Monday, February 20, 2017

PAT DENTON'S LAST VALENTINE

The blanket was soft and forgiving. It fell over her like a shroud, covering her frail flesh with its warmth, trying against fate to keep out the cold. I tucked my shoulders over the curve in my guitar, cinching the music gently against my heart as I observed the scene before me: my friend Pat, lying silent under the blanket, her snowy hair whisped against her pillow. On her right side, curled into the space on the bed beside her, was her youngest daughter, Nicole. And on her other side, in a chair, her knees pressed into the side of the mattress, was her oldest, Vicki.  Pat’s arms lay quietly outstretched beside her, like Christ calling us to himself in the paintings we see in church. Each daughter held one of her mother’s hands, gently and desperately caressing and kissing them. While I played my instrument, as quietly and reverently as I know how to play and sing, Pat’s only son, Desmond stepped into the room. He had come to see her in one of the few hours he had at home between his work travels. He was weary from lack of sleep, and he exhaled his love for her as he wept, letting go of old regrets, and inhaling the evident love that permeated the room. I sat at Pat’s feet, on a piano stool, stroking the strings of my guitar, praying that I would not break the sacredness of that space. It was a divine triangle, Nicole and Vicki and Des, with their mother shooting through the center of it. I knew the holiness, and the honor of being present. 
It was Valentine’s Day. Dave and I had shared a simple meal and were driving to the movie theatre to catch a show. But as we drove I felt that gnawing scratch of my spirit, the one I used to ignore before I became steeped in age. “I feel like I should go sing for Pat,” I whispered to Dave. “Would you be ok if I texted Nicole to see if it would help?” David knows what matters most. I love him for no reason at all, but I admire him for his holy vision.
A human circle of love had huddled around Pat for days that led to weeks, knowing that she was working her way to the gate between life and death.  We had been on such a journey with my mother, and to us the music never ceased. But silence is not a good friend of long awaitings, and I worried for the sisters who were so vigilantly seated beside their mother, day and night. I sent a text, offering a little gentle music, if it might help.  And the answer came back; “Please.”
When you sit in a darkened room, in a quiet space, with the focus being absolutely centered on one person, you can find out an awful lot you hadn’t known.  Pat was an Idaho girl, raised on a dry farm, with a passel of kids and never ending chores to be done. She loved her family, and her home.  Tender little memories swirled around the room. My sister Libby and I had spent a good bit of time there, over the journey of hospice. Games, and stories, and songs of childhood. And then Des and Vicki would get to talking about their adventures as kids, and as teenagers; concerts attended, trips taken, memories of little sayings their mom used to repeat. We call up the happy when someone is dying, and it was a joyful waiting. But I knew that among all these sweet memories were wounded hearts and heavy burdens. Pat’s heart had been given, and then broken, then given and broken again.
Pat had thought she was past having children when she found she was pregnant with Nicole. Vicki and Des were grown and gone, and Nicole became the child of her grown up heart; her reason for coming home from work each day, her joy and delight. Vicki told of the first time Nikki came to see her and her family, to stay all on her own.  She was dressed in a new button up coat, with a matching hat. Nicole came into the frenetic space of a household full of little children and sat on the edge of the couch, her back straight, her hands on her knees.  
“Nicole, take off your coat and come play,” Vicki told her. 
“Oh no, I’ll just wait here until Mom comes back to get me.” 
Vicki says she sat there for hours.  I’m not sure how long.  But I am sweetly haunted by the image of that young girl waiting for her own true love to return and rescue her.
Our mothers are our first loves.  We need them, some of us more desperately than others. Then we grow, if we are lucky enough to keep them here on earth with us, we begin to recognize how desperately they need us, too.  Pat adored her children, her grandchildren, and the greats.  On her nightstands were drawings and cards and sweet little tokens of love from those who have trickled down through her. She was surrounded by that love to her dying breath.
There, on that Valentines night, We sang and talked in whispers for a few hours, each of us watching for Pat’s chest to rise and fall. Pat was dignified, even in her passage from life.  No fuss, just quiet graceful breathing.
Nicole remembered a little song her grandfather Denton had taught her as a child:
Oh playmate, come out and play with me 
And bring your dollies three 
Climb up my apple tree 
Slide down my rain barrel 
Onto my cellar floor 
And we’ll be jolly friends 
Forevermore

