There are 3 watercolors hanging in my dining room, each signed “Jamie Calkin March 5, 2005.” The first is a meditative scene under the white tent. Just two wrought iron chairs sitting side by side atop a Persian rug, the river flowing in the background, everything poised for the wedding to begin. The second depicts the wedding ceremony itself, the same tent now filled with about 30 friends and family members, bride and groom seated together, a pair of massive tulip poplars soaring above the scene. The last painting is a scene from the reception, our blue kayak buoyed by white balloons, drifting around the pool while a cellist plays.
After Richard’s doctors told him that they could give him no further treatments, he surprised us all when he said, “I want to go home and I want to marry Ashley.” Oh. OH! I told my sister, my stepmother and a couple of dear friends and damn if they didn’t manage to put together what we ended up hailing as “A Wedding In a Week.” I mean, BOW DOWN, wedding gods, these ladies had it nailed (and one of them is only a lady in drag shows!). My friend, Andrea, called me the day after Richard announced that we were getting married and said, “I only need to know two things–what flavor cake do you like and do you want to wear a tiara?” Everything else? HANDLED. Those days of planning something happy were a magical respite from the quiet panic of leaving the hospital and flying home…well, to die. We knew it but we weren’t saying it so let’s get married in the meantime. Andrea even gave me a pair of rose-colored glasses to wear to the spa on the day before the wedding. She understood–her mother had died when she was only 20.
We had swanky catering, a string trio, an Episcopal priest, wedding finery, a Cecelia Villaveces cake…all in a week. The clerk of court even brought the license to the house with a witness so Richard wouldn’t have to go out. All because someone knew someone who knew someone who loved us. Magic.
When my friend, Katie Calkin, said, “Jamie wants to give you a painting for your wedding,” I was so touched. I thought she meant that we would send him a photograph from the wedding and he would paint it for us. But Jamie works in the moment, in plein air, with his watercolor kit, a stack of paper and wide open space. So on the morning of March 5, 2005, when I peeked out the bedroom window to check on the hubbub in the backyard, I saw Jamie sitting in the grass, leaning against a crepe myrtle with his kit spread out around him. That was the first moment that brought me to tears that day. Why? Because Jamie was so happy. He radiated joy, an artist in his element, on a sunny day, doing what he loves best.
Katie and I had known each other through work for a couple of years, but the first time I met Jamie was at a planning meeting for a quilt project in memory of their son, Abraham. Abraham was born with a heart problem. He spent his entire brief life in intensive care, swaddled in love, but his heart just wasn’t strong enough. In the aftermath of his loss, the people who had loved him wanted to mark his life. It turned out that several of the Calkins’ friends were quilters, so they hatched a plan to honor Abraham and ease the fretful hours of other parents with children in the NICU. They lined up volunteers with the goal of making one crib-sized quilt for each day of Abraham’s life. The quilts would be donated to the neo-natal intensive care units where Abraham had spent his life. All they needed was 50+ people to make a quilt. Never one to let sensibility overcome my rampant enthusiasm, I signed up to make a quilt right away…even though I didn’t know how to sew.
I learned to sew, along with a few others, and I made a rail fence pattern with fish called “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Starfish.” Katie made a quilt for her son. Jamie made a quilt with dinosaurs. Abraham’s grandparents made quilts. Strangers made quilts and Abraham’s Aunties made quilts. When the project was finished, the quilts were displayed in the hospital lobby for one day and we all got to marvel at the beauty of what love for this fragile boy had brought into the world. Taking heartache and turning it into kindness. The first time I saw Jamie, he was hollow and it seeped out of his eyes. The morning of the quilt show, I saw him smile. The morning of our wedding, I saw him at peace with the world.
Seeing Jamie there in the sunlight on my wedding day gave me hope. Not that Richard was going to get better. Not that we would live a long and happy life together. It simply gave me hope that I would make it out the other side. There was Jamie, like a messenger from some other day in the future, when I might be able to sit in the sun and feel at peace with the world.
He and I exchanged letters that night that crossed in the mail. I thanked Jamie for giving me hope that I could be happy again. He thanked us for including him in the day and confided that he had felt Abraham there during the ceremony. I hope he was there and I hope he had two pieces of cake.
Katie was one of the first people I talked to after Richard died. I told her that he had been thinking of Bermuda, a place where we had been so happy. I said, “Abraham would be three now–old enough to learn how to swim. I hope he and Richard are at the beach today.”
I’ve been thinking about Katie, Abraham and Jamie a lot this week because I stumbled upon a blog called “Being Everlee’s Mom.” It’s an exquisitely written record of fresh heartbreak. The author and her husband lost their infant daughter, Everlee, last month. I’m so glad that she’s writing. The only way out of grief is through. It helps when you can look around and see other people who are a little farther down the road. They turn back and wave to you and say, “This way. Follow my voice.”
Please visit Jamie’s website to see more of his work here.