July 2015

I am walking in The Jungle on a humid, early June day. I carry my mobile phone because it counts my steps, confirms that I am making progress of a sort.

As I round a curve of the rough path, it rings. I answer it because it is the director at the independent living residence where I hold weekly art programming that I hope to continue through the summer, if I get the KFW Art Meets Activism grant.

She says: “I wanted to make sure you knew about this before you came today.”

“Knew about what?”

She then tells the sad story of an eighty-five year old female resident who drove her car northbound on the twin bridges I travel back and forth on my teaching artist excursions, parked it on the shoulder, got out and clambered over the metal railing to fall fifty feet to her death.

“The executive director feels we should not encourage conversation about it”, she finishes. “Only if the residents bring it up.”

“Okay, whatever you say”, I agree. But after hanging up, I wonder why, and how I can keep silent while the woman’s absence screams the story.

 

I first meet her in the common room where I held my ArtSpark sessions. She was pushing a walker like most of her contemporaries. But she did not look or act like them. She wore her hair in a tidy gray bob, like many of the faculty wives I met and often scorned as a traditional academic as they always seemed mere appendages of their husbands’. It is– was — a behavior I never embraced, even after marrying an academic and pursuing non-academic arts activities. But I still saw some of myself in her. She was gregarious and talkative, articulate and obviously educated. She was also very nervous.

I quickly recognized her from the grainy, photocopied newspaper article prominently displayed in the residence lobby some weeks before. In it I learned that her husband was a doctor who initiated a ground-breaking medical/missionary project in a third world country. Her contributions, although different, were as valued as his. That was way back in the 1980s, however, thirty years ago. Now they were both retired and reduced to living in a small apartment in a high rise for elders needing assistance, because her husband suffered from Alzheimer’s. I had already heard she was his primary caregiver.

She said she came because the activity sounded fun. But she could not relax into it. The simple process of gluing a decorative paper to the cardboard cover frustrated her. She kept complaining it was not perfect, kept pulling it off and re-positioning it numerous times until the paper became damp, flimsy and fragile.

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I restrained myself from helping. Instead, I reminded her that there was no right or wrong way to do it, and that wrinkles can look pretty interesting. But she kept peeling the paper off and exasperatingly exclaining “I just can’t seem to do this right!”

After a hour she finally glued the paper to her satisfaction. Then she stood and gathered up her imperfect journal, stating she had to relieve the person who was looking after her husband. She did not promise to return. She said so much depended on how he was doing.

“It’s a day by day thing”, she explained.

Then I invited her to write in the journal between now and the next time we met.

She waved a thin, dismissive hand at me, shook her gray head no, and said “You wouldn’t want to read what I write.”

“Why not?” I inquired.

“Because it would be too angry” she said, rattling her walker in the direction of the exit.

“There is nothing wrong in writing about anger…” I replied, but didn’t finish my sentence because she so swiftly left the room.

A couple weeks later I saw her at a special luncheon, where I was making a promotional speech about Life Stories Life Lessons.

The dining room was packed, of course. I’d already learned that the best method to gain elder participation was food. I wondered if this was because so many of the elderly have inflexible, fixed incomes. I also wondered if it was because food is one of the few pleasures left to the elderly.

She sat at the only table with available seats, so I asked if I could join her and the wheelchair-bound man whom she introduced as her husband. I hardly recognized him from the newspaper article, though. He looked considerably older than she, and much more diminished. His face was pale, thin and lined, his shoulders hunched, his eyes vague.

And she was not the same agitated, angry woman I met over the visual journaling project either. She was cheerful, calm and patient. She attended to her husband’s needs gently and lovingly, cut his food, managed his napkin, wiped his chin with hers. She also made several attempts to include him in our conversation. I was touched by this obvious love and attention.

Life Stories/Life Lessons postcard

Life Stories/Life Lessons postcard

During dessert, I worked the room. I dropped promotional postcards on each table, said a few words about Life Stories Life Lessons, asked if there were questions. There weren’t. There were, however, plenty of polite yet firm negatives and lots of uncomfortable laughter.

It made me think of high school girls succumbing to peer pressure.

One rolled her eyes at her tablemates and exclaimed: “Oh, no, I have nothing important to talk about.”

Another fidgeted in her chair, snorted and said: “Heavens, I stopped thinking about the past a long time ago.” …and I thought of my family of origin’s insistence that I dwell unhealthily on the past, and felt my stomach clench.

But I wanted to ask: What could possibly be the problem, the harm, the danger in sharing your life stories? And why do you so firmly believe your life stories not worth telling, not even to young people who might be encouraged or helped by them?

 

On the day after the elderly woman’s suicide, my ArtSpark group is subdued. No one seems particularly interested in working on visual journals. They fiddle with the supplies, flip blank pages, are distracted and quiet.

Then the PA system blares that the bus to the wake is leaving in ten minutes – and there is no avoiding the topic of the tragic death anymore.

I ask how everyone is feeling. I hear murmurs of “how shocking”, “she was so stressed, everyone knew it”, and “taking care of her husband was a full time job; she had no time to herself.”

I also hear guilt. “If I only knew how stressed she really was…” “If she would have just opened up to someone”, “if I had pressed her more about how it was going, how she was feeling”…

I hear everybody out. Only then are we able to work.

I see the helpful bereavement brochures too late to use them, at the end of the session while I am cleaning up. They are artfully fanned on nearby table, and look untouched. A social worker must have dropped them off, I supposed. Or perhaps the executive director had stacks of them in a file cabinet, just for this purpose.

But only one addresses the unique bereavement issues associated with a suicide. I take it home with me. That night, over a glass of wine, I read that memories of this person might be disturbing because of the nature of suicide — that it is a choice, a terrible one, but a choice nevertheless. It also tells me that the guilt, the “what ifs” of suicide bereaved, can be overwhelming, devastating, and haunting. For a lifetime.

