Saturday, December 8, 2012

A stinky Christmas Carol

The other day we watched the second of four of our couches get clawed, lifted and crunched by the garbage truck.  I’m glad to see them go, although they’ve each seen some very interesting and varied action.  I am not very pleased about why they went.  

As my holiday gift to you, I’d like to share a very important rule for pet owners of which we were sadly unaware.

Pepe le Bastard
If your dog gets sprayed by a skunk… do not immediately let him into your house so that he can sprint around, crop dusting your home and belongings with foulness.


A couple weeks ago, our dog Bullock trotted out into our backyard for a quick pee and sniff, only to immediately get sprayed in the ear by a skunk.  I doubt there was time for peeing, but there was much manic yipe-ing and dog hysteria, causing my husband Joe to open the door to investigate.  This is a completely reasonable reaction.  It was possibly much less reasonable to refrain from slamming the door in horror at the wall of stink that rushed in like a funky apocalypse. 
The dogs are accustomed to rocketing up the deck stairs and into the house as if they are in the race of their lives and perhaps they scampered in before Joe even realized what was happening. 


I’ve later read and heard that it is a good idea to wash your dog with a much posted and celebrated anti-skunk concoction OUTSIDE.  Maybe multiple times.  Instead, Joe and I washed Bully in our master bath.  More than a week later, my son Joey referred to our bathroom as “ground zero.” 


Please kill me.
I sort of don’t mind an outside skunk smell as you’re driving along.  It gets your attention, everyone agreeably identifies the weird, strangely sweet stank as skunk, maybe a “phew” or two is uttered and it’s a nice little bonding experience.  When a skunk sprays someone or something that lives in your house, it’s a whole other deal.  That kind of skunk smell is airborne HELL.  It smells like diseased werewolf scrotum.   


Apparently, one of Bullock’s first miserable resting spots, before semi-permanently polluting our bathroom, was on our leather family room couch. 


For the next week or so, we sprayed fresh sprays and cleaned and deodorized as best we could, but that couch sucked up the skunkness like you know who with wine and cheezits.  Our favorite spot on the couch is right next to the end table, near Joe’s recliner.  Each time one of us sat in that beloved polecat position, a whuff of gutrot would come shooting up out of the couch and we’d leap gagging back up like we’d been goosed.  Except Max who really was not all that bothered by it.  Poor Joey woke up the morning after the skunking armageddon with a broken nose.  It was all so smelly you didn’t really realize where it was coming from.  He sat in the skunky couch spot watching TV and I drove him to school, not even realizing that he’d been marinating in it.  As his classmates began to freak out around him in the hall, poor Joey immediately changed into gym clothes and suffered through a whole day of questions.  He has post traumatic stink disorder.  What kind of mother am I to send a smelly gigantic child to school?  Yet another bullet point for his future therapist to assess and hold against me.


On second thought, Joey kind of deserves it.  When Joe came upstairs with his surprise stinkbomb, Joey and I were watching TV together while I was drawing.  Instead of offering assistance, Joey fled like a little girl and hid in his room for the rest of the night while Joe and I began the Stinkapalooza ’12 battle of our lives.


I have a bit of an overactive nose.  Our other dog, Duncan, rides the doggy short bus and is basically a special needs dog.  If nobody is around to notice that he needs to go outside, he cheerfully pees in a corner.  One of his favorite places to pee is on our computer desk where I used to spend a shameful amount of time with Facebook games, wine and my snack of choice.  I would constantly complain that I smelled pee until Joe bought a fancy carpet cleaner.  I still smell pee.  Plus Duncan sometimes poops under the dining room table.  I once had a semi-celebrity client pick up a pencil portrait while I was buying power carpet pet de-smeller stuff.  She beat me home and Joe claimed that she made a lot of disgusted sniffing/coughing noises while waiting for me.  These are the things I relive over and over, mentally writhing in nonstop shame shudders.  I have been regularly paranoid about Duncan pee and/or poop smells.  But this…


The Bully skunk smells were far more worth complaint.  And God knows, I can complain. I announced every ten minutes that I still smelled skunk until Joe fantasized about beating me with a shovel.  After accidentally sitting in the skunk spot for the 20th time, Joe had heard enough complaining and I’d endured enough skunk.  It was time to buy a new couch.  Considering the stinky leather couch had a broken arm (thanks to two rough boys) and a million little scratches and rips (thanks to two scrabbling dogs), I was glad to see it go.  We’d been meaning to buy a couch for our basement anyway, so Joe and I headed out to a local cheap furniture store for the next pieces of furniture in a long line of upholstery to be ruined by the Zumpano family asses.


