Choosing joy

The summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college my mom and I signed up for an art class at our local community college. We had such a blast—in fact both of us still have the sketches we did that summer. My mom ended up having some mad art skills and we had some of her art framed; it is a beautiful reminder of our time together all those years ago. It was one of those bonding experiences that we will never forget, one of those mother-daughter times that will forever be in our hearts.

We filled our tackle box full of art supplies and then headed to our first class. It was obvious right away that we were in the presence of some pretty amazing talent. Our professor embraced all of us, from the novices to the experts. Every week was a fun and new experience as we explored the world of charcoal drawings, pencil sketches and chalk portraits.

I don’t remember the details of the faces of anyone in that class except for one: Marci. She caught my eye and found a way into my heart right from the start. Her infectious smile, her endearing personality. And her sheer determination.

She was probably in her late 40’s/early 50’s. I remember hearing that she took public transportation to class each week which must have been a challenge for her. But she showed up, always early, with her homework in her art folder and a smile on her face.

We often sat across from her and watched as she struggled to steady herself, lowering her hand to paper. Her pencil wandered as she drew long and undefined lines. And yet she pressed on, probably exhausting every bit of energy she had stored up for the day. Her drawings were beautiful in a way I can’t quite find the words to describe. My heart was full at the end of every class when we would wander around and take a quick peek at everyone’s masterpieces. Besides my mom’s work and the guy who could draw a human eye that looked eerily real, Marci’s was always my favorite.

The professor announced one week that we would be taking a field trip to one of her friend’s backyard flower gardens nearby to capture the natural beauty with charcoal sketches. We were all excited; we were taking our talent out into the world.

She asked if anyone might be able to pick up Marci and someone quickly volunteered. The next week, Marci showed up at the flower garden with a friend from class. A small group gathered around as she was carefully moved from the car and into her wheelchair, then slowly pushed through the back gate and across the lawn.

I teared up that day as I watched her experience all that the little garden had to offer; my heart was so touched by her response to the beauty around her and the joy she felt in being able to take it in and then transfer it to paper.

I wish I had that copy of her beautiful drawing, but I imagine she took it home and put it on her wall as a reminder of that very special day. I envision it to be one of her favorites.

One week mom and I walked into class with just a few minutes to spare. Most of the chairs were taken so we quietly slid into a couple of seats that were open beside each other. As we looked up, we noticed that we had live models that day and our vantage point gave us a straight frontal shot of the male. We giggled like a couple of school girls and mom leaned over and said, “Wait until dad hears about this.”

The class, like that summer, went incredibly fast. Although we would have loved to do something else like that again, we never did. I’m not sure that we could have topped that experience together.

Before we said a final goodbye to our classmates, I tried to find out where Marci lived. I got an idea of the part of town and made myself a note. When I came back for my first break from college, I went looking for her. I stopped into a couple of different adult living communities and finally found her. One of the staff took me back to her room.

There she was, sitting on her neatly made bed. Her room was clean and organized. She looked up at me and smiled.

“Hi Marci,” I said. “I’m Cristine from your art class.” I gave her a big hug, then sat next to her and held her shaking hands.

Marci couldn’t say much, she struggled to put together even one or two words. So I made sure that most of my questions required only yes or no answers.

My mom is a former nurse and she and I speculated that perhaps Marci had experienced a stroke. So I asked her. “Marci,” I said. “Do you mind if I ask you what happened? Did you have a stroke?”

She looked deep into my eyes and her hands shook a little more aggressively than usual as she held mine and began to speak. I didn’t really understand her at first, so we ended up doing a game of 20 questions. When I finally figured out what she was trying to say, it felt like someone had pierced my heart with a knife.

“You were poisoned?” I asked softly. “Yes,” she said. I couldn’t believe it. Who would poison this precious woman? After a few more rounds of the guessing game I learned that it was her husband and she had been in assisted living for several years. I figured out that it had happened in her 30’s. In her 30’s.

I embraced her as the tears streamed down my face. I so wanted her to feel a sense of deep love that day. The entire time I was with her she beamed; she chose to live a life of joy despite her dire circumstances. This woman, who had faced so much adversity, was a light in my world. My classmates loved her. The nurses loved her. She had lost so much and yet, she still had so much to give.

One of my close guy friends and I ended up taking her to a local Mexican restaurant with cliff divers and a mariachi band. Marci had the time of her life. She smiled and laughed and took in the day. We had the best time with her.

When I went home that night I realized that she was someone who had changed my view on life. She taught me so many lessons, but perhaps the greatest is that we can chose joy in the midst of painful circumstances. I would cling dearly to this truth later in life, not knowing at the time just how much Marci’s example would impact me during a very dark chapter.

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If you know someone who could benefit from this post, please share. God carved out a path of intense healing for me and I would like to share it with as many people who need or want to hear. 

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