The Best Conversations

The journey through mind and memories continues….

Many weeks after my mother’s death, my heart holds a simmering stew of mixed emotions where moments of peaceful acceptance are spiced with shards of regret and seasoned with fragments of conversations that pop into my head, often when least expected.

My mother had her favorite places in Asheville – Malaprop’s Bookstore and 5 Walnut Wine Bar among them. But I think her favorite of them all was Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, pictured above.

There, over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard,

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she and I would have long discussions about the affairs of the world, my kids, and good adventures from days gone by. Although her short term memory was terrible! – as she often exclaimed in frustration – she was clear and sharp in her stories from decades past of her travels and the places we’d lived. We could (and did) talk for hours.

This past year, however, she became a little reticent about leaving her little garden apartment, even to visit her favorite places.

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When I suggested going into town together, an awkward look would pass over her face and she would say, somewhat apologetically, “How about if we just stay here?”

And so, every week I would join her in the dining room at her retirement village for lunch or dinner, and listen once again to the stories. Often we were there, still talking, after everyone else had left. She loved that.

“We have the best conversations!” she would exclaim when I eventually walked her back to her little flat – even if she had done most of the talking.

She’d call a few days later to thank me for coming over and tell me how much she’d enjoyed our visit, often ending with the same words, “We have the best conversations!”

Last February, I offered to take her out for a glass of wine in celebration of my sister’s life. She started automatically to demur, but when I suggested we go to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, she couldn’t resist. And so we celebrated Valentine’s Day and my sister there together in the usual way – a glass of wine, some cheese, and of course – stories.

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“We have the best conversations!” she remarked on the drive back to her place in Black Mountain.

It was to be her last visit to the Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. In the weeks that followed, she became increasingly reluctant to leave her little home.

She did admit, some weeks later, that she would love one more trip there. A mischievous little girl smile of hopefulness and delight lit up her face at the very thought of it.

But somehow I didn’t have the time, or make the time. I wasn’t sure she could manage it. Nevertheless, it still bothers me greatly that I didn’t somehow work it out for her.

Second guesses and regrets are part of the pain of dealing with death, but I’ve realized that trying to mentally outwit the sharper edges of remorse is often unproductive.

Rather, the best antidote to the relentless head-tricks and mind games we put ourselves through in the wake of loss might just be an unexpected little piece of magic.

And so it was the other night when a painting in a dark corner of the old Wedge building in the River Arts District caught my eye.

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I was wandering around a friend’s studio during a reception showcasing her work that was intriguingly titled, “Accidentally On Purpose.”

Mixed media artist Jacqui Fehl is a tiny, magical creature with large grey eyes and long ropes of platinum & black dreads. She describes her paintings as “a blend of grunge, whimsy and outsider.”

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Influenced by music, lyrics, feelings, and stories, Jacqui’s art is unpredictable – playful, colorful and humorous with an appealing edge of darkness. Jacqui says her creative process is mostly intuitive; she may start out with an idea, but never really knows what the end result will be.

I’ve been a fan of her work for years.

“It is a dance of layering on, removing, covering up and revealing. I like my work to be loose, a bit flawed and not too precise or perfect.”

Kind of like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, I could see and feel there was something about this particular painting that was very compelling. The colors, the mood of it – it had a storytelling aura and lovely intimacy about it.

Another artist in the gallery caught me staring at it.

“You like this one?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, unable, for some reason, to take my eyes off it. I was curious about – and drawn to – the random appearance of chairs throughout it.

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Knowing that Jacqui always gives her paintings interesting titles, I asked her if she knew what Jacqui called it.

She picked it up from the easel and in the low light of dark corner, squinted at the writing on the back of it

“The Best Conversations,” she said.

I stood there, speechless. And so she said it again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called ‘The Best Conversations.'”

A little magic, a little serendipity … remembering the many times my mother had said those exact words. My head flooded with delight – and relief.

Accidentally on purpose, indeed…

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Jacqui Fehl’s delightful painting came home with me that night.

It now hangs in my little writing/breakfast room behind the kitchen –

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– just one of the many places where my mother and I often had ‘the best conversations.’