We chose two sectionals.  The love seat in our family room which had escaped the worst of the skunk wrath, would replace the scratched up couch in the front of the house where I greet my pencil portrait clients.  Our downstairs couches, lovingly given to us by Vicki when she moved and promptly destroyed by our inevitable destruction (we’re rough on things), the broken smelly couch and the scratched up business couch all went into a holding cell in the garage and out to the curb one at a time.  We had a good time joking about what would happen if some hapless curbside shopper picked up “Ol Skunky”.  How soon before it would return to the curb, perhaps with an angry note attached?   Not to be.  The garbage man (wearing industrial gloves, thank goodness) dragged Ol Skunky away from the curb and the claw arm flung it into the hopper where it released one last stinky poof of a death rattle as it was crunched up. 
“Rot in hell, Ol Skunky!  I hate you!” I yelled in triumph.


The front room couch, which is a burgundy leather, is a perfect couch except for its “distressed” treatment by eight long-nailed little feet leaping on and off of it for years.  You might want to check our curb if you’re interested.
We waited for our new couches like it was Christmas morning, only to have the family room sectional show up too big for the room and with two right armed ends and the basement sectional unable to fit down the stairs.  A beautiful Christmas miracle moment all hosed up in Zumpano style.  We are currently waiting for the replacements.  You can come over for the holidays without any fear of remaining skunkiness.  I hope.


Merry Christmas!  Hope you have a stink-free new year.

(P.S. I know I said that the last post had to be my last of 2012 because of my crazing drawing schedule, but you deserved a little extra Pencil Envy love.)

Wendy Zumpano

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Christmas Card Wars

Before I worked for the small company that fired me, I had a brief stint working for a big company.  Once while lunching in the employee cafeteria, back when my pencil portraits were a hobby and not my full time gig, I tried to convince my coworker Laurie to let me draw her twins.  And by twins, I mean her children, not her boobs, as my husband would automatically suggest. (In a house full of men, you have to roll with the "that's what he said" punches.) Laurie was politely interested, which meant she was in no way going home to dig through photos, bring them back to work and cough up cash.  But she made some maybe noises and it’s hard for me to back off when I’m getting a buying sign.  In my frenzy to force her into envisioning a gorgeous portrait of her twin boys, I blurted out, “I could even scan the portrait and print it on Christmas cards!”

“OH.  MY.  GOD,” breathed my friend, “That would be… spectacular.”

And she meant it.  Women can be a bit competitive about Christmas cards. It’s our time to show off our families and act like life is GREAT, even if it is messy or borderline disastrous.  If you’re like me, you even go that extra annoying step and include a newsy letter touting whatever good stuff you’ve got going on, most of which is not newsworthy by anyone else’s standards (let's leave my Facebook game playing OUT of it, though).  Sorry, that’s how we roll.

Laurie never bothered to order a portrait, but an idea was born.  I have printed several kabillion Christmas cards (one client ordered 370 – who knows that many people?), birth announcements, invitations, address changes, any piece of mail that can be enhanced with a photo can have a magnificent pencil portrait slapped on it.  And here's where I'm gleefully rubbing my hands together and giggling... my website address is on the back of every card.  Ta dahhh!!!  The recipient often knows the subject of the portrait, so it is a particularly good way to sell my accuracy.  What better marketing is that?  Plus a portrait becomes much more lucrative when I am selling multiple copies of it.  I once had an order from Denmark when someone received a portrait Christmas card from a client.  Me likey! 

I’ve sent portrait Christmas cards almost every year featuring my boys.  Sometimes I’ll see my cards stuck to refrigerators more than a year later or even displayed in a picture frame.  They seem to have a longer shelf life than cards with glittery sleigh scenes or Rudolph drunk on eggnog or the Shutterfly photo cards that everyone is doing now. 
One client, who had sent out about 200 Christmas cards, called me shortly after she’d sent them out to report that she’d received 52 messages on her answering machine about the cards.  That's awesome, but where are those people and why aren’t they calling me?  That client actually contacted me herself because she’d received a Christmas card.  It’s like Partylite or Southern Living! 

