My friend died. He has been dead almost three…four weeks now, as I write this.
I have been writing about it, writing a whole lot, but whenever I sit down to write to a person (or in this case: people) I tend to clam up.
It’s so much easier to write to no one, somehow, that it is to write to someone. It’s so hard to bring people up to speed, so hard to really explain HOW I feel without unearthing so many stories and details that most people just don’t want to look directly at. I wonder if it’s like how war veterans feel. If you weren’t there you can’t understand what it was like, and even the stories can’t quite encapsulate everything. It’s like trying to explain a dream — even if you explain the internal connections, the feelings that arise when THAT elementary school / church parking lot blended architecture come to mind — you still somehow miss the color of that thing, or the sound that this person made, and it all just falls so short. So you barely try. You just stick with key points and let the other person sort it out. Dead. Rare sarcoma. Three months. Cachexia. Two year old daughter. Beauty. Kindness. Community.
I have been writing long, beautiful letters to a fellow “death midwife” as we’ve been calling ourselves, and that has been easy because she is so hungry for all the details I remain somewhat fixated by.
Death is such a divisive thing. I sneak out the news as best I can — because I mark this time as sanctioned time for grieving, whatever that looks like, and therefore I need people to know I am going through Something Unusual. Though of course by and large, because I’ve been doing my grief work all along, I find that I am mostly okay with it all, and it is other people who cannot handle it, or are struck down by it — the tragic nature of it, the suddenness, or even just the death itself.
I am privileged to be acquainted with many excellent local illustrators, and at one of our recent monthly get togethers I managed to repel everyone in earshot aside from Rilla Alexander and Meg Hunt, who both had their own stories to tell on the subject. One finds extraordinary comrades down in the trenches of death. But one also finds people whose mouths harden to a rigid line, unable to entertain the idea in any capacity. Unable to even open the door a crack, never mind invite it inside out of the cold. Which is hard because I’m standing out there, with death, getting soaked by rain, and it would be so nice to come in out of the cold for a moment.
One also finds wobbly, unresolved prior-griefs that bursts forth whenever you mention the one you are carrying. Eyes redden, faces gurn, tears well up and spill over cheeks — tears you yourself no longer shed when you say the words “Travis” and “dead” or “died”. Those people invite you into their bedrooms right off the bat when really you just need a dry towel and maybe to borrow some socks.
At first I was confused by my propensity to WRITE about it so much but not DRAW about it, but then I remembered that I have read something like…6? 7? books about death in the past two months. I have not similarly increased the rate at which I look at pictures. So I changed up my morning routine to involve less email writing and more picture-looking, and on Tuesday spent a good many hours at the art museum.
Of course, I found death there too.
I think I will be interested in death for a long while yet.
And I’ll let myself do that — I think if I try to push it away too much right now, while I’m so fascinated by it, I’ll end up avoiding it altogether, which I above all do not want to do. I have learned that closing down one mind-valve all too often shuts down many, many other valves in my mind, and usually they are tied to the parts that I need to function normally. Particularly the curiosity and the wonder. And I need those things to be awake. So I do my best not to censor what interests me.
“I know you like to know about things,” Travis said to me almost a month ago, as he explained his accu-pressure bracelets. I do. I exceedingly like to know about things. They are so much easier to draw about if you KNOW about them.
As it turns out, I know very little about this part of grief. The storm after the storm. The real work.
Perhaps that is also why it’s been harder to draw about. And it’s all the more reason why I need to stay here, out in the rain, and pay very close attention. I need to take all the notes I can on what this is like, so I can start picking apart what it even is. So that I can paint it.
The other thing I need to paint right now is the practical stuff, the better days of Travis’ life as I knew it, what I knew of it, for his daughter so she’ll have tangible things to remember him by. After my visit to the museum I walked to a coffee shop and ended up sitting next to a woman from Brazil studying English from a little work book, chatting with an earnest local guy. And I started noodling in my sketchbook.
And that was a pleasant surprise. And so the next day I worked on it some more at the studio.
So in a way he’s back alive again in my studio. And it’s really intensely gratifying and strange. And lovely. Looking forward to the coming days.
We’re six weeks into knowing about my friend with cancer, (see previous entry) and about five weeks into his 6-8 weeks prognosis.