 

A little over a year later, a chaplain at a small college many hours from where I once lived and worked with those elders hands me two flyers about grieving and bereavement. Neither of them focuses on bereaved of suicide. And O committed suicide.

A month into O’s untimely death I am just beginning to ask myself questions about that language.  Committed makes suicide sound like a sin. Which it once was. Maybe still is.

I vow to never use that language again.

But I read the statements anyway. Some are helpful. But many are downright hurtful, like fatal stabs to my already broken heart.

Like: You have a right to a safe listener – when there is no one to listen, now that O, my best friend, my closest companion, is gone.

And: You may avoid thinking or feeling anything about the loss, or stop doing things that once gave you pleasure… And I think how impossible it is to even consider working on the final product of Life Stories/Life Lessons because it would mean revisiting life while O was alive. It would mean looking at photographs of O, working with the at-risk kids who also worked with the elders when I miss his physical self so badly it makes my whole body hurt.

But that isn’t all of it. Finishing something, anything, means progress. Progress is moving on. And moving on means moving on from O.

 

Five months later I am pulling up to an isolated retreat house where everything looks oddly the same, although I haven’t been in residence for five years. It makes me feel like a time traveler, and this is amplified as I get settled in the same bedroom, adjacent to the same glassed in studio where I last slept and worked. I wonder if I will be able to sleep, as a matter of fact. But I do.

The next morning I work on Life Stories/Life Lessons for the first time since O took his life. I set up the old computer from the farmhouse I no longer live in, pulling out the fat folders and notebooks filled with documentation of my efforts. And then I find two different composition books with entries on the days just before and after O’s death. And I weep, still fighting feelings that O would be alive now if not for me, my love of writing, my love of my work.

How O stared and glared at me from the unmade bed as I typed at the kitchen table. How committed I was that August morning to start taking better care of myself, which included regular time to write, doing whatever it took, rising at five, going to the library every weekday evening for an hour or two in spite of O’s anger and in order to get started on and finish this project – and within twenty-four hours O took his life. He took mine too, for months and months.

Until now.  And I begin to write.

 

Posted in elders, Homelessness, senior citizens, suicide awareness, suicide bereavement, Who Is The Art Bag Lady? | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer 2015

One late June morning I am sitting at the computer in the kitchen of the farmhouse in south central Indiana, working. I am a teaching artist, managing a photography project with at-risk kids.

I am also approaching the end of my year of service with AmeriCorps SeniorCorps Kentucky. It has been a rough job, at times, but it has also been highly educational. I now know what an executive director does, what an active board is, how to fundraise. In fact I’ve written several grants for the struggling arts organization to help pay for programming. But the only programming that has taken place in the past eleven months has been my community outreach as a teaching artist to underserved by art audiences, like at-risk kids, the elderly, the homeless. And I haven’t gotten any grants – yet.

I take a break from photo editing, refill my cup of tea, look out the back door over my garden, in full summer bloom, and think about the future. This includes thoughts of O – a man I have been making art with at the local homeless shelter for some time. He is a talented artist, a passionate musician. He would love to work with these kids, I whisper to myself.

But O is in jail, has been since March, and there is no telling when he will be released from detention because he refuses to plead out for something he did not do.I admire O for this, but I miss him. I am beginning to forget what his voice really sounds like in person, not on a staticky telephone or muffled behind a smeary, scratched up pane of plexiglass. I am beginning to forget the way his hugs felt, and the smoky smell of his hair.

So I hug myself hard, go back to the computer – and see that I have an email from someone at the Kentucky Foundation For Women, about my grant application. It takes several seconds to remember that I wrote a several thousand dollar grant to support a proposed project that will link the at-risk girls and the elderly women I have been voluntarily working with for almost a year. I eagerly read that I got the grant, and my heart soars.

Then it sinks, because the KFW administrator asks if I’ve done the paperwork yet, as it is two weeks overdue. That is because it was mailed to the arts organization’s storage area – I mean the dentist’s office. The utilities were turned off weeks ago because we could no longer afford to pay them. I haven’t been to the office since. It’s been too hot. A couple weeks ago I fried while trying to use the one and only workroom to tack the story quilt created at the independent living centers where I hope to engage the elder women in the (now!) KFW grant funded project – Life Stories, Life Lessons.

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And the fact remains – I am unable to save the arts organization. They don’t know who they are anymore, or what they want to be. The board members seem to be thinking backwards, longing to be what they once were when seems to be the source of their financial meltdown. They can’t afford me along with the utility bill, although I only earn a poverty-level living allowance of about $800 a month.

But I am determined to get this grant, to prove to the arts organization board that I could help them – and prove to my husband (and everyone else who believes I’m crazy because I want to make art with marginal individuals) that I can do this. I have to do this.

I email the board member who empties our PO Box and ask if she has seen anything from the KFW. She says no. So I shut down the computer, shower and dress, drive to the dentist’s office and fish handfuls of damp and crushed pieces of mail out of our rusty mailbox. One of them is my notification from the KFW.

I rush home, fill out the paperwork, sign it, scan it and send a digital copy to the KFW. Just in case, I put the original in an addressed, stamped envelope, and walk it out to our roadside mailbox. Then I take a deep breath and go for a walk in The Jungle, the purposefully undeveloped part of the farmhouse property, on the paths my husband once mowed paths to get to his newly planted trees. Some of them are now ten, twelve, even twenty feet tall.

When I walk in The Jungle, I think. Sometimes I talk aloud. Many times I’ve cried, even sobbed because there is no one nearby to hear.

And then I think of the woman at Redbanks Pleasant Pointe, and wish I’d gotten the grant sooner. Just one month sooner.

 

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