Exciting things are happening here.
A painting I’d entered into a competition at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art was accepted into the show. The Artmobile got a chance to live up to its name. I told Mike upon delivery that I felt like an artist again. It’s been a long time.
Earlier this year, as I was contemplating how divided our country had become, I spent some time in prayer and asked the Lord to help me be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And idea for an art installation piece was formed and it is starting to take shape. It’s called Mercy of Lament. The South Sudanese Episcopal Church and Lake Effect Church on the northwest side of Grand Rapids are hosting the artwork. There is a website up where you can see an artist’s rendering of what it will look like and you can read more about it. You can find it at https://mercyoflament.com/. There’s also a Facebook page to post photos, if you decide to participate in the project. Word is spreading quickly, and I’m excited to see where this goes. While I originally was thinking about all the people lost to COVID, I’ve realized that there was actually much more lost last year. There was loss of jobs, loss of income, death of dreams. There were suicides, a sense of a loss of justice, and death of natural causes. People need a space to grieve all sorts of things, and I hope this installation piece helps.
Another thing that’s going on is that I’m taking another online calligraphy course. This time I’m focusing on the pointed brush as a tool and also adding some photo editing into the mix. I’m hoping to add this skill into future paintings.
Last of all, I’m finally getting around to redesigning my website. After researching on how to do it myself, I decided that I’d rather spend the time making art and I’ve contacted Tasha Glover (https://www.techwithtasha.com/) to work with. I heard about Tasha through an arts group I’m part of and she was also recommended by Shae Bynes (https://shaebynes.com/). I’ve heard nothing but good things about Tasha and I love her heart. But she’s got a list for me to get on and I have my work cut out for me. It’s work that desperately needs to be done, and I’ve ignored it for far too long.
From doing absolutely nothing outside of the studio in February to full steam ahead in May… things are getting interesting.
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.
On the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, property owners are desperately trying to stop the waves from destroying their homes. People who have lived along the lakeshore for decades and whose homes were built far from the edge of the dunes are now scrambling to build seawalls before the winter waves take what’s left of the dunes and their homes with it. One man who has lived on the lake for thirty years marveled that he’s never seen the lake this high before. Heavy equipment is all along the shoreline, brought in by anxious homeowners.
In some ways, it feels as if grief is eroding my life. Loss is redefining my landscape and carving new shores. It is painful. What sort of heavy equipment can stop these losses? None that I know of. But there is the question - even if I could stop them, should I?
In life, loss is inevitable and it changes you. Whether you like it or not. How I let the new changes re-form me…that’s what I need to focus on. But that will come later. For now, the waves keep battering.
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.
A few weeks ago, Hospice called to let us know Dad was entering into his last stages. He had been winding down for a long time and often the end stages of the death process can last weeks. We kept visiting, but did not see a precipitous decline the way my own mother had died. After some consideration, I decided to take a quick trip to Muskegon while Mike visited Dad. His first visit found Dad sleeping so he came back in the evening. Dad was still sleeping so Mike stayed with him about an hour just talking to him. He decided to go and come back the next day. Half an hour later, when the aides checked up on Dad, he was gone.
Mike felt he should have stayed longer. I felt I shouldn’t have gone to Muskegon. But the truth is, we took good care of Dad, loved him well, and a few days short of his 98th birthday he was ready to go.
The following day found us taking care of business. Contacting the funeral director, calling friends and family, arranging with my sister-in-law to come and stay with us, contacting the church to arrange the funeral, and by the end of the day we were spent and sad.
I was staring out of my office window when I noticed a butterfly in the back yard. Frequently, there are monarchs or cabbage whites in our yard but this one was unusual. It was an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. Usually butterflies will flit from plant to plant and then leave. Photographing them has always proved challenging. This one stayed in the yard for over twenty minutes. It was if she were posing for the camera. I called Mike to see it and we watched for several minutes. I decided to get my camera and take some photos. I opened the window, hung out the side of the house and took about fifty shots.
There is a tradition among some that believe that the happy dead in the form of beautiful butterflies will visit their relatives to reassure them. A sign for those who are grieving. It is a comforting thought that Dad stopped by to say goodbye. There are those who would criticize me for being superstitious at this point. I prefer to look at it as a gentle kiss from God assuring us that all is well. After all, God is an artist and a poet.
I’ve covered a lot of miles this. week. Last Friday we drove to Chicago to pick up my sister-in-law at O’Hare and then we continued on to a northwest suburb of Chicago to celebrate our uncle’s life with friends and family. The original plan was to stay through Sunday, going to church with our aunt and cousin and. linger a bit longer before coming back to Grand Rapids.
The weather report had said some rain and snow, but by the time we were done with breakfast, our car was buried. I went to clear it off while Mike went to collect everyone’s luggage and Anne Marie went to check us out of the hotel. By the time I got back to the lobby, there was two inches of snow piled on my head. I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass doors and saw a bedraggled mess. My hair - which for once had been perfectly coiffed - was dripping wet and stuck to my head. My makeup was running down my face. As my sister-in-law glanced up to greet me, a chunk of snow slid off my head, onto my shoulder, and then plopped onto the floor. It was perfect comic timing and the look on her face as she beheld me was priceless.
