Yesterday I walked over to our Hip Neighborhood Cafe, bought some Black Currant tea (loose, of course), and settled in for a lovely morning of work--reading Bruce Morrill's Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory. No sooner had I sat down when an older gentleman in an electric wheelchair cruised over to my little table built for two. He gestured and said just enough for me to understand that he had difficulty speaking. I quickly perceived that he had likely suffered a stroke at some point which had stolen his mobility (he was paralyzed on his right side) and his words.
He handed me a laminated photograph of himself as a much younger man. The photo showed him in an artist's studio, surrounded on all sides by large, colorful canvasses. "You're an artist?" I asked him. He nodded, then handed me a plastic grocery bag. Inside it I discovered numerous prints of his paintings on card stock paper, folded in half. They made fair-sized greeting cards or could also be framed. They were abstract, beautiful, evocative pieces.
"You painted these?" I asked.
"Yes," he responded.
"And you can still paint now?"
"Oh, yes!" Then somehow (I don't know how I got all that he told me, how much he communicated with words, how many blanks I filled in, I'm not sure.) he conveyed that he'd had a stroke but that painting was what he could still do.
"My father and grandmother both had strokes, too." I told him. "My father is an artist. But the stroke took his art away. He can't paint anymore." The man's face showed shock as I told him this. "Painting is all I have!" he told me slowly.
"My grandmother's stroke took away her words." I told him. He nodded, understanding.
Strokes have been especially cruel to my family. My father's stroke came when he was only 59 years old, too terribly young. An artist his whole life--the way he made his living, but also the way he perceived the world--it was life's most cruel trick to steal that away from him. His mother already had suffered for some years without the words she needed to express what was inside of her. She stumbled over what had become too solid, too inflexible and ungiving. Eventually it took her laughter, too.
He was selling his prints for $5, which was about what I could spare. I told him I could get one and started to go through the prints once again, looking for the one I would select. Then I paused, as if someone had placed her hand on my shoulder for a moment to cause me to pay attention. I looked up at him and said, "Is there one you think I should have?"
He smiled broadly and pointed to a beautiful print showing three faces with expressions of longing in a blue-green swirl of plants and flowers. In the midst of the faces danced several (spirit)animals, one of which is being cradled in the hands of one of the people in the painting, hands that are cradling, hands that are praying.
Only a day or so away from Trinity Sunday, I received the painting as one might receive an icon--gift, beauty, God present with us, for us. I share it with you now in the same spirit.