Thought of July
The month of July is drawing to a close. It is a time where Cindy is very much on my mind. On her birthday, I hiked through Blandford Nature Center with a friend. Cindy and I enjoyed nature walks and it was a good way to remember her on her special day. The center has changed since we were last there together. I wish she could see it.
A week later I was kayaking again, introducing a friend to Wabasis Lake - a large local lake that has fun places to explore hidden among the reeds. Cindy and I discovered kayaking together and we really enjoyed it through the years. I hadn’t been on the water for two years - she had become too weak to paddle and I just wanted to stay available to her. Last summer, it felt disloyal to take my boat out when she could barely walk. So my kayak hung on the garage wall until last week.
The flowers Cindy had given me for my garden bloom in July. They are a beautiful reminder of our friendship.
This has not been a great year and in some ways I’m glad she didn’t live to see the pandemic, the brutality, the national strife…but I will always miss her and July will always bring her to mind.
Mary Oliver was one of her favorite poets. I’ll leave you with this poem that she read at a friend’s funeral a few months before her own.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I met a friend for breakfast. Her mother had been a dear, dear friend from our college days until her death. One of the loveliest gifts she gave me was her family and we still keep in touch. As Dawn and I got caught up over tea and coffee she asked how I was doing. I’d recently lost another dear friend and two days later, another woman who’d been a spiritual mentor to me. Grief has me in its grip.
One thing I’ve experienced with grief is that it brings up older losses. Although Jan has been gone for years now, the feelings spring both fresh in this new grieving time. It all pretty much merges together. So we talked about friendship and loss, and reminisced about her mom and dad.
Loss and grief is the price of love. Oh, how it hurts. But oh, how it’s worth it. We talked of that as well. Hesitantly, she asks me, “Did you get a card in the mail from me?” I hadn’t. She was. a bit frustrated with her post office branch. She’d had other mail go astray lately as well. I promised I’d let her know when it came. It came yesterday. A hand made card wishing me recovery from an illness I'd had a week ago.
She’s her mother’s daughter. Creative and thoughtful, and as a nod to our mutual connection, the coffee cup was made from a scrap of a painting that had Jan’s signature on it.
It warms my heart. People we love are never really gone. They leave loving reminders to us everywhere. And I am grateful.
Price of Love
Several weeks ago, I got a series of cryptic texts from a good friend’s husband. She had been hospitalized for a couple of weeks and had been moved into rehab. While she has an incurable form of breast cancer, with treatment the oncology team said she could live another ten years. That was three years ago, but lately she’d developed an intense headache that wouldn’t go away. Numerous tests and scans showed nothing, but after a year of non-stop head pain, it had increased to a point that was unbearable and she was experiencing blackouts.
Neurological tests, blood tests, CAT scans, MRIs, and more revealed little. Medications were tried, some were adjusted and there was some relief of pain…sort of. While all this was happening, she was also unable to swallow and was losing weight that she couldn’t afford to lose. After some time, the swallowing issue was finally addressed and she was able to start nibbling some food again.
But the doctors remained perplexed. She was moved to rehab to work on various therapies to strengthen and keep her balance. That made me quite hopeful. During our visits I always made jokes to make her laugh. I love to hear her laugh and laughter is good medicine.
But then the texts came. Could I come by the rehab around six? No, my husband and I had plans to go out to dinner but I could come after. That wasn’t going to work but he wouldn’t say why. He started floating out other times for the next day, I kept texting questions and he kept dodging. Finally I called him, but I was still not getting any straight answers. I told Mike something was up and we changed our plans. I texted that I was coming and with that, in my flowing long skirt, I went to Mary Free Bed to see my friend for another time that day.
Her husband met me at the ground level. He was still obfuscating but I figured I’d find out soon what was up. It was her birthday in a few days - maybe they wanted help planning something. It was a long shot, but I just could not figure out what was happening.
When we got to the room, another couple was there. They are close friends of this couple and I am acquainted with them so we chatted amiable for a bit and then, as calm as could be, my friend told us that the doctors had finally discovered the problem. It seems that one percent of breast cancer patients develop a secondary, aggressive form of cancer. This is what had happened and it had wrapped around a nerve cluster in the brain stem radiating pain to the left side of her head and face.
