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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hemingway’s Garden


I watch as she applies paint to paper. Her hand shakes so badly that she must cup one hand around her arm in order to steady her brush. ....
By Karen Brenner

Relentlessly, Billie’s diseases are destroying both her mind and her body, but within this destruction there still lives the artist, the creator. Once again, I hand Billie a paintbrush. This time an entire garden of flowers jump to life under her shaking hand. Watching Billie’s courageous brush strokes, I am reminded of Hemingway’s words: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

In the spring, each new tender leaf is a cause for celebration, each returning plant welcomed as an old friend. The crocus and daffodil bring color once again to the somnolent garden; they also bring hope that winter is finally past.

While spring is the time to celebrate new life, there is a darker side to the burgeoning season. This is also the time when the gardener must be prepared to rip up, dig out and cut back. In my garden, I become ruthless with shears and shovel, many of the hopes and dreams of last summer are bundled onto the compost heap.

This process of creation and destruction is also the dilemma of the writer. There always comes that moment when the writer must be prepared to destroy. Hemingway, so lean and spare a writer, was ruthless in his ability to cut words, rip out sentences, throw away entire novels. His garden would doubtless have been clean-lined and minimalist, marching rows of the useful vegetable patch and perhaps one exotic palm tree, but no wild roses, no pansies.

I share these thoughts about gardening and writing with Billie, who is an artist. Billie reminds me that artists, too,have to be prepared to destroy in order to create. She tells me that when she makes a mistake in a painting, she first tries to paint over it, but sometimes, she has to start with a clean canvas. Billie is in her eighties and trying to cope with the twin blows of having Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

I watch as she applies paint to paper. Her hand shakes so badly that she must cup one hand around her arm in order to steady her brush. I watch Billie working on her portrait of a single, red rose. She creates shadows and depths in different shades of red while the leaves trail away, curling and turning with patches of brown and pink and shadings of green. As I watch Billie layering paint, rubbing off the excess with her thumb, the flower, leaves and vines become luminous under her touch. I promise Billie that I will have this glorious rose painting framed.

When I meet Billie again a few days later, I hand her the painting, matted and framed, the rose looking even more vibrant under the glass. Billie looks at me blankly, not remembering me, not remembering her painting. She shakes her head and tells me that this is not her work.

Relentlessly, Billie’s diseases are destroying both her mind and her body, but within this destruction there still lives the artist, the creator. Once again, I hand Billie a paintbrush. This time an entire garden of flowers jump to life under her shaking hand. Watching Billie’s courageous brush strokes, I am reminded of Hemingway’s words: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

This article appeared in Preserving You Memory -- The Magazine of Health and Hope, page 17.

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