Finding my Normal
The Polar Bear
The Native Americans believed that if a polar bear comes across into your path, it is reminding you of how enormously strong and full of courage you are. He has come to help you stand up to the current challenges in life, no matter how intimidating they are. You will never be overwhelmed.
He may be here to guide you between the living world and the spirit world.
A polar bear came into my life in August 2014, it was a profound experience at a time I truly needed it.
The Loss of my Normal
August 18, 2012 was the day my life changed forever; it wasn't a normal day, the days of normal had left months before. If you didn't know me you wouldn't have guessed this was any other than a normal day. A day of summer sunshine and warm air. The busyness of life carried on around me, people lived their lives; it was Saturday, the weekend, time for weddings and celebrations, shopping and summer holidays, people worked and played, they didn't have the slightest idea what was about to happen to me, to my children. It was the day we had been waiting for, anticipating, dreading. It was the day my husband died.
Since that day, grief has been my constant companion. It has been a physical pain, it has been an emotional pain and for a long time it has consumed me. I prayed constantly for the grief to lift, to be done; I prayed for my life to become normal, to feel happiness again. But the pain continued and gripped me, and it seemed like it would never let go. I was sad, I was confused, I was angry; I just wanted it to stop. I moved forward each day, I got up, I took care of myself, I was there for my kids, for my friends, they were there for me. I counted my daily accomplishments no matter how small they were. The days passed, the months passed, soon it was a year, and soon it was two.
I reassured people I was okay, and it was the truth when I spoke it, but then the grief would rear its ugly head and then I wasn't so sure.
I met people who unfortunately, had gone through the same thing. They helped, they reassured me I would survive. It takes time, they told me, and it takes time. “Would you ever get over it?” I would ask. “No”, they would say “But you learn to live with it, it gets easier”.
Time was my enemy; time was my friend. Time sped up and it slowed down and time was lost. The early days were a blur, but the sickness, the sadness, it was front and centre in my head. I couldn't find him in my memories as a healthy person, I only saw him sick with his eyes glazed over, his mind gone. It took a long time to find him in my memories as my healthy husband, but he was on my mind constantly. I couldn't think about anything else, I would try, but he was still there. I dreamed of him every night, most of the dreams were of me trying to tell him he was sick.
I know I was still worried about whether he understood what had happened to him. I was never able to tell him, to comfort him, he was gone from us too soon, before we even understood how sick he was.
I was starting to forget all the things that I knew for certain at the time of his illness. My mind had been clear then, determination had flooded my very being. I knew the choices I made for him were what he would have wanted, I knew I did everything I could, but my mind was now playing tricks, I was second guessing everything. I felt I was going crazy.
I needed to focus on my art, I could hear the words in my head “paint, paint”, I knew I needed to paint, but I couldn't find the ambition, I tried and I would stop, then I would try again. At every corner there were distractions, reasons to do other things, reasons not to paint.
I joined Night of Artists in January of 2013 because I knew it would help me have focus and deadlines; I was good with deadlines. The March show brought fun back into my life, I was excited, it was busy, I could focus on the moment, I talked, I laughed, I enjoyed myself, but then it was done. The remnants of the weekend lasted awhile, I had found something special; I met some wonderful people and I had something else to look forward to, but I still couldn't find my normal. I continued to hear the call to paint, I felt the call in my soul, but my grief kept taunting me, grabbing for me, trying to devour me.
Grief is like an entity in its own; you feel the strength of it, the substance of it; it’s like another person standing in the room, wanting acknowledgement, begging for attention. You know logically that it’s not an entity, but rather something you have to go through to find the other side, you know there are stages and you know it takes time. But what I didn't know is that those stages bounce around, one day you are sad, the next you are okay, the next day you are in disbelief. Some days you have all the stages, at different times in the same day. There were times when I had a breakdown and I would feel such utter despair that I thought I would never be able to pull myself up again, then 10 minutes later I would feel fine. It was so annoying; the whole of it, but what surprised me the most was the anger. People told me I would be angry with God, but that never happened. Through all of this, He was my anchor, He was also my constant companion, every so often when the veil of grief lifted I knew it was His doing, I knew he was showing me hope. The angry was towards my husband. I was angry he died, but I knew it wasn't his fault. What upset me the most was that I was angry at him personally. I picked him apart; I picked our marriage apart. I couldn't understand my feelings because I knew how much I loved him and what a wonderful person he was; I knew we had a really good and strong marriage. Why did I have to feel the way I did? I was afraid this was how I would end up feeling forever, and then it was gone, then it was back, then it was gone.
