Updated: Jun 19, 2022
I've been reading some academic articles in preparation for the launch of Where Art & Grief Meet. There's a fascinating, albeit lengthy, one - "Grieving Artists: Influences of Loss and Bereavement on Visual Artmaking" - by Rebecca Arnold for Lesley University where she cites a Masters Thesis by Kalaba (2009). (I told you it was scholarly.)
The following jumped out at me:
"...focused on the experience of creating an art-based memorial that could serve to honor the author’s brother".
It resounded because that's what I did when my brother died. Suddenly. On March 8, 2012.
It was around 4.15am and my five year old son, Milo, wet the bed - something he never, never usually did. He woke me to fix it. We changed his pajamas and tucked him into my bed before I stripped his sheets, put on the washing machine and climbed in with him. My head had just touched the pillow when the phone rang.
It was nearly five. My sister-in-law was calling from Athens. She was all urgency. She needed to locate Dad who'd left Greece the day before for a week or so in Turkey. My sister-in-law was at the hospital and away from her address book. Her desperation was palpable.
I couldn’t make sense of what she was saying, and I knew she needed me to understand. Someone was gone. She needed someone to come back. But who was gone? Had something happened to Dad? Something had definitely happened to someone. Dad had been unwell before he left for Greece...
No! No! Hector was gone.
And then all the pieces fell into place. Hector, her husband, my 45 year old brother, was dead and Dad needed to come back to Athens from Turkey. My head went immediately to the girls: two daughters just nine and seven. Two little girls and Evie, all now without Hec.
This was unthinkable. (Still is unthinkable.) My brother who was known for his youthful spirit and good humour: a friend to all he encountered. Bringer together of folk. Fit as a fiddle, which is funny to say because he was actually a classically trained violinist who played Rembetika - Greek blues - for a living. And music was his passion. Music and dancing and his girls.
He was also a keen squash player. And that's where he died: he dropped dead on the court during a competition. One moment preparing to receive a serve, he turned and waved at his daughter who was watching. The next moment gone.
His coach, Amanat Khan, nephew of world champion Jahingir Khan, had lost his father, Torsam, in exactly the same way when he was a little boy. It was haunting.
Without time for panic or processing I rang Dad from my mobile phone while Evie was on the landline. I wanted her to know I was getting through to him. I wanted her to hear what I was saying so she knew we both understood. It didn't occur to me at that moment that I was probably delivering possibly the worst news a parent could get. That realisation came later when I went upstairs and informed my Mum. Milo was standing behind me as I told her and went to her for hugs. She sobbed for hours cradling the little one, who by then was wide awake and wondering.
That night I went to bed and Hec came to me in a dream. He wasn’t talking but he was showing me The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Pointing at the cover. Insistent that I understand. In the dream I couldn’t get it. I didn’t know why he was showing it to me. I was frustrated. He was frustrated.
When I woke in the morning, I’d got it: he was telling me to recreate that album cover but with his loves and influences.
While we were setting off for Greece later that day, I started to source all the images from a google image search and worked out how to crop them in Photoshop. (I used them all without permission.) I rejigged the Athenian landscape, and over the ensuing months stitching all the elements together, referencing his love of comedy, sport, family, his car and in the sky hung pictures of his favourite Remetika performers from bygone days. The last thing I did was write his personal credo in the sky, just faintly - "Know Thyself" from the Temple of Apollo. (Hec always wore a pendant of Apollo on a leather cord around his neck.)
That was a decade ago. Hec remains very much alive in my memories and I talk about him to Milo and to his daughters who now live in Canada. My brother was so much part of who I was/who I am. I didn't realise how much until he was gone. But making art dedicated to him was definitely healing. It was quite a compulsion. And an extreme learning curve. I thank him for visiting me in my dreams that night. I can't say he guided me to a pathway of healing, because I don't think I will ever get over his loss, but making that collage, that was helpful. It allowed me to immerse myself creatively in visions of someone I'd loved and lost. I will treasure that process for ever.
I look at the piece now and know there were people I missed: family even. It's too late to change it now. As much as it was a tribute to him, it was also the labour of a moment in time. A moment in which everything in many lives, including mine, changed for ever.
An obituary about Hec was published in The Age (Melbourne) and The Sydney Morning Herald. You can read it here.
Note: It turned out that Milo wet the bed at the exact time Hector suffered sudden cardiac arrest.