"I see things differently..."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Eulogy: Lessons from my 91-year old Aunt

My 91-year old aunt passed away this week. Aunt Jan was a fine and caring woman who did many good things for others. She had a strong faith and a loving marriage, but also had many sorrows and much loneliness in her life. While still single and in her late 20's, she suffered a terrible, injurious assault. Now, we understand that the severe back pain that suffered for the rest of her life was undoubtedly exacerbated by untreated post-traumatic syndrome. It became a dominating theme in her life.

My aunt and uncle moved often during their marriage, and he traveled a great deal with his work. Her only pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. She grieved her whole life over having no children. Widowed 8 years ago...my two sisters and I were her only next of kin. And we were 3000 miles away. We loved each other very much, yet the physical distance and our own busy lives did not allow for a very close relationship. Though I know she would have welcomed more attention, she was very respectful of our independent lives.

There is something that my Aunt Jan did not do that I think could have brought much joy and satisfaction in her life. A naturally sensitive woman, who loved beauty in all its forms, she never undertook pursuing her own creative interests. Throughout her life she wished she could paint, write poetry, play the violin or piano...yet she never took the steps to develop these interests. Yes, she was busy helping and caring for others. Yes, she was available to be supportive to her traveling husband. I believe, though, that there was something else that stood in her way. Her senses, already well refined, recoiled at having to go through the awkward stages of learning. At one time my mother encouraged her to take piano lessons. She demurred saying that she did not want my uncle to have to hear her struggle along. She always spoke longingly of taking up her artistic interests once she was in heaven, adding with a good-humored twinkle, “where she wouldn't have to practice to get good".

I visited Aunt Jan in the fall of 2008. She had just turned 90 years old. I was teaching painting classes in Seattle, so when I went to visit her on nearby Whidbey Island where she lived, I decided that she and I would paint together. She protested, saying she couldn't possibly do that, but being in the early stages of dementia, she was more amenable to guidance. I forged ahead setting out paints, water, brushes, and paper. I told her that she could paint in heaven, but I was here on earth. And if she wanted a head start, we were going to do it here! Even as she continued to deny her capability, she began stroking the vivid colors onto the paper. Swirls and flowers and hearts and stars...it all came out in a rush, and I could see the innocent delight and amusement on her face. The next day I took her to the local Senior Center and we visited a painting class. The teacher and the other students were warm and welcoming. I was hopeful that she might decide to come back, with their encouragement; a friend of mine would be available to bring her. But though she happily put up her "art lesson" in her home, she never went back or went any further on her own.

I cannot help but think that her life could have been much happier if she had, at an earlier age, chosen to pursue her passions. The creative urge is so universal. And there are so many varied avenues. It does not matter whether it comes in these forms for which she longed, or in the myriad other ways---cooking, crafts, gardening, restoring furniture or cars, forming collections---on and on endlessly.

Generous-hearted and loving woman that my Aunt Jan was, and I believe still is, I know that she would want me to share this message with others:

Pursue your creative life; do not fear failure or the clumsiness of learning. It is so very much worth the effort. The gift we give through creating, the shared interest with like-minded people, the joy found in times of solitude...

Aunt Jan, I hope that you are having a marvelous time in heaven! And even if you find that you still have to “practice to get good”, do enjoy the journey!