drive home from the airport, to be specific, I decided I’d try my hand at some abstract painting. I started by studying the abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler, who had herself once been hugely inspired by a trip to Nova Scotia. Afterward, she said: “I had the landscape in my arms as I painted it. I had the landscape in my mind and shoulder and wrist.”

Here is my painting of Helen. And following are a few more that I made based somewhat on my Norwegian experience. There was something about clarity of reflections on the fjords that really jostled my soul. I imagined if I painted images and their reflections being somewhat wrong, somewhat off, it would also help me make sense of how my own world had been split in half in so many ways: Vernon’s old self/brain injured self, the me before the trauma/after the trauma, life/death, past/future, even Maki having parents on other sides of the world. There was so much clear dichotomy, so many fractures…but how to pull them back together into one place. I think that’s where I am…I am at the beginning of trying to pull these worlds together again. Also, reflections (and reflecting) can be deceptive—which image is more real? Can’t they both be?

This is the first one I did, or one of the first….It’s actually one painting (14×18″) but I’m not sure which way I meant to stand it up. I also like how it reminds me now of a heart monitor. But that’s not what I was thinking at the time.

Here is the next one (bigger at 24X36″), also based on reflections. There are a few things going on here that I had in mind, and though I think it might look unfinished, I have moved on, so therefore, it is finished.

Here’s another that I worked a while on. I’m calling it “The Midnight Sun.” Don’t know when I’ll get to be inspired again by that surreal light, but for me, I feel that this one managed to capture some of that strange double-dimention-ness. I also like that this was built up on an old board, primed by Vernon years ago, that he intended to use for himself. I have one more of those floating around, but nothing worth showing you on that one yet. (16×20″)

Here is one more…you’d never know that such an amateur-looking piece would actually be layers and layers of paint, pictures started over and over, all based on the landscape, sort of. I’m calling it ” The Moon is Down,” which is actually the name of a song that Maki wrote on his guitar (and, he discovered just this week, the name of a John Steinbeck book that happens to take place in Norway!) I wish I could express in words the things this one means to me. But I can’t, so I paint…and share.

So this is the ongoing gift of the North to me. I’ll continue this story in another post, as I share the next step of my painting journey. But that wouldn’t make sense without this. And that’s how things seem to go. One step leads us to the next. No matter how strange and new.

If you love any one of these paintings enough to buy one, please let me know. This is a way of supporting the family now. But it is a way to stay present in my life, no matter what gets thrown our way. And not just that, a way to throw something back! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Secondary Loss

 

“Anger surfaces once you are feeling safe enough to know you will probably survive whatever comes. At first, the fact you lived through the loss is probably surprising to you. Then more feelings hit, and anger is usually at the front of the line as feelings of sadness, panic, hurt and loneliness also appear. “—David Kessler

Who knows why the waves of grief set in when they do? Or why sometimes are more strong than others? This round, I’m sure, has been triggered by the time of year—it was last August that Vernon spent those twenty days from going into the hospital with an infection to breathing his last breath. It was the most traumatic part of the whole event, I suppose because before then, there had always been a smidgen of hope.  For most of this year, I just felt sorry for him, sorry for the kids, sad that we have to live without our person. This round, there was little space for feeling sad, for missing him. I’ve been angry. I felt abandoned. Fearful again of the worst case scenarios. I’m not saying it’s logical, but it’s been overwhelming. I also hear that year anniversaries are major triggers for grief. But even knowing that, one can’t really be prepared for how it will surface.

Yesterday, I came upon the phrase ‘secondary losses,’ which helped me a lot. Here is a little graph. It’s a different level of mourning—something that, until now, I haven’t begun to have a word for myself. Naming things is important. But ultimately, it’s all grief.

Here’s another chart that people might find helpful as they navigate their way through the stages of grief. 😛

The Cloud of Witnesses

I wanted to share a painting I recently made. I’m calling it “The Cloud of Witnesses” because it looks to me like so many souls who have gone before and are gathering to cheer us, the living, on. For anyone who has lost someone special, I hope you can find my small representation of your loved one in the mix of this picture. Whatever you are going through, I feel like they’d want you to push through because  even from their supernatural perspective, they believe in you. Take heart!

