So About That Painting I Don’t Want to Do / by Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox

A few weeks ago I posted a project review and established my next steps.  The first step, tackle the painting on my project plan that I didn’t want to do. 

My mother and I in matching dresses.  1980.  Photo credit:  Sarah Longacre .

My mother and I in matching dresses.  1980. 
Photo credit: Sarah Longacre.

I was committed and I was going to start but…I made more excuses.  “Let me just finish up these drawings I want to do first.”  “I’ve got this wood panel already prepped, let me just work on that.”  The excuse art, as I’ve come to think of it, began to dwindle down and I was left facing the obvious next step, start the painting.  But the resistance was strong and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was about.  Then I looked at the calendar and I realized what my internal body clock already knew.  It was almost September 26th. 

Today is the 9 year anniversary of my mother’s death.  As the years have progressed, this date doesn’t loom ahead of me the way it did in the beginning.  Now, it more sneaks up on me.  I start to feel odd in mid-September as the light starts to change and signals a subtle reminder that something terrible happened this time of year.  I cry more easily, I feel pangs of loss I don’t immediately recognize.  And then it's the 26th of September and I try to honor her in some small way, maybe eat steak frites and take her dog Luna to the off-leash dog park so she can swim. But mostly the day comes and goes with little notice except to a select few.

At the time of her death, she had been sick for over a year and was in the hospital for the last six weeks of her life.  So her death was not a surprise or a shock. In fact, the first emotion I experienced was relief.  Her suffering, and the purgatory of not knowing how long it would go on, was over.  I was relieved until we got to hospice and I sat next to her lifeless body, still able to hold her hand but my hand never able to be held by hers again. That’s when the devastation set in. 

When I think back about the period right after her death, it was like what I imagine having a brain injury to be like.  The grief was like a thick cloud over my brain.* Everything I did seemed to be in slow motion.  Or as if life were a movie playing before me that I was one step removed from.  Conversations around me were at regular speed but my ability to process and respond appropriately lagged.  I wondered if I would ever recover.

I slowly did recover.  Time refused to stand still and marched on.  Life events occurred, a Master’s Degree, the birth of my first son, the twins that followed.  But it wasn’t really during the major life milestones that I felt the burn of missing her the most.  It was at odd moments, small moments, the everyday moments.  Seeing a great picture of the Empire State building, Obama winning in 2008, or when James Gandolfini died.   Things we would have discussed.  Things that would have been important to her.  Things she would have found funny or sad.  The moments are fewer and farther in-between now, I still burst into tears randomly on occasion but it doesn’t consume me the way that it did in the beginning. 

This painting that I want to do is, in some ways, a tribute to her.  The idea of doing the painting came to me as challenge from my father.  It’s from a photograph I took and when he saw it he said, “You realize of course, you are going to have to paint this.  Large, and in the style of your mother’s painting.” And I knew as soon as he said it he was right.      

I think the resistance I’ve been feeling around this project has to do with being nervous to drag up the grief again.  As if it could be unleashed again and the brain cloud could storm back.  This project will force me to think about her being gone.  To think about the legacy of what she left behind and what I've learned from her.  But most importantly, it will honor her and I guess there is no better way to kick off September 26th than that.   And so the project begins.

Gone but not forgotten.  R.I.P. Mom.


* It’s okay if you thought of Joe vs. the Volcano when you read that. I did too when I was editing this.  I thought I’d leave it in for levity.