Hat Trick

In my family, a passion for hats skipped a generation.

My Danish grandmother, pictured above with my mother back in 1923, delighted in wearing outrageous and stylish hats. She also delighted in buying them for my mother.

As you can see, my mother was not quite so enamored with them.

When I look at this next photograph of my grandmother, I can see how my grandfather –a dashing young naval architect descended from generations of Danish shipbuilders – became absolutely smitten with Margrethe Petersen.

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“She was a very vivacious girl, good-looking, with a wonderful complexion, and intelligent to a very high degree,” he wrote in his memoirs. “She interested and attracted me more than any girl I had previously gone out with.

“One evening after a party at home in Nordborggade, Århus, I escorted her to the door of the apartment house where she had a room with a family and before we parted, I told her that I loved her.

“I do believe that she was a little skeptical because I was not exactly the marrying type, having led a carefree existence and gone along with girls without serious intentions on my part.

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“This time it was serious, though, and once she realized it, the foundation was built for the marriage which was to last for ever so many years.”

 

My mother, perhaps in reaction to the childhood outfits her mother dressed her in, seldom wore hats unless they were quite practical.

But just like my grandmother, Margrethe –

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I, too, love wearing hats.

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photos of me by Tom Hunnicutt

Like Mother, Like Daughter

 

I’ve been going through my mother’s old photographs. Each day I grab a handful to sort through and scan, many of which I have never seen before.

Some I will keep, some will be sent on to someone else in the family, and some will be tossed.

This one of my mother is a keeper.

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It offers a glimpse of her I hadn’t seen before – a little girl who liked to sit in rivers. It resonated immediately.

I remember getting into trouble when Eric Holzman and I – both just 6 or 7 at the time – played in a stream all afternoon while our parents were having a lawn party. When we eventually presented ourselves to the guests, naked except for knickers and completely slathered in mud, my mother was not amused.

Growing up, I often felt she was rather strict with me, more strict than she was with my older brother and sister. She seemed to be more afraid for me than she was for the others.

Which is odd, because in some ways, I had a lot of freedoms. By age nine, I walked myself a mile to school along the river and through the streets of London. At eleven, I was riding buses and trains by myself across the city to a different school. Seven years later, I was going to college in a different country. At nineteen, I moved to Paris for the summer to be a nanny. Those freedoms she encouraged and never seemed to think twice about.

She was a world traveler but I am more open-minded than she was, and even more adventurous. In retrospect, I think it was my free and creative spirit that worried her.

Times changed. She was the kind of girl who married her college sweetheart and I was a child of the sixties. She grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. I came of age during Woodstock, Haight Ashbury, and Vietnam protests. Over the years, we knocked heads many times over many things – and her criticisms always seemed to highlight the ways in which we were two very different people. Infuriating as they could be, however, and whether or not I cared to admit it, I knew these criticisms were rooted in her desire to protect me – both from others and from myself. In retrospect, I wonder if she was scared – and perhaps just a little bit intrigued by – the freedoms of my era.

Which brings me back to the photograph above. What I most like about it, is that it is a foreshadowing of the girl this little girl would eventually give birth to – one who also likes to sit in rivers. Even after her death, it weaves us one small connection closer.

The river still runs through us.

 

photograph of me by Sammy Fong.

 

 

 

 

Rafting through ten million years of rock layers

 

Months ago, a hiking friend suggested a whitewater rafting adventure down the Gauley, a free flowing river that cuts through ten million years of rock layers in West Virginia. With more than 100 named whitewater rapids in less than 30 miles, it is known as one of the most adventurous whitewater rivers in the east.

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Each September, the Army Corps of Engineers provides a series of twenty-two controlled releases for the express purpose of downriver recreation. Collectively known as “Gauley Season,” these releases – the result of an act of Congress and the first law passed in the US to specifically mandate recreational whitewater dam releases – are scheduled on six successive weekends bringing millions of dollars annually to the local economy. The Gauley attracts paddlers from all over the United States and even overseas. And so, at the beginning of summer, a small group of us booked to do the Lower Gauley in early September.

