Two weekends ago, I volunteered to paint faces at two different kids’ birthday parties. When a friend had posted on Facebook that she couldn’t believe magicians cost $700/hour, I told her I’d paint the faces of her four-year-old daughter and friends for free. How hard could this be? I thought. Then, when K, my cousin, mentioned that Z’s sixth birthday party was the next day, I offered my services—my very questionable services.
As the child of two artistic-types, I grew up with a clear sense that creativity should be nurtured. When I started annotating a grocery list—writing comments and stories in the margins—because my mother was taking too long to go through her cupboards, she bought me my first journal. I soon filled it with interviews with family members and movie reviews, in which I graded the films. (“Oh, God, You Devil is not the most serious film,” I wrote at eight-years-old.) I took dance lessons, and while I was no Gelsey Kirkland, I knew how to enjoy myself, both in the studio and on stage. (In fact, one of my teachers once said as much—he never singled me out for doing the moves well—or even correctly—but he did, on occasion, say, “No one looks like they’re having fun—well, except for Suzie.”) My mother gave art lessons to my friends and I, for many years. I can still hear her encouragement: “What are you worried about? It’s just a piece of paper!” For whatever reason, I have always felt like there’s nothing that I can’t at least attempt artistically. This fall, working on the fumes of enthusiasm, I pitched a solo dance performance, and then woke up the next day with an idea hangover—wait, can I do that? I’d certainly try. When I go to concerts, I imagine myself as rock star. (Actually…who doesn’t?) My confidence, while occasionally strong, is also blind, funny and sometimes unfounded.
When I first offered to paint J’s daughter’s friends’ faces, I didn’t think twice. A mutual friend heard and asked, “Well, do, um, you know how to do that, um?” Another said, “Buy stickers, for back up.” My mother, who I assumed would give me plenty of encouragement, as she always has, paused.
“Oh. Frozen is really huge right now,” she said. After a minute, she said, “Just tell them stories.”
This was not the pep talk I expected. The night before the first party, I sat home, googling the phrase: “How to paint faces so kids don’t get mad at the party.” It was kind of a joke. Kind of.
* * *
That same weekend, I happened to be thinking lots about topics that are not exactly kid-friendly: loss, endings and death. A couple weeks earlier, my grandmother had passed away, and I still felt like I was walking through a surreal corridor, somewhere between the quotidian and the mystical. I was lucky to be with her in the days leading up to her death, and also at the moment she took her last breath, along with other family members. I try not to think of this moment when I am in public, because I will cry. (After a few Hail Mary prayers, one of my cousins suggested we sing “Islands in the Stream,” because our grandmother loved Kenny Rogers—so that remembrance usually halts the waterworks.) Mostly, I have tried not to think the thought that keeps popping into my mind: “I’m not ready to let you go.”
That seems unreasonable, given that she lived a full 97 years. Part of our job was convincing her it was OK to let go. I did so, despite my own selfish desires, because I could see her struggling—even then, even at that late stage, I could still feel her life force, as mysterious and inexplicable a thing as deep love—barreling forward, not wanting to give up. Yet it was clearly time; I’d heard her say for years, “You’re grandfather isn’t going to recognize me by the time I get to heaven—he’s going to say, ‘Who’s this old hag?’” In the end, she was a woman of God. Dying on a Sunday would have been ideal. So that’s what she did.
Recently, I was remembering the time I accidentally witnessed the home birth of someone I barely knew. (You can guess: it’s a long, awkward story.) Despite having misgivings about my presence—I was holed up alone, pretending to read a book and praying my ass off for the safe arrival of the babe after the midwife went MIA—I was still there. Life knocking on the door has a certain seduction, and before long, I found myself OK—or, OK-ish—with the situation. While everyone else surrounded the mother-to-be in a pool, set up in the second bedroom, I sat in the living room, on the edge of the couch, skimming passages, and wishing harder than I’d ever wished for anything that the baby would come safely and quickly, into a sea of love. My prayer quickly morphed into, “We love you, we love you, we love you.” Looking back, it sounds kind of funny, given the whole situation and my loose connection to the parties involved. In the moment, however, it made perfect sense.
I couldn’t help but see a similarity between the atmosphere at the home birth and the atmosphere at my grandmother’s death. In each case, there was a sense of having to coax a being in (or out) of the world. The community-feeling at the home birth was oddly intoxicating, even on the periphery, to the point that I could understand why people become obstetricians and midwives (and, um, maybe I even had a fantasy about going to medical school. See above thoughts on unfounded confidence.) With Nana, there was not a sense of hope, so much as healing and compassion. I felt glued to her side. The mystery was its own siren call.
Her last morning, I walked into her room with my aunt and K; Nana was no longer talking. When we left her the day before, she was still lucid, peppy even. (When I had touched her hair and said, “Look at this natural wave,” she responded with a wise-crack: “Fooled you, didn’t I?”) Her voice had gone uncharacteristically soft when she said, out of the blue, “I wonder how many grandchildren you’re going to have.” “Not as many as you,” I told her. She replied even more softly, “I didn’t even try.”
Even when she stopped being able to communicate, she gave us a signal that she could feel us. In the morning, my aunts, K and I sat around her. We shared memories, but mostly, wanted her to know that we were there. One of us said, “We’re with you all the way. We’re here”—and then she seemed to respond. She knew.
