The world is chaotic and messy. There is corruption on every surface, and hatred in every corner. But in all this pandemonium, there are moments of kindness and love. Beauty in all the madness. All an artist does is capture a sliver of this divine beauty and translate it to something that the simplest of humans can understand. To preserve it in time, to remind those after us that there is something to live for in the world.
For as long as I can remember, my mother always had bits of paint on her hands. Sometimes she would even leave a smudge of pink on her cheek or a stroke of blue behind my ear as she tucked in my hair. There was a spark in her that shone through her work, even after father left us. Her paintings held not only the beauty of the world, but also her own beauty. When looking at the strokes and brushes of color that made a blank canvas beautiful, it seemed like everything was alright in the world.
And the world was truly alright for a while. Mother and I were happy, even if we couldn’t afford fancy clothes and the newest technology. All we ever needed was a canvas, paints, brushes, and each other no matter where we were. I even dreamed of becoming an artist just like her—living freely, caring about nothing but my imagination and the brush I held in my hand.
But of course, nothing lasts forever. As I got older, so did mother. There were wrinkles around her sky blue eyes and soft pink lips. She would cough for no apparent reason and her back started hurting too. When that wouldn’t stop, we went to the doctors. In the summer that I turned fourteen, mother was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. At first, it didn’t quite sink in—the reality of something so horrid happening to someone as kind and loving as her was incomprehensible. It was outrageous, taboo even. Eventually though, it did sink in. Mother accepted it, but she didn’t give up hope.
“There’s medicine now, and chemotherapy. There are lots of people that survive cancer these days.” Then she reached out and touched my nose, leaving a purple dot. “Besides, I would never leave you.”
For a short while, I was convinced. Internet searches brought me results of stories where many people miraculously healed from cancer. There were also new treatments that guaranteed promising futures. All of this helped, but most of my hope came from seeing mother standing before a canvas, pondering the most magnificent scene in her head before she put a brush to the canvas. She drew with such passion that her process of creating a beautiful thing was a piece of art in itself.
The chemotherapy was working. She was getting better, despite the pain that came with the process. Her kind smile never diminished.
More than half a year later I came home from school to find her in the six by six spare room she called a studio. I was always quiet these days—afraid that any sound would pop the bubble of hope that we had made—so mother didn’t hear me and left the door open. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. Mother was in tears and if she still had any soft brown hair left, it would be flying everywhere. Her usually neat, simple t-shirt and jeans were wrinkled. Instead of a brush, a scalpel gleamed in her hand. Fear overcame me. The harsh sound of the cold metal tearing through the soft fabric of the canvas gritted against my eardrums. Pieces of pink, blue, yellow, and orange fell to the ground the same way her tears did. I watched as she moved awkwardly, with pain, to the next victim. When her delicate hand tightened around the frame of the canvas, I snapped out of my frozen state.
“Mom!” I dropped my things and ran to her. “Mom, stop please.”
Taking the scalpel from her hand and then using my arm to support her, I said, “What’s wrong, mom?”
She looked at me, the tears capturing the perfect blue of her eyes. She didn’t speak for a while, until I felt something wet trailing down my own cheeks. “Oh, I’m so sorry, baby. You shouldn’t have seen that.”
She took my face in her hands. “You’re so young and beautiful, untouched by the black in the world. You shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
More and more tears gathered on my cheeks and mother’s hands were there to brush away each one. I felt so small and childish, crying about something I didn’t even know. “Please, mommy, tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s the cancer,” she said, trying so hard to smile for me, “the doctors say that the therapy is not working as well as they’d hoped. I might not . . .”
Neither of us could finish that sentence, but we both understood it. My mother might not survive this cancer. I might never again see her work, feel the touch of wet paint on my face when she held me. I might never again feel the warm glow of her smile or see that sparkle in her eyes. A piece of my heart broke off with each thought.
No more words were spoken that afternoon. We folded into each other’s embrace and let our tears fall freely to join the remains of something that was once beautiful.