Coming just two weeks after my mother’s death, however, eleven miles of Class III-IV, V rapids was suddenly the last thing I felt like doing.

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But it turned out to be the best thing I could have done.

The Gauley River, which is likely named after the historic Gaul region in Europe, begins in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and runs through a scenic mountain area used for fishing and hunting by Native Americans for 10,000 years. It eventually flows into the New River, considered by geologists (despite its name) to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world, older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves.

Out on the river, we could feel the age of the area. Looking at the dense green vegetation on the mountains around us, it felt like we were floating back in time. A friend commented he almost expected to see dinosaurs emerge from the foliage onto the shoreline.

Even though the Lower Gauley has fewer and more spread out rapids than the Upper Gauley, a number of the rapids “pose significant challenges.” Fortunately, we had Candace – a fierce and fit, intelligent and experienced river guide at our helm, coaching us through the tricky waters.

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The Lower Gauley run begins with a series of whimsically named rapids – Wood’s Ferry, PJ’s Hole, Canyon Doors, Heaven’s Gate, Upper & Lower Mash, Upper & Lower Staircase, Rollercoaster, Roostertail, and Rattlesnake – and ends with the less whimsical, more candidly descriptive Pure Screaming Hell leading into Purgatory and Hell Hole.

Before calling the paddle sequence of each rapid, Candace gave us careful instructions as to which direction to swim should we find ourselves unexpectedly ejected from the raft.

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After a summer spent taking care of my mother through a rapid downward spiral of health challenges, ending with her death, this run was just the shock I needed to reprogram my entire central nervous system.

And it worked. We paddled hard, we laughed, we got scared, and we got soaked. Water therapy at its best.

Exhausted from the adventure, I fell asleep late that night, at peace and relaxed for the first time in months – the scent of the Gauley still in my hair.

 

photography by Tom Hunnicutt & Kristin Fellows

What’s in a Name?

A few weeks ago, at the suggestion of Mom’s caregivers, I phoned a local funeral home. The funeral director himself answered.

“This is Charles Graves,” he said.

I wondered if I had heard him correctly.

“Seriously?” I asked.

“If I had a nickel…” he said.

Before I had time to fully ponder the irony, he added, “And my cousin’s last name is Burns. He’s a fire chief up in New England.”

These unexpected little bubbles of humor and serendipity – like air pockets in an ocean of grief – have helped me laugh and breathe through some tough days.

I started to pay more attention to the cast of characters around us.

Of the many wonderful RNs taking care of Mom in her last weeks, my favorite was a third shift, well-built ex-Marine. I first met Nick the night he popped his head into her room during what had been a particularly rough evening for me.

“Do you need anything?” he asked me cheerfully.

“No, I think she’s fine for now, thank you,” I replied quietly.

“No,” he said with a smile, “Do you need anything?”

“Well, maybe a glass of water,” I said, surprised at his thoughtfulness. “If it’s no trouble.”

“How about a hug?” he responded.

I nearly cried. But then I caught sight of his name tag and smiled instead – at Nicholas Favorite.

I got the water and a big hug.

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After Mom died, in lieu of a memorial service, I put fresh, colorful flowers on all the tables in the residents’ dining room she so loved, with its vaulted ceiling and large expanse of windows overlooking the gardens.

I phoned her retirement village beforehand to coordinate the arrangements and asked to speak to the head of dining room services.

“Hello,” a cheerful voice answered. “This is Angel!”

Of course it was.

 

Listening to the Pauses…

Last Friday I sat by my mother’s bedside, listening to her breathe. silently counting the lengths of the pauses between breaths.

That I was even there that night was because I had heard another pause, earlier in the day, during a phone conversation I had with my brother.

I had called to give him an update on where she seemed to be in the pattern of what hospice anticipated might be her last hours. After a summer of unanticipated changes in her health, I was exhausted. I would be better able to help her, I told him, if I could just get a good night’s sleep. Perhaps, I rationalized, she might even be waiting for me to leave her alone.

