In May of 2018, when all was absolute bedlam–because May is always crazy for teachers, my younger daughter was graduating, and my husband was emerging from cancer #3– Abigail decided she wanted to go to prom with her Duke TIP bestie in Saluda, NC, five hundred miles away. I was game for anything that would allow me to escape my life–the further away, the better–and my younger brother knew of a place in Asheville where I could stay alone and start, again, to regroup.
It had a balcony and trees, he said with hope in his voice, knowing that trees have consistently offered me my sturdiest solace. There was a huge shower; there was good food; there was Tupelo Honey–he softly recited a coaxing litany.
He knew–as everyone knew–that I was lost and nearly dead. The third cancer had decimated us all. We could look one another in the eye and say, “I didn’t think anything could be worse than losing Stephanie Grace”–silently agreeing, disloyal though it sounded, horrific as it is even now to write, that this was worse. Our losses had already been stacked like cordwood–the third cancer set them ablaze.
We had been accustomed to powering through our various sufferings–with gallows humor (the worst: our family joke–if Greg or I die, the survivor can get married immediately after the funeral–a “weuneral”); good food (crab legs and baked goods, mainly); and mindless TV (after my mother-in-law’s heart attack, we watched Family Feud three hours a day).
But our usual formulas had failed.
Despite this, I knew that, in Asheville, I should return to my touchstones, do what the person I once had been would do. I looked on Tripadvisor for “best breakfast,” and I went where my phone told me to go. I ate a tequila donut, drank cold Dr. Pepper, made small talk. I looked at “Explore Asheville.com,” which highlighted a bread festival. I heard my late grandmother’s laughing voice saying, “That’s our kind of festival.” I went there.
Anything I write about my time at the festival is going to sound cliché–there is no way past this. But clichés exist because some human experiences are common, and that day, much of what I felt was: standing in a crowded room yet feeling alone; looking at the river and feeling left behind; envying the innocence of playing children; observing all the happy families, wondering how they stayed that way.
A certain measure of my numbness was my lack of response to the sculptures, to the bicycles in the archway to the brewery. I was in no mood to talk to the bakers about their local sourcing. I didn’t even want to pet anyone’s dog.
The word downtrodden doesn’t fit here, really–but it certainly fit me then, that day in my car. There was nothing I wanted to do, nowhere I wanted to be–I was alone in a beautiful city on a spring day, but it had nothing to offer me. It had all been too much.
Too listless to go back to the condo, I drove to a row of little art galleries, planning to wander around.
Instead, I got healed.
It happened in the third or fourth gallery of the day. There was a family shopping enthusiastically; the shopkeeper was in the back corner painting. I disinterestedly shuffled through some prints, thinking maybe I would come across something for Abigail’s dorm room.
It was on its side, a brown and white water color print–I nearly passed by it, but then, I saw the trees and lifted it up.
Bushes and trees were in line like soldiers from smallest to largest, left to right. But the painting wasn’t about them. The painting was about roots.
The small bushes had shallow roots. Just a few.
But, oh, the roots of the tallest tree.
Its roots were deeper than the tree was high. Twisted wildly, they were beautiful, deep, strong roots. There were so many, so deep in the ground.
I stood in the quiet shop, in its stillness, my tears hitting the floor, the message clear–my daughters’ roots were deep, as were mine.
If nothing else, we had roots.
In my pocket was a $100 bill a friend of my aunt sent to me months before–the accompanying note said it was good to have “pocket money” when things were hard, and I had held tightly to it.
I spent it that day, on the art that brought me back.
The thing is, when sorrow and loss swallow you wholly, you forget who you are. You forget what makes you happy, the things that make you laugh; that food is good and friends are necessary.
After the black pit of trauma and tragedy, for a long time there is a gray, emotionless space, and you are basically so relieved to have quit crying all the time that you don’t care that you are still in a void. You wander around there alone–and sometimes, on good days, you can even believe you may emerge.
You just can’t figure out how.
Art. Nature. Animals. Music. These are the things that can pull you out quickly.
(Not people with all their words–they think they have to use them–and words are not powerful enough against the void, the hopelessness. Certainly, a held hand and a touch on the cheek are helpful, but they aren’t jolting.)
A jolt helps so much. A reminder: this amazing thing is out here.
And, amazed, you find yourself somehow out there once again.
I marvel about this: the power of art and the element of the unknown it includes–think of it: W.H. Price painted some trees in 2014 and, in doing so, rescued me four years later. He will never know this.
Lately, Alexa is playing Luke Combs’ “Houston, We Got a Problem” ten times a day–because when the music swells with the first chorus, I am amazed. Every time. It’s like when those instruments come in, someone sews one more stitch into my soul, and I can take another breath.
I won’t even try to tell you about Eric Church.
It seems absurd doesn’t it? Two country singers and a painter who doesn’t even have a website got me to shore–and none of them will ever meet me or even know of their roles in my rescue.
There’s something in us that wants to thank a gift-giver–to give credit, to pay back. But art makes us unable to–because of the way it is flung into the unknown and appreciated there. That’s what makes it art–that you connect, that you share a secret with the artist. That you know what they meant–that your spirits can wink at one another.
“I see what you did there” is met with, “Thanks, I knew somebody would.”
An echo of heaven itself.