There’s a feeling that comes from loving art that I always experience in galleries: a certain catch in my throat, a new way of visualizing the world, a color given a different personality. When I think back to childhood, I have a hard time remembering how this aesthetic arose. The closest we came to having art in our house was a horrible, oil paint knock-off of a ship on the rocky ocean that hung above my parents’ dead weight waterbed frame. It was frightening, and the last thing I would want above me while having sex. Yet, it has lasted over 25 years in my parents’ home, even if romance has waned.
My mother was an artist in her youth, something she tucked away in the attic where her paintings and sketchbooks lay in disheveled boxes we were meant to keep shut. At one point, she gave up her dream of becoming an interior designer for a more “practical” life that included marrying my alcoholic, high school educated father, and eventually a career in business. After they divorced, my mother remarried a man with scant interest in pictures, design or museums, hence the ugly oil floating above the bed. Since my father lived in a trailer park, art was nothing more than a rich man’s elusive hobby in his eyes, and a frivolous interest at best. He was an outdoorsman, and had no use for the complex visual language and material conquests of the art world.
During college, I ‘borrowed’ some of my mother’s work to hang in my dorm room, alongside my Uncle Steve’s pieces. He is the closest my family came to having an artist who followed his passion. Although my grandparents loved and often lifted their house with arias on their turntable, or attended an occasional musical theater production, they, too, were not big art lovers. My grandfather made furniture for a time but his clinical depression and alcoholism guaranteed eventual failure. He, too, gave up his dream to take a steady paycheck working, ironically, for the liquor control board. His loyal wife, following her husband’s dream, lay down her own aspiration to finishing nursing school, becoming a school secretary, although she always kept a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope in her nightstand drawer.
Stevie was different. He was the middle child between my control determined mother and his younger brother who lived in fear of his shadow and the world. Stevie recognized his love of art in high school, after ending his football prospects breaking his arm from a tree fall. He attended Columbia University, studying in the school of architecture. Oils, paint, and ink scribed his new language across specifically detailed scale drawings and abstract interpretations. In his later years at Columbia, he won a fellowship to travel across Eastern Europe, where he photographed some of the most amazing places I may never see. He was the self-appointed shining star of the family, the one who followed his art without being weighed down by addiction, regret, or failure.
One weekend Stevie borrowed his brother’s Jeep to take his girlfriend camping. During the trip, they got into an accident and the jeep flipped, totaling the car and completely pissing off my uncle, erupting into a fistfight on my grandparents’ lawn. Stevie was banged up for a while after, and he did not seem to be healing the way he should, his gait now slower and crooked. Almost thirty, we were stunned when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) and he plummeted back to earth. He left the life he had always wanted in New York City to move back to Pittsburgh, my grandmother finally realizing her now unwanted desire to care for the sick as her son slowly wasted away: crutches to wheelchair to electric wheelchair to an iron lung. Home to hospital to a nursing home in Youngstown where my mother served once a month in the Navy reserves. He literally melted away day by day until he was a stick figure draped in thin skin who could no longer talk, eat or breathe, and who fought the nursing home staff at every turn by pulling out tubes while he was able, in frequent attempts to end his life.
The day he died, we visited him, making the two-hour schlep to Ohio. I fought with my mom that morning because I wanted to stay home and make homemade playdoh. Visiting Stevie was frightening as a preteen; on one occasion, I stood by the foot of the bed in the corner of the room as they moved adjusted his gown and bedding, and accidentally spied his limp penis poking out from under the cotton. I met his eyes, and with anger that I now understand to be directed more toward the disease than my twelve-year-old self, he mouthed, “fuck you.” At that point, he was pissed at everything, especially the outcome of his own life.
We spent an unceremonious visit, talking to Stevie, who now had a hole in his throat and the turtle shaped machine that kept him alive breath by breath. We all kissed him goodbye, leaving him with my grandparents, and he seemed more subdued than usual, his eyes carrying a deep well of sadness. At some point as we drove back across state lines, Stevie began to expire, vomiting blood and finally being given the gift of letting go.
When I went to college, my grandmother gave me a collection of his architecture prints to hang on my walls, some as thin as skin, with deep, lead lines forming his dream images. I also packed my belongings into his college trunk, determined that I, too, would pursue my artistic dream of studying theater and becoming an actress. Although I found I like being backstage more than front and center, when I graduated, I thought of Stevie. I recalled his nurturing presence when I was young, and how he would play the guitar to my infant self, singing lullabies and filling my baby brain with big dreams.
It’s a huge burden to pursue your dreams. During college, I fell in love with writing and film, but after two graduate schools rejected me, I turned my back on my dreams to work. Then came two children and a husband, and more jobs, always places that didn’t quite fit. And then two more children, and a second marriage. I became passionate about childbirth advocacy and became a birth worker, using my theater skills to teach. When I returned to school to pursue my nursing degree on my path to midwifery, I returned for the practicality of a secure career. For fun amidst my science heavy load, I took a fiction class, and my path veered in a way that I never expected, and I still find myself surprised that I am pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing at the age of 41.
I see Stevie in my son, with his tight, curly hair and finesse for engineering. I sense him when my children dance, or we watch and edgy film, or someone plays Spanish guitar. He is everywhere I look for him.
As Stevie’s light extinguished, so did a little of all those around him who hoped for more, as if it were a punishment to live an authentic life. I often worry and wonder if I pursue this magical, wonderful, writing passion if I will also find myself the unfortunate victim of life circumstance. A random illness. A desire left by the side of the road where a Jeep flipped in the woods. An un-lived potential.
Yet, I worry more that if I let the world breathe for me rather than taking it in for myself, will I truly be living? If I leave my dream behind, will the best parts of me wither with it, to compensate for what I have offered to forget its existence?
Stevie’s life was short, but it had nobility. Strength. Passion. As my flame grows, I’ve asked him to look over me. My children need to hope for more, need to have the courage to light their own torches and find the authenticity of their hearts. It is my dream and gift to them, even if my own flame burns like wildfire, even if I turn to ash before I’ve truly begun.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...