“I used to have a job,” he said to me, or maybe to himself. “A really good job, before….” His energy trailed off along with his voice, not wanting to compare what used to be with now. He pushed the button on the arm of the chair that allows him to be mobile, maneuvering around me to the other side. “I worked with Jaclyn Smith and Martha Stewart,” he added, once his finger on the panel of the chair achieves the ideal spot.
I met Ray’s art before I met him. The Scottish woman who guided my sister and I through the hallways of the independent living center many months back made it a point to stop in the art room. An array of hand-painted ceramics, some completed and some needing final touches, sat on one long table, reminding me of a high school art room. Another table contained old Christmas cards, cut and pasted together, giving life to them in a different form. At the drafting table closest to the door, our Scottish tour guide stopped. Standing back, she gave us a moment to discover the oil painting, the cowboy riding full speed, hovering over the neck of a powerful horse, the open golden desert plains in the forefront, silhouetted purple mountains in the back.
“This is wonderful,” my sister told her, moving closer to take a better look. The Scottish lady smiled, stands back in pride, Mission accomplished–the achievement seniors could aspire to while living here.
“Yes, our seniors are amazing,” she sang as she opened the door and motioned us out.
Maybe not all, I thought to myself, but clearly this one was.
After my parents moved in I walked by the art room at various times on my way up to their apartment. The studio remained empty. But the cowboy was clearly progressing, with the addition of new colors, new details that made him more alive than ever. Where was the artist? What hour, what time, did he come to the studio and work on his creation? Did he wait until the cowboy instructed him, giving him hints to the right color, the right tone? In his dreams did he see the large mighty muscles of the horse, allowing him to express the lines, the stress and strain of maintaining such speed?
One afternoon I found him at the drafting table, sitting in his powered chair, paint brush in his left hand. I tilted my head in the entrance. “Great painting,” I told him, thinking I would whiz by and complete my intended mission for my parents.
He slowly looked up at me, reluctant to leave the world of his creation.
“Thank you,” he replied. His eyes had such sadness, a lost sadness in deep dark pools. “I was close to being an artist, almost had my own show in Scottsdale. But that was before…” His voice trailed off, not sure if he should complete his story or let it be.
“Cowboy art in Scottsdale, yes it would go well there,” I said with a smile. “I love that part of Arizona.”
“I don’t like the desert, not at all. But the people who were sponsoring me knew my work would sell there. That was before,” he repeated, “before this chair, before the stroke. You know they thought I would be a vegetable forever when it happened. Thought I would never wake up, lay in the bed for the rest of my days.”
He spoke slowly, softly, with intent in his voice mixed with hints of pride and regret. He had been a stylist who worked with sketches for new clothing lines. Jaclyn Smith and Martha Stewart had been his clients.
“Jaclyn Smith was as nice as she was pretty. Stewart, I won’t say what I thought of her.” He left it at that, and pushing the button on his chair, he repositioned himself in front of the painting.
His head down, he said to me again, “I had such a great job. Why even last year some of the women I worked with arranged for me to go to Paris to see the great art. They made it possible for me to view the Mona Lisa, away from the crowds who daily walked by her. They had roped off an area, and I was allowed to wheel up and spend time with her. All the people in the museum were trying to see who it was that got such special treatment, sure that it must be someone famous. That’s how much influence these women had to make such a visit possible.”
Pride and appreciation was in his voice as he told me this clip of his life. Silently I thought of the impact Ray must have made on these people who chosen to honor him this way.
“What happened to your art work, the work you were going to sell in Scottsdale?”
“Don’t know.” His head dropped. “Maybe my ex-wife took it, or one or both of my sisters. All my stuff was taken, given away or sold when I had the stroke. I had nothing left. No one believed that I would be conscious, alive.”
When he finally returned to this world Ray’s right hand, his creative hand, was paralyzed, and he was no longer able to paint colors across the canvas. Ray had to re-learn using the only hand now available, his left. It took long, painful hours to teach his brain to allow that which flowed within him to be expressed by the opposite hand.
Ray told me what he used to be; he had a job and worked with important people. He was on the crest of being: being an artist, being nationally recognized for the talent he possessed.
But between his words, behind his grief, I heard the whispers, the sounds of those spirits who told me the story of Ray’s true essence. Once the stroke took away life as he knew it, he had his choice. He didn’t have to pick up the brush in his left hand, forcing the lines and colors to express what was deep within. Like the flower straining for life, for its creation in the cracks of a cement sidewalk, Ray continued to labor on until the gift that flowed within him could be expressed, could be brought into the world again.
As I stood in front of Ray I thought about days when I whined about my life, an ache or two worse than the year before, about possessions lost, sold, or given away in my choice to change my life. I sat at my computer daily with words flowing, letters on the page, created with both my hands. Humility, inspiration, shame, honor, collected within me, around me as I spoke with Ray.
I studied again Ray’s horse and rider galloping full speed across the high plains desert of the Southwest: unafraid, unchallenged, moving head first into the unknown trail. I looked back to Ray, to acknowledge his life, his story. Before my words came, I caught the dark depths of his eyes. Within them I saw the creator, the man who had given life to this canvas and courage to himself. Freed of all confines, akin with his reckless cowboy, their spirits racing across the open plains, soaring together and melting within the colors he has painted.
copyright, 2013 delarde