There isn’t much to say about it. Most of the time, because I am not living with this friend nor am I that intimate with his family, life is normal — transcendent and gorgeous, even, in this heightened state where all one’s focus is on the immediate present. It is late spring and it has been a particularly beautiful one here. I find myself weeping with gratitude, not sorrow, when I see than a rose has opened, or the pea plant has a new pod plump and ready for eating.
I have been surprised to find myself more content, clear-eyed and happy than I have been in a long time. There’s just a heaviness — growing or shrinking unexpectedly and triggered by things that seem quite unrelated. The subconscious fights desperately to be heard.
We’ve had a few moments where it has been undeniably forthright.
I don’t yet want to write too freely about this here because it is a ‘developing situation’, and anyway it may not even be a story that is mine to tell in the end.
It is not because I don’t want to talk about it. Quite the contrary — it’s ALL I want to talk about. It is all I can think about, it is all I want to think about, and I can’t find anybody that will indulge me and listen to all of the gritty, morbid, irreverent, frank, unblinking things that are stirring around in the cauldron of my curiosity. Too many people I know are too involved in this to talk about it that directly, that often with me.
I am not a particularly social person and usually do not process things verbally, so this impulse to talk to people has been really interesting. It has bordered on a NEED. It’s like I’m searching for words to pin down what is going on in my own mind.
Furthermore, I like to be able to DO. And when there’s little to DO I get very restless and uneasy. I want to Help, to the extreme that I find myself doing things unasked for, bordering on becoming a nuisance.
I spend a great deal of time feeling blank, like an automaton going through the motions of a day, waiting for orders.
In this altered state of life where not much feels correct, where surfing the web is so clearly a waste of time, when Facebook and Twitter as just saturated with nonsense that I just can’t bring myself to care one iota about, because what is any of that to the pulsing, urgent need to be present when called upon, to comfort a friend who is struggling, to sit quietly with oneself and appreciate the heartbreaking majesty of clouds. Now, instead of sneaking peaks at Instagram or Tumblr in quieter moments when I’m in the bathroom or waiting for the teapot to boil, I endeavor to have a book in my hand. So I can read.
Because death is a subject that books are well versed in. And unlike people’s children, pithy memes or political travesties, death is a subject I have an unending amount of patience with, tolerance for, and interest in right now.
You’ll note the Tolstoy. Somehow, aside from directly topical items, the 19th century really gets me right now. Hard to say what I appreciate more — the slow paced thoughtful characters who seem to prioritize the proper things in life (unlike our hopelessly segmented and compartmentalized 21st century selves,) or merely the numerous instances of consumptives sliding into medically unassisted deaths. People on deathbeds and people attending to those people have obvious appeal, and take up a good portion of the books from this era. Tolstoy in particular is very, very good about writing about this, how messy it all is.
Aside from reading I have been quilting a great deal.
The first quilt I ever made was over a breathless weekend or two when I was home alone because I was working and couldn’t accompany Mom and my brother on a trip to Grandma — was I a junior in high school? Or was it Thanksgiving break my freshman year of college? I can’t remember. I just remember Mom had a pile of her old button-up shirts she’d asked me to take to Goodwill, and instead I cut them into squares and made a quilt out of them, borrowing her sewing machine.
I have made several since then, different kinds and styles, but it’s been a while and I hadn’t made one in my new sewing set-up at this house, which is essentially a little gnome’s cave in our cubby hole / storage space.
I’m making a new one, again out of old shirts and cotton clothes — ours this time, not my mother’s — as a permanent bedspread and ultra-snuggly nap blanket for our room. Most of our quilts — aside from that delicate first one — have been pressed into service throughout the rest of the house. I find them on the porch or in roommate’s rooms — filling out the corners, keeping things cozy.
This one is also in the kantha quilt style. I was delighted to learn the name of those charming, lightweight quilts that are rapidly gaining popularity; perfect for summer, and, as it turns out, genus for its reuse of old fabrics. Waste naught, want naught.
To do a kantha quilt means one spends a LOT of time hand stitching, which off and on is perfect for what I need right now. There are indeed days where I have a restless, exhausted energy, and nothing feels right but to dial up the iPod with a scene from Anna Karenina and make a running stitch again, again, again, again all up and down the soft, well loved fabrics of old shirts of ours — shirts that exhault at being pressed into service in this new way.
Quilting and reading. And messy ink drawings. That is what these weeks have consisted of, primarily.