When I first started sending my own portrait Christmas cards, I had a full time job and drew my kids for fun or maybe for my mother as a gift.  After almost eight years of marketing full time, I don’t always make the time to draw them.  Like this year... I had a plan to draw the boys as a gift but it didn't happen so if you're on my card list, now you're just going to have to be satisfied with something else.

A long time ago, I attempted to write and illustrate a children’s book.  I used my kids as models for a few illustrations, but pooped out on the project when I decided that the story wasn’t good enough.  I am a big fantasizer and talker, but not always the queen of follow through, as you know.

The illustrations were lying around accusingly and I decided to use them for that year’s Christmas card:

In my story, a little brother hated being left behind by his big brother and the big brother hated being held back by his little brother.  It wasn’t Pulitzer material, but I thought it might be something that both siblings and parents would relate to and enjoy.  Max was really crying hard about something and in one of my less than proud parenting moments, I snapped a photo of him to use for this drawing.  Joey was probably legitimately pissed off and pouting about something else.  I added some drawings of them jumping on the bed to the inside of the card. 

I have a booming-voiced neighbor who is rather outspoken and, frankly, can be terrifying at times.   Shortly after I’d sent this card, she stopped by my house while walking her dog and said, “I got your Christmas card.  The front of it was creepy.” 


Considering I hadn’t intentionally drawn the pictures for a card in the first place, I hadn’t spent a ton of time analyzing it, I just thought it was funny.  I was so flustered that she’d called my kid and my artwork, or both, “creepy,” I didn’t even know what to say.  She seemed to realize that perhaps it wasn’t the friendliest, most neighborly thing she could have said and began an awkward attempt to un-say it, which made it worse for both of us.   I will never look at that card again without hearing the creepy comment in my head, and sort of agreeing with it.

Two years into my full-time artist extravaganza, I had absolutely no time for drawing my kids for a card.  I need to draw them in the summer, when my workload is slower, but I am sometimes too busy drinking margaritas and buying flip-flops. So I had the cutesy idea to have my boys and my husband Joe draw our Christmas card.  That way it would still be a portrait card, sort of. 

I asked Joey and Max to draw each one of us, on a separate piece of paper, so I could pick drawings from each of them to scan and digitally combine.  I tasked Joe with drawing Bullock, our rat terrier/miniature pinscher mix, who we adopted from a shelter.  Before we had kids, Joe and I bought an enormous Alaskan Malamute from a breeder.  Niro was sweet and stupid and produced messes similar to having a retarded adult man crapping in the back yard.  I wasn’t interested in having more pets after Niro met his maker.  It was terribly sad when he died and really… nobody in a democratic country should have to clean up that kind of natural disaster for long if they have bigger dreams.

But a little dog… maybe that wouldn’t be so bad?  As soon as I gave my husband the slightest inkling that I was weakening, he went into a frenzy, deciding on the name (not after Sandra, after Seth Bullock from the HBO show Deadwood) and frantically researching shelters.  In his defense, I can change my mind quickly and he had to move.

Bullock turned all four of us into baby-talking fools.  We adore him.  I asked Joe to draw Bullock because the kids tend to draw dogs that look like toilet paper rolls on sticks.  My Joe puts up with many annoying requests from me and he obediently took to the task.  Joe sticks his tongue out like Michael Jordan when he is concentrating and spent a good 15 minutes with his tongue poking, painstakingly drawing his portrait of Bullock. 

I set myself up.  I am a perfectionist and I’d wanted Bullock to be drawn standing up so I could pose him with the kids’ other drawings of us, which I didn’t communicate to Joe.   He drew a close up instead, which looks like a deranged cat with a penis for a nose. 

Bullock looks nothing like this.

I laughed out loud when Joe proudly unveiled it to me and I hurt his feelings.  He snatched it back from me and looked at it incredulously, announcing, “This is the best thing I have ever drawn.”  He got in a bit of a huff and stomped off, accusing me of not recognizing good art when I see it.
I hurriedly drew Bullock for the card, the way I’d wanted him to look and Joe was outraged that I’d rejected his fine artistic contribution. 

