Brotherhood on the Road to Recovery

 

 

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It’s probably worth explaining the meaning of this holiday card. My oldest son fractured his ankle midway through the fall soccer and baseball season. As a boy obsessed exclusively with sports, he was flattened by progressively worsening news about the injury.  When the doctors considered it a sprain, he expected to return to the field in a week or less. But his symptoms cleared any uncertainty in the x-rays: braces were replaced by casts and days of recovery time became weeks and then months.

It is not cancer or Lou Gehrig’s or the kind of nagging injury that sidelines a person forever.  My son is not Tiny Tim.  And he never explicitly complained beyond a single statement that “he was going to miss a lot of things like baseball tryouts and the soccer tournament and maybe Halloween.”  But a person doesn’t have to face death or lifelong trauma to suffer.

He insisted on attending every soccer and baseball game. At 6 am one Saturday morning, I went into his room to tell him that my wife and I didn’t have the energy to drive an hour to watch yet again other people’s kids storm around the field and score goals.  But he was already wearing his home jersey.  I watched as he folded his away jersey and tucked it into his bag, presumably intending to change jerseys if there were some kind of error, to match his teammates if only from the sideline.  His soccer ball bulged out of the back of his bag and his tin water bottle dripped fresh condensation.  The boy was prepared for battle.  How could we refuse to take him?

When halftime began in a cold fog at Muldoon fields, my son hobbled along on his crutches and stopped behind his teammates, leaning in to hear the coach’s every word of correction and guidance as if he would shed his cast and injury and jog onto the field, fired up for the second half.  But, halftime over, he sat upright on the bench, wearing fewer layers than many of the boys on the field.

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I took the above photo at a baseball game when the autumn sun began to sink into the centerfield tree line and drag the remains of the season in its wake.   It inspired the card.  But the holidays are not about loneliness.  They are a time of friendship and warmth and giving.  It seemed fit to include my younger son in the card.  It was he, after all, who carried the crutches up the steps of the bus and carried book bags and trumpet cleaning kits and fallen caps and meal trays for his brother.  Sometimes the things he carried rose well above his head.  The boys scrap and fight like most brothers.  The younger one gets the worst of it.  But I was surprised at how helpful he was during the recovery.   So I staged a photo shoot that captured what I saw daily, but never live on camera:  brother supporting brother.

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Lest you think the card melodramatic, it intends to reflect more serious illnesses in the family and among friends, illnesses that are too tragic to deal with explicitly  in a holiday card but are nonetheless lightened by friendship and persistence.  Sometimes impossible and inconceivable truths are best understood through more concrete and mundane ones.  And the simple experiences of children capture the essence of the trials of adulthood.

The painting was a challenge.  It took twice as long as a typical portrait.  Figures in landscapes are tough.  Narrative work is tougher.  I debated whether to post this one on the internet.  Perhaps folks would write it off as melodrama or a sign of parental obsession or just inappropriate rubbish.  But I was moved to paint the piece for the card and hope that it moved those who received it.

It’s the desire to narrate in order to elicit emotion, whether through the face of a person or the twist in a torso or an interaction on the paper, that has driven me to paint, sometimes around the clock.  There is little that has the power to influence more than an image.  And, in the last four months of painting and drawing commissions, I have experienced people moved sometimes almost to tears in receiving portraits of their children or other loved ones.  I am grateful for having lived those experiences, having understood the power of art beyond the abstraction of classroom debate.  I am grateful to my wife and kids and friends who have urged me on in this pursuit and I have every intention of continuing as long as I am able.

Here are the preliminary sketches.

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