Since I had played a hand clapping game to this song as a girl, I began to play along. All three of us sang it, giggling quietly when it was over, and I began singing an alternative version from my own childhood:
Oh enemy, come out and fight with me….
Then... a silent pause.  Nicole looked up at Vicki.  
“I don’t think she’s breathing.”  
Vicki repeated the words, like a second witness. We huddled there in disbelief, which gave way to an unlikely conglomeration of emotions; sorrow, joy, fear, faith….they all danced together around us there in that room. We touched and cried and whispered, speaking to her, knowing without any doubt that she could hear us from wherever it is she had gone.
She did it!  She did that thing we all fear as children, the fear that really never leaves us even when our faith is complete. Like she stood on the edge of that tall high dive at the Lava Hot Springs of her youth, closed her eyes and jumped!
Pat always did have her own timeline.  When she was done with socializing, she just left. No big scene - attention grabbing was not her style.  But when she was ready to go, she left. On her own terms, in her own time. Her family says they would be at family gatherings … weddings, baptisms, barbeque's.  One minute Mom was there, and the next someone noticed she was gone. She made her way home when she was ready.
And so it was. She saw her daughters singing the songs of their childhood. She had received a kiss from her boy. They were well, though sorrowful at the prospect of loss.  And when there was a little laughter, and she knew they were happy, she decided to duck out, to make the quiet exit.  No fanfare.  Not even a gasp.  Just a silent exhale and she was heaven-bound.
The three of us sat on the bed surrounding her body, still warm with the last of life, and recognized the shift in the energy in the room.  A sweet emptiness, like the angels opened a window and drew her in.  Nicole stroked her hair and commented, “I’m so grateful she died on Valentines Day.”  It surprised me that she would say this.  Most people would bemoan the prospect of always remembering a tragedy on a holiday. But both she and Vicki thought it perfectly fitting that she would leave them on this particular day, with the whispering of love echoing over and over in that beautiful room, like she wanted to jump on up there so she could blow kisses down from Heaven.

I agree.  Pat Denton left us with an abundant harvest of love.  We will feast on it for a very long time, all the way through eternity.

Monday, January 9, 2017

TOUCHED: JAMES CHRISTENSEN


He swept his arm through the air, crossing over the yards of canvas stretched before us. “Welcome to The Garden,” he said, with his signature smile lighting the space, easing the introduction for people whose admiration of him made them nervous to meet him. With all good graces he greeted my aging mother, then handed her a paintbrush and a palette. 
“Would you like to sign my guest bush?” 
The long slender paintbrush was passed from hand to hand.  
Today, in the Garden Room of the Nauvoo LDS temple, there are leaves that speak the names of my mother, my sister, my husband and myself, and others who were fortunate enough to visit that sacred creative space. James C, the painter of fantasy and hump-backed Everymen, who also knew how to handle serious matters in ink and oil, was masterful at his art.  But mostly, he was masterful with people.
A rare combination of ingredients made the recipe of James C Christensen deliciously unique: the kind of fare that worked in exotic places with outrageous prices and also hometown diners. He fit everywhere.  Everywhere! And we who knew him in his bare feet understood that the fact that he made us feel like his best friends was simply the way he treated everyone.  He had just enough ego and success to build his confidence and to drive his pursuit of excellence, and just enough humility to understand from Whom his confidence sprang. 

James was James partly because Carole was Carole.  Every James Christensen-type-person needs a Carole Christensen to balance him. She is the green to his red, the yang to his yin. He’d tell you this himself. Part of the beauty of their love story is their mutual understanding of their self-designed roles. She knows him, probably better than he knows himself. And he trusts her, thank goodness, because she has saved him from his own candor more than anyone can say. 
I know no other human being who fills the category that James filled.  Witty, wise, stalwart without being judgmental. He was a dreamer who made his dreams come to life, and who encouraged other talented dreamers to do the same. I first met him around a conference table at BYU, two decades ago.  I was newly appointed to the board of directors of the Mormon Arts Foundation, and was assigned to direct the three-day Mormon Arts Festival at BYU the coming year. We had chairpersons over varying artistic disciplines from film to music, literature, dance, theatre and visual art. James oversaw the visual art group. He was massively large; not in the physical sense. It’s just that he completely filled every space he entered, and bits of him flowed out through the doorways and into other spaces, the way his buddy Pat Debenham’s laughter does. He was a storyteller, not just through his art. He was a master of words and ideas, and he knew the ebb and flow of human emotion and could play it like a pro in any public or private setting. Oh the stories that have danced across his dinner table, across the large round picnic table on his back porch, across the podium as he led us through the last two decades of a small annual artistic retreat we worked together on. James, with the aid of Carole, was Chairman of the Board of the Mormon Arts Foundation. For the last few years, since the retirement of our founding father Doug Stewart, I have served as president of the foundation. We read each other pretty well, James and I. He knew what I could do, and I knew he could do everything I did and more. No one has ever led a discussion with more ease, skill and good humor than James.  In the same paragraph he could have us rolling on the floor with stories about how his son-in-law Dan Barney re-sewed his Costco jeans into skinny jeans, and then in the next sentence he would make the goose bumps rise on our arms with his tender testimony of the goodness of God.
When James and Carole first married, James says, there was a moment in time when they had to make a decision about what career path they would take. At the time he was actually making waves as a musician. His band was gigging nationally, making money, and moving up the ladder of musical success. James tells how he and Carole prayed, and pondered, and came to the decision that they would take the fork in the road that led to his incomparable painting career.  Imagine our world without a humpback, or a magical fish floating through a mystical ocean. Imagine!

