"What are you going to do when he is gone?"
I don't think my beloved girlfriend expects an answer. Her question floats out on a sigh of concern as she strokes my husband's dying body.
"I'll have my art," I said.
She looks up at me from the other side of the bed. We both know there is no painting a Hollywood ending over this story.
Five weeks later, I make my way to a little studio in the leafy hills of Paddington, an inner suburb of Brisbane, not far from where I live. It's on the main street, nestled in amongst the various lopsided and restored workers' cottages turned galleries, op-shops, bookstores and cafes. It's a popular suburb; a funky favorite for arty types and parking is generally a nightmare. I'm lucky. I manage to grab a spot under the shade of a tree, right in front of the studio. Perhaps my husband has something to do with this? Parking spaces used to open up for him all the time, and since his death, it's happening for me too. Like I have my very own parking angel.
I lift my basket of art supplies from the trunk of the car and walk through the front door of the gallery towards the studio out on the back deck. It's partly enclosed and covered by a corrugated iron roof. A bird feeder hangs from the eves. The building is perched on the edge of a ridge, so while the gallery shop-front is level with the road, the back of the house is held up on stilts and the veranda-studio seems to float in the hilltop greenery, tree-house style. The light is bright and the summer breeze perfumes the air with the fragrance of the Jasmine growing below us in the garden.
I am a newcomer to this art group. I don't know a soul. Five women and one man greet me with welcoming smiles. No one knows I am newly widowed. That a neurological illness slowly debilitated my husband in both body and mind. That the years of his slow dying are indescribable. That I am the mother of two teenage sons, and I was unable to shield them from pain. That the three of us feel newly skinned, raw with grief.
I can't tell that story here. It's not the time nor the place. Anyway, how do you tell such a story? Where do you begin? There is no way to compress the enormity of the experience into a casual conversation with strangers over wet paint, especially when it's an illness that is not well understood. Besides which, my words are likely to pour out in a torrent of unstoppable tears, and I'm not ready for the uncomfortable faces that might look back at me, not knowing what to do.
The faces remain warm and friendly. The teacher greets me by name and introduces me to everyone. She holds a paintbrush in one hand and a paint-splattered mug in the other.
I say yes thank you that would be lovely, and she walks over to boil the kettle.
"Find a spot and join in," she says. "We're painting the landscape of our lives."
Her words fall into the hollow trunk of me, all scraped out from the inside. I scout the place for a quick getaway while I resist the urge to dash out of there. Do I paint the canvas black? I can't paint my story here. Not today, anyway.
In the months to come I will write our story for my boys, but I don't know that yet. And I'll reflect on the role of creativity in our family journey with grief. How writing and painting helped. More than helped. Perhaps they saved us. Because creativity helped me to change the shape of hope and once we could do that, we could do hope together. Not hope in the sense of getting better or finding miracle cures but in meaning-making; making the present count and finding the sacred in the ordinary.
For now, I look around the studio. A young woman with scruffy red hair sits at the trestle table. Her barefoot toes point towards each other as she works on the landscape of her life. The openness of the deck invites the outdoors in. The empty easel next to her stands against a backdrop of delicate fern-like leaves hanging from the upper branches of a Poinciana tree. I take my place there. Where do I begin?
Maybe every story begins like this -- in the middle somewhere. In the middle of now. Right here. Standing in the studio. Where time, shaped by grief, is no longer linear but elastic, pulling me in and out, and the landscape of my life blends the paradox of endings and beginnings.
Love happens in the mess. And love and sadness, well, they sit together now. I reach for my paintbrush -- an old familiar friend. I don't think too much. I just do it. I don't know what I'm painting yet. I spread the paint; feel the lusciousness of it. I try to just be there. I see the greenery from my treetop studio and remember one of Michael Leunig's poems from The Prayer Tree. I imagine his tree sending roots down into the dark soil, the rich messiness of life. "Finding nourishment deeply and holding us firmly. Always connected. Growing upwards and into the sun." I slosh more paint on my canvas. Long, slow movements, sweeping upwards. I paint the shape of hope. I paint that tree.
Marie Williams has worked as a clinical social worker in health settings, non-profit sectors, clinical education and private practice. She is also an artist and author. Alongside her painting, she is currently writing a children's book and working on her second memoir. Her award-winning book Green Vanilla Tea won the 2013 Finch Memoir Prize in Australia. The American edition is available from New Harbinger.