Sunday, 2 September 2012

Three Months, Two Weeks: The Little Things

The photo above pretty much embodies everything I loved about my daughter. It was certainly not her most popular photo and it did not even make it close to her portfolio, but it deserves honourable mention regardless.
The photo was created for her "Creative Explorations" class at NIC.  Throughout the semester the students were given a series of assignments, each of which had different demanding requirements but all of which had to reflect that student's particular course theme.  The student's got to pick their own theme while the instructor dictated the terms. When Calista told me about it I thought it sounded a lot like she was going back to her "Improv" days where the actors were given unlikely story lines and situations and had to improvise scenes on the fly. The trick to that little game is to have consistent themes that can be adapted to any situation. Calista's semester theme was "Alice Through the Looking Glass", which was perfect since it certainly lent itself to adaptation and creative thinking.
Calista was assigned the above project while Roni and I were down in Las Vegas.  One evening I got a text message from her with a huge attachment which my poor phone could barely handle (and I ended up paying brutal roaming charges on).  The photo was a late Renaissance-Baroque painting of a young woman shocked to find her yellow canary dead upon the floor of it's cage.  The girl was likely European nobility or of the wealthy merchant class and the overtones of the painting were clearly religious; the young lady had her hand held in the classic "hand of God" position seen in many of the period religious paintings. 
 Calista was asking my opinion of the meaning of the hand position.  Now why the hell she would ask a simple veterinarian on vacation in Las Vegas the meaning of  a four hundred year old painting I don't know. I guess I should be flattered that my little girl still thought daddy was omnipotent and knew everything.  Needless to say I dropped the ball; I was standing in the middle of an overpriced shopping mall stretching between two overpriced hotels and their obligate casinos at the time and I did not have a faint clue what that painting could mean. I replied with some load of garbage about checking out what the "hand of God" implied and hoped she would get better advice.  Calista gave her typical reply: "K" and left it at that.  I did not hear anything more about it until after she died, when her friends regaled Roni and I with the crazy story of how Calista created that photo.
The first thing Calista had to do was figure out how to apply her theme of "Alice" to the painting.  Well, I guess there is a riddle posed at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party that goes like this (I think): "How is a Raven like a Writing Desk". In the book there is no answer, but Calista tries to provide us with her answer.
The next step was to find her props. Calista started asking all her friends where she might find a stuffed dead Raven or Crow in Comox or Courtenay.  Of course there were a few wry comments about "road kill", but nobody really thought she could find such a thing.  Typical of Calista, she proved them all wrong and appeared the following day with a stuffed toy Crow she had found at a craft store for cheap.  Roni and I still have that dead crow stored in a Rubbermaid tote in the basement.  Somehow she also managed to track down an old bird cage (Amanda or Jesse came through on that) and then she dug through all her clothes to find something that could pass for "period dress".  The last item was a writing desk she mocked up using calligraphy pens and ink bottles.
Calista then spent two or three hours setting up the shot. Her one glitch was that she could not pose for the picture and shoot the picture at the same time (at least not without giving up some quality). It took her friends, who by this time were a little tired and bored of sitting around watching her, almost an hour to convince her that it was not really cheating to have one of them activate the shutter as she posed. 
You would think that her labours would stop there, but a major part of the project was for the students to use unique processing techniques to create a "painting" rather than just a photograph. Now I have to refer to my notes to give you the rest of the process.
Once the photo was acquired on the digital camera, it was blown up and printed in negative on a clear velum paper. She then treated the paper with a chemical that creates a cyanotype, or blue image. The paper is then exposed to light for about fifteen minutes. At this point some chemicals are mixed and pigment is added to create a gum bichromate (absolutely no idea what the hell I am talking about now, but it sounds really cool).  Calista decided to walk off the common path now and mixed her chemicals to give a brown hue rather than a blue. The entire mess is now exposed to light once again before being fixed finally. Calista now did what she excelled at: she broke the mould. She pulled out her acrylic paints and hand painted the photograph to give it  the feeling of a painting.  All that work for just one small assignment in just one of her courses from what was a very demanding ten month program.

How can you not love a girl like that?  She was and always will be completely unique.
You would think that the big things like her photographs, her bedroom and her car would be the most hurtful things to Roni and I. That could not be farther from the truth. Her photographs which line the walls of our house now are comforting; like there is a little piece of the living Calista still with us.  Her room has become Roni's peaceful sanctum where she can retreat and recover when she is really feeling down. The trusty Smart car always brings a smile to my face whenever I think of how perfect my Calista looked in it as she puttered around town (because all you really can do in a Smart Car is putter).  Its the little things filling Rubbermaid totes in our basement that leave us crying and gasping for air. Those little personal everyday items that were so much "Calista" seem to epitomise a young life unfinished.

