Two Years After

Well, I think I said all I really needed to say at the one year anniversary of my cardiac arrest – you can read about that here.

But I still wanted to throw a few remembrances up here to mark the occasion. What’s interesting to me is that even before I was really making memories again (because of the medications, etc) I got back some of my sense of humor.

Apparently I still felt waaaay out of it, as you can see here:

But I REALLY loved that oxygen mask…

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It’s always nice to get a dose of high-percentage oxygen while pretending to be Darth Vader!

I woke up a couple times before being back to myself, which was about a week later on February 24th. Here’s a picture of me in my natural state – on the iPad :)

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I like this picture because it’s the first one where I seem normal – holding my head up, looking focused – after the event. I think it’s good to mark these “traumaversary” days with thankfulness – and I am.

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It’s amazing how little Atticus was then, how big he is now, and how that amazing personality is shining through. I loved how my kiddos came around me. Those notes and hugs are so precious to me. I have saved many of the drawings, notes, and other ephemera that came to me in that room in Utica, NY.

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I have scars on my arm from where the port was in, and scars on my nose from where I tore out my intubation… man, I’m glad I don’t remember some of that stuff… throwing up, aspirating on the vomit… ugh.

Glad to be on this side of it. And to have worked out enough to shrink that massive neck paunch I had back then. Sheesh!

One Year After

It has been a year since my heart attack. Since my cardiac arrest. Since the trauma I don’t remember and that my family saw. Since members of my family kept me alive until the EMTs arrived. Since the radical changes of diet and lifestyle. Since the shift in horizon.

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Three days before that I lost my big sister; a life of incredible value and service, gone. Two months afterward my estranged step-father died; a life wasted in self-concern and alcohol.

How would people have summed up my life one year later, if it ended that night?

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Since I didn’t go, I have to assess it myself. I know my life has been valuable. I know I have taken deep draughts of experience and thought. I have been astonished. I have been disappointed. I have known love and sacrifice. I have seen things that made me cry in sorrow and weep in happiness. I have tried and failed, then barely hoped and succeeded. I have yearned and yearned, in spite of cheesiness or irony. I have worked so hard and received so much through no merit of my own doing. I have believed and doubted. All through I have attempted to be honorable and careful, passionate and present. Sometimes I have succeeded.

img_0200I am SIMUL IUSTUS ET PECCATOR.

I am AGATHOKAKOLOGICAL.

I have tried to understand what it all means. I still don’t. But I think I have some sense of how it feels.

~

It feels a little like these songs (click the titles to listen):

 

At Last

I can say that I’ve lived here in honor and danger

But I’m just an animal and cannot explain a life

Down this chain of days I wish to stay among my people

Relation now means nothing, having chosen so defined

And if death should smell my breathing

As it pass beneath my window

Let it lead me trembling, trembling

I own every bell that tolls me.

 

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

Driving home I see those flooded fields

How can people not know what beauty this is?

I’ve taken it for granted my whole life

Since the day I was born.

Clouds hang on these curves like me

And I kneel to the wheel

Of the fox confessor (on splendid heels).

And he shames me from my seat

And on my guilty feet

I follow him in retreat…

What purpose in these deeds?

Oh fox confessor, please,

Who married me to these orphaned blues?

“It’s not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder

When the death of your civilization precedes you.”

Will I ever see You again?

Will there be no one above me to put my faith in?

I flooded my sleeves as I drove home again.

 

A Widow’s Toast

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

The tears are warm, I feel them still.

They’ll heat to vapor and disperse

And cloud our eyes with weary glaze.

You raise your glass and may exclaim,

“I’ll put my hands on the truth, by God!”

But it’s faster, love, than you and me –

Faster than the speed of gravity.

That’s how it catches you from falling

And how it always, always, always slips away.

Specters move like pilot flames

Their widows toast at St. Angel.

Better times collide with now

And better times

And better times

Are coming still.

Neko knows what to say.

~

I find attention, clarity, and rightness in teaching. I find wonderful confusion in my art-making. I find solace and laughter in my wife. I find a strange wine of joy and frustration in my children. I feel both lost and found. I feel both at home (warm, in bed), and far away in the dark (clouds, wind). I’m in orbit around a great truth and yet my tether is strung out miles from safety.

Believe it or not, all of this is so much better than the 3 or 4 years before the heart attack.

I know that some would want me to declare something, some truth, some more faithful words, some thoughts that sound more spiritually centered. I’m sorry.

Today, I want to take the lessons – the cumulative astonishments of being – as they come. I want to have joy and camaraderie in my students. I want to be gentle and full of wonder with my children. I want to continue to cherish my wife. I want to be a better husband, father, son, brother, artist, teacher, mentor, helper, and friend.

No regrets. I have not loved every moment, but I have been given such grace and love. I’m thankful.