After that day, mother would never again leave her studio door open as she worked. Sometimes I would put my ear against the door to listen for the frightening sound of ripped canvas, but other times, I was too afraid of what I’d hear. When she did come out of her studio, mother didn’t smile as much. The warm glow that she used to cast on the world waned a little with each smile. Each caress on my cheek was lighter than the last, and her lips felt rougher every time she kissed me goodnight. Pretty soon, mother was sleeping in the living room, the closest room in the apartment to the studio. She couldn’t walk very far anymore. Her food went untouched most of the time, and when asked about it, she would say she was fine, she just wasn’t hungry.
Mother’s cheeks hollowed out, pasty white skin taut over her delicate features. The blue of her eyes also became paler and her lashless eyelids drooped more often than not. Eventually, she was carrying an oxygen tank around, which mother hated because she thought it made her look more sick. I remember once, there was a visit from a friend of my mother’s—who took her to the hospital when there was too much water in her lungs and she couldn’t breath. The woman grew up with my mother, they have seen each other at their worst, but even she was shocked by the skeletal being that has become my mother.
The spark in my mother was the only thing that never changed. It was the one thing that allowed her to see beauty in such dark times and she would never let it go. Not even in her last dying breath did she let it go.
I was sixteen on the day of her funeral. My father came. His eyes were red and puffy. When he tried to comfort me anger surged in me. I accused him of leaving us, putting us in such a terrible situation. If he had never left, mother would have taken better care of herself, instead of working so hard everyday to make that month’s rent. Father said he was sorry and that he would rent out a storage locker to preserve my mother’s work. I turned my back to him and walked away.
It wasn’t over though. In the next two years, before I turned eighteen, I was stuck with my father and his perfect new family. They lived in a white house with deep red shillings; it was a neighborhood where all the lawns were flawlessly primed and every single family was picture perfect. Mother could have painted a masterpiece of the neighborhood, but I couldn’t. Everything seemed bland to me. Colors were just colors, not the mystical thing that expressed someone’s deepest emotions. A blank piece of paper became just that, a paper, not something that had the potential to portray the most exquisite things in the world.
When I was eighteen, I went off to college. I majored in art because I wanted to be close to my mother and also because I thought it was what she would have wanted. Inspiration sparsely came to me, but I continued on this path nonetheless. After graduation, I got a job at an art gallery, but I barely painted. Every time I saw an exceptional piece, I would think of my mother, but then my heart would start aching in my chest.
A few years later, I couldn’t take it anymore. My love for art had fleeted away as mother’s last breaths escaped her. Without a purpose, I felt like there was no place in this world for me. I quit my job and stayed in my apartment for months. I might as well have died in that stupor if my father hadn’t left a voicemail asking if I wanted any of my mother’s paintings. He was going to auction them off if I didn’t want them. I went back as soon as possible.
The storage locker that father rented out was filled with dust. Every single painting was present, even the one mother tore through so long ago. My father and I dusted off the paintings, and when I saw the last one, there was a familiar ache in my chest.
It was an outline of a woman holding a finished rose that has just started blooming. The rose looked so real, it seemed like it would go into full bloom any moment. This rose had layer upon layer of soft petals, each one a different color. The array of rainbow colors stood out sharply against the dark clothing of the unfinished woman. Even though it was just an outline, I could tell the woman was my mother, before the cancer. Her willowy brown hair framed her heart warming smile. And although the blue of the eyes were not yet filled in, the spark was there.
This was the last painting done by my mother. The last piece of beauty she left in this world.
I turned the painting around so I wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. That’s when I saw the small, rectangular card tucked between the wooden frame and the canvas.
In elegant handwriting, it read: “A rose for my Belle. May your life be as colorful and beautiful.”
A sob escaped me and I realized that I was in a room of divine beauty. Nothing was bleak. Every stroke, every color was a part of my mother that she had left behind. Each painting was a way back into the world of beauty.
I took the unfinished painting home with me and told my father that he could share the rest of the paintings with the world. It’s what she would have wanted.
The next few weeks I was locked in my apartment, completing my mother’s final work. I made the bridge of the nose on the woman a little lower, and the lips a bit fuller. The eyes were a hazel color, but the spark was still there. The hand position was changed so that instead of the woman giving the rose, she was receiving it. It was me receiving my mother’s last wish.
The rose itself I never touched. My mother gave it to me and I would never change it. The vibrant reds, popping oranges, brilliant yellows, fresh greens, deep blues, rich purples and soft pinks all represented a part of my life. These were the colors of my life—a life that has just begun.