The Pearl of Our Life: a Story about Pain, Beauty, and Art

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I learnt this from a book of Julia Cameron. She compares art with pearl. Do you know how pearl is created? It is created out of a disturbance: a grain of sand, for example, finds its way inside an oyster’s shell. To protect itself, the oyster releases a substance to cover that grain of sand. That’s how pearl is made. The beautiful pearl is art; the act of transforming pain to beauty is a greater art. That’s the big art of our life.

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The hospital sent grandfather home. They wanted him to spend the last days of his life with the family. In other words, they had given up.

He is staying in my house now. Mother hired a helper whose task is to take care of grandfather all day, every day. She stays in the same room with grandfather - second floor, across from my parents’ bedroom.

This room is also where, 6 years ago, grandmother died. So grandfather is now lying on the same bed, at the same spot, in the same room where his wife took her last breath.

I recall the day she died. He was here, crying like a little baby. I’d never seen grandfather cried before. In tears, he murmured: “Why did you leave me?”

I spent most of my childhood with them. Grandfather made art. Grandmother had a small yogurt shop. She was chubby and short, only 1.48 meter height. To me, she looked like the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. I missed so much those days when grandmother and I made yogurt together.

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I watched her sitting on a tiny red chair on the floor, her right hand held a big spoon, stirring milk in a massive pot. Then she let me use a smaller spoon to put milk into little plastic cups. We made so many cups each time, my tiny toes and fingers weren’t enough to count. We put them neatly in big white Styrofoam boxes. Grandmother layered inside each box with thick fabric. She told me fabric keep the warmth for milk to transform into delicious yogurt. I nodded my head, licking milk off my fingers. Yum! Sweet fresh milk.  I can almost taste it again now when I think of her.

Grandmother died one early afternoon in April. I was there when she left us. Behind me, the helper was anxiously calling father. I sat next to her, placed my right palm on her forehead. I closed her eyes. I did not cry.

That same bed, same room. Now it’s grandfather’s turn. The two persons who were the world of my childhood.

It is so hard. So hard…

With grandfather this time, I didn’t know what to do. At the beginning, I prayed for his soul to be freed from his body soon and gently. So he can dance his way to another planet. Wearing that artist beret hat, in his hand: a paintbrush and a fountain pen.

One day a thought hit me:

“What if he still wants to live?” I cried out with Rapha. “What do I do now?”

“Then you pray for the last days of his life to be as wonderful as they can,” Rapha said. “And you leave it to nature to decide when it’s time.” I found in his answer some relief.

Still, I am tormented.

My room is right above his. Every dawn when the sun timidly shows up behind the skyscrapers of this city, when I am still half asleep, half awake, the first thing I hear is his dry heavy breaths. Father tells everyone to come in the room every day to say hello to grandfather. Father believes that will make grandfather happy.

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One evening, I went into his room. Sipping my cup of tea, I sat there silently watching him. Normal people breathe through the nose, eat through the mouth. My grandfather does the reverse. He eats through his nose, breathes through his mouth. Whenever I look at him, my heart squeezes. The bones on his face, the idleness in his eyes, the dots on his skin, the skin that is now as thin and dry as the dead skin of a snake, the small hollow that appears his neck as he grasps each breath, a plastic tube comes out of his nose. There is nothing to say, so the only sound in the room is his breaths. After finishing half of my tea, I quickly walked out and up the stairs to my room. I covered my mouth with my right hands, and cried.

I cannot do it. I cannot bear watching the slow death of my childhood’s hero. I avoid seeing him altogether. And every single time I passed the door of his room, my heart gripped in guilt.

I was torn, between guilt and pain.

One morning as I was writing about grandfather, something came out on the page. An important realization:

Perhaps the pain is already there inside me. Seeing grandfather is not where the pain comes from. The scene opens the door so that I can see my pain. Perhaps by avoiding him, I am repressing this emotion, not allowing my pain to be felt.

There is one sentence I love in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.

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“I want to read poetry for him,” This thought flashes through me when I am about to finish my dinner the other day. Before my mind gets the chance to think, I rush to my room, picked up an old poetry book, and run to grandfather’s bed. I sat at the edge of his bed, open the book, and read.

My voice rises and falls with the rhythm of the poem. I try to understand the poem and read each word as I mean it. Feel the verse, feel the poet. Read it with the same level of intensity that the poet fueled in his poem when it just came out of his pen wet and raw. One poem at a time. Keep reading. His breaths are too loud sometimes I wonder whether he can hear me at all. But I must do it, I must read, if not for him, then for myself.

I hope this poetry brings him the sky, the freshness of mountain’s breeze early spring, the magnificent shape of cedrus tree reaching skyward at the edge of Himalayan cliff, the human emotion: how it feels to miss a loved one, how it feels to grow up and grow old. I hope, though now he cannot eat with his mouth, the poem places on his tongue the sweetness of potato soup.

Grandfather, when I was small you read poetry for me to grow up. Now you are old I read poetry for you to turn young.

Here I am, 25 years old, grown up woman following her own dreams. And what am I doing at when I am losing someone I dearly love? Reading poetry. And writing about me reading poetry for him.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars,

privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us

amidst it all.

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Ray Bradbury writes these verses in Zen in the Art of Writing. He is right.

Now my grandfather is my greatest muse, and death my greatest obsession. I think this is good, and healthy. Rather than repressing the pain, rejecting my emotions, wishing to be somewhere else, I write, dance, draw, paint, sing from exactly where I am.

With Art, once again I have learnt how to be an oyster: creating pearl from a grain of sand that floats into my tender world. Creating something beautiful out of life experiences, no matter how happy or painful they are.

Life is a river. With my arms and legs spread open, I am allowing its currents to flow through me. They shine the pearls I hold in my chest.

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photo courtesy: Flickr Eric Prunier

Milena Nguyenart, beauty, courage, pain, recovery