“I can’t believe you aren’t going to use my awesome drawing,” he sulked.

Finally, I put the penis cat on the inside of the card next to the greeting, “Hope your Christmas is picture perfect.”  Joe was somewhat appeased, but still pissed.  

Happy holidays!

Wendy Zumpano

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Meep-moop" means I love you

Blogging about my client’s sister last entry got me thinking about family.  There are different kinds of family and sometimes friends can be the family you choose for yourself.

My first memory of Vicki is from junior high, before it was called middle school.  To me, “junior high” sounds cooler than middle school, which sounds like middle aged kids having middle aged kid crises.  Vicki and I toppled into puberty around the same time.  Some of the pushy, strangely confident girls in our gym class made us stand back to back in the locker room so they could compare our boobs.  I was horrified.  Vicki thought it was funny.  And so began the dearest friendship of my life with my sister friend, my confidante, my person.  Her boobs were bigger than mine then, and they still are.  She continues to take everything in stride, while I still seize up with worry

I don’t remember when our friendship eased away from being fellow uneasy in-betweeners on the periphery of more popular girls and into full fledged best friendship.  Looking back, I don’t think that either of us felt entirely accepted, although we both treaded social water with the feathered alpha dogs as best we could.  We threw each other a neon 1980’s life preserver and clung to each other during good times and bad for the next thirty plus years. 

The 80’s were an awesome and yet dangerous time to become teenagers.  Our parents weren’t all that concerned about what we were doing or where we were, as long as we didn’t get caught.  There were no cell phones to check in, no internet to point out the hazards.  I rode my bike seven hot summer miles down a busy highway to Vicki's house. I’d flop, exhausted and sweating, on her couch where her spazzy dog would jump up and pee on me.  I'd borrow a clean shirt, and we'd walk to Taco Bell, where we would pollute ourselves silly.

Remembering some of our teen shenanigans makes me shudder and consider installing LoJacks on both of my children.  We wandered and experimented and made stunningly risky choices, usually followed by long, tears-streaming, belly laughs.  I think we only saw Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight once, but we successfully used it as a late night excuse for all sorts of other secrets.

My only real date to a high school dance was thanks to one of many visits to Columbia, Missouri, where Vicki spent summers with her dad.  We’d cruise up and down “the loop”, gaping out car windows at cute boys, pretending not to be interested when they shouted suggestive come-ons at us.  We were 17 years old and lucky not to be dragged into an empty lot somewhere.  We met a slew of boys and it was all sort of innocent, but sort of not.  My Missouri souvenir boyfriend had a southern accent, a full beard and I dated him through prom until college, when I promptly dumped him.

Vicki visited me at U of I while she was taking her twisty, winding path through growing up.  Her father was in the Navy and she moved constantly as a child; a habit she's kept.  As we became young adults, Vicki was so utterly gorgeous that it was sometimes annoying to be her friend.  We’d be out at bars and guys would smile at me sheepishly after Vicki shot them down.  “Okay.  Well… how about you, then?” they’d ask me dejectedly, trying not to be too obvious about lowering the bar.  Vicki earned a degree in social work, modeled awhile, got a degree in nursing.  She had tumultuous crazy relationships with the guys who adored her and/or wanted to kill her.  She could wreak havoc when she wanted to, driving her mother and boyfriends nuts on cue.  There was just no stopping her when she made up her mind.

U of I and Mizzou. 
I'm sure the floral print and haircut weren't helping my odds. 

At my wedding reception, there is a fabulous scene captured on video when Vicki’s date of the moment was incorrectly doing the electric slide.  He was faced the wrong way and it looks like he’s having a dance off against the entire floor of people.  He was the last of Vic’s guys to be out of step, as she was about to find her husband, Steve and hang up her naughty hat.  I recently teased Steve, for the hundredth time, about how very quiet and shy he was when Joe and I first met him.  Steve patiently explained that I was so damn hyper and loud, nobody could get a word in edgewise.  Plus, I think we freaked him out. Touché.