Back when we were painting on his guest bush on the canvases of the Nauvoo Temple, I remember him taking us into the room where Gary Smith and Chris Young were painting the magnificent scenes depicting the creation of the world. (Disclaimer- I'm not really remembering with much accuracy who painted what at the time. Forgive me.)  
"Guess what is under this amazing ocean of water?" James said. He gave us that coy sideways flickering glance, and told the story. In the middle of the night, after everyone had left, James and Robert Marshall snuck into their room and painted fantasy fish in the ocean water. Of course the fish are painted over. They had complete reverence for their subject matter and it looks just divine when the paint is dry. But I like to think that the under layer on that canvas of paint brings the Lord some measure of delight. The antics between James and his fellow painters were part of the joy of working with him. Ask any of them who were fortunate enough to work with him.  He was like glitter-glue: Everything and everyone became bound together, and it was obvious James had been there.
James battled cancer with the strength and grace of the Pilates moves he practiced regularly with Carole and his friends. It was a roller coaster ride for him, his flight with cancer, and I’m afraid he suffered more than he ever let on. The level of hope he carried the last number of years…that we all carried with him…was a testament to his trust in God’s purposes. Not that he felt entitled to tell God what to do. But he did find great purpose in the consecration of his art. Last year, while he was undergoing cancer treatment, he began his days at the Provo City Center temple with “the boys”. You know the classic scene of retired buddies meeting for breakfast at their favorite diner?  These “boys” met daily in the empty rooms of the re-purposed Provo Tabernacle, in the process of becoming the Provo City Center LDS temple. The rooms then echoed with their conversation and smelled of oil and paint. James and Robert and Gary, with David Linn and Doug Fryer as the youngsters assigned to handle the painting of the ceiling, devoted each day to painting the murals that grace the walls of that temple forevermore. Eventually the boys were aided by two of Jim’s daughters, Cassie Barney and Emily McPhie, and Downey Doxey-Marshall, Robert’s daughter-in-law, among a few others. All in all, about ten artists gave their gifts to the Lord in that project. When it ended there was a sense of melancholy. Robert passed away not long after the temple opened. It broke James’ heart. James and Carole could not shake the worry that without such divine purpose, James may lose his earthly footing.
Two months ago James and I sat beside each other on our friend Sam Cardon’s couch. We had just finished breaking bread together at the breakfast table. As usual, James oversaw our board meeting for the Mormon Arts Foundation.  
“Before we start," James said, "I need to tell you something.”  
Hearts throbbed and tears flowed as he told us that the medical trial for which he was the first patient, had not done the trick.  The cancer was reeling its head, and though there was hope for a new trial, I sensed the spirit whispered that this might not be his destiny. 
That was the last time I saw Jim. Between then and now the power that was James Christensen belonged to his truest loves.
When word came tonight that James had left us for holier spaces, it was unfathomable.  Like, shouldn’t the world stop spinning?  Shouldn’t it at least pause on its axis out of respect? 

On our living room wall we are blessed to have one of James’ last paintings.  It depicts an artist standing before a blank page.  James thought perhaps it was a representation of painter’s block.  For me it is writer’s block.  I suppose, tonight, I am thinking that that blank canvas is all that lies ahead for my friend. A blank page, waiting for his imagination. Perhaps, looking at it more closely, that white page is actually the entryway to the hereafter. He told me he wasn't completely certain what that page represented anyway.
On our living room table there sits a large book of scripture and an equally large book called Men & Angels with a painfully beautiful sentiment from Jim written inside. As our friend Kirk Richards said tonight, when the news of James' passing wafted over to him and he blew it my way, “If there is a winged angel in this universe, I hope it carries James home.”