Grief changes over time, at first it’s unbearable, unbelievable and it doesn't fit. As time wears on, and life continues, which in itself is remarkable, grief starts to be part of your wardrobe. If you let it, it will fit like a comfortable pair of shoes. It would be easy to forget to take the shoes off, to wear them all the time, but at some point you have to take them off, to feel the air on your toes and the earth under your feet.
At first I fought grief, I didn't want it to become a comfortable pair of shoes for me to walk in. I didn't want it defining me, I didn't want people to look at me and see grief. Eventually I realized I needed to acknowledge grief, to give it attention, to let myself mourn, to cry, to feel; it was important to allow grief to exist. I knew I would try to continue to fight it when I had to, when I was able to. I wanted desperately to move forward, but how? How do you fight such a power force, how do you let it help you move forward to find your normal?
The Journey to Normal
In January of 2014, my daughter was looking for a job on the computer and came across an ad for a beauty pageant. Unknown to me at the time, she applied and was asked to have a phone interview. Before the interview she told me about her application and bit about the pageant. She asked me if it was okay for her to be in it if she was accepted. Normally, in my normal life I would have discouraged her and would have told her not to waste her time on such a thing, but my normal was over and I felt she needed something to look forward to, something to keep her occupied while she too worked through her grief. A little while after the phone interview she was notified that she was accepted into the pageant.
The pageant was in Toronto in August of 2014; we would be in Toronto during the 2nd anniversary of my husband’s death. We were to stay in Toronto for 10 days and then have a 4 day vacation in New York City. My daughter stayed with me in the hotel for the first 3 days and then joined the girls in the rooms they were to share for the rest of the pageant. I saw her briefly every day, to catch up on what was happening and how she was doing. It was an interesting time for me, but a very busy, stressful and tiring time for her. She grew so much in those 10 days; the pageant didn't turn out the way we had anticipated. She was put in circumstances we didn't expect, but she handled herself beautifully. She was strong and poised and helped people in situations that shouldn't have arisen. She gave her strength to those who needed her, and it probably cost her, but she gained so much. I had a hard time containing how proud I was of her and I knew her dad would be beaming down from heaven with pride and admiration for our daughter. A young woman who put others before herself, who stuck up and spoke out for those who needed her.
As my daughter continued to practice and participate and prepare for the big night, August 18th was looming ahead. As the day approached I knew my challenge would be to keep myself busy. My daughter wouldn't be seeing me until later in the evening. The first anniversary was harder than I thought it would be and I wasn't looking forward to the 2nd. I kept telling myself I shouldn't be sad, after all this was the day my husband met God in person. It was a good day, a new day for him, I should be happy, I should rejoice in that. Easy to say; not so easy to do. I decided to keep myself busy with a trip to the Toronto Zoo. I hadn't been to a zoo in over 20 years and it would be a great way to get some photo references to paint. I was really interested in seeing the Pandas, so I had a mission.
When I got to the Zoo, as was my usual way of doing things as of late, I got lost. I was looking for the Pandas, thought I was going in the right direction, but ended up near the polar bear enclosure. I wasn't sure where I made the wrong turn, but I was quite interested in seeing the polar bears and had hoped to paint one at some point in the my life.
When I got to the enclosure I went up to the bleachers and looked down into the pool; it was lunchtime and the bears were bobbing around happily as can be in the water eating lettuce and other vegetables. It was exciting to see the bears and I was able to take a few shots, but you can only watch a bear eating lettuce for so long and I became bored.
I went down to the underwater enclosure to see if it was more interesting below, but it wasn't. Then I went into the cub’s enclosure and watched the young polar bear play around for a while. He was entertaining as he rolled around and played with a few toys, but soon he was at the door of the zoo crying for his lunch. I then decided to walk around the general area I was in to see what other animals I could find. I came upon the area where the bears where able to walk around outside on the grass. They just finished their lunch and happened to be out when I came close to the viewing area. They were huge and came close enough for me to get some good photos.
I carried on and took in every exhibit I could, and saw as many of the animals that I was available to see. I finally found the pandas, but they were sound asleep. The giraffes were fun to watch and I took in the grizzly and cougar, but both looked unimpressed, perhaps it was the heat. I sat at the buffalo enclosure and I was happy I brought my telephoto lens. The day was very warm, it felt good to be out walking, even carrying my 20 lbs of camera equipment. At one point I took the zoo mobile to get quickly from one area to another and was able to see the back area of the zoo.