Hebrews 12:2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,

An Answer for Thought

I was talking to a nurse friend today….really just using her as a sounding board for some of the mysteries surrounding Vernon’s medical journey. Its been so easy lately for to look back and wonder where things went wrong. What if he’d been placed on another coma-medication instead of the one that damaged his kidneys? What if the first nursing home he’d gone to hadn’t been so lazy in their approach to physical therapy? What if we’d had better insurance? What if he hadn’t been put on so much crazy-making Ativan? What if? What if? But then…what if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet? What if he hadn’t survived the night of the crash? I don’t have anything at all to offer those kinds of questions. It feels like a helpful exercise to dig back through some of this history, but what am I looking for really? Something to blame? Even if I found something, what are the chances I’ll be in this exact situation again…and what good would that secret knowledge do me? Even if I want to help another person, what are the chances this person will be in exactly the same situation with a brain injured in exactly the same place?  Sometimes they are worse injuries, sometimes they are less, but that will clear before my inconsequential  advice is asked of.

My nurse friend, who has seen quite a lot in her ICU job, suggested to me that one of the main reasons that Vernon didn’t get better, beyond all of the different variables of his journey, was because he was older. He was only 47 when he was injured, but she thought it was likely that had he been twenty years younger, his kidneys might not have been attacked in the same way. His body was older. I had never thought about that, since I’ve heard of younger people with brain stem injuries who didn’t make it past a week. “That’s the brain stem,” she told me. “That’s different. In my experience, from what I’ve seen, the body swings back a lot easier under 30.”

Now this isn’t to say that another man injured in the same way at the same age or older can’t recover. But it had never struck me till today to consider his age in my list of “what ifs.” I’d been looking for faults in the system, little hidden pathways that might have changed the outcome. But to think of his age as a major variable in the puzzle never occurred to me. In the care homes we’d been in, he’d been a spring chicken. Everyone was shocked to see him living among the elderly and commented on his youth. But perhaps they were commenting on the unfairness of his being there, of seeing his young children and wife around him, when most of the visiting families were in their 60s-70s and the patients were their parents. I’d come to think of him as “too young”…but perhaps for his particular set of traumas, he was actually ‘too old.”

Again, I can’t know the answers. But this shock of an idea does make me feel like perhaps I don’t need to look for more medical answers. I could, just as a trivial pursuit, if not useful knowledge. But this new idea blows the importance of the others away for the time being. He was too old to survive that kind of injury. Perhaps he did survive longer than expected. It was just that at the time, my expectations were so high.

In looking for a quote to add to this post, I came across this one. It stood out to me only because the meme is in Vernon’s free Amatic font. And by now you know how I feel about his font messages. I read them no matter what. 🙂

But this is not meant to give anyone else answers…or more questions, for that matter. People live healthy, vibrant lives into their 100s sometimes. And babies die too. Age really does have nothing to do with how you live your life. But the thing is, when you lose a loved one, you don’t necessarily have answers. No matter how we obsess over them. As Vernon used to say: “Most often the questions are more important than the answers.”  Not having answers is a way of life…maybe THE way of life. But it’s still ok to wonder.

 

 

Still Giving

Hi everyone! My apologies for the mixup in blog posts this morning. I had been going through some old ones that I’d earlier marked as “private” or perhaps they were just meant to be ‘drafts’, and I accidentally published them again for all to see. Unfortunately, some of them are from darker days when I was feeling a lot of anger. So if you got them, and you are confused about the dates or even my state of mind (or even if the link took you to a “missing’ page) I’m sorry about that. The truth is, its been confusing for me to go through some of these old posts too. So many things I would have forgotten about otherwise, had I not recorded my feelings and thoughts at the time. Thank you, dear readers, for bearing with me as I continue to hash through the strange landscape of memory and loss as I gather my bearings of hope in the future.

I have been thinking a lot about this time last summer. This week, we hit the 11 month mark since Vernon died, so we are coming up to the time of year when things started escalating rapidly. There was all that business with the swollen wrist, then arm, then surgery, then the fresh hope of changing doctors and dialysis centers…all spiraling quickly into sepsis, and then palliative care and hospice. There was hardly time, I realize now, to process the rapid changes at all. But as much as I miss his being present with us on this planet (I admit I even miss the loving work of squeezing out as much of his personality as we could recognize while we were with him) and at times, I resent him for unintentionally leaving us father-less and mate-less, I also have to recognize that life is easier now: we don’t have to look at him in such awful pain, we don’t have to feel so helpless toward his recovery, we don’t have to ride the rollercoaster of hope and discomfort. Its a strange thing to admit, but I think the relief is becoming somewhat stronger this summer as I remember those terrible end days. My therapist says this is a good thing, a healthy thing. He didn’t have to tell me this for me to know that is true. With it comes a sensation of dropping gently back to earth.