And then she told us the prognosis. Four to six months to live. That was with the radiation that was going to be started immediately. We talked, asked questions, teared up a bit, and laughed a bit. She was tired and we left her to rest. Hugs, kisses, and ‘see you soon’s. I talked a bit with her husband in the hall. He was devastated but holding up for her sake. So much to do with out of town family coming. Lending support as much as I could, keeping myself composed. I left him to go back to his wife while I made my way to the elevator.
Down in the lobby, I took off my badge, went through the first set of double doors and then to the parking lot. Next to the door was an iron bench with a worn chartreuse cushion. The parking lot was empty and I sat on the bench and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed some more.
And then, because I have a convoluted artist’s way of thinking, I thought of the Van Gough drawing titled “Weeping Woman.” It captures the expression of grief. Then I pictured my black flowing skirt, the bench against a concrete wall with the solitary light fixture illuminating the entrance with it’s cold light. And I thought it would make a good composition for a painting reflecting grief. Solitary, hard, barren, with washed out color.
I am entering that world - the world of grief - again. But to wish away the pain is to wish away the love. And the is something I cannot do.
After I'd posted the first icon I wrote (factoid - you write an icon, you don't paint it), a friend who is undergoing treatment for cancer commented how much she liked it. So much so, she was wondering how she might be able to acquire it. The tradition of creating icons has a pretty strict stipulation that you don't give away your first one because it is full of your frailties and flesh, not spirit and prayer. While she was gracious when I explained that, I determined she'd have one to help her along in her healing journey.
Carolyn Rock and the rest of the West Michigan iconography family were gracious in assisting me with materials, prayer, and moral support in creating the Archangel Gabriel. The messenger. My prayer is that he brings a message of healing to my friend.
After a couple weeks it was finished, and I presented it to my friend. She was speechless. No small feat.
Have a glimpse. And while you're thinking of it, join me in prayer for her healing.
The morning was shrouded in fog which gave it a quiet beauty. As we pulled into the cemetery, a group of mourners emerged from the mist to our left. I pointed to Mike and said, “Over there” and we made our way to the small group. Today was the day we’d join Don with Jan. The weather was fitting.
Mike and I joined their children and one grandchild to lay him to rest. As we waited, we reminisced. Stories of Don and stories of Jan. Laughter, tears and waiting. And waiting. And even more waiting. Where the heck was Don? Wasn’t the internment at 9? One daughter said she thought she remembered 9:30 and that number sort of tugged at my memory, too. But the sexton was there waiting as well, and the family hadn’t contacted him. The funeral director must have arranged for him to be here this morning.
After about twenty minutes, another daughter went over to speak with the sexton to see if he had any info. He called the funeral director who was still in another (very close) town and would be there shortly. There had been a mix-up on the calendar, but the delay gave us more time to remember, talk, weep and hug. Earlier, I had mentioned to Mike that I was out of tears. I was wrong and they fell freely. Again.
Turns out, Don was late for his own funeral. An irony since he was a very prompt and considerate man. But it is also funny and he’d appreciate the pun. The late Don Upp.
Rest in peace, Don. You are deeply missed.
Grief Comes Knocking
Another week, another grief. Truly, I know that life is made up of losses. I also know that as you age the losses come more frequently. I just didn’t think I was that old, yet.
Three years ago, one of my closest friends died. While she was over 20 years older than me, we had a special kinship not unlike sisters. We met in college studying art together. A friendship was forged and for the next 30 years we traveled together, studied together, painted together and delivered art and hung shows together. Our families meshed as we shared laughter and tears. When she died, it was a serious blow but her husband and children were still part of my life. We grieved together, and did our best to move forward.
Early Tuesday morning her husband and our friend Don passed away. It was a bit of a shock because although he’d been hospitalized the doctors had told him they’d be re-evaluating his progress in a month to see if he should go into assisted living or be able to return home with help. Our visits were filled with great conversation and laughter and I was able to catch up with his out of town children. Mike and I visited Sunday afternoon with plans to be back later in the week. Less than 48 hours later he was gone.
