There have been so many times when this very thought was bouncing around my brain.
There have been so many times when this very thought was bouncing around my brain.
August 10, 2016
An artist/writer friend was recently courted for an exhibition at her local library, UNTIL the subject of her series Crime Against Nature became known to the organizers. I get that the subject of homosexuality/gender bending roles is uncomfortable for some folks, but isn’t that all the more reason we need to foster the conversation?
Her artwork is not offensive. It does not portray nudity, sexual acts, or any form of perversity. It showcases beautiful paintings of animals with surprising scientific facts about mating and parenting behaviors within the animal kingdom. Please read.
DISCLAIMER: this is a totally self-serving piece written off the top of my head to remind myself why I do this, so if you’re expecting a witty, searing, honest piece, forget it. Well, the honest part is right, but that’s about it. You’ve been warned.
I paint. I write.
If it is a good day, and you ask me what I do, I will tell you, “I am an artist,” or “I am a writer.”
If it is a day like today, the answer is very different. “I like to paint.” “I am trying to write a book.”
To most people, these two sets of statements may sound very similar. They aren’t. Really. Most of you know exactly what I am talking about.
On those rare days when I feel happy with where my work is going, I have a soaring confidence; a strong sense of what my work is about and how I am going to take it to the next level. Most of the time, however, I feel like I’m stumbling around in the dark. I wonder why I am attempting something that is so far beyond my capabilities. I feel like a poser, a fake, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before everyone around me realizes it too.
I wonder how many of us have these moments/days/weeks.What strange magic is it that keeps us going in spite of our obvious (to us) deficiencies? I lick my wounds, vow not to torture myself further. I put my canvas/computer away for a couple of days but something always lures me back to my workroom. In the end, it is the act of creation I find so addictive.
I put my canvas/computer away for a couple of days but something always lures me back to my workroom. In the end, it is the act of creation I find so addictive. When I set aside the thoughts of “what happens next?” and concentrate on the paint on my brush or the words on the page, I am my best self – worry free, content, fulfilled.
That’s real success.
This poem was an exercise based on a fabulous piece I read a few years back. The poem is meant to be read from top to bottom. Then re-read from bottom to top. The meaning is changed completely. I found this more difficult to do than expected. BTW I was fortunate to have had the bottom to top childhood. Hope you enjoy this…
you will always be my mother
I love you
time opens our eyes and hearts and heals
I didn’t understand
so much love and support
you were there
all my life
but not for me
you are gone, out of reach
I love you
you will always be my mother
It was during her first few months back in the USA that Ruth met my dad, Keith. He was a local guy. He’d also served overseas and returned home to restart his life. Keith had just landed a job with Bendix as a computer programmer. Within a year, they were married and trying to start a family.
They lost two babies before my brother and I came along. When we arrived she quit nursing and became a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t feel she could do right by her children or her work by trying to continue with both, and she had no doubt which job was the more important for her.
Ruth was the kind of mom who baked cupcakes, had weekly craft gatherings around the kitchen table, and left the back door open and fridge stocked for the neighborhood kids. She was a school room mother every year. She was a girl scout leader and 4H mentor. We brought home birds, lizards, and snakes. She never complained. We raised dogs, mice, hamsters, a talking crow, blue jays and a cardinal over the years. She welcomed them all. Ruth demanded a lot but was also intensely proud of us. She attended every event because she could; and because no one was there to attend her events growing up and she didn’t want us to feel the sting of looking out over the audience and not seeing her face.
In our small town of Nicholson, she became the “go to” person for all health matters. There were two doctors in town but when in doubt people called Ruth. She’d go where she was needed, any time of night or day. She never accepted a penny for her services. Over the years, she gave shots, changed dressings, inserted trach tubes, changed colostomy bags, and held the hands of the dying. When the doctors in town had a patient who needed continuing care, their final advice was to “call Ruth” if you needed anything. And they did. For nearly fifty years they called and she always went.
In her later years when my own family was living and working in overseas, Ruth decided she was going to come visit. My dad was afraid to fly so she came on her own. She visited us in Moscow, China and Warsaw. She hiked, ate local food, took photos and kept a journal of her adventures. Most of all she spent time with her grandchildren pouring a year’s worth of love into each short visit.
In 2003, she was diagnosed with an aggressive Stage 3 breast cancer. It was a devastating blow but she wasn’t out for the count yet. She knew most of the doctors in the city from years of shuttling neighbors to treatments when they were unable to drive. Ruth handpicked her oncologist, a man who had degrees not only in Oncology but also in Pharmacology. She knew what she was doing. For ten years he managed to keep her going. She became the last surviving Stage 3 patient from the year in which she was diagnosed and outlived the Stage 3 patients from the following year as well.
