And Death Shall Have No Dominion

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.”

Dylan Thomas, 1933

The Pasatiempo magazine comes every Friday with the local newspaper’s end of the week edition—the New Mexican’s “Weekly Magazine of Arts, Entertainment and Culture.”  Needless to say, with two yearling giant sized puppies hell bent on destroying my house, I don’t get out much.  But I do like to browse the magazine.  What caught my attention today was not the local events profiled inside, but rather the advertisement on the back cover:  “An Open Letter to the Citizens of New Mexico.”  The full page ad detailed a place called Orion’s Peace Camp and Learning Center.  As it turns out, Orion Strong was a boy who attended the Peace Camp in 2005 as a seven year old.  In 2013, at his eighth grade graduation, Orion received an award presented to the student who best exemplified the concept of selfless service and for his commitment to being drug and alcohol free.  On November 10th, 2014, the ad stated that “Orion earned his angel wings after a 17 month battle with leukemia. Before he transitioned, Orion asked those who want to honor and remember him to do something to uplift the community.”  Earned his angel wings?  Transitioned?  Why can’t we just say “He died.”?   Because, as the poet Rilke said, “Der Tod ist gross.”   Death is huge.  And when it happens to a child, it is unthinkable and unmentionable.

Tuesday, October 25th would have been my nephew’s 21st birthday.  He died on August 30th while away at college, about to begin his junior year.   He was articulate, intelligent, handsome and beloved by his classmates.  To celebrate his birthday, his friends and peers gathered at a harvested wheat field near the college in eastern Washington state.  In the photographs, the wheat chaff is yellowed and lifeless against the ground and there is a roiling gray sky.  There is a storm coming—one can feel it.  His friends hold balloons, each emblazoned with a message for their lost friend. The barometric pressure rises, creating an intense feeling of suffocation. And then the balloons are gone, risen to the ether while his friends remain behind to grieve.  There is a strange light in the horizon.  It is dusk, but it seems like dawn.  And death shall have no dominion.

I am sure that two years later, Orion Strong’s family is still grieving.  And I am certain that we will be grieving the death of my nephew in every year to come as summer gives way to fall, as the leaves turn blazing colors and the nights grow cold.  There is no making lemonade out of lemons when it comes to the death of a child, a brother, a grandchild, a nephew.  We each have to do what we can—my sister will establish a scholarship in her son’s name at his college; I will go back to work to fight cancer and I will make a donation to Orion’s Peace Camp.  And I hope that my nephew’s friends and classmates will remember him and seek help if they are struggling, and lend a hand to their peers that need guidance, and that each and every one of us will resolve to be a little kinder and a little more understanding.  Death is real; death is huge, death is not a euphemism.  But let us all strive so that in the end, no matter how or when it comes: “Death shall have no dominion.”

How To Become A Cancer Doctor

Start with one excellent childhood experience—a loved one who is cured.

Add a generous helping of baseline optimism, a cup at least.  More is better.

Mix in well a half cup of ability to suspend disbelief.  And then, maybe a pinch more.

Add a teaspoon or two or even three of denial.  Pollyanna had it right.

 

Remember to include an ounce of prevention—

Worth a pound of cure, so they say.  Suspend a quart of judgement, or two.

Make sure the oven is preheated with family.  Children help sweeten the mix.

Add three pets, or more.  A dog to welcome you home.  Two cats to curl up with.

 

Believe, truly believe in the best of all outcomes.

“Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”  Voltaire knew.

A gallon of forgetfulness goes a long way to wash the silt of failure away.

When there is nothing else, pray. Or wish.  Or hope.  Or desire.

 

Ice the cake of sadness with a sweet coating of self-forgiveness.

And when that recipe fails, start again.  Be kind.  Your patients are waiting.

Gone With The Wind

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Ernest Dowson

Having no artistic talent whatsoever myself, nonetheless I am fascinated by art, and especially by artists themselves.  My father has been both an artist and an avid collector since the ship he served on as a Navy dentist docked in Sicily, and the local artists were allowed to come aboard to sell their wares.  He still has paintings he bought in 1945 hanging on his walls.  As a teenager in Depression era Chicago, he took classes on Saturdays at the Chicago Art Institute and wanted to become a portrait artist when he grew up.   His father, my grandfather, told him to get real and learn a trade.  He chose dentistry, and only later, after going to medical school, discovered that as a plastic surgeon, he could both be a portrait artist and earn a living.

Many of my artist friends do not take commissions.  When asked why, they say that it is often very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile their own interpretation of a subject with that of the person commissioning the work.  Fortunately for me however, some do, and I have been the appreciative beneficiary of portrait work by artists such as Stephanie Snell, Paul Doyle and Marilyn Terry.  What do these artists paint?  They paint my dogs of course.  My children and I would never be able to focus and sit still for our own portraits to be painted and besides, despite this age of “selfies”, we are far too self conscious.

A few years ago, a young man’s wife developed breast cancer at age 25.  He is a well-known video artist known as Daarken and he and his wife needed money to meet their medical expenses.  An on-line fund raising auction was conceived, with the theme stated as “Beautiful Grim.”  Beautiful, because despite his young wife’s diagnosis and treatment, she was and always will be beautiful– yet for some young women with breast cancer, the prognosis can be grim indeed.  His friends and fellow artists rallied to the cause, and many contributed original works to the auction.  I am a friend of Daarken’s sister, and I followed the auction with interest.  In particular there was one painting that I kept coming back to, that no one was bidding on.  It was a portrait of an African American woman, beautiful and naked, except for her long stockings which were peppermint striped, red and white. Her hair was a tangled wild mass of curls against her beautiful skin. When no one else bid, the portrait was mine.