Alec and Maxie
Vicki is my son Joey’s godmother.  I’m not religious, so for me, it was a chance to show Vicki again, in every way and in a new way, that she is my family.  Her son Alec and my son Max are less than a year apart.  They are hilarious and unusual and they remind me of Vicki and me.  They aren’t vanilla mainstream kids and in miserable middle school, that can be hard.  They’re full of imagination and laughter and they love each other, which is unexpected and delicious.  Vicki’s daughter is beautiful like her mother and means business; she wants her own way in very much the same way Vicki did when I first met her.  We agreed just today that justice will probably be served when Olivia is a teenager.

We’ve lived seven minutes door to door when our babies were little.  We’ve lived a plane ride away for years; we’ve had long, long drives between us for other stretches.  Some years we’ve only needed to drive 45 minutes or an hour, and visits seemed as hard to schedule as the plane rides when we were sprinting around with work and kids.  When Vicki’s dad was dying, she was a million miles away, in shocking pain she couldn’t share, even though we lived close.  As of three months ago, we’re back to being only 15 minutes apart after four years of rare visits between Arizona and Illinois. 

The distance was different this time, because we really needed each other and it was just so far.  When we had visits, they were more precious than ever because we knew the next one would be a long time coming.  We were needy and hurting, at times, and we’d put all our friendship eggs tenderly into each others’ baskets.  It’s hard to lean on someone new when your lifelong friend suddenly can’t hop in her car to hold your hand the way she used to hold your hair when you made all those forever ago bad choices.

So now my person is back, and it’s funny.  I don’t even need to be talking to her or see her; life feels different knowing that I can.  I am so insanely lucky to have my husband, my kids, my parents nearby.  But now I have my neon life preserver back within reach and I feel grounded and safer and more like one of the cool kids, even though it’s just in our own weird little world.

Olivia recently asked Vicki if she and Aunt Wendy ever had fights.  All these years and we really haven’t, probably partly because I am terrified of arguments.  Plus, we are both usually too awesome and entertaining to irritate each other.   When I was working full time and Vicki was a stay at home mom with baby Alec, I would try and listen to her on the phone while I was working on the computer.  I’d half listen to her while click-clacking away and then give her my full attention when I had something to say.  It was the closest thing we had to a real fight.  She was pissed that I was half-assing my part of our bargain.  She gave me the silent treatment for a little while, maybe to let me know how it felt not to feel heard.  Now, Vicki is the one who is crazy busy with work and her active family, trying to fit in chats with me between endless discussions about cancer with the frightened patients who need her help.  We’re still growing up together and learning how to balance it all. 

My husband Joe imitates Vicki’s soft, rather nasal voice,  by saying, “Meep, moop.”  Sometimes when he calls me on the phone from work, he says “Meep, moop,” in greeting, which I take to mean that someone I love is on the line.

I talked Vicki into hosting our high school Bunko group last week.  She’s only been back home for a few fast months, but in some ways, it feels like she never left.  I sat in her bathroom while she was getting ready for Bunko, just like we did in junior high, in high school, during college visits, on our wedding days, for grown up girls’ nights out, before our high school reunions.  Talking and laughing and looking forward to sharing time together.  And yet that ordinary moment that we’d had a thousand times before, was suddenly a kind of miracle.  And I’m just so grateful.  Love you, Vic.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hey soul sister, justify my blog

Man, I can't seem to make time to write in my blog.  Have you missed me?

How embarrassing.
How did Housewives of DC get on there?
I'm also having trouble finding time to run, shower, grocery shop, watch the 500 educational shows on my DVR, call my wonderful friends (you know I still love you, right?), etc. etc. etc.   People often interrupt my complaining by saying, "You're lucky to work from home doing something you love." And I am. I am.  But it's sort of like college. There were things about college that were off the charts fun-tastic. And yet, while I was knee deep in the fun stuff, there were so many other things that I should have been doing. Like homework or finding my ID or not pushing anyone into the bathroom to drunkenly make out. And then feeling guilty and procrastinating more.

