Grief is the chapter I would have skipped over before this year. If you skip over this blog post I completely understand, in fact I encourage it. This post is for those of you who might need a post about grief, but if you don’t right now, take refuge in that moment. Until this year, I did not, and now I am hungry for any information about grief. Our Western culture treats grief like the embarrassing family relative no one wants to invite to family gatherings, but somehow shows up anyway. We tiptoe around grief, and hope she leaves early if we give her a nod and a forced smile. Grief sits uncomfortably in the corner, hoping someone might sit down and look her straight in the eyes for a moment.
Why am I writing about grief in an art blog? Because it is everything right now, it is the lens I am seeing through. I’m not quite sure how this will influence my art, because I haven’t been through this before, but I imagine it has to.
In November 2019, I lost Judy, my godmother. Judy came to live with my family in Bermuda before I was born. My family is British, and Judy was an ‘English nanny’. My mother was highly ambivalent about having me, her fourth child. Judy lived with us until I graduated high school and went to college, except for a brief time when she went to work in London. Judy was my best friend as a child, and as a teenager I railed against her the way I imagine I would have with my mother, if my mother had been more present. And we developed the closeness from going through that.
When we moved from London to NY when I was ten , she rode the bus to school with me every day, and was my closest friend while I figured out life in America. When I had children Judy made the long journey from the UK to New Mexico every year to spend time with all of us. She played Barbies endlessly with Acadia, knitted her clothes for her dolls, and taught Ryder, my son, how to knit. I spent three weeks with Judy in June 2019 after my eldest brother Tim, who lives in England said “ I think she’s deteriorating, you might want to come soon." Tim , who is a doctor, had seen how tenacious Judy was, how she had survived breast cancer, and a mastectomy, and lived for ten years with a slow growing cancer. There was a child-like part of me that just felt she would keep going forever, even though she was eighty.I cooked for her, and we would work on a puzzle every evening after dinner. I bought her plants for her terrace and built her a little patio garden. It was very simple and very gentle . I asked her if she wanted me to stay longer, and she said “ No, you have your things to get back to”. I told her I really didn’t. My children were grown, my animals were being well taken care of, and I could have stayed. I let her be the bossy nanny and tell me to go home…and there is part of me that regrets that. She would be gone in five months, and I could have had five more months of caring for her, making her meals, and doing puzzles. I came back again in November, when my brother Tim said he felt the end could be near. I will never forget the way her face lit up when I walked into the hospital room as she said “ You’ve come, I knew you would!” My brother Guy also came from the States, and my daughter Acadia, and it felt so good to surround her with the love she had surrounded us with for so many years. Judy tended me for so many, many years, and in the end I was able to tend her for just a little bit. And I wish it had been longer.
In February 2020 I was visiting my 91 year old father in Vermont while his caretaker went on her yearly holiday. It was a pitch black frigid Vermont night. Suddenly a Taos number pops up on my phone, and I answer it. It is Michele, a friend of my ex-partner Melissa. “Bettina , how are you? Where are you? I have some news. Melissa’s car was found at the gorge . I feel myself swallowed up by the dark winter night. “No, No, NoNo, No, No “-I wail….I lay on the bed and cry myself to sleep.
Melissa has been missing six months this month. Her car was found at the gorge bridge in Taos, but no body has been found, which according to various people, including a river ranger friend of Melissa’s, Justin, is unusual. Jumpers as they are called, are almost always found.
Melissa and I were introduced by a mutual friend in 2014. Our friend Stephanie said we should meet because we both had lyme disease, and both lived in NM. We met on a spring day in May at the Teahouse in Santa Fe. I felt a deep recognition and connection with Melissa. We became friends and I watched her go through a tough year, a break up with a well-known singer, worsening of her lyme symptoms, and loss of a home. Melissa was a river guide and singer songwriter. She has a deep soulful voice that takes me home to some deep part of myself every time I hear it. She sang about the rivers and mountains she loved, and her many , many ex’s …Melissa had a deep commitment to healing herself from lyme, had done many treatments from working with world renowned lyme doctor Dr. Richard Horowitz ,to travelling to Brazil to work with John of God. With her I became more aware of my diet, and different healing paths. My youngest child left for college, and I mentioned to Melissa that I had always wanted to go to India to do an authentic Panchakarma experience in India . Melissa’s nervous system was flayed by lyme disease, childhood trauma, and had manifested in trouble sleeping. We decided to go do a month long panchakarma at an ayruvedic hospital in Southern India. I was seeking help for my nervous system shot by years of single parenting and lyme disease, and joint pain. We set off on Oct 30 2018 for Bangalore, India…and had an intense and transformational time in India, and then travelling together in Australia and New Zealand. Melissa and I share a love of surfing, we spent our time travelling making music and art, surfing, and pursuing healing modalties.
In January 2019 Melissa went to travel in Australia touring the folk festivals there. I was supposed to go, but chose not to, because it felt like it was going to be more than I could handle. Supporting Melissa had been a full time job for the last eighteen months or so, and I was fried. I knew it would be super challenging to travel with her and support her on a tour. She didn’t do well moving around a lot, although she remained committed to it. 2019, she continued to travel, and I felt the need to be home, and ground into my life, my art, my responsibilities. I saw her once when I was in England visiting Judy my godmother, she played a concert, I came to see her. It was great to see her. She was leaving for Portugal and wanted me to come. I was completely consumed with Judy. She left, and I went back to the States.
There is so much more to the story. There are lots of stories. I am mostly writing to tell you my one story of grief this year. I’m writing to tell you about losing Judy, and how it feels to lose the hand that always felt like it was at my back. That I didn’t know how much she was there until she was gone. How doing puzzles with Judy last year was one of the sweetest moments. I’m writing to tell you about my grief, because now I am in it, I want to know your story, because we are in a culture that wants to eradicate grief, (even though this year we are submerged in it collectively). I’m writing to tell you this, because it feels like part of the process of being a human and an artist. This is the step before the next paintings I will make. This is the step before anything else can happen. I want to tell you the one tiny thing I have learnt about grief during all of this. We are scared of grief, I am scared of it. But all I want in my grief is for you to come sit beside me for a while. And then I’d like to tell you some stories about the people I loved deeply. I want to tell you how once Melissa was trying on a wetsuit in Gisbourne New Zealand, and I laughed so hard trying to wiggle her into it, that I peed in my pants in the dressing room. I want to tell you about the first night we got to India and Melissa wanted to go straight to the Hanuman temple, and when we got there, the priests invited her in because she knew the Hanuman Chalisa, and she sang the entire thing in the inner sanctum of the temple. I want to tell you how she loved riding ferry boats, and any time she got near water her face broke into the biggest child-like grin, and she would rock back and forth with glee. I want to tell you that she was an amazing cook, and made delicious healthy food, especially sweet potatoes with cranberries. I want to tell you that I called her Map Girl because she loved maps, and was great at reading them, and that she called me Book Girl because I love books. I want to tell you that I eat wild blueberries every day because she told me they were good for us. I want to tell you about the dream I had when I first met Melissa, that I am riding on a horse bareback and my arms are stretched open to the Universe and to Love. And mostly how much I loved her hands, they were the most beautiful hands I’ve ever seen, and I miss them.