Sunday, 17 June 2012

Four Weeks, Three Days: Au Revoir but not Good-bye

The memorial art show was last night and, for the most part, it was exactly what I wanted; mostly up-beat and a celebration of my girl's life rather than a continuation of the overwhelming  grief that everyone is feeling.  Personally I have to keep on reminding myself that it has been only just over four weeks. Time is playing funny tricks on me; in one moment it feels like just yesterday I hugged her for the last time as she left for Courteney, yet in another moment it seems like decades since Cst. Kenning told me that he had the worst news a parent can ever hear. I think King wrote a short story on this topic: when you are suffering time passes slowly yet when you are happy time is fleeting. In truth, time is just an illusion that is also our most precious commodity.  My girl taught me that: waste not one moment because time is the only resource you cannot accumulate. I will share much of the memorial over the next few posts, but tonight is about spending time with my wife and her family and trying to make this right with the rest of the world (it will never be right with me).  Here are some notes from the memorial that are worth sharing. I hope you appreciate the sentiments.

Opening Statements from Roni and Bryce)

            One of the last assignments Calista had to produce for her professional photography business course was something mysteriously named an “elevator pitch”.  Roni and I found that assignment on her computer hard-drive about a week after her death at the request of her business instructor; much to my dismay the entire assignment consisted of one paragraph, perhaps five short sentences.  Not completely understanding what the assignment was about, I spent two more days searching her computer, her note books, two flash-drives, and a couple of portable hard-drives, absolutely sure that there had to be more to the paper.  This search was all for not.

            It seems that an “elevator pitch” is an ultra-short description of what your photography business is all about, what your particular speciality might be and what you might bring to the table as a photographer.  It was supposed to be one paragraph long, since that is about all you might get out if you happened to have to make a business pitch on an elevator.

 I hoped to make this some sort of elevator pitch, but how do you encapsulate the life of your one great love?

            From the moment Calista was born, Roni and I knew that we loved her far more than we loved each other. She was the centre of our world and everything we have done for the last twenty years has been about her; our geographic moves, our career moves, even our time off were all organized around her schedule. Our summer vacations were often long road trips to attend some summer swim camp, while Christmas was always at home so we could properly spoil our girl with a ridiculous wealth of gifts.  Even the odd afternoon off from work was usually scheduled so Calista would have one of us watching her competitive swimming work-out.  I personally alienated at least three coaches offering unsolicited advice or criticism.  As parents Roni and I were a teacher’s worst nightmare; our girl always had both of us in her corner, no matter how silly our girl might have been. 

            I like to believe that our unqualified support and love of our girl helped produce the wonderful, unique human that Calista truly was.   Calista was independent and self-determined. She was neither follower nor leader; she was her own woman and damn proud of it.  Calista walked to the beat of her own drum  and yet had the gracious tolerance to allow everyone around her to hear their own drums.  Calista saw no reason to make people see things her way; as far as she was concerned everyone around her was more than welcome to do things the wrong way.  Roni and I treasured her independent nature and would not have had her any other way.

            Anyone that has been following my harrowing “Blog” will know that I am having real trouble describing my girl. Some of my memories are still too raw, many are too private, and some of them are only half clear through the fog of grief.  I hope that this gathering tonight, surrounded by her art and that of her close friends will help Roni and I form warm memories for the future and perhaps recall warm memories of my Calista from the past.  Please share freely, laugh lots and cry very little for we are here to enjoy her life hopefully as much as she did, if for just a short few moments.

Jack Cowin, Calista's Mentor for her last 18 months in Regina sent this letter for her memorial. It starts slowly, but packs a painful punch at the end. Everyone cried.

