The Light That Shines Forever

My Mom died on December 11th, 1998. That day is significant in and of itself, but it takes on even more meaning for me this year. Today, sixteen years later, my heart has been beating exactly as many days without my Mom as it did with her. Part of me wants to elegantly tell you how that makes me feel, but writing about my Mom today feels like running a marathon with a boxing match scheduled at the halfway point so I’m content being a little more prosaic with my choice of words. I hurt and miss her in the most awesome way you can miss a person.

When my Mom died I was so young I drove my family to the funeral home in a 1991 Buick Park Avenue not with my license, but with a learners permit. I was kid. There was a missed a trip with my friends that weekend to see a pro wrestling event. Fantasy and the fun of being a kid was ripped away just that quickly.

While she was sick I’d never let myself admit she was going to die. The deepest parts of me knew it was only a matter time, but nobody ever came out and told me and I was happy to never confirm the fact all the same. I needed hope when there was none. So, I didn’t stick around the house very much. At home I couldn’t ignore what a struggle it was for her to eat even a bite of food. If I tried watching a DVD with her it would break my heart to constantly restart the movie because her medication made it impossible for her to stay awake. Watching my mom transform from someone as fierce as a lion to someone who could barely get through the most basic of tasks was hard to watch.

I can remember listening to Boyz II Men’s song Mama in my room one afternoon right before I was supposed to head back to school to get on the bus for a basketball game. My Mom heard the song playing from another room and before long she was in my room hugging me, crying, and unable to speak. Remember being a boy and trying to comfort your mother? My ride showed up, and as was tradition at the time, they wanted to know how she was doing. I forced a “She’s doing okay” to placate them, but the truthful response would have been “She’s scared and she’s dying”. But nobody wanted to hear that.

There was a Sunday she came back home after being away recovering from her initial surgery. I was down at the park playing basketball with my friends when my Uncle came to pick me up so I could welcome her home. I didn’t want to go even though I knew it was the right thing. My friends convinced me I needed to be there for my Mom, but I knew the version of Mom that left for surgery wasn’t going to be the one that came back. And she wasn’t. I had to literally use my hands to help pick her legs up as she attempted to walk up the stairs to her bedroom. The helplessness I felt sent shock waves through my body I can still feel. Somehow I kept my emotions buried that day, but seeing her like that broke me inside. The last thing I wanted to do was put any more emotional stress on my Mom and cry in front of her. Not when she needed to focus her energy on more important things.

There was another surgery she had that led to a longer hospital stay than I was expecting. I hadn’t seen her for a while and the only way to change that was to visit her. That was the first time I ever saw her in a hospital bed and it was shocking. Jaundiced skin, gaunt face, tubes, name something you don’t want to see and it was in that room. But you know what was in that room, inside my Mom, that was bigger and stronger than anything I’ve ever known in my life? The love she had for her kids. Cancer might have shrunk her physical form into a collection of tired weary bones, but it couldn’t get to her soul.

I cried that night like I’ve never cried before. I found a bathroom in the hall, locked myself in, and wept uncontrollably for the longest time. I still didn’t want my Mom to see me hurting. Eventually, she asked where I was and someone told her. When I felt like I had collected myself I made my way back out into the hall and found her waiting in the doorway of her room. One labored step at a time, she made her way through the hall so she could hug me. It’s one of the worst memories I have but maybe the most beautiful. The world was hell, but my Mom loved me and no amount of pain was going to stop her from showing me.

When I first set down to write about this, my intent wasn’t to relive the worst parts of her final year. You would think I’d want to focus on the happier times, but I’m always drawn to the time when she was sick. Cancer is cruel. Physically, it tears a body down like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed. You look at the person you love and can see the despair in their eyes. Skin and bones isn’t just a metaphor when you can see someone’s shoulder blades as clear as day from the weight loss. The body changes so much you almost can’t recognize the person.

But the one thing that cancer can’t take is the love inside. Inside there’s an unlimited supply that never gets tired, refuses to be quieted, and demands to be shared no matter how damaged the house it lives in becomes. My mom loved me until her very last breath and that’s something I never forget. The world can be ending around you, but until that light goes out there are people that need you and people you need. Love them. When the lights go out the love you gave is what lights the way for the people left behind.

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Depression. I’ve got that.

The principal reason behind creating Breaking Down Smiles was to give me a place to write about a topic that has been at the forefront (and at times the middle, back, and center) of my brain for what amounts to roughly the last decade and a half. I wanted to talk about depression. Specifically, I wanted to talk about my own experiences with the evil purveyor of doom and gloom.

