Part I: The Start of the End

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my maternal grandparents

Sometimes I have the opposite of that common fear: The Fear of Dying. Instead I have: The Fear of Living Too Long. I’m sure the two are related. Who’s to say how long is too long? It likely has more to do with the unknowns, along with the utter lack of control I have about how it will all turn out. I try to calculate what would be an ideal number of years. 70? 80? Dear God, not over 100! Can this strange fear act as an antidote to the thing everybody fears?  A long life doesn’t seem like the gold at the end of the rainbow. The thing is, I can’t imagine facing the death of most people I love and the loosened grasp on my conscious thought. I have a biological history on both sides of the coin: my maternal grandmother died at just 42, in childbirth–eleven years before I was born. (My own mom was 2o at the time.) My maternal grandfather is still living. I was raised with stories of how loved my grandmother was (the hundreds of people at her funeral; scores of people came that our family didn’t realize knew her & loved her.) And my mom has always pressed me with this advice since I was a young girl: When I die, you’re going to be OK.  You will be OK. Tell me you will be OK. … OK, mom, I will be OK. This was my early introduction to the concurrent examination of life & death. What is life? How would it play out? What would I make of it?

By the time I was a ten, I already felt & knew that people do die. I lost an aunt & uncle before I was old enough to remember them (1 car accident, 1 suicide) and another uncle who was quite beloved (brain cancer). At age 10, my paternal grandfather also became ill with a cancerous brain tumor just as his son-in-law before him. My mother & aunt (both of them nurses) took care of him; on his last morning (his sick bed was in the living room) I was at his side. I noted his struggle to breathe, and alerted my mom. He passed that day. Months later, my brother had severe seizures; he doesn’t have them anymore, but I still remember walking home from school & seeing the ambulance & the rotating red lights, running into the house, and seeing my brother on the floor & the broken glass he had fallen into.

When I was a teenager, my cousin had a brain aneurism & died immediately. By the time I was 19 and in college, my youngest uncle, age 30 (so old!), died of AIDS the day after Christmas 1994. It was only a few months after coming out to his family since he knew he was going to die. He’s the uncle that was born to my grandmother when she died in childbirth. During college, I also lost my maternal step-grandmother, and paternal grandmother. Both seemed (to me) to have lived long lives, but they were probably in their 60s. Doesn’t seem so old at all anymore.

My paternal grandfather is my only grandparent that’s still living. He’s 97. He was born in Mexico and still speaks only Spanish. He lives in Orange County, CA, in the same home where he raised his children after finishing his years of labor as a migrant then contraction worker. My grandmother-in-law, she’s also still living at age 94, and she’s in a nursing home. She only speaks Korean. Neither of them stays in the present. They mix up who is talking to them. They live in the past. Medicine calms the pain. My mom is 69 and she’s already in pain all the time. She acquired several chronic painful conditions that hit just as she retired after a long life of working hard. My dad is going on 74 and his medical file is thick with cancers and illness.

I try and place who I am in what will be the summary of my life. I see Myself now, and I see Myself later, looking back at this Me. What role does artmaking play? I’m looking for what’s essential. And what is the lifespan of the work I am making? Short life? Long? Where will it go when I die? I can’t seem to make work without wrestling with these questions. How can artists have the tenacity to make enormous works of art (or even endless numbers of works!) without having a place of rest for them (read: galleries that are ready to sell the work, a line of collectors, or even just enormous eternal storage space)? I’d like to be free of these concerns. There’s a little bit of over-thinking involved here. And yet this is one of the persistent inquiries I’ve had in my studio practice: taking time to consider the role of the individual in the macro level of human experience. Somehow the work I make takes on a spirit of its own. I examine its life.

How long will it live?

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(This is a three part series of posts.)

(I promise, this is going somewhere as I wrestle with these concepts, and it won’t be so depressing by the conclusion.)