I waited for what I was sure would be a positive and supportive response from him. But instead, he paused.

He paused for just a beat or two before saying, “Okay.”

I heard his words, but what I listened to was the pause.

It would have been easy to ignore, but instead I let it ruminate in my head.

Late in the afternoon, after hours of listening to my mother labor to breathe, Tom took me out for a much needed good meal, followed by a glass of wine with Zoë and her boyfriend. Afterwards, aware of how much I wanted to go home and sleep, he instead offered to drive me back out to see her. Remembering the momentary pause in the conversation with my brother, I realized my subliminal self had already made the decision. I said yes.

Had I not, I would have missed my mother’s last hour of life and the opportunity to breathe with her … until she had finished breathing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrinkles in Time

When I was ten years old, I believed that I could figure out the answer to any question if I just gave it enough thought.

I said as much to my mother one evening when she came in to say goodnight.

“Go ahead,” I said. “Try something!”

She was quiet for a moment. Then she asked me, “Where does the wind come from?”

During my childhood years when we lived in London, she kept me supplied with a steady stream of thought-provoking books – The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time – books to get inside my head and spark my imagination

But no matter how long I thought about it, I couldn’t find in my own mind any understanding for where the wind came from.

Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet Madeleine L’Engle – who wrote A Wrinkle in Time – at her farmhouse in Connecticut when we interviewed her for a documentary we were making on the intersection of creativity and spirituality. Fascinated with the writing process myself, I hung on every word she said.

The stories she read and re-read, she once said in another interview, were usually stories which (in the words of J Alfred Prufrock), ‘dared to disturb the universe‘ – those which asked questions rather than gave answers.

I sat by my mother’s bedside last week, watching her slip in and out of her own wrinkles in time, heartbroken that I was losing her, but grateful for her gift of encouraging me to think and to write.

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And fifty years later, I am still wondering where the wind comes from….

 

 

 

Living with the knowledge of imminent finality…

If there’s been a theme to this summer, it’s been one of suspended animation.

In just six weeks, my mother went from living independently in her own little garden apartment, to assisted living, to skilled nursing, to hospice care – punctuated by three trips to the emergency room and an unexpected surgery.

I find myself holding my breath all the time, anticipating the next phone call, the next emergency, more bad news. Knowing the inevitability of how this will end, it’s been draining living with the knowledge of imminent finality.

So, what to do? How can I reconcile my desires to ‘live in the moment’ and ‘be here now’ and stay positive with my hyper-awareness of this huge pending loss?

I’ve tried the sheer stubbornness of just getting through it with mixed results. But this morning I thought of an alternative path.

Gratitude.

Each time I feel overwhelmed by sadness, I’m going to fight back with gratitude. It will be a fight for sure, but I am well armed with hundreds and thousands of good and fun and happy memories.

Like the time she went shopping for a traditional Swiss long cotton granny gown and came home instead with a pair of zebra-stripped jammies with hot pink trim.

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My Mother, Danish Beer & the Celebration of Life

I’ve noticed that people tend to lower their voices around my mother whenever they mention the word, Hospice – even the regular medical staff at her nursing facility. It’s as if they don’t want to hurt her feelings by admitting they know she’s going to die.

By contrast, my mother’s one-word reaction when I told her was, “Wonderful!” She’s nearly 96 years old and keenly aware that she’s failing rapidly. She’s ready.

We’ve been through the Hospice routine before – with my sister – and I can’t imagine going through the journey of last days without them by our side. Partnering with these good people is like having a circle of the most caring friends possible when you most need it. Who wouldn’t want that?

Bringing Hospice onto your team has many benefits, including the possibilities for small end-of-life parties and celebrations.

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Many years ago, when my sister was living in a Hospice facility in Sarasota, the stress and anxiety of never knowing what to expect as cancer continued to ravage her was getting to me. I broke down in the parking lot during one visit and had to be coaxed inside by a friend. I mopped up my face as best I could as we walked through the front door, and was surprised to hear laughter coming from one of the rooms.

How unusual, I thought.