It’s been 3 or 4 of years since the idea of writing about my battle was something I considered, but there was always something that kept me from pushing forward with the idea. I don’t necessarily keep my depression a secret, but it’s not something I’ve plastered on a billboard either. You might suspect it was shame that prevented me from posting about this topic earlier, but I don’t think that was it. At this point in my life, I’ve never been more content to be the person I am so the thought of being judged doesn’t faze me. More than anything, I didn’t want to be seen as someone seeking to cultivate pity. Sure, it’s nice to get an empathetic “I understand” every once in a while, but that’s not what is spurring me to continue plucking away at the keyboard.

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When I’ve gone through my darkest days with depression, I simply wanted to understand anything going on in my head. I wasn’t naive enough to expect that a book or blog would provide an ‘a-ha’ moment and suddenly I’d be running through fields of green singing, but the chance that I could find even a sliver of insight through the knowledge of others always gave me hope that I could break this thing down one piece at a time and help get “the real me” back. I would look for hope in a song, movie, family, dog, video games and beer, but the one place I looked the hardest and found the most help was in the writing of others. And that’s what the impetus is for discussing these things in public with you. It’s my greatest hope that someone suffering might stumble upon this blog and find some sort of solace in the words I’ll be writing over the next days, weeks, and months.

Finding The Ghent Altarpiece

If you would have asked me what my favorite work of art was six months ago I probably wouldn’t have had an answer for you. Sure, I could have impressed Alex Trebek with my knowledge of Jackson Pollack thanks to an Art History class I took in college, but on the whole my appreciation and knowledge of all things art was little to none. And it’s not that I held a negative view of art, it’s simply that I spent so little time actually studying the subject that it ended up being one of those things in life you see off in the periphery and never venture in for a closer look.

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That all changed 2 months ago when my wife and I took a trip to Paris and Belgium for our honeymoon. I never said it out loud but prior to arriving in Europe I had my doubts regarding how much I would enjoy touring all of the art museums over there. Afterall, I had been to an art museum or two over here , and while I didn’t hate those experiences I wasn’t exactly taken by them either. I never knew exactly what I should be looking at or even what I was supposed to be thinking while trying to take the art in. Why would it be any different over there?

At first, the difference was hard to distinguish. Like any good tourist, the first art museum we sought out was The Louvre intent on laying our eyes on Mona Lisa. And guess what? It was completely anti-climactic.  If one of your goals in life was to really take in and appreciate this world famous painting it’s not going to happen. Because not only is seeing that painting a goal for you, it’s also the goal of every other tourist in the building and they’ll all be pushing and shoving their way up front with their cameras (or worse yet, a giant Ipad) making any attempt to appreciate this piece of art a practice in futility.

The rest of our visit to The Louvre was much more enjoyable, but once again I found myself surrounded by art and no real idea what I was supposed to be getting out of it. For a guy like me, one who tries to steer clear of religion, seeing painting after painting of Jesus suffering (a pretty common subject for the eras the Louvre highlights) becomes a little redundant. In fact, when our tour concluded I think my favorite things to look at while touring the Louvre weren’t art at all. At least not art in the traditional sense. I found the ornate furniture they had on display particularly interesting. That stuff was gorgeous and something I could really appreciate but it didn’t quite provide the experience I was looking for.

But something funny happened in Paris. The longer I dwelled in the city, the more I started getting excited about seeking out new art. That was especially true after we spent a considerable amount of time at l’Orangerie taking in Monet’s Water Lilies. I had seen pictures of the paintings before and liked them, but I had no idea that two substantial sized oval rooms existed solely to display this art work. There, sitting in the middle of these rooms I started to develop a relationship with art beyond reactions like “Oh, look at that. That’s pretty.” The water lilies helped me come to the realization that art is about capturing small details, the beautiful fleeting moments in life we all experience but rarely slow down to appreciate. It was surreal to be there and imagine sitting next to Monet at Giverny, looking across the pond with him as he painted the same landscape over and over, highlighting the differences of the landscape that take place as morning turns to night. Somewhat regrettably, I didn’t make a special trip to Giverny and I never met Claude Monet, but because these paintings exist I feel like we’ve spent time together and that I understand him, even if just a little. What an astonishing realization to come to and something that can only exist through art. Even the best biography can’t get inside the mind of Monet quite like viewing something that came straight from the brain of the artist himself.

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I also developed a fondness for the work of Van Gogh after getting the chance to see Starry Night over the Rhone at Musee d’Orsay. His paintings have always captured my attention whenever I’d see them pop up, but I was amazed by just how thick and wavy his paintings were. I learned that not all painting amounted to long beautiful strokes, but that it could also be something entirely different. Coming to that realization was life-affirming. The fact that there is more than one way to create something transcendent and beautiful was too much to overlook and helped me understand that this type of expression can be found by anyone that looks hard enough to get these emotions out of their soul and into the world.

