It doesn’t really ever stop. It doesn’t go away. The hurt. The empty space.
And you never stop being a widow.
Even if after only a year you think you’re stuck (and wonder about the possibility that you may be holding him back from somewhere he’s supposed to move on to) and you push yourself to let go of some things and move forward. Even if you allow yourself to be manipulated by someone who says your grief is unhealthy and calls you “Courtney Love” and says you weren’t really a widow because you weren’t legally married in an attempt to dismantle your very identity and discount your experiences but at the same time convinces you he loves you and wants to be with you (despite his wife’s objections!) Even if you don’t talk about it, trying to avoid triggering this narcissistic new boyfriend who’s jealous of the dead guy. It’s all still there.
Even when three years goes by after you’ve eliminated the narcissist who tried his best to replace the dearest sweetest most brilliant person in the world and left you even more scarred and scared but in different ways, it’s still there. But now you’re free to express yourself without censorship.
Even when five years goes by, the shock of finding the dearest sweetest most brilliant person in the world hanging from a carefully constructed rope never leaves. It washes over you still sometimes in a giant wave that disrupts the current moment, makes you drop what you’re doing and work to wrap your head around it once again. The images don’t erase themselves. And you don’t want them to. In that image there is also incredible peace on his face. He was calm, his body relaxed. He stopped the hurt.
And you never stop being a widow.
This painting, Miss Kitty and the Not So Cheerful Cherub, is currently in an exhibit in the gallery at Friends Homes Guilford, here in Greensboro, NC called “Our Brush With Tales – An Interactive Exhibit with Five Artists and Two Storytellers.” At the opening the storytellers preformed the stories they created inspired by, or in response to, the displayed paintings.
When I submitted this painting for the show I wondered what the storytellers would see. It was interesting to hear the stories that were told around my painting. But it was almost as if the act of storytelling, the performance, was more important than the story or the actual narrative of the artwork itself.
(You can come up with your own story, if you like, before you read on!)
One story was told from the point of view of the objects: about a bad kitty who harassed all of the objects or characters. The clown, troll, stuffed toy, and cherub were all carefully described along with the hideous acts that were perpetrated on them by the mean kitty. The books on the shelf were described in detail, including a recited poem from the pages of The Cheerful Cherub, as if the storyteller actually opened the book and read it.
The other story was about a reminiscing mother who comes home after dropping her son off at college. She walks into the son’s bedroom and sees the shelf, just as it was left by her son as a child, and describes these sweet, cliché memories of his childhood. And I thought, really? Does that really look like a shelf that would be in a child’s room?
I wondered what the storytellers really got from my painting – if their initial impressions differed from their presented stories, if their stories were censored in any way, or if they were so puzzled by my painting that they had to invent just semi-related stories.
The exhibit includes printed versions of the stories that were told along with the artists’ own statements about their particular painting.
Here’s what my painting is about…
I survived Jeff’s death. We were planning to be married. The morning I found him hanging peacefully, finally free of pain, my whole world was shattered. But I understood. I accepted. That didn’t make it hurt any less. I grieved. And I painted.
I fell in love with Jeff’s things the day I met him, his belongings an extension of who he was. We both had an affinity for old, sometimes obsolete items. He taught me to appreciate things as we found them – usually worn and covered with dust, loved and left behind.
After Jeff’s death, I continued to cherish his things. I looked to them for answers, for comfort. I continued to collect things in his absence. I combined these things to tell our story – various still life scenarios in oil paint like this one: an abandoned stuffed toy sits on a shelf next to his books, daisies wilt in a sunny yellow vase, little troll and clown smile as if remembering a happy time, a silly cherub plays with a noose on his ankle, and a moth hovers briefly, visiting.
On Saturday mornings together we would go scouting to rescue vintage and antique treasures from yard sales and estate sales. These things surrounded us in our studio and in our home. Many would find their way into Jeff’s artwork. Now they find their way into mine.
I’m worried about Mommy. She’s very sad now so I stay with my dad most of the time. But I know she loves me. And I go see her sometimes but she seems like she’s tired all the time and sometimes I hear her crying in her room.
Her fiancé died. I miss him. His name is Jeff. He was always so much fun. He showed me how to shoot a bow and arrow and taught me about trees on hikes through the woods on our favorite trails. We called him our own private forest ranger.
He was the smartest guy I knew. It seemed like you could ask him about anything and he could tell you about it. I guess it’s cuz he read a lot. He collected all these cool old books; I bet he read every one of them, too. He taught us how to find four leaf clovers. He was always finding them, It was like he was the luckiest guy around.
Jeff was an artist. He made the coolest things. He never yelled at me for touching them, either. He said if something broke he could just fix it cuz he made it in the first place.
He was always joking around. We used to play pranks with a whoopy cushion. He always seemed happy. He was always doing something and making things. So I didn’t understand at first why he was there one day and then he was gone.
Mommy said he was sick. She called it depression and alcoholism. She said he got really sad sometimes and it hurt him a lot and he finally found a way out of the pain. She said he killed himself and she understood why. I didn’t really get it, cuz I never saw him that sad. He must have hid it from me.
When my mom isn’t so tired sometimes we go on trips. We went to the beach. It was fun. We stopped at a diner on the way and had the best pancakes ever. It was a rainy day but the sun came out when we got to the beach and me and my brother played in the waves. Then we spread some of Jeff’s ashes in the water and we saw a cloud shaped like a moth. My mom was smiling.
One day we went to the mountains for a hike. Mom said it was the park she and Jeff went to when they first met. When nobody was looking we dumped some of Jeff’s ashes over the cliff. We did it secretly cuz we thought maybe people would be creeped out. We watched the ashes blow away in the wind, in the sunshine. We could see the trees and rocks below. My mom was smiling but I heard her sniffling, too.
The apartment is a lot quieter without Jeff. And we miss the burgers he used to cook on the grill. But For a while, after he died, we saw tons of rainbows and it was like Jeff was with us every time. That summer we saw lots of moths. I never saw so many moths before; every time we saw one it made my mom smile. And we were always finding four leaf clovers; it was like Jeff was still pointing them out to us.
I hope my mom is happy again someday. I don’t really know what to do for her so I just hug her and tell her I love her. She told me that one night when she was really really missing Jeff and wishing he was still here, she looked up in the sky and saw a shooting star! That made her feel a little bit better. I think it was Jeff telling her everything’s gonna be ok.
It’s been over three years. You’ve been dead for longer than I knew you now. There is still this raw piece of my heart, this hurt that I work to keep buried, but that sometimes surfaces unexpectedly. I try to keep it secret, thinking that nobody wants to hear about you, that part of “moving on” and healing is to not talk about you, worried that I’ll make my current boyfriend feel jealous, scared of making people feel sad, or making people think I’m wallowing in grief or using it all selfishly just to get attention. But it’s there, always, on the outskirts, sometimes appearing again in my artwork. I guess it always will be. When those images of you flash back I try to bury them again, hoping it doesn’t show on my face. What is a healthy way to keep someone who’s dead in your heart? How much should one reminisce, honor, worship the dead? How does one navigate how much to let go of and how much to cherish still? I guess it depends on how important they were in life. You were a shining wonderful thing in my life, the answer to what I always looked for; I fucking adored you! One minute you were alive, loving me, and then I found you hanging there, a light extinguished.
This painting is called The Brief Madness of Bliss, part of my thesis work which I dedicated to dealing with my grief associated with my fiance, Jeff Taylor’s, suicide.