Here are some excerpts from a post written this time last year that I just re-read called Being Present.

Its been a wild ride with Vernon the past couple of weeks. Dialysis at the new center is going well, though there have been times we need to cut his time short because of his outbursts and impatience. I believe he is off his painkillers now, for the most part, and has been sleeping better at night, according to Joe. His his arm, though still somewhat swollen and deformed, seems to be settling down a little more.

His behavior and awareness still can change by the day. Last week, for the first time, he insisted I look for/order a  ticket to England for a day’s visit (he thought we were presently in Japan.) He insisted he could go all by himself. Yesterday, he wanted to fly to America FROM England—this is a more typical argument from him.

In my own life, I’ve been struggling with discontent. Although some people say I “deserve” to have those feelings once in awhile, I don’t like them. They can be other people’s behaviors and attitudes that frustrate me, as well as the injustice of certain situations.   I won’t go into detail about all of that, but I’ll admit my guilt in harboring resentment. I’m at a point where I realize I have to deal with some of this and find new approaches to ‘letting go’ for the sake of my own sanity and peace, now and in the future.

I mention this here because I brought a book to read aloud to Vernon this week that I thought also might help me work through some of my issues. Vernon seems to follow abstract thought better than a storyline sometimes, so I figured it was worth a shot. The words seemed to relax him…and I could feel it working on my own mind as well.

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Yesterday, I brought the book again, but since he was happy to just listen to music on my headphones, I read it to myself, writing thoughts down in a notebook for later. It was one of the more peaceful days we’ve had, both of us doing our own thing, but together. From time to time, I would look up from my notes and just practice being present with him.

I was able to look past his broken body, his misaligned eyes, his disability, our history, my expectations, our losses and see HIM. All the rest of him, all the MOST of him. I was thinking about how we are so much MORE than our opinions and our plans, our hopes and our fears, our functions and dysfunctions, the way we look, the way we sound. It was remarkable to recognize this wonderful spirit of man sharing the same space as me, while watching his lifeblood literally flowing on the outside of his body through the dialysis tubes. THAT is more who he is than a brain damaged invalid with kidney failure. Talk about an inner life! It’s all on the surface with this guy, if I’m willing to look a little further.

I wrote in my notebook about the moment: “I see you beyond your eyes. I see you beyond your body and face. And I am grateful to be with you here today.”

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I smiled at my husband. He looked up at me, smiling dreamily back. He took off his headphones, taking stock of the information in front of him. He said: “I see your ability to read things and write things and collect information. I now see who you are: someone who wants to learn by finding knowledge on your own. Not everyone can do that. You are able to do something that very few people can do. I wonder if I’ve noticed that before. It makes me love you more.”

Now, while I won’t agree that not many people can do this, it was touching for him to express this appreciation back to me, especially since I had just taken the time to really see him. This is the gift of being present with someone. What you give can be mirrored back to you. Two souls connecting despite your differences and disappointments.

It was a powerful experience, enough to help me today in the middle of an election cycle that has everyone feeling they are right and therefore others are so wrong. It’s the dialogue of dissent and it’s very hard to avoid, especially if you feel passionate about certain issues. But I am going to try to practice looking beyond all the things that identify us to each other. I know this is possible. And that love and joy and peace can be found there. We are more the same than we are told. We are each souls. We are children of God. We have more in common than we take time to see…but when we do, it’s very good.

I’m still dealing with my forgiveness issues and my resentments and my pride and my letting go. But I would say yesterday’s experience was worth writing down and remembering. A note to self. People are always bigger and more alive than I understand. May I continue to see that.

 

 Back to today, July 25, 2017. I keep forgetting the things that Vernon taught me. This moment, in the eye of the storm, he taught me something that meant so much, and yet it was so fleeting. It’s time for me to learn it again. One thing I don’t regret, after all of this, is squeezing the most I could out of the time we had. Sometimes that seemed like so little…but I do believe he gave us everything he had left, until he was truly empty. How many people can say that? It was a painful time, it’s STILL painful, but this I know is true. Every last bit of love, every last bit of thought, every last bit of his personality was squeezed out as if he was a tube of paint. And THAT is where the gift of the last years of his life was given… is still giving.

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