Having your own business means that whenever you are laying around drinking wine and eating cheez-its, you probably shouldn't be; and not just because of the calories/hangovers/inappropriate texts.  You should be drawing, marketing, fixing your broken website, putting layouts together, preparing for art shows.  I can sort of justify writing this blog because it loosely falls under the marketing category.  Even if I'm complaining about Facebook or confessing my marathon 50 Shades sessions, as long as I also mention the fact that I can draw your kids, pets, or belongings, then presto... marketing!  I do have a degree in advertising, you know. 

But really, I just want to tell stories, preferably in a bestselling book.  Although that's rather unlikely, as only my friends on Facebook and a few artists from my favorite artist websites (artfairinsiders and the corner booth) read this blog.  Getting discovered is even less probable than working hard enough to make it happen on my own.  It's hard to justify this rambling blog when I've got drawing to do, plus it's past dinner time, RIGHT NOW. Listen closely and you'll hear the Zumpano men sighing and snacking in the background.

Thank goodness this time, Beth will help me justify my blog. 

Out of the blue, I got an email from someone who had been reading my Pencil Envy posts.  Not only did Beth order a chunky sized portrait, she wanted a story.  A story about her sister.  Hey!  That's almost like getting paid to write stories, only she's not paying me to write, she's paying me to draw.  But I'm making it a package deal.

My first thought about the portrait and story about Beth's sister, was that I don't have a sister, because I'm rather self-absorbed that way.  I wonder what it would be like... would I be close with a sister?  Fight with her?  Would she love me despite all my many flaws?  Would I love her beyond hers? 

I assumed that Beth's story would be about sisterly love, a Walton's hair-braiding slumber party childhood with some eventual grown up wise advice with wine.  But it wasn't.

"Saying my sister and I have never been close is an understatement," Beth wrote me.  "We hated each other growing up.  The only thing we're close in is age; for six weeks every year we were the same."  She said her sister could be mean, choosing exactly the right words to form the kind of word weapon only the most familiar family can wield.  The kind that cuts you to your core. 

As adults, they had an uneasy relationship, going months without speaking. They lived less than an hour apart, but only saw each other a few times a year. "We are polar opposites," Beth explained.  "She's a minimalist, I collect everything. Her house is sparsely decorated, mine looks like a gypsy’s den. She has a firm sense of right and wrong. I have often been described as having no moral compass.  She's successful, I was always just getting by. We just never meshed. I often said if she wasn’t my sister we would have never been friends. But still, we're family."


If you've ever told me a story, you probably enjoy how I immediately butt in and relate the story back to myself, even though I've read Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and I know I'm not supposed to.  I told Beth how I've struggled in my family relationships, too; how my closest family friendship has deteriorated and how terribly painful it's been.  How I could relate all too well to those mean missiles that leave such deep, gaping wounds.  Here, I thought, is someone I can understand; I'm not the only one.  I've counted each month of silence with a pit in my stomach.  It wasn't supposed to be this way.  

"I know," Beth told me.  "My sister got mad at me in June and she didn't speak to me or my mother until September.  The next time we spoke was when she called to tell me in her matter-of-fact cold tone that she was sick, probably dying." And Beth was forbidden to tell their mother.  "I was as close to my mother as you are to yours," Beth stressed, "maybe closer.  It devastated me not to be able to tell her, but I knew if I did, my sister would never ever speak to either of us again."  It was excruciating for Beth, fearing her mother would hear from someone else, until her sister was just too sick to hide it anymore. 

"My sister told me she wouldn’t have done the same thing for me, wouldn’t have taken me in and cared for me as I was dying, cared for my family, pets, my belongings, my affairs. I told her I knew that. I wish we had shared that moment much sooner. It seemed to bring some peace to her to know that I wouldn’t change no matter who or what she was. That’s when she finally got me.

"She thanked me for making her watch Fight Club. She forced me to watch Eight-Legged Freaks. The last movie we watched together was Man on Fire. She loved Denzel and really wanted to see it. I begged the Blockbuster guy to help me locate the last copy in the store, a needle in a mountain of movies haystack. It took over two hours but we finally found it. As I was checking out, he said they could’ve ordered it, it would only take about a week to come in. I remember thinking we probably didn’t have a week. She died four days later."

"My sister's death haunts me, much more so than the deaths of my mother and father," Beth told me. "I am guessing it’s some form of guilt I just can’t let go of. Some sort of ‘it should have been me, not her’ thing."