~

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Becoming The Student: Jacob Luis Gonzales

“Right now I have a Left Ventricular Assistive Device (LVAD) helping my heart function. When the doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital originally put this device in my body they said I had a 50% chance of living with it until July 2016, and I recently heard this a couple of weeks ago. This forced me to think about what I want people to remember about me if I do pass away. ” – Jacob Luis Gonzales, January 2016


Above: Conversations With Jake. Digital drawing, created in Procreate on an iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil. October 2016.

I’ve been wanting to work up a portrait of Jake for a while. The last year + of his life has been extremely hard. He went through 13 major (life-saving) surgeries over the summer of 2015, was resuscitated over 75 times, experienced fevers as high as 108 degrees, and has had to relearn how to do essentially everything. 

But I don’t want to just make some inspiration porn. Jake doesn’t need that. No one does.

I want to encourage you to hear his own voice, his own story in his own words. First, go read through some of that narrative at his blog. Second, consider donating to his on-going care. He needs help, from more complex stuff to just the basics. Go to his Go Fund Me page to directly donate. If you’d rather help out in a different way, I’m selling some artworks to help Jake and Ali: go here to see Situation and Circumstance Overcome – if you like it, order it, and I’ll give 100% of the sale to the Gonzaleses. Here’s what it looks like:


Lastly, if you are local and a friend, consider making time to go hang out with Jake and Ali. The time I spent drawing Jake was full of laughter, real talk, sharp wit, intense remembrances, and some solid sports and movie talk. They’re awesome people. 

Thanks for being a part of project, Jake (and Ali’s feet!).

Back To It

Last month, while I was in the hospital, my oldest daughter (Miranda Grace) wrote this note to me:

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Her Wording:

“DeAR DDAD’ I Hop you can mac it THRTHW UL UV TiHS DAy LOVe MiRANdA TO DAD”

Translation:

“Dear Dad, I hope you can make it through all of this day. Love, Miranda. To Dad.”

Man. A 5 year old shouldn’t have to think that, let alone write it. This note has been breaking my heart the last week or so. I don’t know where it was the previous weeks, but she pulled it out at a meal a few days ago and said she wrote it for me in the hospital (my wife confirmed this). I’m working on a painting of it now.

I’m pretty sad that Miranda and my other kiddos had to see me have a heart attack. I’m sad they had to see me in the hospital and very weak for the last 5 weeks. I’m thankful to have survived and thankful I’ve been able to grow stronger again. I’m slowly coming back. We’ve made huge changes in diet and everyday routine.

But tomorrow I’m going back to it. Back to teaching. Back to the Art Department. Back to grads and fellow faculty. Back to our awesome office staff. Back to demonstrating that making images, translating experiences, and providing points of access for others are important. These are activities that human beings have engaged in for many tens of thousands of years. No matter how much things change – shifting modes of communication, the weirdness of politics, the coming transhuman singularity, etc, et al – the need to create and speak across the gulfs between individuals will always be a key aspect of the human equation.

I’m glad to be getting back to all of that.

If you see me, make sure I’m taking it slow and easy, though.

A Eulogy I Never Got To Give

On February 14, 2016, my sister Denya died at age 47. After my mother’s tearful call, we went into robot mode and made plans to get back to central NY for the funeral. It’s always a trial to get packed, organized in the van, and on the road. It was more trying this time, though, thinking about the reasons for our trip. Part of what I was trying to work out was just what to think about losing Denya.

I was asked to speak a eulogy and I had been thinking about it during the drive – I had a good chunk of it formulated in my mind. So after the calling hours on the 17th of February, we went back up to our hotel room and I began writing down what I’d say.  At least that’s what I have been informed happened, because I had a heart attack in the hotel room fairly soon after arriving there that evening. I forgot much of what happened over the previous few days, with only brief snippets remaining.

Providentially, my wife was right there, as were the many EMTs, nurses, and healthcare professionals who were in our family or friends with my sister. Within minutes I was being worked on and transported to hospital. Though I am nowhere near 100%, every day feels like a bit more has returned.

So now I want to share the eulogy that I never got to give.

**

Denya was the definition of determination, clarity of vision, and kindness of heart. At 16, seeing that our stepfather was abusive, Denya decided to leave home and make her own way. She stayed with friends. She got herself to school and work. She did not allow this provisional stage to define her; she aimed toward college. She didn’t let herself get tripped up by small thinking. She didn’t fall into a spiral of foolish actions and relationships; she was wise. Continuing to work and support herself, Denya went to nursing school, eventually rising through the EMT ranks and working in the intense world of Emergency Room trauma.

imageDenya, age 4.