While I deeply grieve the loss of Don, it also brings back the loss of Jan. I’m grieving losing her all over again. Don is gone, the house is being emptied and will be sold. I have tons of wonderful memories in that house, in her studio. Every inch of that house was imprinted with Jan and Don’s creativity and art. She did mostly watercolor and after Don retired from his career as a metallurgical/purchasing engineer in the auto industry, enlarged his photography into a second career. He has a lovely book of photos of the Pacific Northwest that you can look at here: http://www.blurb.com/b/168800-the-pacific-northwest
Two mornings ago, I woke up in the wee hours with a start. “I’ll buy the house,” I thought. “It’s a wonderful house. It’s got all those memories and connections, I can have my studio where her studio was…I can hold onto them.” In the cold, clear light of day I realized that wasn’t realistic. The only reason I ever went to that town was to visit them. I have no other reason to live there. I don’t know anyone and really don’t want to leave my neighborhood and my city. I have to let it go.
Cue the theme from Frozen. Let it go. Let it go. Easier said than done.
Here come the tears again.
Last week was a week rich in friendship. Frankly, I’m still in awe.
First, I visited Don and his daughter Dawn. We had breakfast together, then went to Jan’s former studio for more sorting and donating. It was a productive day and at the end, Don gave me one of Jan’s journals/sketchbooks. It was one that documented some of our painting trips together. Waterfall hunting in the UP and Drummond Island. I was deeply touched and enjoyed reading her notes. Then I pulled out my own journals from those trips and had a quiet evening reminiscing our friendship.
The following day was a gathering of my martial arts family to celebrate our teacher and to break bread together. We put on a mean potluck, I must say, but I had to leave early because I was meeting a friend I hadn’t seen since college. We had reconnected through Facebook – sometimes a very handy tool.
She and I met at our former campus and then spent the rest of the afternoon catching up and strolling through Frederick Meijer Gardens. It was a day of great joy and I was wistful as she got into her car to start the four hour drive back to her home.
After a weekend like that, it couldn’t get much better, could it? It did.
Monday, I had plans with another friend to take her to a coworker’s hosta garden. This garden is amazing and is on bus stops for garden tours. Gayle wanted to see it, so I made arrangements for our visit. I drove to her house because we had planned to have breakfast together first. She said we’d be eating outside, so she led the way. My first thought was that she must had had a small group over the night before and wanted to reuse the table setting. It was beautiful and there was room for 10 people.
Then, I saw a group of women hiding around the corner. Still, I was confused. These were women from different areas of my life who didn’t know one another. How were they all there at the same time and for what? By now you, dear reader, know that it was a surprise party. I, however, am not the brightest bulb in the pack. I was trying to reconcile everything that was happening, while they were all laughing at me. Truly, it was successful in the surprise department. Especially, since it wasn’t my birthday, yet.
Nicholas Sparks said, that love, in a nutshell was about giving not receiving. But if you don’t receive love that is given, you rob yourself and you rob the others who are giving it. Because of my background, I often struggle to believe I am cared for. By friends, by family, or by God… it is just hard for me to receive and believe love. That false belief was seriously challenged after a week like this and I am seriously glad.
Power of Art
In an effort to restart a creative life after years of caregiving, I splurged on season tickets for the Grand Rapids Ballet. Once a month or so, I get dressed up, find a friend who’s interested in going, and have a night out that includes visual and musical delights.
The most recent performance was called MOVEMEDIA, which is a group of contemporary works commissioned specifically for Grand Rapids’ company. Patricia Barker, the director of GR Ballet, gave a brief talk before the performances and explained the process of commissioning the pieces and how the different choreographers worked.
Rather than commissioning based on reputation or resume, the dances were chosen based on ideas, giving the work an innovative look at dance. The call for work was answered from artists worldwide. It promised to be an interesting night.
My friend and I took our seats and the first dance was introduced. This was a piece from a Spanish choreographer named Pedro Lozano Gomez. While working with the dancers he did not reveal to them what was going on in his life. He (and they) worked on the expressiveness of the dance. He wanted them to focus on their expression, and did not want their sympathy. Initially, he chose a title that expressed what life feels like with something vital missing. I believe it was “Missing a Limb.” However, Ms. Barker prevailed on him to name it “Juana” after his mother. The main character in the dance is “Mother” and the dance is about slowly losing her to Alzheimer’s.
This fact was revealed right before the curtain was raised and it sucked the air out of my lungs. Since, by current statistics, one in six seniors are dying with some sort of dementia, I feel rather confident that I wasn’t the only one. Still, there’s little comfort in that.
Thank God for kind and sensitive friends. Cindy leaned over and whispered, “Are you ready for this?” “No,” I replied. But just the act of asking me made it bearable. The performance was heartbreaking to me. As “Mother” was slipping away, I saw the others as her children and memories trying to bring her back to them. She drifts farther and farther away. I was quietly crying throughout the piece.