We had a quick conference in the car. I was willing to drive to the church, but it was with the understanding that this was not a brief spring dust up. We were in a blizzard and the streets were not being cleared. A unanimous decision was made to send a text with our love and to head for home. It turned out to be a good decision. Normally a three and a half hour drive turned into a trip that was closer to eight hours long, with tsunamis of slush washing over the car whenever a truck passed us. We passed countless wrecks and ambulances from Illinois to Michigan. About twenty minutes from home the snow finally let up. It was an epic drive.
Once home, I checked messages and learned that a cousin had passed away. She was elderly and had just entered hospice, so it was not a complete surprise, but my small family group is dwindling even more and it breaks my heart.
After a two day respite from the road I was off again. Leaving Mike and Anne Marie to look after Dad and one another, I got on the highway heading east this time. Perhaps it’s because I was tired, perhaps it was the harrowing drive from Chicago, or perhaps there was grief upon grief, but I was not looking forward to the trip. Normally, I’m always up for a road trip. I love driving and I love going from place to place. But not this time.
Once I got to Rochester Hills, though, things felt better. As I drove the back roads to the funeral home, memories from my teen years popped up. Bike rides, friendship, and youthful angst joined in with memories of family. By the time I got back to the hotel that evening, I was on a more even keel and was able to get some rest.
In the morning the sky looked dirty and uneven - a bit sad, actually. A fitting day to mourn. The funeral was touching and I gathered with my cousins to share memories and catch up. After lunch I was back on the road and back into another storm. This one was only heavy rain but there were still accidents and the drive had its challenges.
East and west, through grief and bad weather, I persevered and made it home. A perfect metaphor, I think, for life and for death. You travel this world, you persevere through all the challenges life presents, and you make it home.
Rest in peace, Bob and Gerda. You’ve made it home.
While we were waiting for the results from my biopsy, we received the news that Mike’s uncle had passed away. He had been fighting cancer valiantly for three years and his time had come to an end. The last of Mom Kemper’s siblings were gone.
Bob had had a good life, a wonderful wife, and a great son. They were with him as he died. A good life, a good death. Still, it’s hard to accept the news.
I was at the studio when I got the call. My surgeon has me under some restrictions but I can still putter around with paper and pen. After the phone call, though, I wasn’t feeling very creative. The sun was shining so I went for a walk, trying to sort through my emotions. There is the promise of spring in the crips air, but I couldn’t really soak that in.
Loss is inevitable - a part of life. I’ve certainly experienced my share of it over the years. I won’t say it’s easier but I am starting to accept it more.
Is that a sign of growth?
The next call was from the surgeon. She called me personally to let me know the lump was cancer free. So thankful for that news.
Life and death in one afternoon.
One of the things that first struck me when I looked at the space that is now my studio was the windows. And entire half wall of windows. While it isn’t the traditional north light that is the optimal lighting situation for artists, the morning light pours gloriously through the tree branches and leaves of the oak tree outside the third story windows. Not only did the tree provide perches for birds and squirrels, it also served as a model for sketches and paintings. The canopy of the tree never failed to cheer me throughout the seasons.
Late last fall, I came to the studio on a gray day. It was evident as soon as I opened the door that something was very different and it took a moment to figure it out. But suddenly I realized that the tree was gone. Completely disappeared. Vanished. I was stunned. The view was completely altered. No longer would I view the seasons through the tree. The view is now of a barren industrial landscape. Muddy and sterile.
The death of my mother-in-law has removed the canopy of her love from our lives and the view right now is pretty bleak. Dad continues to search of her and we are helpless to comfort him. We grieve and shed tears, sigh and try to move on.
This isn’t the end of our story, though. Just a transition. There will be new things planted. Better days are coming.
Saturday was bright and sunny as we went to Mom and Dad’s apartment for the last time. The charity has come and picked up the furniture. Now, we filled up the cart with the last load of bits and pieces, I vacuumed the entire apartment while Mike washed down surfaces. Once I was done, I walked back into their former bedroom and tears softly welled up. They don’t come so suddenly in a rush anymore. Now it’s a gentler flow. We loaded up a cart, gave the poinsettia to one of Mom’s friends, and went downstairs to say goodbye to the friends they made over the past five years. Everyone asks after Dad. I tell them he’s doing the best he can under the circumstances. We promise a visit when my sister-in-law comes back into town and then we’re off to empty the car and fill our house halfway to the ceiling with boxes.
We drop off the keys and access cards the next day after church and after dinner go to visit Dad. He’s in good spirits but very confused. He’s still unclear about Mom, although now when we tell him she’s gone he’s not as surprised, nor as upset. He realizes he’s heard that before and now wants to know the details of their will. Then we skip to Mother again and for a few minutes we go around and around. I pull out a photo album I made of the time a few years ago that he, Mike, and I went for a ride on a B-17. This was the type of plane he was a gunnery sergeant for during World War II. This brings back memories. Both of the war and of that day. The memories are a bit scrambled, but pleasant and gets the conversation off things that worry him. But when we’re done, he’s back to being confused and worried. To the point that he asks about Mom’s husband. But when I point out that would be him, he throws back his head and laughs and says he’s glad I reminded him of that.
And so we’ve transitioned to a new phase of the journey.
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.