The cancer was a roller coaster ride. Just as one crisis would end, another would begin but Ruth refused to give up. She refused to give in. Eventually, the chemo affected her brain function. It was as if the files were all in there but she just couldn’t access them anymore. When my dad passed away after a long agonizing stay in the ICU, things became even more confused for her and it was obvious Ruth could no longer live on her own.
The first few months in assisted living she was full of fight. She hated being dependent. She hated losing her independence. Ruth felt she could still take care of herself and she did continue to do much of her own self-care and housekeeping. She also continued to be a nurse. When another woman on her floor fell, the staff nurses arrived on the scene to find my mother doing triage, assessing the woman’s injuries. They let her finish the job. She did it by the book and didn;t miss a thing.
Soon, though, Ruth went downhill. The cruelest loss of all was her brain’s inability to connect to her speech. Ruth was a communicator and listener her entire life and had been robbed of the ability to speak. She knew what she wanted to say but could no longer get the words to come out. Her life became one big frustration because she was aware of what was happening. Her inability to speak also limited her ability to make friends in her new home. This outgoing, nurturing woman spent her last months in silence and isolation.
Towards the very end, even her best friend, Louise, and I had difficulty making out what she was trying to say. She’d get frustrated and angry sometimes. Worse was when she would withdraw and become quiet; giving up on connecting with the people that loved her.
This is where she had come to when I first saw the purple crayon. All of the stories, the accomplishments, the spirit of this wonderful woman and this is what cancer had done to her. I hated that crayon and coloring book. It symbolized all that had been taken away from my mother.
Later, when I had a chance to think about it, I changed my mind. I realized the purple crayon gave Ruth a valuable gift. For those few minutes in the Activity Room each day when Ruth was focused on coloring between the lines, she didn’t have to be frustrated or lonely or scared. For that tiny window of her day, she could put it all aside and just think about making a pretty picture. It was her escape from what her life had become. Instead of grieving the loss of the mother I knew, I learned to be grateful for the comfort, the peace she derived from a simple coloring book and a purple crayon.
Ruth lived up to her promise to become a nurse. In her late teens, she traded cleaning services in a dentist’s office in exchange for getting her teeth fixed, a pre-requisite for acceptance into nursing school. She joined the Army because she couldn’t afford nursing school. When nurses in Arkansas refused to work in the polio wards (there was no vaccine at the time) she volunteered. The hotels made the nurses change into civilian clothes before entering and they had to come in the back door for fear their presence would frighten away customers. It didn’t bother her. Whatever it took to help those poor kids.
Many of her patients were confined to the old bulky iron respirators, essentially prisoners trapped in a metal bubble. They couldn’t truly live within, and they couldn’t survive without. The smallest of these patients were just infants. Most were frightened, lonely children. Some families who lived in fear of contracting the dread disease had abandoned their children altogether. Ruth’s heart broke for these kids. They depended on the nurses for comfort and companionship, and often their very lives. On more than one occasion the power went out, leaving Ruth and the other nurses to pump air into their patients’ lungs by hand, sometimes for hours. She recalled being so sore she could hardly move after one such night, but she never stopped working the pump on the iron lung
After the polio crisis abated, Ruth traveled to Arizona and New Mexico. There she worked among the Navajo people. She never spoke much about this time other than to say she’d worked as a midwife among them. She thought them a gentle noble people and felt strongly that they had not been treated properly by the government. There was a sadness about her when she spoke of these times so I had never asked too many questions.
Her next job was at an EVAC hospital in Washington state. They handled boys returning from the MASH hospitals in South Korea. She worked the floors and in the operating room. Many of the boys didn’t survive; those that did were maimed for life by their injuries. Ruth wasn’t a quitter and she didn’t allow the boys to quit either. She never stopped trying to show them that life was worth living and there was a bigger plan in store for them
She was stationed there for quite some time, long enough for her to drive cross country four different times. She had a little Austin-Nash. It was a sporty little car and she loved it in spite of its flaws, its main fault being a tendency to leak brake fluid. One of her favorite stories was about her trip to San Francisco. She had to stop at the top of every hill and top off the brake fluid before descending or risk not being able to stop at the bottom.hen she had the opportunity to put in for a new assignment she headed to Europe with no hesitation. Her time there was without a doubt one of the treasured periods of her life. Ruth loved talking about the places she saw and the things she did while stationed there. She visited Paris and London, learned to ski in the Alps, saw the Black Forest and Bavaria from the back of a motorcycle piloted by a fellow named Wolfgang. She visited Egypt, Spain, Italy, Austria and Hungary. There were other places too.