Over the years I have become very friendly with the artist and his wife, who shall be unnamed because of the personal nature of this anecdote.   They visited our home this past summer, and we commissioned a work of art.  The assignment was intentionally vague—“just paint something you see in New Mexico that inspires you.”  A few weeks ago the painting arrived, a full 4’ X 4’ landscape entitled “Sombrillo Vista.”  It is as beautiful as I had hoped, and emblematic of the New Mexico I have come to love.

When I called to offer my sincere gratitude, the artist’s wife said, “You know, just after he finished your painting he received another commission—a most unusual one!  A man called and said he wanted a portrait painted of his ex-wife. He is still in love with her and wants an oil painting to remember her by.”  Apparently he had sent a few snapshots of his ex along with his request.  Always a romantic at heart, this struck me as both somewhat insane, but also a true romantic gesture.   I said, “Send me a phone pic of the work in progress.  I want to see the woman who inspired this act of unrequited love.”  She did.  The woman was indeed beautiful, and playful, and mysterious all at the same time.  I said, “Well if the ex-husband doesn’t like the portrait, let me know because I will buy it.”

Shortly after our conversation, a photo of the unfinished work was sent to the hopeful ex-husband.  He liked it a lot, but he felt that it was not quite there yet.  He had some advice for the artist– he said, “Just think—complex and Mona Lisa eyes with a dash of mischief and you’ll nail it!”  I laughed and said, “Now that should be simple.  You know, just be Leonardo da Vinci.” The finished portrait was unveiled to the good patron last week who promptly proclaimed, “It gave me goosebumps!”   The man likely needs a good therapist instead of a portrait of his ex.   But let us be clear:  he has been faithful to her, in his fashion.  And my artist friend, well—clearly, he NAILED it!

Past Lives

It’s been a tough year for me and my animals–we lost Magic, the elderly deerhound in January, and just last week, our thirty year old Quarter Horse Dash, the last of the red horses at our old place in California, Rancho del Caballo Rojo.  I am no poet, but tonight I came upon something I wrote out longhand over ten years ago after losing another red horse, and another gray dog.   I called it “Past Lives.”

The great hound sits on his small patch of lawn

Staring at the vertical lines of the white picket fence—his eyes go suddenly vacant

The small confines of his yard are gone

Instead he sees the rolling hills of a vast estate

The heather and the mountains lie beyond

 

The young ones sleep by the dying fire

Bodies and legs intertwined

An ember flashes—the spark illuminates a twitching foot, a wrinkled nose

The white stag beckons at the dark edge of the forest

In the morning the ashes smell of roasting meat

 

The old red horse looks up suddenly

His crooked white blaze a lightning bolt

His notched right ear flicks to and fro

He screams: the buffalo horses are leaving

His ghost white companion shies away in terror

 

There may be no heaven for these

The hart, the hound, the horse, the hunt

Yet they live on in the drums, in the horn, in the fire

And yet they live on in the chase.

 

A few closing notes here:

On the Deerhound:  Affectionately known as the “Royal Dog of Scotland,” it is not difficult to imagine how this breed, with its athletic, well-muscled build, came by the title. The Scottish Deerhound has a romantic past, a noble bearing, and a loving nature, so much so that Sir Walter Scott — himself the owner of deerhound named Maida — described the breed as “the most perfect creature of Heaven.

On the White Stag:  from Wikipedia–White deer hold a place in the mythology of many cultures. The Celtic people considered them to be messengers from the otherworld; they also played an important role in otherpre-Indo-European cultures, especially in the north.[1][2] The Celts believed that the white stag would appear when one was transgressing a taboo, such as when Pwyll trespassed into Arawn‘s hunting grounds.[2] Arthurian legend states that the creature has a perennial ability to evade capture, and that the pursuit of the animal represents mankind’s spiritual quest.[3] It also signalled that the time was nigh for the knights of the kingdom to pursue a quest

On the Buffalo Horse–from Mystic Warriors of The Plain, by Thomas Mail:  ” Each warrior had to have at least one horse which was trained to a fine point for buffalo hunts and warfare. It became his best and favorite, and was usually too valuable to sell or trade. He guarded it like a treasure and picketed it just outside his tipi at night. After all, his existence and future depended upon it to an amazing degree. A buffalo and war horse was trained to stop instantly at a nudge of the knees or a tug from the rawhide thong, called a “war bridle,” which was tied to the animal’s lower jaw. But more than that thong was necessary, since racing through thundering herds over rough ground that was riddled with bushes, rocks, and hidden burrows portended frequent collisions and spills for the rider, so during battles and hunts a fifteen- to twenty-foot rope was often tied around the horse’s neck so that its free end would drag behind the horse. When a falling rider seized the rope, his horse came to a sharp stop, and in a moment the man was on his feet and mounted again. Often one who had an especially valuable buffalo horse cut V-shaped notches in his ears.” My old Quarter horse Lucky came to me with a notched ear, so I always called him “my buffalo horse”.