She grew in faith. She grew in family. She had seen her way through difficult situations at home. She worked toward a vision of education and work and made it happen. She found love in the stability and thoughtfulness of a strong, gentle, honorable man – a man who shared her vision for work and family, for faith and clarity of purpose. In marrying Timmy, Denya truly became an iconic example in my life.

imageDenya and Tim on their wedding day in 1993.

She had already been a great example of hard work and applied education, but now she was living out the sort of teamwork marriage to which I could aspire. Together, Denya and Tim built a home that was hospitable, secure, fun, and a stage for dreams. When I think back on Denya, that’s what I see: faith, family, and fun.

I also see someone who persevered through periods of intense physical and emotional pain – losing Cassandra; struggling with the effects of lupus constantly; and nearly dying when Cassilyn and Elisabeth were young. It was not merely going through these and other things that were important. It’s that she went through them with grace, strength, acceptance, and transformation. These qualities were already in her, and they were focused and made more potent through her experiences.

She – along with Tim – modeled long-suffering of physical pain like no one else I’ve known. She – along with Tim – showed us what good parenting could be: parenting with grace, fun, and high expectations. She – along with Tim – demonstrated gentle guidance, constant availability, and true enjoyment of their girls. She – along with Tim – lived life with joy and thoughtfulness. She – along with Tim – crafted a home life that nurtured not only their own family but also the families that touched theirs.

imageDenya with her girls.

So while her death is horrible and sad, and we wish we could have had many more years with her, in a very real way – at least to me – her death is not tragic. What I mean here is that nothing was wasted. She had no dead years, no years of lost potential. She redeemed the time. She made the most of what was given to her. There were no excuses in her life, no regrets. She didn’t live in anger or sorrow about what might have been. That is a triumphant life – a life full of meaning. It’s a life we can be thankful to have witnessed and been a part of.

Denya’s death is a huge loss. Yet each of us has been allowed to bear witness to her example, to her grace, and to her laughter in some way. Seeing her working at the Super Duper. Seeing her pursue her nursing education and succeed at it. Seeing her Camaro with the airbrushed roses on the sides. Hearing her infectious laugh. Watching her play the Red Queen in a high school production of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe you’re even one of the lucky ones who experienced her jumping out of the twilight shouting “I’M DA BREATHER!!!” at you, scaring you half to death.

imageAn airbrushed rose from the side of Denya’s Camaro.

I will miss you, Denya. I’ll miss your love and faith. I’ll miss your sense of humor and your grace. But I know that these things clearly live on in those who knew you, loved you, and built lives with you. We are so thankful to have had you with us for this time, and we know that you carry on.

imageA recent note from Denya.

**

Dying and Living

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A visual inside my heart during a catheter procedure.

I am still in a danger zone, but resting with friends and family today, especially my Alison. 

Alison, my constant companion, reading to me.

 
Hospitals are certainly not perfect, but I would have died without one and without the actions of my wife and my cousin Mechell who acted so swiftly. So many important moments we never remember – but others do, because they acted when we could not. Our lives are not our own only. 

We live on to love and make art and ask great questions, even if only for a short time – and even the longest life is a mere half-half-breath of the universe. We perceive our realities through such feeble – yet remarkably robust – senses. That contradiction is what makes us know and dream of God, or find great joy in Keats, or learn to (start to) understand Nabokov, or sing in protest with Miss Nina Simone.

Living on means recognizing the value in every human life. It means rejecting the thinking that sees that sentiment as merely sentiment and not a life value. Living on means understanding privilege and working against it when it creates enclaves of inequality. Living on means looking for of gains for everyone – from the streets of Cidade de Deus to the house next door. And if you don’t believe that, maybe you’ve not lived and lived close enough to death. 

Untitled Work in progress, oil on panel, 24×24 inches.

Living on means paying attention. My students at all levels learn that my classes are about awareness and attention, far more than they are about specific skills.

Many thanks in these hours close to death goes to my wife, Alison, my cousins Chris and Sarah and Mechell, and my Aunt Beth, Aunt Cathy, Aunt Sue and Uncle Roger (who helped coordinate things and met Alison at the Hospital). 

Of course, my Mom and Pastor Dan have been there nonstop taking care of my three rambunctious kiddos. Couldn’t recuperate without that vital help.  

Also, the example of Jake and Ali Gonzalez of how to live honorably in proximity to death. And the dedication and passion of Deborah Huelsbergen, who has taught me to love me students more than grades or curricula.   

There are so many more I could shout out to, like my brothers Daniel (and fiancée  Sharon!) and David (that’s his knitting above) and my sisters Stacey and Denya… Denya knew how to live and love close to death most of her life. And when death took her last Sunday, it could not take the values she gave to her daughters, to me, or to my kids. 

We live close to death. Do we believe it? Do we seek to redeem the time? Let’s make the most of it. 

PS: it also helps to keep Mr C nearby with random hamburgers….