My name is Jack Cowin, a Professor Emeritus of the University of Regina, Visual Arts Department.  In 2007, after 36 years of teaching, I found myself retired, in other words, no graduate students, research assistants or students...period.  I had no one to whom to pontificate, with the exception of three hunting dogs, one plagued with a recurrent skin condition.  Enter the Flemings.
                I don’t remember exactly what lead to this first encounter (I believe my wife mentioned to Bryce, in passing, that I was an artist) but it lead to a visit in my studio with Bryce (equipped with tape recorder) and Calista.  I subsequently agreed to view Calista’s portfolio of work and give a critical opinion.
                Before going any further, one must realize that everyone in Regina is an artist, hence I needed to tread carefully so as not to step on any toes.  It was more necessary to encourage as opposed to being too critical.  At first look the 2-dimensional work was competent for a beginning university student; some talent and skills, but nothing to knock the world from its axis until, almost as an afterthought, she presented the photographic portion of the portfolio.  There was something inherent in that work that could be built upon.  However, should she choose this type of work it would mean swimming at the other end of the Art pool, away from the study of painting, sculpture and printmaking.  The burning question: could she, would she want to walk this path?
                This pursuit will be difficult here, because the University of Regina is the only university in Canada without a Photo area of study.  Serious study would necessitate study elsewhere.  She will have to make that decision on her own.  It will take 2 more meetings, complete with new assigned drawings, work and critiques before I can pose the real question about the new strategy for her work.  She is coming sans parent by this time and talk is frank.  Her answer:  YES.  By doing this, she is now in the pool by herself, and since I am the one throwing her in, it is up to me to come up with a plan of action and a life vest.  She will need to complete her art education somewhere other than the University of Regina.
                My answer is a mentorship program aimed at creating a body of work (portfolio of photography) for the move, whenever that should occur.  It will require time and much work on both her part and mine.  The rules of mentorship are simple: no money exchanges hands, you show up at appointed times work in hand, attend crits.  Violators will be released!  My part will be somewhat more difficult in that I have to ready her for entrance with a professional-looking portfolio of work.  Little did I realize that, after working with her for just a few short months, it would be a much easier task than anticipated.  I did not tell her this.  We meet, we talk, we critique the work and I assign more problems, all toward the goal of completing the entrance portfolio.  Time passes and a huge amount of work has accumulated.  I thank God for the invention of digital cameras, laptops and Photoshop!  We never had to enter the darkroom.
                Calista wants this all to happen quickly and works even more diligently, much more than most graduate students I have supervised in university.  She approached this body of work with complete originality and her own constructs, one being that pink is a primary color.  She had an ownership of the work that was unique for a person her age.  Her abilities far-reached the typical point and click photography most students fall into, having seen and read too many photo magazines.  Her work entered a new classification: ART.  Time passed quickly and a wonderful body of work was produced.  She was ready to move on, my diamond in the rough.  I have given her what I can and it’s now time for someone else to apply the final polished touches.  Unfortunately, that is mentorship and it sucks.
                Calista would now have to find a school that would satisfy her career needs.  Thirty-six years of teaching had provided me with many contacts and I had already cited 3 top schools in North America that would take her sight unseen.  But ultimately it will be her work that guarantees entrance.  My reputation and I stand behind her.  Remember, it was I who threw her into the deep end of the pool.  My choices were far and away from Regina and her family, and it will ultimately be her and her family’s choice.
                I learned that the family has decided to move to Powell River, BC.  With this revelation I lose my student and a vet, all in one foul swoop.  But Calista is ready for the next chapter in her life with a solid portfolio, a letter of recommendation and a school in mind.
                Our final meeting at my studio is one of sharp jabs and counter punches;  18 months of no-holds-barred mentorship has lead to this, but now, as  I look back on these times, they were the best.  As she leaves, I tell her that I will be here if the need arises.  I will also be present, be it her first one-man show or her first boxing match.
                This past Christmas I received a package from Calista containing a letter detailing news and her progress of school.  Most notably, however, within the packet, are three black and white, old-school photographs showcasing her newly-acquired darkroom skills.  The 1st was a landscape, an homage to Ansell Adams (Calista was not in awe of landscape).  The 2nd was that of a blue jay (actually, a straw Christmas ornament) sitting in a tree, making  it look as if it was in a real, setting (a direct shot at me and my wildlife photography skills).  The last was a photo of roller skates.  Though a black and white photo, I could see the pink coming through to the surface.  All was well in BC.  It was obvious my student was in good hands.  All was well with the world.
                It is now May 18th when, out of the blue, comes a call from our former  vet and old friend, Doc Randall, informing us of Calista’s passing May 17th.  Mary speaks with Jim through most of the conversation as I am too stricken with grief to speak.
                What can I possibly say that will bring comfort in this time of need?  I have no point of reference.  Both Mary’s and my heart are breaking and our thoughts go out to Bryce and Roni.
                I’ve spent many sleepless nights thinking about Calista, her family, her work and what I might say in this remembrance of her.  At the end, I am continually drawn to one piece of work that she gave me before leaving.  It was one of the assigned problems in which it was necessary to work with nature and make it your own.  The photo is a full-body portrait of a ground squirrel holding a taco chip that is nuclear pink in color, pure Calista.  No one but another artist could truly understand the amount of work contained in this simple photograph.  It was not found or happened upon, it was crafted with skill in the same manner a painter approaches a canvas.   I look upon this squirrel as I struggle to write.  Art is my safe place, devoid of words, a calm I need now. 
                I will miss you Calista, it was always a pleasure and privilege to work with you.  And the Art world will surely miss a bright, shining star darkened far too soon.

