Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bon Voyage, Grandad

He left us a week ago today. I say he left us because, after a lovely communion service with family gathered in his hospice room in which one of the hymns he requested was one he'd heard as a boy at a Billy Sunday service, he resolved a few lingering questions in his mind ranging from what the Bible speaks of heaven, to the pain he could expect ahead, to had his newspaper delivery been terminated, he closed his eyes and drifted off, sailing away into sleep from which he would not wake. And though I keenly feel the absence of this man, my last grandparent and the only grandfather I ever knew, whose birthday I shared, I can only hope for such a gracious end (and middle bit) to my days.

Up until he entered the hospital three weeks ago with a stomach complaint, he still lived independently at the age of 103. He'd renewed his drivers license after his last birthday, good for another six years. Though he preferred finagaling his own technology than pay for it (rigging up a cruise control for his car with a stainless steel rod and a rubber band or fashioning a sail for his motorized canoe from plastic contractor bags, for example) he was astounded by my father's GPS on a recent visit to Florida. Long a land locked sailor making due with a camper instead of a cabin, GPS offered new freedom to navigate Florida's roads hands-free and thus he took himself immediately to a store whereupon he made that extravagent purchase. He was not unlike Mr. Magoo when driving, not because he couldn't see (he read the newspaper, and everything else, without glasses) but because he was rather freewheeling in his interpretation of traffic laws and signage, and no doubt the beneficiary of the honed skills of defensive drivers long schooled to Florida's geriatric driving class.

A young cowboy told me once, "It's not the years, it's the mileage" but Grandad had more than his fair share of both. Though there is no obvious answer to "What's the secret to your longevity?" in the way of healthy living, in fact, quite the opposite, he logged many miles over land and especially sea, collecting friends wherever he went. His sketchbooks are filled with the faces and places he encountered, capturing nuances a shutter can't speak of. Born in 1905, he witnessed all but the first couple of years of the 20th century. He was a walking documentary.

After surgery two weeks ago he woke surprised, "Am I alive?" and did not yet know a tumor due to advanced pancreatic cancer had squeezed shut his bile duct, turning his skin florescent yellow with jaundice. When he was told his time was short he still had to reckon with facing life's end, a task I guess none of us complete till we're forced to. He'd wanted to make a last trip back to Maryland where he'd lived most of his life. I think he thought he'd go on forever, and at 103, after a couple of decades of thinking each goodbye might be the last, so did we. He was pensive for a day and then as more and more family began to arrive throughout the week, buoyed by love. He had time to visit with almost all his kids, grandkids and greatgrands, time for speaking last things, for repairing and resolving, for prayer, for making peace with the life he'd lived. For encountering his Maker.

For sharing the mystery of departure. He described himself as walking along a fence he could at any time step over. As he had so often in the past, he said he would be leaving on a long journey. His room overflowed with loved ones who'd come to see him off and let him go. Last Sunday evening, after all that needed to be said and done had been, it was time to pull up the anchor. He closed his eyes in sleep. And then he stepped over.

Journey well.

Captain Everett Belote James (August 26, 1905 - March 22, 2009)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

To see without eyes

Last Friday morning at Orr we had the impromptu pleasure of having John Bramblitt in our midst, following his appearance the night before at the University of Missouri. John is a visual artist who lost his sight in 2001 and then learned to re-vision the world without the benefit of eyesight in order to continue creating his art. Obviously his methods changed but the compulsion to create, visually and specifically two dimensionally, did not. After working through great anger at his loss, John has not only reclaimed his vocation as an artist, but has also achieved and maintain a calmed and centered existence he never experienced while sighted. He described his early attempts to paint as requiring such strenuous focus that he literally broke into sweats at his canvas.

John has developed a method of painting in which he draws his image with fabric paint on canvas, leaving a slightly raised surface he can later feel after he's primed the canvas with white paint. He then adds paint by feel--each oil color having a different texture and consistency so he can distinguish and even mix colors. He displayed an example of a painting he did of his son, shown here. Here also is a link to an article the New York Timesrecently wrote on John.

In a serendipitous seque, two nights ago we opened our Netflix envelope and popped in Blindsight,which turned out to be a documentary about Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to scale Everest, and his attempt to guide six blind Tibetan teens to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. As a visual artist since childhood, I've often imagined how diminished my life would be without eyesight. John and Eric do an astounding job of refuting that notion.