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Healing Artwork for a Death Bed Refresh

Four pictures of Lyuba, plus one chimpanzee collaged together in an apple orchard.

A year ago, I started to work with a family where the grandmother was beginning a steady physical decline due to breast cancer. Portly in her 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, she was now gaunt and frail. Soon Lyuba’s family began to notice a creeping negativity color her features and knit her brows. “I’m not an idiot,” she’d say. “I know what you’re up to.” If Lyuba was in slightly better spirits, she’d call her daughter-in-law a Petty Sadist, or “Artistka” (as in con artist).

For a pediatrician who loved castor oil and the miracle cures in her Russian language health magazine, Lyuba now was a guarded patient who wouldn’t take her medicine. Why should she? She had seniority over most of her doctors. Of course, she knew better how her body would process the dose ….

In the last week of Lyuba’s life, when low caloric intake reduced her body to sinew, her grandson came to say goodbye. To make a record of her life, he took photos of everything in her apartment. The very last picture he took of his grandmother was from the bedroom doorway. What you see is a kind of tent: someone in bed with their knees pulled up under the sheets. Behind the knees to the right is Lyuba’s face tilted upwards, her mouth open in a dark, shapeless maw. Two days later when the phone call came, Lyuba’s 56 year old son came to supervise the ambulance attendant and give comfort to the caregiver. What his son recorded on film is more or less what he saw too in those early morning hours.

After everyone paid their respects and the family cleaned out Lyuba’s apartment, the family inherited albums and albums of photographs. Yet however much he tried, that last dying day became the only picture of Lyuba her son Tolya could keep in his mind. He would try to refresh the picture, but the photos kept reflecting back the same image … something straight out of Munch’s “The Scream.”

>  The full story behind Tolya’s Healing Dreamscape

For a time, his wife tried re-framing the photos and putting them in contemporary frames: Lyuba as an army nurse, Lyuba on cross country skis, Lyuba on the floor playing with her grandson (the one who would come to take her death bed picture). But the attempt at making the Lyuba photos look like quaint antique finds was  misfiring. The son couldn’t get Lyuba’s dying out of his mind, and was beginning to feel sick about it. Why was this happening?

Falling in Love With Lybua’s Multiplicity 

To remember Lyuba as a more integrated personality, we decided to co-create a “new and improved” Lyuba. Using the medium of digital photomontage, we’d contain all her former selves in one location! For this I needed all the photos of Lyuba at a certain age (in her 70s and 80s) when she was most likely to be wearing her favorite green pantsuit – a polyester number worn with the same white blouse, or something close to it. We ended up with two photos of Lyuba picking apples in Indiana; one of Lyuba biting her lip as she stands a bit out of sorts on a foreign street and another of Lyuba resting her head on her son’s shoulder at her 75th birthday.

The most intriguing part of the photomontage is seeing that Indiana orchard populated with four Lyubas, loving one another: one in a sisterly way, another more motherly; the third shy and childlike and the fourth just silly. The multiplicity effect is nothing short of stunning because it proves that the root of Lyuba’s more negative, cynical self – and her more naïve, trusting self – no doubt existed some time before her dying days. Ultimately, you can’t help but fall in love with all her multiple personalities.

This Yardstick Called Life

A friend once sighed how she wished she could capture how funny her mother really was and how much they made each other laugh. Part of what was so sad about her mother’s end of life at 62 was how close they had become just in the last few years. Now every time she thought of her mother, Marlene couldn’t conjure up the vivacious, funny woman she remembered. She could only see the more recent image of her mother emaciated from cancer.

“It’s as if time collapses,” Marlene would tell me. “Like one of those timelines of earth’s history you see in text books – a yardstick long. Here are these different developments – and then there’s mankind, and it’s infinitesimal!” For Marlene and for many of us, all we ever want is a way to magnify those tiny little ticks on the yardstick we call Life.

People often ask: why in that apple orchard did I decide to drape Lyuba’s arm around a chimpanzee instead of her own son? Here is my answer: magic realism.  The year in which Lyuba died was The Year of the Monkey. Tradition has it that monkeys possess the complete opposite extremes of character: foolishness and accountability. “It is because monkeys are most similar to human beings … reflections of man as represented in animal form,” explains Lee Tae-hee, researcher at the National Folk Museum of Korea.

By making Lyuba’s object of affection a monkey– I am creating a piece of artwork that begs for interpretation. Is Lyuba nurturing those two extreme qualities of foolishness and accountability in herself? Is she deriving sustenance from the chimp, and that’s why she appears in all those incarnations, full of purpose and pep? In prescriptive photomontage, there is a time to keep family in and a time to keep family out, depending on who’s the patient. In this story, it was important to take Lyuba’s multiple selves out on a class outing … and leave the family at home.