After more family arrived, I went outside for a fresh air break. In the New Hampshire cold, I looked up at the cloudless blue sky. She had picked a gorgeous day to go. I prayed, hard, that the very end would not be difficult for her, that she could let go, with ease. In very much the same way I had prayed for the safe entry of R’s baby, I could feel a sunburst of love—the essence, the guts of existence—and the only genuine assurance in the whole wide world.
This may sound strange, but I have long felt that when people die, the very best of their spirits get sprinkled around, like some kind of humanist fairy dust—maybe we all become smarter, sassier, braver, more compassionate. In that moment, outside the nursing home, my serious prayers gave way to spontaneous laughter. It’s not that I was in a light-hearted mood—quite the opposite, obviously—but the laughter felt like my grandmother’s, like I was somehow remembering and appreciating a vital part of her being. Her take on life, it was pretty humorous. It’s not that she was the most upbeat person, or that I didn’t recognize her struggles. But everything pales in comparison to what I most felt when I was with her: ready yak it up. (Knowing I was an easy audience, she always delivered.) Over the years, I’d drive to visit her, eagerly anticipating her wit. She really did have the best laugh. This never failed, even when talks turned serious. Even if it had failed, though, that would not have changed the essence of our connection, not one bit. Some things just are.
Outside the nursing home, I was puzzled by the word coming to mind: ecstasy. Was I losing it, after long bedside shifts? (I was, it should be noted, delirious for good reason. K and I had been holed up in a Holiday Inn, where the most exciting amenity was the pancake machine.) Maybe her soul was ecstatic about her physical death, about her transition back to her divine home. Or maybe this was simply how I should remember her, by the bone-deep appreciation her laugh often betrayed. Then I remembered: she was still alive.
I wiped the tears and bolted inside.
* * *
Nana would have gotten a kick out of my face painting efforts. The little things cracked her up. Last year, she sat on a Styrofoam container of pancakes, and got maple syrup on her pants. The perfectionist in her found the whole thing hilarious, i.e. “Can you believe this happened?” In her eulogy, my aunt recalled my grandmother turning down an offer for a computer, to replace her typewriter: “Those are for people who make mistakes.”
The first birthday party went fairly well. I set up my supplies in the corner of an Upper East Side Pinkberry store, ready to paint flowers and rainbows, when a little boy asked me to turn him into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. (So my Google search hadn’t been that far off.) Fortunately, his mother helped me with the colors and shapes—which was good, because then nearly every boy wanted the same design.
The magician showed up and, as it turns out, was worth every penny. The kids mostly followed him around the store, watching as he told jokes, sang songs and twisted balloons into animal shapes. The birthday boy—this was a joint party—wasn’t as interested in the magician as he was in the painting. His parents tried to cajole him to go watch the magician, but he wanted to be near the “art,” if we can call it that. Finally, they relented, and I pained a non-descript mask on his face, something akin to Superman. My friend’s daughter was the last to get her face done. By then, she’d seen the other painted on pictures—butterflies, rainbows, shooting stars—and decided she wanted a rainbow, with a single puffy cloud. I walked out of there exhausted, but also relieved: the whole affair hadn’t been a bust.
The next day, I met Z and her friends at the Chelsea Piers ice skating rink. Z had a hectic morning; she had been an angel in the church Christmas pageant, and now she was zooming around the ice with her parents and friends. In planning for her party, K had mentioned that there were 17 kids and that there was an hour for face-painting. I did the math: that gave me 3.5 minutes per kid. “Don’t worry,” said K. “I can help.”
We had stickers and tattoos for K to put on the kids in line. And wow, was that a long line. The six-year olds were far savvier than their four-year-old counterparts. The first girl sat down and said, “So what can you do?” Not only were there no illusions (though I did get one Elsa request) but also, this group had a clear sense of what they wanted, right down to shapes and colors. I have to say, I had a blast. When one little boy asked me to paint a wolverine on his face, I googled the image and thought, OK, I can attempt this. Another party-goer came up while he was doing his best to sit still. She looked at the photo and said to the wolverine-in-progress: “That’s what you’re getting? Seriously? Seriously?” She started laughing so hard that she almost did a backbend. (He was unfazed, thankfully.) I did an OK job with the wolverine, and with a subsequent “knight” rendering. One of the girls asked for a bejeweled crown on her forehead and a butterfly over her mouth. It looked really funny, and one of the dads subsequently whispered that she looked like a character from The Walking Dead. In the end, the kids left happy and exhausted. Z was tired, but not too tired to paint a butterfly on my hand and a flower on K’s cheek.
To say I slept well that night would be an understatement. I was fatigued, not only from all the kid-action, but also from all that I’d been thinking about: death, life, and the endless streams of encouragement that we find ourselves engaged in along the way. My brain was swinging between two poles: remembering the midwifery present in the birth experience as well as my grandmother’s death. In each instance, love had been the natural default—shouldn’t it always be? During the holidays, it feels right to ruminate on all the good stuff: kindness, generosity, unbridled affection, the preciousness of time. In these two experiences, love had been more than a concept. I couldn’t put it in a box, but I felt it nonetheless.
As 2014 closes out, I’m thinking that love—that pure, creative force, the go-to in the beginning, the end and, most ideally in-between—needs to be nurtured, too. There’s a part of me that wishes I could bottle this fleeting, tender time—surely, I’ll find myself forgetting, soon complaining about the small stuff instead of keying into what matters.
Fortunately, I remember in this moment—and it’s in that spirit that I would like to wish you and yours a beautiful, meaningful, hilariously absurd and wildly satisfying holiday season.
Let love rule, because it already does.