Monday, January 3, 2011

The last letter.

Dear Ellen

It will be one year tomorrow since you died.

This is what I've realized and learned within the past years journey...

You were the most vibrant, full of life and loving person I'd ever met. Strong and strong willed, yet shy and withdrawn into your shell when frightened. Hard working and honest to a fault. Intelligent, creative and insightful. Affectionate and kind, quick to laugh, sweet natured, but with a wicked sense of humor. Generous and beautiful both inside and out. Most of all, you lived life to its fullest from the first time I met you.

Cancer changed your ability to live life the way you wanted. It was a shock, physically and emotionally, to comprehend the changes happening so quickly. You were thrown into a tailspin of hospitals and treatments all the while dealing with your own mortality. You found a way to deal with the changes in your body and found a way to adjust to a life in which you had so little control. Sad and frightened in the beginning you slowly found a way to fight, a way to endure, a way to accept and finally a way to let go. You rarely complained, despite the pain. You drew from an inner strength and faith I could only admire. The peace, acceptance and pure love in your eyes during your last days reassured me I could let go too.

I was a very different person before I met you. Closed off from myself and most of the world, not confident and not very happy. Our relationship changed me. I learned how to live, how to truly enjoy each day and appreciate what we shared. I grew into someone I could finally live with and for the first time, finally happy too. You brought out the best in me. When you were diagnosed with cancer it was devastating. The very thing I most feared was happening, unfolding before my eyes and there was no stopping it. I became a warrior, a caregiver, a nurse, I fought doctors and insurance companies and anyone who stood in the way of you getting better. I gave myself completely to the fight and became someone I didn't know existed inside me. I kept fighting until your eyes told me to stop.

I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

And now a year has passed. I'm not the same person I was before I met you. I'm not the same person I was before you were diagnosed. I'm not the person I was the day you died a year ago. I'm someone I didn't know existed inside me. Losing you was so hard, but the experience and the good I've gleaned from it has made me stronger and wiser. Our friends and family have carried me when I couldn't walk. Your memory and my willingness to honor it has pushed me forward when I was afraid. Strangers have found me, through this blog or through my art and left me messages of profound love and encouragment. I didn't do this alone. These connections and conversations woven with others is what sustained and taught me the most these past months. I've learned life is still worth living and joy is still possible. There are times of deep sadness, but I'm slowly healing and learning my heart is bigger than I thought. A little scarred, but bigger.

I'm finding ways to gently pack up the memories, find a place to keep them, find a way to honor and draw strength from them. They're gifts you and the life we shared have given me. I need to find a way to move forward with my own life now and I know, because we talked about it many times after you became ill, you would want me to do nothing less. You wanted me to find a way to be happy again. You brought me home, here to New Orleans, because you knew I needed a place to grow. I've felt your guidance, sensed your presence and honored your memory as best I could. Somehow, I knew I couldn't let either of us down.

You taught me a year ago how to accept, to let go, to find peace. Today I understand.

Dear sweet Ellen, I will always miss your laughter.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

Dear Ellen
It's Christmas Eve. A year ago, a lifetime ago, I wrote on this same evening about your decline, about your slipping away from us. Can it really be a year ago? I didn't think I could live ten minutes without you and yet here I am, still learning to deal with the loss, but learning so much in the process. I've cried an entire river of tears, but I've found a strength I never knew I had.

I've thought over and over again "why". There's no answer to the question and there never will be. Or at least, not in this lifetime. All I could ever do was accept and move forward one inch at a time. I listened to what I thought was your voice, loud and clear, reminding me to pick myself up, stop feeling sorry for myself and get busy. Very busy. Somehow, I thought anything less than giving my best effort would be a disappointment to both of us.

I think there was something you were to learn here on this earth, there was a reason you were taken from us so young. A lesson I will never comprehend because it was yours alone. Is it my lesson to accept loss? To learn from it? Is this your final gift to me, to teach me I'm stronger than I thought? That I can take something so painful and use it to make me a better person? Is it what we choose to do with loss that defines us, shapes us, allows us to move forward?

