4 years

IMG_9588.JPG

This photo of Mama was taken in April 2012, at my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, a year before she died.

It cuts me how impossible it is that she is dead now, that she died a year after this photo was taken. Despite the bald head, or even because of it (she looks so strikingly beautiful with her bald head), she is so alive here. She was a bit weak, yes, couldn’t stay up too late at the party. But we danced. We swam in the hotel pool. We put on red lipstick.

But it also cuts me how we knew, a little bit, and maybe unconsciously, that our time was limited. I had this constant pain just above my stomach from her fist cancer diagnosis in 2007 until she died in 2013. A tiny pain, subtle and not always noticeable, a tight knot. For three months in 2010 everything I ate made me sick. I went to a doctor about it and she told me nothing was physically wrong.

It’s still a shock  most mornings, that she is not here. Sometimes she is alive in my dreams and everything is normal. In these dreams she has been sick but recovered and I feel such great relief that she is okay. Then I wake up.

Giles doesn’t get to know her except in stories. This is a huge gap, a thing he is missing and will be missing his whole life. She would have been a wonderful grandmother (Meme, as she wanted to be called), a great friend, a huge presence for him.

I’ve always said I have no regrets. Mostly this is true. But there are some living in my shadow, in the back corners of my brain.

I’m angry. I’m also sad, scared, some other feelings I don’t know how to name.

It doesn’t get better. It will never be better. It will just be life. Good and bad at the same time. Heartbreak and joy.

I don’t know what else to say. I have a lot of things to say.

 

 

 

until the last minute

From my mom’s blog:

…Right now I’m starting to see myself in some new ways:  forgetful and distractable beyond the fog I’d come to know through chemo, radiation, whole brain radiation, radiosurgery and more radiosurgery.  I’ve started to hear my husband and children say things like “Mama, you really did know about that, you just forgot”  more often than ever before. I’ve gotten lost and damaged trying to find a path I use every day….I need help in ways I didn’t think I’d ever accept. I run into things.  I have numb pain from toe to waist on one side.  My head hurts.  I’m so cold.  Then I’m hot.  I’m not allowed to roast the chiles alone anymore.  I use a coffee pot that turns itself off so I don’t burn down the house.  I make brutal decisions about time and energy.  I ask my friends to walk with me, or to sit for me in exchange for my poor company. To give me healing or massage. Mostly I ask them to either paint with me,  or leave me to paint. Often I refuse most food I don’t make. I’m spending my grant money on a sink for the studio and a bed easel so the days I can’t walk down the stairs or just can’t get out of bed, I can still work.  A woman to drive me to drawing groups.  Paint and tubes,,,adding up how much I think I can actually use over the next few months.?  Now they don’t call me a survivor, or cancer clean, or any of those things.  THey tell me I’ll always be STage 4:   Stage 4 metastatic cancer with metastesis to the brain, CNS, around most organs….The only place I don’t seem to have breast cancer is in my breasts–but that may have changed, too. Tenacity is my other name. I ask for help, and I ask for understanding.  I am compassionate to old and infirm people in an even more profound way as I bumble through the woods…

But the main thing that scares me is that my energy level is dropping.  I’m tired.  I’m tired inside and if I think about it more than a second it brings tears to my eyes.   I’m desperate inside and I cry out in my head to all the dead women painters I love so much: Lee, Alice, Joan, Georgia, Frida, and to some men painters, too, Eduard, Pierre, David, Wayne, Elmer…..oh, please, everybody help me have the strength to make great work until the last minute.  Help me work, study, think, hold my brush…set up my easel—which way do the knobs go? Righty tighty, lefty lucy. I still have this fiery desire to make my work.  Even drawing boxes to learn linear perspective feels like achieving a goal, gessoing and sanding boards feels like living the dream.  And when I put brush in paint to board I know myself again, still, more deeply…that lets me know I am still here…

And to Life, I add, please help me to choose deep time with my husband and daughters, with my family and my soul friends.  Help me make the most of what is left of my energy.  Give me my husband’s love and help me not think of what it will be to go somewhere without him driving me, without him loving me.

