THE LAST YEAR
by Deidre Scherer
My focus on aging, death, and dying began as I drew elders at Linden Lodge. In stumbling upon this rich world, I realized that I had no image of myself growing old. I gave no importance to aging, or to the framework of living my full life and dying of a full life. What age would I be when I died? Did I assume immortality? Even these questions had missed me.
For answers, I looked back upon my early childhood training in public schools during the '50s, where we were taught to "duck and cover" at the sound of a siren. My whole generation was trained to get under their school desks, bury their heads under their arms to avoid flying glass, and close their eyes so that they wouldn't be blinded. Bomb drills occurred on a regular basis in our schools, along with fire drills. The message was clear; your life and your world could end in a flash.
Throughout my childhood I had dreams of melting and turning to ash. These fears stayed buried until my late thirties when I saw "The Atomic Cafe," a film montage of documentary footage, newsclips, and cartoons from the '50s. Material that had been subliminal in my mind then resurfaced, from bomb shelters to cartoon turtles singing "duck and cover."
For all these years I had not carried a vision of myself as an elder. Around me was an entire society with no sense of aging, and living as if there was no tomorrow. We have no thought of this planet lasting past our individual deaths. Our collective death vision is based on the myth of the total annihilation of our planet. There is little consideration for future generations or their needs, and little hope for the survival of the planet.
As I sat and drew people in the nursing home, again it came to me: I never thought I would grow old. Through witnessing these elders with my pencil, fabric, and thread, I was seeing my own hopes for the future, as well as the planet's possibilities, for the first time.
Imagining the natural life-span is an antidote to counter all of the visions of violent death and dying out-of-sequence. Today we are haunted by equally numbing devastations, including AIDS, terrorism, ozone depletion, and earth pollution. My imagery of aging counters these horrific catastrophes by elevating the miracle of life. If we can expect a complete life span and a timely death, we can envision a natural life, and a way of being on this planet that isn't destructive.
In one of Don Juan's trilogies is a tale about putting Death over your left shoulder, and looking at every decision in your life with Death as your advisor. This is having both sides of the coin: knowing the miracle of life by contemplating the miracle of death.
My work with elders in the nursing homes has led me directly to Hospice. Hospice is a program that trains volunteers to care for the terminally ill and to assist their primary caregivers. The volunteer workshop helped me develop a spiritual and more open approach to confronting the issues that came bubbling up as a result of looking at and describing aging, death, and dying. Our society does not prepare us for death and rarely speaks of it in a positive, constructive manner. Taboo and silence surround death unless it is violent death. We have an enormous amount of exposure through television and movies to drive-by shootings and stray bullets, to the syndrome of explosions and flying bodies.
Nothing comes close to honoring the profound stages that one moves through toward a natural death with age. Hospice provided me with a forum for the feelings of inevitability, both positive and negative. We have all taken our first breath, and we are all going to take our last breath. In considering our own death, we have a chance to consider our own life. This is the dialogue of my work, and this is the dialogue I go through when I'm working.
"The Last Year" is a series of nine fabric and thread works that visualize the final year of a woman's life. She was eighty-nine when we became friends. I had a sense of urgency about witnessing her experience with pencil, crayon, and chalk.
Several months into the drawings, I translated two of them into fabric and brought them to her. Because she was an artist, she thoroughly enjoyed seeing them. At this point, I wasn't aware that they were the beginning of a series.
Over the course of that year, it became an effort for her just to breathe and to be in her body. At a certain point, I walked in and found her using oxygen. Instead of canceling our session because of my own discomfort and unfamiliarity with tubes and oxygen tanks, I asked, "Would you like me to stay? Would you like me to draw you today?" She was very smart, she said, "Of course, sit down" knowing that I'd be there at least two hours. While I drew her, I realized that she was finding comfort receiving the oxygen, as she curled herself around the tube in an almost fetal position.
Later in the course of that year, she breathed on her own, not needing the support of the oxygen.
On other visits she was visibly uncomfortable, yet brave, incredibly powerful, and present. She internally let go of things by either forgiving others or forgiving herself. Her process was a complex one of shedding and surrendering. Sometimes I would hold her hand and keep drawing with my other hand. In witnessing her particular story, I recognized a universal current running beneath it: I could imagine myself in this place.
When she died, I put aside the drawings and I grieved. It took two years before I touched them again. With time, I began to see the drawings for what they areča visual story of her final year. Eventually I translated each drawing into fabric and thread, and this body of work became "The Last Year."
Now "The Last Year" has traveled to sites throughout the States and to Montreal, where it succeeded in crossing verbal and language boundaries. One viewer saw himself in the work, and then he imagined his own daughter at ninety. With my work, he was able to cross the lines of gender as well as generations. "The Last Year" offers an opportunity to start this internal conversation.
About the author: Deidre Scherer's images in fabric and thread are familiar to millions. Her work graces the cover of several books, including the best-selling When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple. Scherer's piercing, layering, and machine sewing techniques produce extraordinarily realistic portraits and still-life compositions with a three-dimensional quality.
Photograph by Jeff Baird.
From Deidre Scherer: Work in Fabric & Thread, by Deidre Scherer. Copyright ©1998. Deidre Scherer. Excerpted by arrangement with C & T Publishing. $26.95. Available in local bookstores, quilt stores, or by calling 800-284-1114, or you can click here.