Handle with Care

Handle with Care is a textile piece about my experience of caring for my terminally ill mother in 1979, the summer I turned 16.   I had never thought of myself as a ‘carer’ until earlier this year when I was involved as an Arts & Health Practitioner in a community arts project in Devon called The Craft of Caring.   The main project was engaging with carers in a series of workshops to make a piece of community artwork.

There was a call for art submissions from people about their experience of being a carer.  After hemming and hawing for a few weeks, I decided to make this piece.  Although I have done a lot of work on this loss over the years, I have carried vivid visual memories around with me for the past 40 years.  This piece of artwork gave me the opportunity to process my experience in a different way than I have done so in therapy.

Artist’s Statement:

“This self-portrait uses photographic and stitched images,
layers of memory and text to capture the artist’s experience
of being an adolescent carer;   an experience of a world unravelling
contrasted with the strength of will to hold herself together.”

Handle with Care, 2019

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The day she left for good

Some days I wear heavy like a scratchy wool blanket, folded in half and draped across my shoulders.

35 years ago today, my Mom died from cancer at age 55. It never gets any easier, only different.

Some years it’s the anguish of being left so soon; other years, the anger that she was so young and why does everyone else get to have a mother for such a long time; all of the milestones of graduation, marriage, achievements that I never got to share; the absolute wrongness of me having to deal with bedpans and hospital visits when I was a young teenager; questions about who she was and who I am left unanswered; the not getting to see her grow into the fullness of her life; nor for her to see who I have become . . . . .

This year it’s about the lost time together. Last night I dreamt that she and I were on a quiz team in a pew at the back of a church. We didn’t win. When we left the church, we each made our way through a concourse of restaurants and shops. We met again at the exit. To try to explain why I haven’t spent time with her for so long, I shyly said ‘I thought you’d died’ and decided to ask if she’d like to watch Napoleon Dynamite with me.

I awoke hopeful that this dream I’ve had any number of times, that I’d made a mistake and she is still here, was true this time. But it wasn’t.

So I spent the day, warm and slow and quiet, reflecting on the empty places and the full spaces that make up my relationship with my mom.

35 years

Honesty, saying ‘Good-bye’ and letting go

This evening Steve and I are going to a very special party we’ve been invited to by a friend who was initially a work colleague of mine.  I worked alongside her for six months when she ran a community gardening project in a charity I work for.  After she left, we became Facebook friends and she brought her mother, who is a quilter, to my Open Studio in 2013.  At first, I was a bit surprised to be asked to her gathering, which has the feel of a very special birthday or an engagement party.   I found out a few days ago that my friend has a terminal illness and is bringing a circle of people together for a celebration of life, love, friendship and community.  She knows is going to have a great funeral and doesn’t want to miss it, so is throwing this party.

This is such a courageous, heart-filled and generous act.  I’ve been thinking about it constantly for the past several days and not only about my friend, who is around my age.

I have been thinking about how rare it is to consciously say ‘Good-bye’ to someone.

I have been thinking about how our society fears and hides from not only the fact of death, but how we fear and hide from our feelings about death.

I have been thinking about how I take for granted that ‘Next Christmas we will . . . . .’ and ‘In May we’re going to . . . . . . ‘ and ‘Sometime in the next five years I’ll make that piece of art which has been glowing and growing deep inside of my Soul’.

I have been thinking about my mortality, and I hope that I will be able to accept and celebrate it with as much honesty and grace as my friend.

Yes, part of being truly alive is making plans for the future, but the gift I am remembering in the midst of this is that part of being truly alive is to ‘live our dying’.  It is good to remember that we are each somewhere on the circle of life, connected to one another by fragile threads and held in a state of grace.

On  Christmas eve morning, there was a Red Admiral butterfly sunning herself above our bathroom window. An unseasonal reminder of transformation and the never ending cycle of birth-death-rebirth.

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Late autumn honesty in a walled garden of plants beautifully dying

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The amaryllis bulb that I thought would never begin to grow, did

Saying ‘good-bye’

About a month ago I got a phone call from my ex-partner John to say that Titch, the cat who came to live with us when we were together, was terminally ill with cancer.  We had parted on good terms and I had sometimes gone to feed and visit Titch on the farm where I used to live when John was away.  Still I hadn’t seen either of them for well over a year.  The news was very distressing.

Titch came to the farm one January when John was working away for a few weeks.   I’ve always been good at gentling wildish cats and managed to get a pat in and gave him a dish of scrambled eggs to eat.  He re-appeared the next night and by night 3, I’d brought a can of cat food home with me.  Little by little, he got to the point of coming into the converted barn where we lived to eat and hang out in the evenings, but usually slept outside in the hayloft of an open barn.  He never did cotton on to any other people but John and I.

There’s something about a cat that makes a home a home and it was really good to have him around for the next couple of years that I lived there.  By the time I left, it was good to know that he and John were together and very nice to go and visit from time to time.

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One of the last times I went to see Titch towards the end, I walked up from the bus stop where I used to alight when I lived there.  I climbed over the barbed wire fence next to the horse chestnut tree and paused to examine one of the little worlds in it’s roots; a spill of autumn leaves and moss.

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I walked along the river where I used to spend so much time when I lived there, now filled with fallen leaves and tree reflections.  A place dearer to my heart than many people and places I have known in my life.