I pray that someday the art I create will have that much power.
Art and Grace
Clearly, I was not operating at full capacity this morning. I was an hour and a half late to meet my friends for breakfast, my hair looked like a scarecrow, and I was lost in an area that was familiar to me. My mind was saying over and over, “I'm an idiot.”
After sending a quick text that I was lost and getting my bearings again, I thought about the negative chatter in my head and decided that wasn't going to define who I was. Yes, I had made several mistakes this morning. It just shows I am human. I decided to re-frame my situation. I'm not an idiot – I will hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection. It has been a rough month, a tough year, and being kind to myself is the wisest thing to do.
It is a testament to my choice of friends, that Don, Dawn and her daughter were gracious and humor filled at my late entrance. Even the waitress cheered as I came in and I felt well loved. After quickly catching up and gulping down a cup of oatmeal, we moved on to the main purpose of the day: clearing out some of Jan's studio.
Jan has been gone for over a year now. It is time to start downsizing the studio. Some of the cabinets will be going to Dawn, some of the art materials will be going to grandchildren, some will be donated, and still other things will have to be thrown away. I was given some things for my studio – a portfolio with Jan's name on it, a painting apron, some paint supplies that we used at some workshops we attended together – mementos. Some things I took because I couldn't let go. What am I going to do with a big box of canceled stamps? Collage? Stamp collecting? I really don't know, but I could just picture Jan thinking of projects to use them for and I had to keep them.
As a group, we did quite well. Each of us teared up over different things, and the others would offer hugs for comfort. We filled Dawn's van (which is the same van that Jan and I did some camping trips in many moons ago), put some things in my car, and we were done for the day. We will be back at it after Thanksgiving.
I zipped home to meet my husband and take care of some banking issues. It is now late afternoon and I have some time to sit and think and reflect. My day was filled with grace and art. Grace and Art were the names of Jan's parents. There's a lovely symmetry to that.
Tears in my Ears
Jan working at the Julie Quinn workshop in 2012
I was on the chiropractic table a week or so ago, letting my spine relax and waiting for an adjustment. It was the first time in quite awhile that I had a quiet moment. I was surprised by a welling up of tears that flowed down my cheekbones and into my ears.
That turned my thoughts to a dear friend of mine named Jan. I'd met Jan in college and we'd been friends for over 30 years. There was a 20 plus year age difference, but that didn't matter. Our friendship was rare and a treasure. She was like an older sister to me. We spent a summer in London together, went on painting trips together, shared the ups and downs of life together.
When I stepped away from art to care for my mother, I stepped away from friendships as well. Not intentionally, but there wasn't enough time to do everything that needed to be done. While my heart still treasured Jan and other friends, I was no longer present in her life. There was the occasional card and phone call, but I rarely got a chance to spend time with her, and I missed it.
When Mom passed away, I was exhausted. I'd gained weight, broken a leg, had surgery and was worn out. Instead of picking up and reconnecting with life, I turned inward. After about a year, I was slowly re-emerging, but Jan was starting to have serious health issues. She was so sick and weak that I could only call. She couldn't have visitors.
Then, the doctors changed her treatment and that seemed to make a difference. Slowly, she was gaining strength. I could visit, although sometimes had to wear a mask. We'd sit together, have tea together, chat, do Zentangles or jigsaw puzzles. Later in the summer, she was strong enough that we took an art workshop together. We were happy and hopeful of doing more art projects together.
But our joy was short lived. She was gone by mid September.
The last few months we had together were sweet. She made sure to tell me I had been a good friend, and I made sure she knew I loved her.
But now she's gone, and I'm laying on a table with tears in my ears. Shortly after she died, I called her husband to see how he was doing. We talked about Jan and our grief. He told me he'd been lying in bed, thinking of her when tears came and rolled down his cheek, landing in his ears. It reminded him of a song, “I've Got Tears in My Ears from Lying on My Back in Bed Crying Over You.” This made him laugh and think, “Donna would know that song.” We laughed when he related this to me and I laughed on the chiropractor's table.
Laughter and tears. Grief is such a strange thing.
Donna Kemper put aside her art career to care for a mother she hadn't seen in over a decade. For seven years she followed her mother's journey into dementia, caring for her and putting forgiveness into action.