 I’m tired inside and if I think about it more than a second it brings tears to my eyes.   I’m desperate inside and I cry out in my head to all the dead women painters I love so much: Lee, Alice, Joan, Georgia, Frida, and to some men painters, too, Eduard, Pierre, David, Wayne, Elmer…..oh, please, everybody help me have the strength to make great work until the last minute.

Love is all there is:  loving the work and loving the ones who share my life.

I now give away things each week, wrap up projects….organize the chaos so my family won’t have to.  I write the letters my daughter asks me for her wedding and when she has a baby.  I remind my daughters and my loving husband that I am on their side—always.  I arrange to make a trip home to Denver to connect with my family and friends.  How many kisses do you want I always ask my youngest nephews and they almost always say 100.  I ask for a million.  A trillion.  I always want more.

I see myself now as a weeping woman who is walking toward the door now, not with arrogance or tenacity or attitude but stooped with humility and deep tiredness, begging for a little more love, a little more work done, a little more time……

Viola Moriarty, 14 October 2012

This was written 6 months and 4 days before she died. I didn’t know then how close we were to the end. But it’s there, in her words:

I’m tired inside and if I think about it more than a second it brings tears to my eyes. I’m desperate inside and I cry out in my head to all the dead women painters I love so much: Lee, Alice, Joan, Georgia, Frida, and to some men painters, too, Eduard, Pierre, David, Wayne, Elmer…..oh, please, everybody help me have the strength to make great work until the last minute.

Today is March 24. In 25 days it will be April 18, the four year anniversary of my mom’s death. It is four years, a marriage, and a new human life since she has been gone. I don’t understand it. And yet it’s my whole life. I live inside this fact.

Love is all there is:  loving the work and loving the ones who share my life.

I repeat this in my head. Watch my baby on the monitor as he breathes in and out, steady in his sleep. Paint, draw, write. Dance with my husband in the kitchen.

I don’t know why I’m sharing this today in particular. But here it is. Trying to make my own great work until the last minute.

november, dia de los muertos

Everybody’s gone away.
They think there’s nothing left to see.
The garish colors’ flashy show is over.
Now those of us who stay
hunker down in sweet silence,
blessed emptiness among

red-orange shadblow
purple-red blueberry
copper-brown beech
gold tamarack, a few
remaining pale yellow
popple leaves,
sedge and fern in shades
from beige to darkening red
to brown to almost black,
and all this in front of, below,
among blue-green spruce and fir
and white pine,

all of it under gray skies,
chill air, all of us waiting
in the somber dank and rain,
waiting here in quiet, chill
November,
waiting for the snow.

~ The Fall Almost Nobody Sees, by David Budbill

As it gets colder, the trees get bare, Giles sees his first snow, I think about death and life and cycles. Bringing pain into joy, carrying both. You can see a lot further around here when the leaves are gone, and it’s comforting. Beautiful in an introspective kind of way. Lonely. But good lonely. Greys on greys on greys.

I miss my mom. I dress Giles in a skeleton outfit. I wear all my skeleton clothes and jewelry.  I think about how my bones are different now after pregnancy and labor– my ribcage is wider, my hipbone too, my foot bones longer and flatter. Last year Giles’ bones grew inside me. Greg and I make sugar cookies decorated like skulls and we eat too many. I make an altar in my art studio.

She walks these hills
in a long black veil

unnamed

 

my mom

Giles is crying again. That scream-crying of yesterday, a sound we haven’t heard too much yet, in these four months of his life outside the womb.

So I walk him around the house and stroller him and nurse him and talk to him and sing and try and try to figure out what is wrong. Finally I sit down at the computer and I put on this video and we listen to my mom’s voice.

Giles falls asleep. I hold him, trying not to move.

My mom talks about the breast cancer playing cards she made. She talks about how there has to be something positive to come from the fact that one in eight women has breast cancer.

And then we watch this video.

What do you have and what do you need? 