As the day wore on and I was getting tired, something all of a sudden came over me that I can’t quite explain. I had this unexplainable urge to go back to the polar bear enclosure…immediately. I was a long way from their enclosure and there was no zoo mobile in sight. I got out my map, hoping this time I wouldn't get lost and I started the long trek back to the polar bears. By the time I was getting close I felt I needed to hurry my pace, and I was practically running. I went straight down to the underwater enclosure and got my camera ready. But there was nothing, no bears to be seen, I was totally alone and a little confused as to why I felt the urge to hurry back and I felt a little silly. Disappointed, just as I was about to leave I looked one last time through the thick glass window, just then I saw one of the bears dive into the water. He swam straight up to the window I was looking through. He paused at the glass and became still, he looked right at me and then pushed his giant paws against the glass and swam on his back out to the farthest point of the pool. He turned around, came back to his starting position and did the routine over and over and over. Each time he would look at me and move on. Soon the enclosure was starting to fill up with excited spectators, and I moved out of the way to allow more people to have a look at the bear. I decided to go upstairs to the bleachers and see what I could see up top. As he swam on his back I was able to take a few photos of him with the light reflecting off of the water. Then he stopped.
I was overwhelmed with emotion when I finally left the polar bear enclosure, I couldn't believe I was there at the right time, I couldn't believe I was able to make eye contact with this majestic creature. I felt renewed, excited and I felt happy….happy, genuinely happy!
Once I got back to the hotel I had a chance to look over the photos and was excited with what I saw and immediately decided I needed to paint this animal. I had brought some acrylic paints, not my favorite, but they travel well, and a small canvas. I worked on it a little bit each day and had it mostly finished by the time we left for New York.
When we got home I put on the finishing touches on the painting, and was pleased with the end result. But it didn't feel big enough; I knew this painting had to be big. I wanted people to feel the majestic qualities of the bear. I wanted them to feel like the bear was coming at them, not in a menacing way, but not in a teddy bear way either. I wanted people to feel he was getting closer, but they were still safe. I chose a 36” x 48” canvas and started another painting of the polar bear. I changed it from the first painting, which had the bear look like it was in a hugging position; instead I wanted to see the claws in the water as it swam towards it’s audience.
As with most of my paintings I am never really sure how they will be received and I decided to put it into the November Night of Artists show. City TV interviewed me for their Breakfast Television show and I showcased the bear; it got a fair amount of air time. At the show, the public enjoy it and I felt reassured that I had been successful in painting what I needed to paint.
In March, I showed it in another NOA show, but this time the public response was overwhelming. I heard many words describing the painting. People told me how much they loved it. Some said they would have liked to have been able to buy it. Many said it was beautiful, powerful, and the kids seemed to really enjoy it. One of the people taking tickets for the show told me she overheard people talking about it in the lobby area. I talked to a number of different people, but two conversations stood out to me. Both were with big strapping men; both had worked in areas that were populated with polar bears. Each said that they really liked the painting, but it would be a little bit frightening to have it in their home, I believe the word they actually used was “terrifying”. I found it really interesting, the variety of responses and reactions.
Before this particular experience, I had another profound experience with a turtle in Hawaii in November of 2012. That experience helped me to get back to the easel for a brief period of time and reminded me how important my art was to me and had been my husband. But I guess God knows it takes more than one profound experience to get me to stay on track.
I knew I was going to paint a polar bear at some point in my life, but I never thought it would turn out to be such a powerful painting to me, and I never would have imagined it would be something I would paint while I was trying to combat my grief. Perhaps it was my husband’s way of helping me once again to remember my path, and to keep me focused. Maybe there is truth in what the Native American’s believe about the polar bear. He came across into my path and reminded me of my strength and courage. He brought something powerful into my life, something beautiful. Moving forward is terrifying, there is so much of the unknown ahead of me, but he brought me back to my path as an artist. I know I will get through the grief and I started to feel normal again when we came back from our trip, I started to feel it grow stronger when I painted the bear, but it’s a new and different normal. I’m different, my life is different, the way I look at the world is different; I’m starting to feel ready for the challenges that will be out there, but the fear still holds me back at times, but when I look at the polar bear I remember my strength, my courage and the determination that is part of me.
It’s going to be 3 years in a few months and I know the grief is not gone, it still visits me, sometimes unexpectedly, but its grip is loosening, and its power is fading. I know it will always be a part of me, but the physical pain I felt early on, the despair that overtook me at times, has subsided to a great degree, and I recognize the anger for what it is.
All these stages are perhaps necessary, and no one said this would be easy. I am so grateful for the experiences that help me remember my path; I am so grateful to God for walking this path with me and for the polar bear, for stepping into my path and reminding me to hold steady.
Hold steady on the path you have chosen. Keep your focus.
36” x 48” – Framed
Come and see the painting in person “Getting Closer” at the St. Albert Painter’s Guild Show and Sale – April 24 – 26, 2015. 5 St Anne Street, St Albert, AB – At St. Albert Place