Bottle Bird: for those rare occasions when there was no "twist-top"
Tea-Rex: found on 5th in Courtenay. The spoons were
bought just because they were really cute. They came with
matching bowls that are now hidden in our cupboards.


Even before the family moved from Regina, Calista was collecting little treasures for the much anticipated first apartment.  To me it was like she was assembling a traditional "hope chest" in preparation for a future betrothal, though, in her case, it was simple freedom she was dreaming of. Each new acquisition was paraded before Roni and I like an expectant mother showing off nursery trappings. Calista was truly excited about her new beginning; the real life full of adventures she always knew was out there waiting for her. Each new piece was selected carefully based on style first and utility second. A dark purple toaster that could hold bagels (though I am not sure how many bagels she ever actually toasted in it), funky mismatched square plates and bowls found at Winners, selected mostly because they were mismatched and therefor unique, and any number of novelty kitchen gadgets that were playful before useful.

Roni found this cutlery set; we use it now, but it gets carefully
washed by hand and Lord help the person who scratches those
plastic handles the first time.
Mouse Cheese grater: a Powell River
The Ice Cream Walrus
This is the first prize I remember her
acquiring. It might have been a PR find.
Pastasaurus.  The first time she showed me this she made silly
dinosaur sounds as she pretended to attack me with it..
touCan.  My find after I finally figured out the animal theme.
It's a salt n' pepper shaker. Roni rolled her eyes at me
when I finally figured out the trick. The head turns right for
salt and left for pepper

As I look at each one of those items I can picture Calista using them in her little apartment to make her own meals. Brewing a little Orange-Peko tea with the Tea-Rex to go along with a little spaghetti spooned out onto a funky square plate with Pastasaurus and eaten with her cool yellow handled silver wear. The kitchen utensils are not some idealised Calista or a Calista posing in a photograph, they are the day to day Calista who breathed, drank and ate just like the rest of us. The difference is she always did it with her own sense of style (Pastasaurus indeed!!) The pain to Roni and I comes from the fact we can actually picture her as we knew her, with all her little faults and idiosyncrasies whenever we pick up these little culinary treasures.

Her apartment was an amusing story all in itself. I am still not sure why I was drafted into the service, but I was the designated parent that accompanied Calista over to Courtenay the one day she allotted herself to find her new home for the college year. She lined up several prospects and even arranged appointments with a few of the landlords. There was a nice but expensive apartment near the hospital, a sub-let condo near the college, a couple of other less interesting prospects in Courtenay proper, and a single inexpensive unit in some place with the unlikely name of "The Washington Apartments".

The apartment near the hospital was a complete bust; the manager never turned up to meet us and never bothered replying to my repeated phone calls that morning. We moved on after about fifteen minutes of "acting suspicious" outside the apartment's main doors (probably about 5 minutes ahead of one of the elderly residents calling the police). The next stop along the route was the Washington. I was less than hopeful for it's potential, especially when I saw it. The Washington Apartments was obviously an elderly converted hotel. At one time it might have been an attractive building with a Spanish hacienda architectural theme. Those glory days were long passed and the building was surrounded by barren blacktop parking lots overgrown with weeds and grass and punctuated with several derelict and abandoned ancient cars. I thought we would be stopping for maybe a moment and then moving on.

We found Rob, the manager, sitting behind his large but immaculately tidy desk. The only words one can use for Rob are large and imposing. Even without the numerous photos on the wall behind Rob of him in full combat uniform and armed to the teeth, you would know that he was ex-military. He had that feel about him that nothing much happened in that building without his knowledge and consent. It also helped that he had a massive wall of close circuit TV monitors across one wall of his office taking feed from high resolution digital cameras throughout the complex. Rob happily took us over to one of his units; it was tiny bi level apartment two doors down from his own suite. The suite had been recently completely rebuilt and the paint was barely dry (wet paint signs were everywhere). Everything was absolutely new. Calista was taken immediately and started planning her furniture lay-out as she stood in the entrance to the suite. I was still holding out for something else. Anything else.

We left Rob with a promise to call the following day and started planning out the rest of our viewings. I wanted a cup of coffee and spotted a Tim Hortons in the shopping centre next door. Calista was pretty silent and distracted' she even turned down the offer of a chocolate donut. I was happy because I had realised that our next stop was just three blocks away in a nice, quiet neighbourhood sitting in the shadow of a huge Catholic church. We had tons of time before our next appointment. It turned out that we really didn't need the extra time.

Calista had already decided where her home should be. The Washington Apartments, with it's derelict cars and long expired "best before date" was where her heart had settled. I tried to excite her about the very attractive condo that was next on our list (we were sitting it the Smart Car outside it's door at the time), but she was set. Once Calista had her heart set on anything, you were going to be old and blue in the face before she changed her mind. She wanted to go back and put a deposit down on Number 6 right now, that afternoon, before someone else got the jump on her. I think Rob was surprised to see us back at all, much less the same day. To this day I doubt I would have let my Calista live there if I had not met Rob; he just has that feel of trustworthy about him.