When my brother and I were kids, she would take out her metal box of slides from her travels and show us photo after photo of these amazing places on the white screen of our Frigidaire. It instilled a wanderlust in me, one that took our family, including with her grandchildren, overseas. I often wondered if she regretted opening up the world for me as she did. She missed so much of our lives in the years we were away.
While in Verdun she applied for the chance to go to Munich, Germany and become trained in anesthesia. The Army asked her on the application if she intended to stay in the service for the long haul. She was honest and told them she was out as soon as her hitch was up. They accepted her anyway. She was one of only four nurses chosen and passed the year of anesthesia training with flying colors.
When she moved home to the USA, her eldest sister took her in until she got settled. Ruth immediately got a job as an anesthetist in a local hospital. The doctors there were still mired in old techniques. Ruth’s procedures were cutting edge and not everyone was comfortable with the new ways. When a surgeon came into the operating theater and saw the endotracheal tube in the throat of a boy scheduled for a tonsillectomy he demanded that she use gas instead. He refused to operate with that tube in his work area. She explained that based on his pre-surgery tests he was likely a bleeder and the tube would preserve his airway should an excessive amount of bleeding occur during the operation.
The surgeon was furious and walked out of the operating room. She had no choice but to bring the patient back to consciousness and explain what had happened. Ruth later found out she had been correct about the patient. The surgical team almost lost the boy when he began to bleed out on the table. The surgeon never apologized but several months later, when his own son needed an appendectomy, Ruth found herself on the roster for his surgery, and she did her job with the E-T tube in place with no further complaints from the surgeon.
She sat there, purple crayon clutched in her shriveled fingers, her brow furrowed in concentration. It broke my heart. All around her, the other women (and one man) were busy with paintbrushes creating their own versions of a beautiful autumn scene, but my mother was reduced to trying to stay in the lines of a preschool coloring book.
How did this happen? How did God allow my mother, a woman who served others her entire life, taught Sunday school for thirty years, sang in the choir, and nursed everyone in our entire town back to health at one time or another, end up like this?
Her name was Ruth. I wish you could have known her in her younger days. She told me her stories and I cherish each and every one of them.
Ruth knew she wanted to be a nurse from the time she was small. Her mother had a congenital heart condition that made her frail. She was not too frail to birth six children, but her body lacked the strength to live long enough to raise them. My mother was the middle girl of five, followed shortly thereafter by a younger sister and the first (and last) son. She grew up in the shadow of her mother’s condition. You might think it would escape a child’s notice, but not Ruth. She noticed everything–changes in breathing, her mother’s gray pallor, her fatigue. She would tell anyone who would listen that she was going to be a nurse (girls didn’t think about becoming doctors in those days) when she grew up and when they asked why she’d tell them, “So I can take care of my mother.”
The heart condition had other effects on the children. Theirs was a quiet household. Their mother couldn’t run and play with them. They didn’t plan strenuous outings. Instead, she taught all the girls to bake and sew. They sang around the piano. They played cards. Her daughters also did the shopping and learned to clean house. It was a necessity since their mother wasn’t able to keep up with the housework. All the girls pitched in. It was expected.
Sometimes their mother’s weakness caused personal hurt. To Ruth’s great shame she had once thrown a tantrum when her mother baked her a birthday cake in a sheet cake pan. You see, birthdays were special and the Williams kids always got a round layer cake for their birthdays, but that year her mother hadn’t felt up to the extra work and so the pedestrian oblong cake with its single shabby layer was offered instead. My mother, only eight at the time, didn’t understand and sobbed copious child tears of grief over the slight. Years later, after her mother’s death (of more accurately because of it) Ruth was filled with agonizing regret over the incident, and the guilt her mother likely felt. Had her mother lived, it would no doubt have been something they would have laughed about in later years but because she died so young, the memory played over and over, searing itself into Ruth’s brain, forever reminding her of unintended cruelty.
Ruth’s mother died when she was fifteen. She and her sister had gone to a church picnic. They’d had a wonderful time and were walking home when they noticed a crowd gathered in front of her house. The girls ran to through the yard to the porch. A woman in the front yard called to them, “I’m so sorry…” Panic stricken, they pushed passed the neighbors and into the house. Their siblings stood in the parlor silent tears running down their cheeks.
Ruth didn’t remember where her father was on that day, she only knew that no one had come to get them to say good-bye. No one had come to tell her that her mother had taken a bad turn. She had to find out from a stranger on the front lawn. She hadn’t said “good-bye”. She wasn’t with her brother and sisters.
She hadn’t said good-bye.