I was even more surprised when I opened the door to my sister’s room and found a small party going on inside.

Everyone, it seems, had asked her what they could bring her. She told them she wanted a bottle of Jack Daniels, as they didn’t have any in the kitchen there. She may not have realized she gave the same request to so many people, for here everyone was, gathered around her bedside where she was holding court with sparkling eyes, a glass of whiskey in her hand.

Everyone had brought her a bottle of Jack Daniels.

My mother has her own libation of choice – Carlsberg Danish beer.

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– as you can see from just a few of the photos I took of her during our 1600 kilometer travel adventure around Denmark ten years ago.

Yesterday, thanks to permission from Hospice, she had her first beer in six weeks. Her face lit up when it reached her lips. She was so happy she also managed to eat a few bites of pizza and tiramisu. Her smiles of delight created a ripple effect on everyone who came into the room.

And so now – just like her Danish mother before her –

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bottles of Carlsberg are being kept in the fridge, just for her.

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Paint Every Day

The email came through early in the morning with just David’s name in the subject line.

David had been at my house nearly every day for months at a time, crafting a European-style bathroom and other contemporary modifications that I hoped would help turn my tired old Dutch barn-styled home into something more like a Scandinavian farmhouse. But he had not shown up the day before as promised.

Reliable and practical with an appealing amount of orneriness, David wore his clothes until they wore out. He drove an old silver Toyota Tacoma held together by 18 bumper stickers, including one that said “Speeding Kills Bears” and another that just had the word, “artist.”

Much as he tried to hide it, David was also kindhearted and giving. Decades ago, he’d started one of the first organic food markets in San Francisco, riding his bike back and forth to the store each day, often stopping to give food to a few homeless souls huddled up against the weather.

David eschewed all forms of social media and refused even to send or receive text messages. “There’s 60,000 texts ‘out there’ waiting for me, and I’m afraid to even go there now,” he once laughed. But it was unusual for him not to appear on my doorstep when promised.

The last time I saw David was the previous Saturday morning. Piecing together the fragments of that day later with others who knew him, it seems he left my house, ran into a few friends at the local market, went home, painted, opened a bag of chips, poured a beer, turned on the game, and laid down on the floor to ease the ache in his back.

And then, he died.

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The email informed me he died of natural causes, but it was anything but natural to me that someone I was used to seeing every day no longer existed. There must be some mistake, I thought, re-reading it several times.

Not David. Not the fit, strapping man in his 50s with the ironic smile. Not someone so full of life, someone who loved camping with his kids, someone who woke them up to marvel at a particularly spectacular full moon.

My yoga room was his last project. He had recently hung up his tools and was basking in semi-retirement. When I called him to ask if he’d mind coming over to work on it, he left a message that left little doubt he was savoring his new free time: “Whatever you want to do is going to be okay with me – as little or as much as you feel like. I’m actually standing on my little deck, looking out over the mountains, in a t-shirt, drinking a gin & tonic. So there you go, that’s my life.”

How could this feisty and wonderful friend no longer exist?

Go to his house, I thought. He’ll be there and then everything will be okay.

I had never actually been to his home, but I knew which mountain ridge he lived on. I grabbed my keys, got in my car and headed north.

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Recalling fragments of stories he’d told me about his next door neighbors and their homes, I narrowed the possibilities for David’s house down to an old grey 1930s bungalow on the top of the hill – the one surrounded by potted plants, one of which looked like one I’d given him a few years back. There were several vehicles in the gravel driveway, parked in a hurried, disorderly jumble – and I knew when I saw them that it was possible the unthinkable had really happened.

I pulled over in the field next door and stared at the cars and the house for some long moments before something inside me said, Go inside the house.

Anyone who lives around here can tell you that appearing unannounced at the house of a stranger is not something you should do in Appalachia, but by then grief had overwhelmed common sense.

I got out of my car and walked over to the steps leading up to the back porch and what I guessed was the kitchen door. I paused at the top, scared of knocking, scared of intruding, scared of being wrong.

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And then the door opened and I was flooded with relief – for there was David standing in front of me.

