Last week my husband and I bought a beautiful piece of art. We had gone to visit an old friend of my father’s – an artist – Ron Wing. He is 84, had a heart attack several months ago and has congestive heart failure. He was my father’s best friend. They had been friends since before I was born. I’ve known him my entire life.
We sat in his kitchen in the old Pennsylvania mill where he has spent the last 40 some years, ate lunch together and talked. We told stories to each other. Ron coughed and wheezed. He was fragile. He is close to the end of a magnificent life.
I told him of the story of the first piece of art I had ever bought. When I was nine years old, Ron and my father had been out painting watercolors on the land around our home. Ron offered to sell me one of the several watercolors he had just completed. I picked one and we agreed on the purchase price of 25 cents. I was excited beyond belief. I loved the lyrical scene and the blues, greens, golds and pinks. I still have this painting, 44 years later. Ron didn’t remember this event. But he chuckled with delight when I told him.
When I was a child, Ron had several conversations with me that forever changed how I saw the world. I had been bitten by a mosquito and was probably complaining. He said to me, ‘that is how you know you are alive. You know you are alive from experiencing that bite.’ I had never before contemplated discomfort as an element of aliveness. I had never realized that I could have appreciation for all of life’s experiences.
On another occasion, I had been sitting on a wooden bench with him. He said, ‘if you sat here for a million years, your body would cause an impression in that wood. The weight of your body with affect the wood over time and it would wear away.’ I remember being amazed. It was as if some structure in my mind opened up and more light came in, more possibility. I wasn’t part of a static universe, but a place filled with profound interactions and implications. Conversations occurred between my body and a piece of wood, between my sense of aliveness and a mosquito.
My father and Ron sometimes had long drunken conversations on philosophy and art over the years of my childhood. I often listened or engaged for a bit. I didn’t agree with everything they discussed. I listened to them talk about whether women were as creative as men and why there hadn’t been more woman artist greats through out history. I didn’t believe that men were greater artists than women. I knew from our own family structure that men often had an unfair advantage over women in the arena of owning their time. I listened to him question photography as an art form. I disagreed, but that was okay. Other than reading, the discussions my father and Ron had were where I encountered ideas bigger than the day-to-day concerns that surrounded me. The dialogue itself allowed me room to think and grapple with ideas.
Before we arrived, my husband and I had already decided that we would buy a piece of his work. I knew from my brief conversation on the phone with Ron that he wasn’t in very good shape. The painting we choose, ‘Final Repose’ was a landscape with a cascade of light and color erupting out of the ground and into the sky. I knew immediately that it was a painting of a spirit.
A dog had been hit by a car. It had undoubtedly died alone, its body left in the cold on the side of the road. Ron had been driving his mother to cancer treatments every day and noticed the dead dog on his drives to and from the hospital. For him it was a subject worthy of contemplation. I don’t know exactly what was in his mind but I do know what the painting says to me. It marks the end of a life: an unnoticed and insignificant death to many. It speaks to the need to take note of the abandonment of another being and not continue on as if there wasn’t something important that happened. And it illuminated the escape of spirit from the body as a beautiful event. A death, any death, is a momentous event. All of us deserve to be noticed and honored, as we live and as we die.
Ron sells little art at this point in his life. Some would say he lives in extreme poverty. He makes little money. His stepdaughter brings him food. He said he would use the money from the painting we bought to help buy fuel to heat his home this winter.
That made me sad. I wish for him to have more – to not have had to live out his old age without the abundance of things and physical comforts. I wish for him to have everything he needs and desires. But there is no reason to be sad for him. There is no real poverty here. He is a magnificent being and has a richness of spirit that is its own reward. He has compromised little and chosen to be exactly who he wants to be despite the consequences. He has not diluted his life by seeking outer interactions for the explicit purpose of income. He has lived his life the way he wanted and contemplated the subjects most dear to his heart. How many of us can say that? How many of us have wasted time chasing more superficial goals? His is a life lived without fear and with deep concentration on what is most beautiful to him. His is a life steeped deep in the consideration of what it means to be alive.
Ron has done and continues to do what he loves most. Even in his fragile state and at the age of 84, he paints or draws most days. Although he cannot walk out into nature as he use to, he sets up his easel in the brush around his house and looks at his world. He revels in it. He contemplates it. He loves it. It is my hope that he dies while he is working.
I was so happy to see this person who was such a significant part of my past. I wonder if this would be the last time I will see him. I wonder if this is my way of saying goodbye.