Seeing me and my mom together both heals and breaks my heart. This video takes place at a really lovely time in our relationship. December 2012. A time I am so very grateful for and need to be reminded of.

I wish she could see the life I’m making now. Maybe she does, in her own ghost way. But I have to do it without her, with only the memory of her to guide me. Memories of my childhood. The photo albums, notes and emails from her, conversations that are only recorded in my mind and have faded and changed as I take them out again and again to examine and mine for her presence. There is so much longing.

 

 

today my mom would be 58

Today my mom would be 58.

Today my baby is 4 months old.

Today I am drinking coffee, cuddling Giles, having feelings. It’s not okay that she’s dead. It’s not okay that she isn’t here to be a grandmother to Giles (Meme, as she wanted to be called), and to help me paint and arrange my first house, to see Phoebe’s land and paint there, to make her art, dance in the kitchen, roast chiles, take walks, ride her bike, talk loud and fast, to “bricolage” her way through years and years. It’s not okay that she’s not getting older.

Giles just wailed for about an hour. Full on scream-crying and nothing I could do calmed him down. I looked him in the eyes as tears poured down his little face. I feel like wailing. I feel like scream-crying out of my broken heart.

1928979_503745563037_654_n.jpg dsc04126.jpg

From my mom’s blog, vimorpainter.wordpress.com (which you should check out if you miss her, because her words are there, her voice, some little piece of herself, and you can visit it anytime):

Sketch Yourself in Words, 2007
My name is Viola Rose Moriarty. It’s not the name I was born with—except the Viola part, that’s my grandmother’s name that died long before I came into this world. The rest of my name I chose myself after a brief, failed young marriage in college. I didn’t want my husband’s name, but I had no name to go back to since my father had been absent from my life since I was six years old and my mother had remarried with a new name. I didn’t know who to be so I chose my favorite literary character, Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road. And in a small Denver courtroom, for the reasonable price of thirty-two dollars I started to become the person I am now.
I am bilingual, an artist, a retired educator, a parent, a lover, a friend, a palm reader, a lifelong learner and a wife. I have loved my adult life, seizing the majority of days with pure abandon, humor, moxie and chutzpah.
When I was diagnosed with cancer I began to work it into the mix: the surgeries, the appointments, the emotions—all with help from my therapist, family, friends and most of all, from my husband.
People usually see the upbeat and adventurous and creative side of me. It’s only Jon who knows the skid marks and scars underneath, the billion ways I’m afraid. That I’m an enigma.
So, I did pretty well through the first wave of cancer, drafting my comic book The Adventures of My Left Breast and making paper dolls with new hospital gown designs. I took photos of everything and I saw myself doing pretty well in those pictures.
Then I went to chemotherapy. First day: Treatment okay. I sketched through it. Second day: Jittery but okay. Days three, four and five I have descended into a staticky evil fog filled hell that I can never adequately describe. Like trying to pay attention through a vibrational band of intense, angry static. Everything hurts. Reading and listening are so hard—so, so hard. I’ve never felt anything like this and I don’t feel strong enough to cope with it. It’s day six now and I’m a little better, but still unable to go to drawing tonight. I’m still unable to focus enough to get my art supplies set up and begin a painting.
I’ve got to grab onto something that will break through here—a different way to work these days. Come on, help me out Max Ernst, David Park, Alice Neel, Mr. Rauchenburg—–anybody? I pray to the dead and to the live painters to help me….help me work.
I have raised my girls and they are spectacular—they’ll be home to help me with my haircutting soon. I want them to see me able to do this; I want to be a good role model. I want them to see me work when working feels impossible.
I don’t want my daughters to ever suspect the terror of being separated from one’s own self.
I don’t want my husband to see me defeated in this way, bumbling about like a babosa instead of the sexy, arrogant, often insane woman he loves (and slightly fears).
But this is where cancer—no, not cancer, but the treatment of cancer—-has me by the breasts and by the balls, so to speak. It’s taken over the airways and it’s screaming at fever pitch. Static and black chaos are filling the room around me, slurping into and over the rims of my eyeballs and nose and around my fingernails.
There’s no escape……and I have never, ever learned how to surrender. 