I believe there was a reason we were placed in each others lives. I can't comprehend the reason, but I know we cared for each other and I do believe something good must come from losing you. I think I've spent the better part of the year trying to understand this.

A year. A year to learn so much.

Merry Christmas Ellen.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A years journey

Dear Ellen
Your birthday party was perfect. Lots of laughter, a few tears, great stories and memories to share. It was exactly the way I wanted to honor your day and I think it would have pleased you to know we were together, missing you, but remembering you in such a special way.

My birthday is Thursday this week. Last year that day was one of the most difficult days I think I've known. It was the day I lost hope. I realize now you had let go weeks before and was simply waiting for me to realize it too. After months of fighting to keep you, of thinking there was a chance with the last chemotherapy, of refusing to accept losing you I finally realized there was no hope. You were dying and nothing was going to stop it. I couldn't stop it. You weren't capable of many words then, but your eyes said it all. I realized something as I watched you sleeping on the sofa during that afternoon. If I kept fighting my own fight you would be alone in your journey. If I let go, I could walk a least a little further with you. I wanted to help you through to where you needed to go and I wanted you to know you wouldn't be alone to get there. So I let go.

It was the hardest thing I've ever done.

In letting go of you I let go of myself too. What I knew about me, about us, about life in general was lost. In the days and weeks after you died I felt I'd never find my way back to living. I spent the better part of this year trying to figure out how to begin again, how to breathe again, how to figure out who I'm supposed to be in this world.

How to find hope again.

I dreaded December for a long while until last month when I realized I had to think differently about it if I wanted to survive it. So, a birthday party for you and yes, a birthday party for me. I have to take back my birthday. I can't remember it as a day of loss. A birthday party with cake, good food, great friends and many reminders life is still worth living. Maybe hats and a birthday dance too. Maybe a birthday shuffle conga line.

There's no escaping some of the emotions, the feelings, the sadness during this month and I'll feel all of it. But there's a balance now that I didn't feel before. There's good too. There's laughter again.

There's hope.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Birthday Wishes

Dear Ellen
Wednesday is your birthday. You would have been 54. I have been trying to remember the many birthdays we shared in the years before your diagnosis, celebrations of a life well lived, surrounded by love, good friends and laughter. It's the way I want to remember your day, though I admit I also find myself caught up in the sadness of last year at this time. The day of your birth in this world, the day you celebrated your very existance should be a day of hope and joy. And that is how I want to celebrate it this year too.
So a birthday party is planned at your favorite restaurant. A gathering with family and dear friends to celebrate you and what you meant to all of us. Probably a few tears will fall, but I know we will all be remembering the Ellen who was full of life and quick to laugh. The Ellen who was always ready for a good time, a good meal, and perhaps a glass of good wine. The Ellen who would spend hours fixing her hair, putting on makeup and going through every cute outfit in the closet to wear for the occasion. The Ellen who would lite up a room when she walked in. That's the birthday I want for you.
I am asking our friends and families to send you a birthday wish. When you were so sick they would join together and send you messages of hope, prayers and love. The positive energy was always felt and you were so touched by those reaching out in kindness. You felt loved and I think that love helped you find the strength to deal with the fear, to find some peace around it. Honestly, I think the love of your family and friends kept us both going when things were hardest.

So, sometime on Wednesday, a moment of stillness large enough to contain a loving thought, a prayer, a memory of Ellen full of love and laughter. A message sent in streams of love to you on your special day. A birthday you would love.

I know you'll be the happiest one at the party.
Happy Birthday dear Ellen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Into December

Dear Ellen
It's the end of November. A year ago you had a brain bleed which took away the Ellen I knew. The tumors were growing rapidly, unchecked by the chemotherapy which had kept them at bay. This was the beginning of the end. I've anticipated this coming time for several months, knowing it would be difficult, knowing the memories would turn dark, knowing I can't escape the emotions. No matter how many walls of defense I've managed to build over the past months I know these next weeks will shake my foundations.