It was a really good thing that Roni was not with us that day and an even better thing that it was at least a couple of weeks before she ever laid eyes on Number 6, Washington Apartments. By the time she saw the rough spun building we were committed and it was too late to find alternative accommodations. It might have been fun though: the battle between Roni and Calista over the apartment would have been like watching two wolverines arguing over American politics. Roni's confidence in my fatherhood was not helped weeks later when my brother-in-law told us that the Washington Apartments was the centre of most of the drug-trade in Courtenay and Comox.

In retrospect, both Roni and I agree that Calista's apartment was absolutely perfect for her. She loved it there and it showed when we cleaned that apartment out: each piece of wall art was carefully selected and placed "just so". Even her stuffed Crow had a place of honour: it sat sentry at the top of her stairs atop a faux-Roman column she had used for another photo shoot.

Cleaning out Calista's apartment was equal parts of labour of love and heartbreak. The big things such as her furniture, much of it hand-me-down pieces from Roni and I or recently purchased necessities were really no big deal: I packed them up and loaded them on the truck with barely a blink. The clothes were another matter altogether. Those items fell into one of two categories: old faithfuls that I saw Calista in all the time and which still had her scent about them and practically new outfits that she never got the chance to wear much. There was one jacket and one dress that Roni knew she had just bought to wear at her first (and, as it were, last) gallery opening. She had spent so much time picking out those perfect pieces and she had barely got to try them on. At least she had removed the tags from them; there were some clothes there that still had tags attached.

Perhaps the most trying thing for me as we cleared that apartment was the containers of unopened food, some of which is still in my own pantry as I type this. She had bought that food just days before her death in anticipation of Roni visiting the following weekend. Those items had been in her living hands just days or perhaps the very day before she died. And she was making plans for the days after her death.....and the weeks after...and the months and years after her death. Calista had a life ahead of her and she damn well had a right to live it.

Its the details, the small things in life that really hurt now. Those small things add up and just emphasise how suddenly her life was cut short. Robby Burns understood this when he said "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry" (my apologised for the poor translation from the Gaelic it was originally written in 
A necklace I picked up just for her in Las Vegas.  I never got to
see her wear it, but I am told it reminded her of Slytherin House of
Harry Potter fame.  I would have loved to see her wear it just once.

Her clothing rack collapsed under the shear weight of all her
clothing. Her comment on the collapse?  "Duct tape can't fix everything"
I guess the rack had collapsed at least once before this picture was taken.


  1. I have been lurking on your blog since you posted about Calista on VIN. Hearing you talk about gum bichromate printing made my heart leap! I minored in printmaking in undergrad, in the days when digital photography was just taking off and supplies for standard photography were starting to get to be hard to find. I loved doing gum bichromate printing, but I didn't know if there was a way to do it in the digital age. I'll have to find clear vellum.

    I wish I could say something to help you and Roni, but there is nothing to say. Your love for Calista is so clear and well-said in your blog posts. Keep writing and I'll keep reading.

    1. Thanks. Its nice to know people are reading. If you have some questions about the gum bichromate (no idea what that actually means; I just repeated what I was told) just contact the instructors at NIC. I believe it was MacKinnon in charge of that part of the course, but I am not sure.

  2. I've been reading your blog for a couple of months now, via a reference from a VINner (I'm an ex-VINner). I am very sorry for your and Roni's loss, and even sorrier that Calista's life of such potential was cut short.

    The photographs are beautiful...both Calista's and yours.


  3. Just in passing, for anyone that is interested, that photograph my Calista spent so much time setting up is a variation on the Dutch Renaissance still-life style/ symbolism called Vanitas. Vanitas is a comment on how transient life is. How ironic.

  4. Bryce, I think many people read - they just feel at a loss as to what to say. As a new mother (I have a 1 year old), the tragedy you've suffered is too real and shattering to stand.

    Even though I have terrible anxiety about something happening to my daughter that is significantly worsened by reading stuff like this blog, I read it because I want - in some tiny way - to feel like I am doing something for you and for Calista. I read your blog, therefore I celebrate her life. She is known to people she never met. It may seem small and silly and ultimately futile, but it makes me feel better.

  5. But that is an important message: I protected my girl every way possible and she just left me. Life is like that. Meet it fearlessly because "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry". Celebrate every moment and live it like it was your last. My Calista lived that way and I only wish I did too. I spent my life working so she could live her life to its fullest. And she did even though it was way too short. Don't cry because it is over, smile because it ever happened. Even in the light of tragedy, I would do it all over again in a flash.