This summer, her nephew told Beth he can't remember the sound of his mother's voice. She tries to keep the memory alive, knowing that the hardest part about dying for her sister was losing her kids. Not being there to see who they will become.  The best photo the kids had with their mother was when they were quite young and Beth's niece hated her hair.   Funny thing about death, there are no more "through the years" pictures, no more do overs.  Beth asked that I combine recent photos of the kids with their mom, taking extra care to make sure I got her niece's hair just right.  A Christmas memory for two wonderful kids who can't yet fully realize what they've lost.

There are children in my version of Beth's story too, and I worry about them.  At first, I listened to Beth's side, thinking, yes, yes. I get it, I can relate. Up until the cancer. Then I'm a puddle thinking about it. I'm torn up. I'm thinking how maybe my family member would probably take me in; but I don't know if I could do the same. I don't know if I can be as forgiving.  I shared more about my own family experiences with Beth, eager to connect, telling her about our long struggle of distance and disease and pain and tough decisions and judgment.  That the hardest part is how we'd always loved each other like crazy and now neither of us can get past old wounds far enough to have a healthy relationship. I know I have some terrible faults that have made things worse between us - I'm too critical, I'm too sensitive.  And now I'm too scared.

Beth shared that she's had many of the same struggles. But not the same as me. The same as the person who has hurt me the most.

And then I realized, this whole time I'm rooting only for Beth, thinking I'm in the Beth role... But I'm not. I'm the cold one. I'm the judging one.  And I don't know if I can be the one to forgive and open my arms, and my home and my heart again. I'm too closed off and I'm just so hurt.  But people make mistakes.  Does it really take something so catastrophic to build that bridge?

Beth owns her part of her story and I own mine.  I do.  Writing this entry about a client's family has caused me to do more soul searching than any that I've chosen to write on my own.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Finding Noah

No good photos of your kids together? 
I'll clean them up and make them look like they like each other.

When I first heard from Jennifer, I didn’t think I was going to be able to help her.  When drawing a pencil portrait, I often combine different elements of the same person from different photographs (good hair day from one, a smile from another). 

I'd combined separate photos lots of times. But Jennifer wanted me to create a whole new person from pictures of other people. It sounded hard. I prefer not hard, because I am lazy that way. 

Considering how picky some clients can be about a drawing of an existing person, how was I going to match Jennifer’s expectations for someone I couldn’t see?

About fourteen years earlier, Jennifer had been expecting her first child, a little boy.  Over the moon with excitement, she went in for an ultrasound.  As she began telling me her story, Jennifer asked me if I had kids.  “You know how there is sometimes a hesitation by the ultrasound technician that can be a little scary?” 

I knew what she meant.  I had some greenhorn hack of a nurse’s aide during an early appointment when I was expecting Max.  We'd heard a heartbeat immediately with Joey, but this time the nurse couldn’t find one.  As she fumbled around, she kept glancing furtively at me with what seemed like fear or pity.  By the time she gave up and called a doctor into the room, I was sick with terror.  The doctor found Max’s mischievous little whooshy heartbeat quickly and I burst into relieved tears.  The nurse’s aide gave me a sheepish smile while I fantasized about giving her hair a good yank.

Nobody came to Jennifer’s rescue.  She left the appointment with an ice cold suspicion that something was wrong.  Her doctor called her at work a day or two later with devastating news. Her baby boy had anencephaly – an absence of brain.  The baby had a brain stem that allowed him to grow inside of her, but once he was born, he wouldn’t survive.  
Let’s pause for a moment and collectively consider the stupidity and insensitivity of that nimrod doctor calling someone at work with that kind of news.  Don’t doctors go to school for like 20 years?  How about a pre-med class in not being a dick??
 Somebody missed this class.

There would be serious health risks for Jennifer in continuing the pregnancy.  She and her husband were stunned, devoutly religious and devastated.  They sought the help of their pastor who sadly advised them that in their case, terminating the pregnancy was a necessary, terrible thing they needed to do for Jennifer's safety.  The same pastor baptized their son, at 22 weeks.


They had planned to name the baby Zachary, but Jennifer saw in a baby book that Noah meant “at rest.”  So they named him Noah and he was alive in their hearts.