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Titch was asleep on a flannel sheet near the fireplace when I arrived.  I stretched out on the floor and spent time drowsing at cat level.

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He got up and had some food, then settled in a sun patch near the front door.

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John and I had arranged for the vet to come out and euthanize him at the end of the week.  Titch got up from a nap when I arrived, ate and went outside to bask and doze in the warm autumn sunshine next to John and I, his two human companions. There were pats, purrs and shared memories of his life with us.

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After the vet had come and gone, we took Titch to his final resting place in the apple orchard, wrapped in his flannel sheet and laid him on a bed of hay, leaves and feathers, deep in the earth. When I left, I saw and felt his presence everywhere I looked in the farmyard where he had lived. He still lives, woven into the lives and hearts and memories of we who knew and loved him.

A deeper toll of grief

January 20th, 1980.  The date of my Mother’s death from cancer.  I was 16, she was 55.

Most winters, I feel a sense of loss.  That long ago time of her dying lingers deep in my bones.

I have spent the past 34 years feeling some trepidation about turning 50.  That was her age when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  It was also a very transitory time in her life which my sensitive 11 year old self perceived.  She was in the process of leaving a dead end marriage with my father and was having a lot of problems with my older brother.  Ironically, when she was diagnosed with cancer, she was beginning to blossom and find a sense of her Self.  She started going to night school to pursue her dream of becoming an early childhood educator, and she and I moved out from our family home a couple of years later.

At a relatively young age, I witnessed my mother’s simultaneous burst of growth and rapid decline.  When I found my way to therapy in my early 20’s, I said, ‘I don’t want to end up like my Mom, starting to live when she was 50 and dying a few years later’.  I’ve worked damn hard over the years to untangle my self from dysfunctional family patterns, to live a meaningful (to me) life, to make healthy choices about everything I have any control over.

I was very pleased and proud to turn 50 last August.  I’m sharing my life with my beloved husband in a nurturing relationship, living in a warm and beautiful home in a community which sustains me, working as an artist, I have meaningful friendships and am looking forward to the next decade and beyond.  I’m grateful that I was able to receive the teaching from my Mom’s death about not leaving ‘me’ too late and that I’ve truly lived my life with no regrets.

I decided a few weeks ago that I would like to plant a rose bush this springtime in our front garden in her memory.  When she died 34 years ago, my remaining family – Dad, myself and two older siblings, couldn’t find it in ourselves to have a ceremony or service to mark her passing.  It was as if a door had closed, and we no longer spoke about her.  Not our memories or how big the loss in our lives was.  I still feel, when I think of my Mom, that I am walking through a house with many empty rooms.  I have little kid memories of her.  When I got to be about 13, I hated her, probably the way most teenagers hate their Moms.  And then she was gone.

In earlier years, at this time, I’ve felt the acute loss of an un-mothered child.  I didn’t feel ‘down’ this winter, as I often have in the past.   I thought it had something to do with the relief of  turning 50 and having made it through.  The 20th of January came and went, and the day after, my heart cracked open.  Besides the longing and loss of all of the past 34 years, I wonder how can I possibly move into my 50’s and become more than she was?  This is very new territory for me.

I’m sailing without a map and hoping to find the way forward.   I’m surprised to find that I need her in a different way than I ever have.

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Nell Rose Schwakhofer née Martin on Dia de los Muertos, 2013

This is such a bleak time of year, yet I feel the growth stirring beneath the surface of the earth, and over the past several days, I’ve been nurtured by the new growth appearing at the tips of bare branches.  This gives me heart.  Losing a few minutes taking in the beauty of new growth can clear our mind and help us understand the strength of growth despite adversity.

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Antidotes to Fear of Death

I’ve been back at my Monday morning drawing class for the past couple of weeks following the mid-term break.  Today we were invited to bring in an object “constrained by form”  which speaks to us as an ‘antidote to the fear of death’.

I brought my mother’s wristwatch, one of the very few items I have that belonged to her.  It’s a Timex watch she bought from Long’s Drugstore when I was about 10.  Sometimes I wind it up and wear it.  It keeps more or less accurate time.

One of the gifts I claimed from the death of my mother, when I was 16, is the awareness of mortality.   When I got a little bit older, I was able to reflect on her life and I realised that she had waited until too late to start making positive decisions and choices based on her interests, well-being and desires.  Besides going to college at age 50 and leaving an unhealthy relationship with my father, I wondered what else she had left too late.  My mother died from cancer when she was 55.  At a very young age I decided that I did not want to follow in her footsteps and wait until it was too late for me to live my own life.

In a way, she gave me the gift of time which is symbolised by her wristwatch.

Anyhow, here is my drawing, followed by a poem which my drawing teacher read to us.

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My mother’s watch, charcoal, 24 x 36cm, 2013

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote

To fear of death,

I eat the stars.

 

Those nights, lying on my back,

I suck them from the quenching dark

Til they are all, all inside me,

Pepper hot and sharp.

 

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself

Into a universe still young,

Still warm as blood:

 

No outer space, just space,

The light of all the not yet stars

Drifting like a bright mist,

And all of us, and everything

Already there

But unconstrained by form.

 

And sometimes it’s enough

To lie down here on earth

Beside our long ancestral bones:

 

To walk across the cobble fields

Of our discarded skulls,

Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,

Thinking: whatever left these husks

Flew off on bright wings.

 

 – Rebecca Elson, 2001

My mother's watch

My mother’s watch