Viola Moriarty, April 2007, After Chemo #1,
(From an assignment in the Moving through Breast Cancer class with Anastasia Nute)

dsc043901.jpgdsc03269.jpgdsc04409.jpgdsc041051.jpg

birthday week

I love my birthday. A lot. Usually I spend the whole week celebrating (often to the extent of annoying those around me), doing things each day that make me happy, special things, eating my favorite treats, wearing my favorite outfits.

This year, my birthday has become something else, something even bigger. It’s the day my mom pushed me out of her body with all the pain, violence, power, joy, blood, guts, and poop of my own labor just four weeks ago. My birthday marks this day that was so intense for us both, something we did together. Being born is a big deal! It’s really hard! And amazing. The world splits open. Something begins. Something ends.

This week it’s been mostly me and Giles, our (mostly) quiet cycle of feeding, changing diapers, staring into each others’ eyes. Does he know it’s my birthday tomorrow? That I made the same strange journey into the world as he did? Tomorrow also marks four weeks since his entrance: the longest, hardest, best day of my life. It’s wrong, I think, to say “hardest,” because the day my mom died was actually the hardest day. Hard in a different way. Different kinds of pain.

The last of my birthdays that I spent with my mom was when I turned 27. My parents and I went bike riding around town and got milk shakes.

556179_731572860307_2000648777_n

 

481156_731572840347_1773590282_n

 

I loved bike riding with my mom. She LOVED riding her bike so much and that joy was contagious. She’d be the leader, ringing her bell to signal if she was stopping or just to say hi. She had a “bike dance.” We’d fly around town, we the non-drivers, on our beautiful bikes feeling the breeze and feeling so cool and feeling so free.

Tomorrow Giles and I will not be bike riding. We’ll probably do the same things we do most days. He will look at me with those big, gorgeous eyes he has, I will coo at him, we’ll make faces at each other. I’ll nurse him a million times. Change a million diapers. As I mark 31 years I know that my life is hugely different now. But also I’m the same person.

On my third birthday I asked my mom, “Mama, when will I be three?”
“After your nap,” she said.

Mama, when will I be thirty-one?
After your nap. 

 

20160527_115643

3 years

me with guitar (to match pic of mama)mama playing guitar.jpeg

The week before my mom died, my friend Leah took the top photo of me. It was inspired by the photo underneath of my mom playing guitar on her bed when she was a teenager. I’d been wanting to recreate that photo with myself as the subject for a while, and since Leah (who is a professional photographer) was in town, we thought it was a good opportunity to finally do it.

A few days later my mom died. April 18, 2013 was the strangest, longest, and hardest day. There were things we had to do, so we did them.

Three years later, yesterday, it’s still really strange and uncomfortable, my insides felt itchy and out of place. My emotions flipped around from sad to calm to angry to cranky to trying to shut down.

Three years in the After. Baby Smokey rolling and kicking in my belly, getting ready to come out. I wonder if he will have her ears.

rocking chair

unnamed-1

Last weekend we brought this rocking chair from my dad’s house to our apartment. It’s the same rocking chair my parents rocked me in when I was a baby, and now we’re going to rock little Smokey in it.

I don’t know when they got it, or where from, but it’s traveled from house to house, and across the country with us. It used to be a shiny finished wood, which my mom sanded down and painted a dark teal. Now that paint is faded and scraped, so maybe we will sand it down again and paint it a new color. The pillows on it were covered by my mom with scraps of velvet and painted fabric from a studio she worked at one year.

It’s April now. In 10 days it will be the 18th, the three year anniversary of my mom’s death. I don’t know what it will be like this year. Three years into this new life, and it feels like she should still be here. I dream about her a lot lately– as if it’s regular life, and she’s just here, doing things with me. Last night I dreamt we were planning a trip to Europe together. When I wake up it’s hard to remember that these things didn’t really happen. I walk around all day with a strong sense of missing. I keep falling into the hole.