On March 9th my husband’s friend/boss was killed by a tree.
About three weeks later, a woman I know — a cleaning client — died after a long, arduous battle with Parkinson’s. I have written a LOT about that one, but haven’t yet had the heart to post anything about it.
So I was already in a contemplative mood when, two weeks ago, I was told that a dear friend of mine has aggressive, stage IV cancer. He has roughly 6-8 weeks.
I come from southern church people — not the deep south kind, but the great plains kind. Hardy work stock. And I’ve shepherded several friends through deaths that “should not have happened,” if you think life is a tidy neat little bundle that should make sense.
So my reaction to this news was not to pine, not to get angry, not to say “why them”.
My reaction was: prepare every vessel that floats.
There is a lot happening every day. Every moment is precious. Anthony and I are mobilized on different fronts, helping different people. We have met up in random neighborhoods while in route to other places to have trench conferences and share intelligence. We duck out every so often for quick decompression — here a weekend camping get away, there an hour for ice cream.
I won’t write much about it hereafter but soon you’ll doubtless start seeing messy ink auto-bio sketches, and that is why. (***EDIT: I am actually going to be posting most of these on a separate tumblr, because it turns out there is a LOT of them, and I would rather see them in chronological order.***)
My personal Facebook account is filled with all sorts of useful tools to help out the key players — very quickly myself and another good friend of theirs became the sort of assistant managers of this crisis. Here, Chez Kumquat, (***actually there, on the tumblr***) is where I will be churning through the more messy aspects; the grief, the things I notice and can never stop noticing because that’s what an illustrator does, and (most importantly) the lighter things that lift the spirits.
Those lighter things are particularly important.
Let’s start with this bird. The spotted towhee.
We’ve always pronounced it as though it rhymes with “dewy” but it turns out that it is probably rhymes with “doughy” instead. Just like I often pronounce the paint I work with “gohssh” instead of “gwash”. (Tomato, Tomahto.)
To add to my bewilderment, the Spotted Towhee was always called the “Rufous-sided Towhee” in my household, as apparently we were not with the times and in fact learning that the Rufous-sided Towhee is merely a “spotted” Towhee is something that left me a bit thunderstruck as I was putting together this piece. Evidently this was to differentiate it from the “Eastern” Towhee — which also has rufous sides and seems alike in every way apart from the relative lack of white spots. We find them interbreeding on the Great Plains, but otherwise we’ve decided to distinguish the regional plumage variation as a separate species.
This sort of thing is a bone of contention for my husband, who has less patience than I have for the finer points of taxonomy. To him, a sparrow is a sparrow, and sometimes when I look over a page of essentially identical birds with a little arrow pointing to the white patch touching a black stripe which is the diagnostic feature of that particular bird, I am inclined to agree with him.
Flickers have gone through an inverse transformation in my lifetime, a who-are-we-kidding-they-are-the-same-species shift, so I certainly allow for changes and, to a certain extent, laxity in classification. (Particularly for the home birder.)
Another example of the confusing world of fine print: the Towhee is technically a “New World” sparrow; we Americans apparently lump together all sorts of birds in the “sparrow” category — even bigger, different-seeming birds like our towhee. (Or other ground-shufflers like juncos.) In Europe, such birds are called “buntings”, whereas “sparrows” are chiefly what we refer to as “Old World” sparrows. (The only one of those we regularly have on this side of the pond is the ubiquitous “House Sparrow”, which is the little brown bird that steals your french fries, or attends political rallies.)
Furthermore, the buntings I know about — indigo bunting, painted bunting, lazuli bunting — are actually in the cardinal family are are themselves not buntings at all. And all of these birds can be generally referred to as “finches”.
(Do you see why I avoid getting too militant about classifications?)
For myself, I unscientifically think of towhees as the step between sparrows and jays, as they are quite large for a sparrow (nearly the same size as a robin, though more slender,) and have a raspy, jay-like call note that sounds like a big question mark.
(This sound, as well as the tumbling jumble of the house finch’s song make me immediately homesick.)
They like a good amount of cover, and as such particularly like our yard, what with the blackberry patch on the other side of the fence. In my childhood home they favored the low, wide juniper bushes. They are ground feeders, attracted to the mess the squirrel leaves behind when it gorges on the suet cake. They are the vacuum cleaners of the forest. They do a funny little shuffle-hop to uncover bugs and seeds from the leaf litter or, in wintery places, from under snow.