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

LET THE REST OF THE WORLD GO BY (MY AUNT MAE)

Her door was never locked.  Not that I recall, at least.  And no one ever knocked.  Just whistled through the screen, or called out as they crossed the threshold.  It was this way from the start; in that place way back in my memory when my mother’s sister, Mae, was relatively young and lived in their stucco house with the yellow painted side porch there on the corner of University Avenue in the heart of Blackfoot Idaho. In more recent years, after Uncle Les was gone and she moved from the old house to that teeny little place in the retirement community east of Walmart, it was the same.  We would drive up from Utah, singing the Idaho State song every time we crossed the border, and land in the parking lot just outside her place.  Last time we visited her there she was back in her bedroom in her rocking chair, next to her little portable exercise machine, her soft beaded buckskin moccasins placed tidily next to her bed. I asked her if she ever got bored, and she replied that she hadn’t yet. “Oh, I read, and do a little thinking.  And then if I start feeling lonely I just whistle.”
Aunt Mae was one of seven sisters in my mother’s family. Seven sisters and three brothers. Those sisters were a distinct cluster of characters, each one unique and all of them united.  There is a sacred thing that happens when the mother of a large family dies at a relatively young age, the way their mother did.  The family either falls apart or binds together.  These sisters cinched their mother’s apron strings tight around each other, creating traditions and memories that sealed them in their sisterhood.  They were famous for their sister parties; gatherings for birthdays and other occasions.  My mom missed many of these when she left the fold and moved to Pennsylvania for a few decades.  Still, when she could, she donned a crazy old hat and joined the party, passing the paper birthday bag back and forth with crazy silly greetings, playing dueling harmonicas, card games, singing old familiar songs and telling old familiar stories.
It was Aunt Mae who taught my husband Dave how to fly fish.  Out there in the Arco desert, smack in the middle of nowhere Idaho, on that pristine piece of water that flows eternal. The Little Lost River, my favorite fishing spot.  We camped under the old owl tree, drifting off to the rhythmic rippling of water and the whispering Idaho wind working its way through the sage brush. First light, we could hear the music of her reel as she pulled the fishing line a full arm’s length from her rod.  My mom and I never did embrace fly fishing.  We preferred the mind freeing banks by the deepest holes, and the great mystery of a worm wiggling underwater out of sight.  But Libby and Dave -they stood there in their waders, upstream or downstream from my mother’s older sister.  When one of us hooked one on our line, we let out a Native American holler, “Woo-Wooo-Wooo”, our pitch rising and falling like a bird call.  We could hear each other all morning, and clear into the deepest sunset, hollering our successes up and down stream.
Last year, before Aunt Mae fell and broke her hip and moved into the nursing home, we picked her up and took her for a ride.  She had bequeathed her car to her granddaughter Krishna years ago.  It was a noble thing, handing over her keys, knowing she was doing the most responsible thing.  I respect her deeply for it. I ache for her having to do it.  She was 90 years old then, and she figured it was time. Still, it makes me weepy to think of it. So we picked her up in my van and drove her to Walmart, where we bought her a CD player to replace her old cassette tape machine.  And then we took a drive out past the old Asylum, out to the old ranch where she spent much of her childhood.  “There on the corner is where the school wagon picked us up.”  Before there were buses, children were transported to school on horse drawn wagons.  I imagined my mother and Aunt Mae climbing up into the wagon bed, their woolen stockings stretched out at the knees and drooping. I picked a twig of sage and put it in the dip of a handle in the door inside my car, inhaling as I drove, looking out over the sand dunes that were the backdrop of my mother’s youth. Aunt Mae played harmonica for us all the way back.  Her breath control was amazing, and she cupped those arthritic old hands around her instrument, fluttering her fingers to create a haunting vibrato.  Her mournful song echoes in my memory, and I can hear, if I am still long enough, the distant rippling of water behind it. 
Aunt Becky & Aunt Mae
My Auntie Mae’s harmonica sits cold and faithful at her bedside tonight.  There is no more breath in her.  Sometime this morning she left that old body that housed her spirit for nearly a century. 
I imagine there is some sister party going on up there in that heaven place right now. I imagine all six of them peeking over their silver lined card table, winking down at my Aunt Becky, the last sister to remain on earth. Aunt Mae takes her place at the table, her shoulders square, her chin up.  She holds a fan of cards in her hand, licks her finger and rearranges them, glances over at Mary, trying to remember how to read her, and lays down her first card.   My mother sits across from her.  She is young, and beautiful, and she is herself once again.  It is a happy scene, and if it is not so, then I do not want to know.


I lay my head on my pillow tonight with this image in my head; my mother and my beloved aunts are huddled around a card table, or a kitchen table, or a campfire…the scent of sage and earth and water and campfire smoke fills my nostrils, and the melodic strains of Let the Rest of the World Go By will play me to sleep. My Aunt Mae’s toe taps the beat as her chest rises and falls, her head cranked to the side, her arms drawn across her heart and her hands cupped in front of her lips.  I hear her still. Always will.