I don’t want anyone to say, “She’s with you.”
I don’t want anyone to say, “She’s watching over you and the baby.”
I don’t want anyone to say, “She loves you, she’s proud of you.”

I don’t want anyone to say anything about my relationship with my dead mom.

You could tell me about a dream you had about her, or a place you were in that reminded you of her. You can tell me you feel her with you, or a story from when she was alive. You can tell me about the kick-ass cowgirl boots she helped you pick out, or a painting of hers that hangs in your home. Tell me you think of her. Tell me you miss her. Tell me a joke she told you.

If I choose to, I’ll tell you how I feel.

 

 

 

my body now, part 2

self portrait with bunself portrait in watercolor, January 2016

My face doesn’t look that different, even though my body is 6 months pregnant and looks (and FEELS) quite different. Sometimes my face looks really tired. Sometimes my skin is blotchy, or pale, or has tiny bumps on it, and my hair is weird because I’m in the process of growing it out (again). Some days I feel so beautiful, more beautiful than I’ve ever felt. Greg tells me often that I am a gorgeous pregnant woman. But some days I feel huge and nothing fits right and my boobs hurt and my back hurts…it’s a new body every day, constantly changing.

I want to talk to my mom about all this body stuff. We used to talk about these things a lot: relating about how clothes make us feel, society’s insistence on bras and underwear, the way our bodies change as we get older and why, how we can redefine beauty at every age and even during cancer. I want to know what clothes she wore during pregnancy, how she felt, was she frustrated, how did her body change? I want her to go bra shopping with me. I want her to help me find shoes that are comfortable but also cute on my slightly swollen pregnant feet.

Today I feel good because I’m wearing my cute new overalls and a bra that actually fits (more on the maternity bra shopping experience later), and my hair is just the right amount of messy.

good grief

Every day is a new day living in the world after my mom died. I am 795 days into this life. My grief is just as big as the first moment, but it changes shape. Time doesn’t make it better, but it makes it different.

Some days I float and roll through my new life, feeling okay, feeling happy, and then it will hit me that the central human in my life is not here. She’s not part of this, she’s not here to tell me her thoughts, or to laugh, or to just exist. I still don’t know how to reconcile that. I almost don’t believe it. How can the world exist if she is not noticing it, painting it, coloring it with her opinions and cooking smells? I dream that she comes back, that it was all a trick, or that she is a zombie. I get really upset about dumb little things, because while I may be actually upset about those things, behind it is my sadness and anger about my mom being dead. UGH I’m so hungry and my clothes don’t fit right and my mom is dead. That person is chewing so loudly it’s driving me nuts and my mom is dead. I got on the wrong bus and my mom is dead. 

I hate when people tell me that my mom is “with me.” She’s not with me. She’s dead, and her spirit is off doing other things. She exists in my genetic code, for sure, and I wear her clothes. I’m trying so hard to let her be dead, to let her be Ghost Viola or whatever and fly around painting the sky and exploring other dimensions and to not wish her here so hard. I don’t know how to feel her with me in this new form. I want her in an Earthly way, nothing else will do. I’m stubborn, a quality I inherited from her (and my dad, too, we’re a stubborn bunch).

I wish people said I looked like her. My sister really is the one who resembles our mom as a young woman, it’s striking and everyone notices. Sometimes people say I have her laugh. Mostly they say I look like my dad. But I’ve always felt a similarity in our expressions, me and my mom, smiling, or talking with our hands, our style, the way we listen to people by looking right in their eyes. I’ll catch myself teasing Greg (my fiance) in the same way my mom would tease my dad– a fake angry comment, a smirk, an open-mouthed laugh accompanied by a little dance.

She won’t be at my wedding. This fact gets bigger as the date gets closer. I wonder what my wedding would be like if she was here to plan it with me, how it would differ from the real thing. Would I have picked the same dress? Would her ideas have been better? What would we have argued about?

What would I be like if my mom hadn’t died? This grief is my defining feature, her death the defining moment of my life so far– the line dividing everything into Before and After.

This is where I’m at today.