Towhees, like tigers, sport what offhand appear to be very daring colors that actually make them invisible in their preferred surroundings. In the bleak winter it can be a thrill to spot one. A combination of orangey, white, and black, topped only by red eyes and a very expressive tail. There is a nervous energy to the tail, leaving flashes of white with nearly every movement. Very often one simply looks for those tell-tale white flashes at the tail for identification. And fortunately they don’t really care what you call them
I had the great pleasure of putting together a ketubah — jewish wedding contract — for a client not that long ago. It was a fun challenge, I really enjoy making milestone objects like this for people.
I have written before about the Oregon Country Fair, but I haven’t written much about the PEOPLE. The community of gentle, wonderful people that make the thing possible. It’s a large group of people I feel deeply connected to, although I’ve only had the pleasure of their company a scant 5 years (and really, 3 of those were by proxy.)
I suppose that isn’t a long time, but something wonderful happens when you spend 170 consecutive hours with folks, shouldering the heavy burden that the recyclables are — sliding through the mud, directing a fleet of ancient trucks, repairing those trucks, watching the trucks slide into the mud, lifting things, laying hands on every single piece of glass, plastic and aluminum — both returnable and not — that is thrown into barrels (and NOT thrown into barrels, thank you very much.) We call the people who work at OCF “family”, because it’s completely how it feels. Sleep deprivation, filth, discomfort, giving comfort, laughs, food, tears, etc — it all leads to an incredible bond.
We call our elders…”elders”, because it is respectful and because it is a nod to cultures who treat age with a respect that is sometimes lost in the youth-obsessed mainstream. One of our elders began to rapidly lose his battle with cancer recently. We had been kept abreast of events to keep in our thoughts –treatments, chemotherapy, analysis, waiting, accepting.
When further treatments were proposed he opted not to deny the inevitable but rather to embrace it. He did so in a way I have never seen anyone do, but in a way that I want to be a model for my own life, should such be my lot.
Through the listserv and Facebook, it was announced that Mr. Painter would be having a farewell send-off. A celebration of life.
The local core members — along with long-suffering family members — mobilized as only they know how. People were called. Roles were assigned. camping-canopies were dug out of garages, outdoor heaters were found, as were an army of mix-match plastic chairs — as the house could only accommodate so many. And the prospective visiting list was over 200 strong. Casseroles were made. A sign up sheet was made, so each person who wanted one could have their moment.
I have often had examples of how to live, but this was the first I’d really had of how to die. It was the most simple thing, yet the most profound thing. Pictures began to pop up on the Facebook group, and the look in the man’s eyes is something I find difficult to describe, for it is something I haven’t seen before. The earnest, joyful face of a man who is having it his own way, fading peacefully at home, surrounded by a sea of loved ones. Young and old, time-worn and new, everyone who could make it did.
From his recliner in the center of the room, bolstered by pillows and warmed by a crocheted blanket someone had made, again and again his pure, open face of surprise, delight, at each new familiar face (and perhaps even some less familiar ones, still offering joy, still offering gratitude for having known him, spoken with him). Here a person kneeling in front of him, leaning in. There a person sitting on a stool laughing with him. There a person showing him a collage they put together, or a painting they painted in his honor. Each holding his hand — save the crew member who skyped in from Japan.
We are not as close to him as many are, and we opted to let those who needed it have their time. But I have been following it all on Facebook because it is beautiful, and makes me swell with gratitude that I know such decent, wonderful people.
Visiting hours closed over the weekend, but for a week after the goodbye party updates ripples of warmth and beauty continued to surge through my feed. Pictures from when he was young. Pictures of people visiting with him. Pictures of flowers. Messages from crew members. More casseroles. A recipe for a depression-era raison cake that was a favorite of his. Updates about the man himself, so many including the words, “he is lucid, happy, and pain-free.” One update described how he woke to see the sunrise , and expressed his wish to be reborn as a night-blooming cactus.
He breathed his last Feb 2 — almost two years after he shared his diagnosis with us. At that time he said that, untreated, the doctors gave him four months. He opted for treatment so he could go on his own terms.
What a note to leave on. We should all be so lucky to have the grace to recognize the end when we see it, and to greet it surrounding by flowers, love, and smiling faces.