And finally, my closing at the memorial. I am so sorry, I hoped that it would close with some peaceful, memorable statement that mitigated her death somehow.  I keep on reminding myself that this is not just about me and despite the fact that Roni and I will never heal from this, we still have to try to heal everyone around us that were hurt by her death. Especially all her young friends that can learn to live like Calista: make every moment count. Unfortunately it just made everyone cry. I guess my calling is tragedy.

Closing at Memorial
Some of you may know that Calista was a fan of tattoos.  She loved tattoos since she was four when she called them “dadoos”.  Since Roni and I have several tattoos spread between the two of us, we could hardly prohibit her from getting any body art, but we had the firm rule that she had to wait until she was over 19 before she had any work done. As far as we were concerned, after she was 19 it was her body and her life and all we would do is offer guidance and support.
Unbeknownst to me, Calista had planned to eventually have “full sleeves”.  I am not sure I would have supported that altogether, but I also know that if I had said something she would have shrugged her shoulders in typical Calista fashion and gone ahead with her plan regardless. My concerns were about people’s perception of a young beautiful woman covering her arms with permanent art work and, of course, Calista was just never concerned with society’s perception of her.   For Calista you were either one of her people and she loved you or you were not one of her people and she was completely apathetic about your opinion of her. That is just the way she was.
My daughter’s first tattoo was a short quote lifted from the first “Harry Potter” book. The quote is “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”.  I am not sure why she chose that statement since it certainly is not a pivotal quote in the text, but I assume that she took it as her own personal version of the latin “Carpe Diem”, or “Seize the Day”.  It certainly can be read like that.
On the other hand, for us left behind, I believe we need to look at the quote in its full context.  The statement is made by the headmaster of Harry’s school upon finding Harry mesmerized by a magical mirror that allows him to see the living images of his long dead parents. The teacher is reminding Harry that he cannot spend his life dreaming of what could have been had his parents survived; Harry needed to live in the real world.  There is a lesson for all of us there, especially Roni and I.
I think we all feel robbed by Calista’s death. Friendships barely started, careers hardly begun, son-in-laws I will never have and grandchildren I will never see are all dreams that must be let go if we are going to move on.  We need not discard our pleasant memories; we should treasure them as gifts from a girl who seemed to enjoy every moment of her short and beautiful life. We just need to remember that it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. In fact, we all need to live more, see more, enjoy more because the only way Calista lives now is through the accomplishments of those who knew her and loved her.
In my life, I always learned the most from my mistakes. Some wise men call this the “School of Hard Knocks”.  It is kind of ironic that in this case, the hardest of all knocks, I learned from what I did right. Roni and I have no regrets about our relationship with Calista. There are no words left unsaid, no harsh words to be forgiven. We always made sure our girl knew we were proud of her and that she was loved unconditionally.  My words to Calista as she left home that last time were “I love you kiddo. Thanks for coming home this weekend. You are always welcome here”.  It was about the same thing I always said when she returned to college. Make sure the loved one’s in your life know they are loved and you are proud of them; sometimes tomorrow is too late to tell them so.


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