I think of you and what you had to experience and endure. I will never be able to comprehend the emotions you must have felt, knowing you were dying. I watched the changes in your personality, watched you deal with the confusion over the changes in your physical condition and witnessed your acceptance of each. I watched you slip away from me as I struggled to care for you, as I struggled to find the same acceptance in losing you. Each day brought another change in your condition, each hour brought another challenge in simply adapting to what was happening. No matter my will to protect you, no matter my struggle to keep you safe and comforted, I was going to lose you.

I felt so helpless.

Perhaps this is what I still struggle with the most. I couldn't save you.

Such a simple statement to contain such a mountain of emotions to unravel. Where do I begin? Where will December take me?


Sunday, November 21, 2010


Dear Ellen

I am finally home again, safe and sound, now rested, now happy to be back in the routine of simpler things. The show in Philadelphia was a success in many ways, but the connection to friends and the interaction with people seems to be most important to me in these past few shows. I find the messages in these conversations are always just exactly what I'm needing to hear and the emotional connection so beautiful. It's almost as though I sit and wait for it to walk in, expecting it, knowing there will be someone who will share something amazing with me at some point.

Sure enough, the messinger arrived.

A man walked into my booth and looked carefully at each piece of art, leaving and then returning some time later to make a selection. He chose a piece and as we completed the transaction he told me he was touched by my work and was giving the art as a gift to his five year old daughter. He then shared he had terminal cancer. We spoke for just a few moments, but the connection was genuine and touching. There was an understanding communicated through my work to him and through his vulnerable conversation to me. I thought that was the "gem" I'd been anticipating.

I returned home and although happy to be in familiar surroundings I felt somewhat lost, the result of traveling a 100 miles an hour for the past month and then stopping abruptly at the end of the journey. In a funk, I went to the studio to pick up my mail, expecting to find a stack of bills. Instead I found a letter from the man I had spoken with. The envelope contained a wonderful little drawing by his daughter and a poem he had written for me. I found myself dropping into a chair to cry. This man who I had never met had been moved enough by my work to write this beautiful poem. What an amazing gift from a complete stranger. The poem is focused on a small sculpture I had done of a feminine figure hanging upside down by wires, encased in translucent cloth and representing a cocoon, a chrysalis. The title of the piece was "Transformed" and this is his poem:

Star toed, she hangs,
The porcelain pendulum of a chrysalis,
Defying the shell of her spent vessel.

Woven memory,
Love fed new life.
Shadow partnered,
Each movement,
A dance step echoed.
The choreopgraphy,
The serendipity of lives shared.
One so close, another name not needed,
Halves merged without the vestige of separation.
Hear the wings of gossamer unfolding.

Over the many years I have been doing shows as an artist I've had wonderful encounters with people, but never have I been so touched and humbled by such a sweet gesture. It reminds me, again, of what's important. You taught me this lesson through your life and within our relationship to each other. It's the human connection, the threads which bind us to one another, making us whole and truly alive, which live on when we leave this world for another. What a beautiful gift in such simplicity.

So, I turn toward December and the month which holds too many memories.

And I carry these threads as my shield.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dear Ellen
It's been too long since I've written. I've been working a lot, every day since I returned from Kansas City, trying to produce art for the show in Philadelphia. I'm really not sure how I managed to pull off getting it all together, but the truck is packed to the roof with a body of work created in just over 30 days. I'm on my way, another adventure in front of me, the last show of the year.

My work is changing. For months the pain of losing you came through my hands and into the art. It wasn't pretty, but it was powerful and emotional and it helped me heal. As I worked my way through the summer the work became less about the loss and more about the transitions I was going through. Now I think my work is a statement about who I am and who I want to become. I can't fully appreciate or see these changes in myself, but I can see it in my work. Somewhere along the way I found a determination and resolve I didn't realize I had.

So I'm looking forward to taking this show on the road. I anticipate another interesting and educational experience which will come from the most unexpected source possible. Someone at the show will remind me I know nothing about anything and someone will provide me with an amazing moment of insight. It may come from the same person and it may come in the same sentence and if I'm lucky I'll be paying attention and not miss any of it. In the meantime, this is what I've learned this past month. I'm not fighting to hold on to parts of myself I no longer need. I'm finding a balance between resolve and acceptance and the possiblilties of keeping my eyes open.

It's going to be an interesting trip to Philly.