After almost a week in Paris, we packed our bags and boarded a train for Belgium expecting to trade in time spent with art for time spent with beer, waffles, and chocolate. And for the most part we did as e experienced what ended up being an awesome week hopping from Gent to Bruges to Brussels and Antwerp. There was beer, amazing beer, friendly people, beautiful cities, historic sites, red light districts, and frites with mayo that I’ll never forget. I don’t want to understate the time we had in Belgium, because quite frankly it might be the best part of Europe I’ve experienced so far, but that’s not why you’ve read this far. You want to know how I found The Ghent Altarpiece.

We used Ghent as our homebase while in Belgium with our hotel sitting right next to Sint Baafskathedraal. We had all intentions of taking a tour of the church while we were there, but it was closed to the public the day we had scheduled to do our toursity due diligence in Ghent. It was a bummer, but after touring church after church I wasn’t sweating it. If I didn’t have a feel for an old European church at that point seeing one more church surely wasn’t going to make a difference.

On our last night in Ghent my wife and I set out to find mussels. Deana had yet to order a bowl and it was now or never as we walked from restaurant to restaurant looking for a restaurant serving them. Eventually, we settled on a place situated right along the river. The seating was fairly tight as this appeared to be a popular restaurant and I felt obliged to say hello to the couple sitting next to us. We exchanged pleasantries and then went about the business of ordering our massive bowl of mussels.

When our meals arrived I noticed the man I said hello to earlier eyeing up my food. And it wasn’t just one of those “wonder what they’re having” glances, but one in which a long stare was followed by serious discussion with his wife. I assumed I was eating them “wrong” (I almost gave a girl a heart attack in Paris when I ate pizza with my hands) , mentally gave myself an “oh well”, and continued on my gluttonous way. A few bivalves later the man interrupted me and surprised me by asking if he could have one of my mussels.  He said that he had never had one before and always one looking to add to my list of life experiences I was all too happy to hand over a mussel and give this stranger a new experience of his own.

The smile on his face affirmed he was quite happy with the mussel and our mollusc exchange led to further conversation. He wanted to know what brought us to Ghent and we explained that we were on our honeymoon. I followed up with the same question and learned that they had traveled from Germany because he was “very art interested” and wanted to see The Ghent Altarpiece at Sint Baafskathedraal. He asked if we had seen it yet and I felt a bit ashamed to say we hadn’t. As we walked home that night, Deana and I decided that we should get up early the next day so that we could see the Altarpiece before we left for the train. If it was good enough for our German friend to travel to Belgium to see, it was good enough for us. And besides, I had developed a bit of an art itch in Paris and felt myself already yearning to scratch it.

The next morning we meandered over to the church,careful not to get smashed by an oncoming tram, and the church greeted us with an entry way decorated with fresh hops on the bine. I’m not sure why they chose that for decoration but this church was already scoring points with me. A couple of left turns and we were in the room with the Altarpiece.

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The room was dark with just enough light to highlight the panels, quiet but for the shuffling of fellow travelers, and scented with the soothing smell of incense. The altarpiece itself was quite large measuring 11 x 15 feet spread across 12 panels.

Had I viewed this on any other day, I might have given it a quick look, thought to myself “oh, pretty”, and chalked it up to yet another piece of church related art and promptly moved on to something else. But this wasn’t any other day. Even though we had a train to catch, we had nowhere to rush and I decided to give the Altarpiece a bit more of my attention. I made a donation of 2 euros, grabbed an audioguide, and gave the next 30 minutes to the Van Eyck brothers masterpiece.

The guide went over each panel describing each scene and the distinguishing features. The upper left panel featuring Adam left me in a state of wonder. It’s impossible to tell from the picture above, but in person it looked as if he was walking out of the painting. I’ve never been more interested in toes before, but Adam’s really grabbed my attention that day.

Each panel had something like that going on. There were tiny, microscopic details you might overlook if you didn’t take the time to notice them. And for me, that’s heaven. Life is chaotic, repetitious, difficult, and ugly. But if you stop and look at the finer print you’ll notice beauty you never knew existed before. You will feel connected to things and people like you never thought you could.

And seeing, really seeing, The Ghent Altarpiece was a bit of a religious experience for me. I might have been in a medieval church in the middle of Europe looking at one of the most famous pieces of religious art in the world, but it wasn’t god I felt connected to. I felt a bond with every human that has ever walked the earth. We’re all connected because we’re all looking for that elusive thing that is “bigger” than us. Some of us find it in a book. Some of us find it in a song. And some of us find it when we’re trading shellfish for memories.