Thankfully, Jennifer had three more healthy pregnancies… three beautiful, vibrant children. 


“Noah’s loss has always been something that we talked about openly with the kids,” Jennifer told me.  “My children are very spiritual and they have always understood why Noah is still important to us.  It’s okay to say his name and to remember that we had another baby.”  Noah came into the world, and left it, on December 1st. Every year, Jennifer has a little birthday party with a cake in his memory.

On a scrapbooking web site, she ran across an artist’s rendering using photos of a baby’s siblings. Jennifer thought it was one of the most heart breaking and sweet things that she had ever seen. 


This wasn’t the first time I’d worked with a grieving parent.  Jennifer knows that most people can’t understand how she feels.  She had always suffered painful, mixed feelings about the Polaroid picture that had been taken of Noah.  As scary, blurry and broken a picture as it was, Jennifer couldn’t bear to throw it away.   At least it proved he was real.


“In my head,” Jennifer said, “he’s whole, he’s complete." 

Jennifer googled me about her idea and we exchanged tentative emails.  I told her I would try to digitally combine aspects of Noah's siblings to come up with a layout she could approve.  It was a little nerve-wracking for both of us.  I love to connect with my clients and there was a sad divide between us as I approached the project from a technical perspective and she held her breath, wondering how close I would come to the flesh and blood Noah of her dreams.  Trying to ease the tension, I gushed with Jennifer about how delicious babies are.  She told me, “My favorite baby stage is around 9 months when they are sitting up on their own and cruising around.  My other children were all big juicy babies, chubby and happy.


“That’s how I picture Noah.  I just don’t want to think of him like in that photograph, anymore.” 


I'd never faced such a heavy responsibility, as an artist.  To create an image of Noah, of hope, of what should have been.  I put him in overalls, because I’d loved them so much on my chubby baby boys. 


I drew Noah’s name stitched on the front of his little boy’s overalls and remembered the soft, sweet, heft of my own babies in my arms, wishing I had those hectic, glorious days back.  It was my turn to hold my breath as I emailed a scan of the portrait off to Jennifer.  She admitted, she was afraid to open it at first.

To both of our relief, Jennifer loved the portrait and was particularly thrilled with Noah’s overalls; her little boys had worn them, too.  She said that Noah’s portrait reminded her of a police sketch artist's age progression to find a missing child, and when the child is found, the sketch miraculously matches. 
It choked me up that I’d come anywhere close to the private image in her heart.  I thought about my easy pregnancies, how I happily announced to anyone and everyone that I was expecting about ten minutes after I knew for sure. I never worried for a second. How would I have coped with something like this? Was Jennifer able to enjoy her subsequent pregnancies? Did the fear ever give her rest? I wanted so much to ease her pain, if only a little.  Looking back, I wish the sketch was better, that she'd found me after I'd had more practice being a full time artist.


Jennifer surprised her family with Noah’s portrait on what would have been his 14th birthday.  They were all delighted.  It hangs in their kitchen.  Jennifer’s son, Joshua, called him “No No,” and he asks where Noah is when he looks at the portrait.  “I tell him that Noah is in heaven,” Jennifer says with confidence.


Although the portrait hangs in a prominent place, Jennifer hasn’t really shared it with anyone outside of her family.  “It was a long time ago,” Jennifer tells me, “and people think you’re supposed to be over it.  If you haven’t experienced it, you just don’t know how it feels.  It doesn’t go away.” 


There have been other special stories, like Gideon – a baby who was given little or no chance of survival but fought like a warrior, the meaning of his name.  One woman worked with my husband and wanted a baby more than life itself, trying and trying, only to have her only surviving baby gone in a flash of hospital white.  She told me not to rush on her lost baby’s portrait; she had waited a long time and could wait as long as it took.  When I called with the finished portrait months later, there was a baby’s cry in the background; an adopted answered prayer that brought a lump of happiness to my throat. 

Most of the lost babies I've drawn took a few precious breaths before they left their broken hearted families. Some of the photographs have been wrenching to see. Some parents have asked for wings or a halo. Some just wanted no more tubes or machines. 
They all want what Jennifer wanted… a picture of a healthy baby. The dream child, a portrait from within their hearts, from the way things were supposed to be.

Wendy Zumpano