And then, between one beat of my heart and the next, I realized it wasn’t David, and the precious relief I had felt for just an instant vanished. It was someone who looked just like David, someone who reached out and folded me into his arms as I broke down in tears.

Glancing around the kitchen, I saw two more David-look-alikes – tall, tongue-tied and helpless, wiping their eyes. David had three brothers and here they all were.

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Just as I knew who they were without being introduced, they all seemed to know who I was. It seemed David had told them about my house projects.

There was an awkward flurry of stories, reminiscences, tears, some shaky laughs and then more tears. Great gaping holes of grief and disbelief surrounded by questions, guesses and fragments of answers.

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I had worried about intruding, but the brothers put me right at ease. They all knew so much about me. One brother thanked me for being who I was in David’s life, whatever that was. Moments and more moments passed, who knows how many, before that little voice inside nudged me again and said: Ask to see his studio.

Over our three years of friendship, David had invited me once or twice to come and see his paintings. I didn’t take him up on the offer right away and later, when I asked him a few times to show them to me, he responded that someday he would.
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And now, at this moment, every part of me knew that I needed to see his paintings, even if he wasn’t there. I knew that, despite our hours of conversations, I would not really know who my friend was until I saw his art. I dreaded it, and yet I needed to do it.

Lisa, David’s sister-in-law, led me through rooms filled with a carefree, but very neat mash-up of old family pieces, art, and rescued treasures. It brought back fond memories of friends I’d known in my 20s.

We walked past the kids’ rooms, through the living room, and into his bedroom, where she paused silently for just a moment to touch a pair of David’s paint-splattered heavy-duty work pants hanging on a hook. And then, she led me into his “studio.”

I had to smile when I saw that the man who had teased me about converting my master bath to a yoga studio, had made the master bathroom of his house into an art studio.

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Everything was just as he had left it – a tidy array of art supplies, waiting for him to come back and pick up the brushes again.

I had been nervous to see his art. What if I didn’t like it? But as Lisa began opening drawer after drawer filled with paintings, I caught my breath.

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The color, the spirit, the movement, the life and energy in each painting was astonishing. Where did all of this come from? I thought I knew my friend, but we had only scratched the surface with our exchanges of stories. I had no idea of the magic within.

“He painted on newspapers,” Lisa told me, showing me sheet after sheet of delightful images. “And he painted every day.”

He painted every day.

If she said something after that, I don’t remember, as those four words reverberated over and over in my head.

I was unbearably sad and berated myself wickedly for not having known this vital part of him while he was still living. The more I saw, the more twisted and wrenched with remorse I was for not having seen his art while I could still tell him how much I loved it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized my feelings would probably not have been that important to him. A true artist, and the son of two artists, David painted – as all artists should – for himself.

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David kept only a small circle of friends. He was a good dad and crazy about his kids, but his spare time was spent creating. As a result of living a life of few distractions, he left behind an incredible body of work.

It’s difficult enough dealing with the sudden disappearance of someone from our lives, but what can make it even harder is what the end of someone’s life reveals to us about ourselves. That I didn’t follow through on his invitation to see his art still sears me to the core with remorse. My guess is that David was most himself when he painted and I missed seeing that. My loss.

With David’s death, an artist vanished leaving no written exchanges, no daily banter on social media, but instead a drawer full of hidden treasures, evidence that he had indeed been present. He was here.

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The lasting wish of the artist, as French poet Paul Eluard once wrote, is to last. David was focused. He painted every day. And his paintings will last on far beyond his life.

It’s sadly ironic that losing David was what it took to help me pull focus on my own work. Still pondering his loss months later, I have come to realize that it is when I write, or capture a scene with my camera that especially moves me, that I most feel myself. It’s these pure moments when, undistracted, I feel a physical creative synergy moving through me and I fully inhabit my body and mind.

And so, I offer this tale as gentle encouragement to all artists. Paint – or photograph or write or whatever it is you do – for those internal fireflies of emotions that glow within you whenever you are happy with your results.

Paint every day.

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David Patrick Joerling

1957-2017

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